We asked each of the authors of Publishers Weekly’s top 10 books of 2013 to share the title that he or she found most captivating this year. Each author was free to choose any book published in 2013. As you might expect, their answers hold some surprises, just as our own best books list always does. Below are 10 more titles to add to your must-read pile, and a behind-the-scenes look at the reading habits of 10 very special writers.
New York magazine contributing editor Kolker’s Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery describes the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of five young escorts whose remains were discovered on Long Island, N.Y.’s Oak Beach. Kolker’s top read of the year focuses not on murder, but on universal desire.
Kolker’s pick: The Trauma of Everyday Life by Mark Epstein (Penguin Press)
“Mark Epstein is a psychiatrist who writes about an often-acknowledged overlap between Buddhism and psychotherapy. I know next to nothing about Buddhism, and I only have a little armchair Freud in me from college. But his latest book helped me see how easily all of us—even people leading more or less quiet, anonymous lives—resist and deny (or, as therapists would say, ‘disassociate from’) even the smallest traumas of our own lives. ‘We all want to be normal,’ Epstein writes, and the struggle to be normal ends up walling us off from pain. Of course, pain, or trauma, is normal, and inescapable. Only ‘the clear-eyed comprehension of suffering permits its release,’ Epstein paradoxically suggests—as both the Buddha and therapists would, apparently, agree. While it could take a lifetime of therapy or meditation to fully absorb that, I derived a broader lesson from this idea. Our society is very good at smoothing out the rough edges of life—ignoring injustices, and turning major tragedies into easily digestible, banal narratives. Epstein is particularly wonderful at identifying the value of connecting with the idea of suffering at any scale—showing how denial gives way to something genuine, and even liberating. ‘When we stop distancing ourselves from the pain in the world, our own or others,’ we create the possibility of a new experience,’ he writes—‘one that often surprises because of how much joy, connection, or relief it yields. Destruction may continue, but humanity shines through.’ Some might call this a catharsis. Others, nirvana.”
In Men We Reaped: A Memoir, Ward unflinchingly describes the deaths of five men who changed her life. It’s a story of poverty and blighted opportunity among the African-American inhabitants of her hometown. Ward’s friend Justin St. Germain is the author of her best-book pick for 2013. Like Ward, St. Germain wrote a memoir to transform a tragic personal story into art.
Ward’s pick: Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain (Random)
“Beauty carved from pain—that’s what St. Germain has created with his gracefully muscled and important memoir. Justin’s mother was tragically murdered in 2001, just after the World Trade Center came down. She was shot by her fifth husband, Justin’s stepfather, in Tombstone, Ariz. I remember that time clearly: the whole nation was grieving. I had recently lost my brother, so I spent those days doubly reeling, as did Justin. I know this because Justin and I have talked about our respective experiences. We are bonded in our grief—and in our need to understand it more clearly through our writing. We are both novelists at heart, but we found ourselves compelled to tell these stories. Son of a Gun is not a whodunit, and it’s more than simply a memoir of loss, although that would be enough. Justin looks at the wider context of guns and violence in the United States, particularly in the West, where he’s from. And he examines the terrible plight of women who are victims of domestic violence. In his careful telling, Justin helps us all understand his mother, as well as the culture of violence that leads to stories like those of Debbie St. Germain. He has honored her and continues to do so with this ode to love and family.”
Scholar Kaplan’s group biography, Miss Anne in Harlem: The White Women of the Black Renaissance, about six white women who embraced black culture in 1920s Harlem, is an empathetic and beautifully written story. Kaplan’s favorite title tells the tale of another woman who played a pivotal role in Harlem’s history, and beyond.
Kaplan’s pick: Eslanda: The Large and Unconventional Life of Mrs. Paul Robeson by Barbara Ransby (Yale Univ.)
“Women’s stories—black women’s stories, especially—are too often untold. Fortunately, Barbara Ransby resurrects a remarkably adventurous and independent woman, known for too long only as the hard-charging wife of ‘Harlem’s darling,’ actor Paul Robeson. Essie, as she was called, was much more than her husband’s manager. Ransby tracks Essie’s political development, world travels, and survivor’s resolve, holding together a marriage constantly threatened by Paul’s many affairs, dodging decades of government surveillance, standing up to racist death threats, and dealing with abortions, surgeries, and illnesses. ‘I’m not going to sit quiet,’ was an Essie mantra. In spite of having her passport seized for almost 10 years because she was deemed a subversive, for example, Essie assembled a ‘world political family’ that included Emma Goldman, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jomo Kenyatta, Shirley and W.E.B. Du Bois, and Pearl Buck. Essie’s struggle reveals the costly bargains struck by ambitious women who marry celebrated, powerful, philandering men. But she was not a victim. Her calculated choices maximized her available resources. ‘I am not a feminist,’ she proclaimed, but Ransby demonstrates the opposite, giving us a feminist model and showing, as well, that long-standing perceptions of Essie as aggressive, manipulative, and controlling need the reconsideration that a feminist lens provides.”
Marra’s first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was a literary breakout, written by an author with undeniable chops who seemed to spring up overnight. The novel is a kaleidoscope of unforgettable images of war-torn Chechnya. Not surprisingly, Marra is a prodigious reader. “It’s been such a rewarding year for me as a reader that it feels like years of good books have been folded into this one,” he says. In addition to singling out The Infatuations by Javier Marías as his favorite book of the year, Marra gives honorable mentions to a few other titles: We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik, and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis.
Marra’s pick: The Infatuations by Javier Marías (Knopf)
“Sometimes the book you’ve been looking for, without even knowing it, finds its way into your hands, and for me, this year, that book was The Infatuations. It’s billed as a metaphysical murder mystery—imagine if Proust had a murder instead of a madeleine and you begin to get a sense of the stylistic synthesis on display. Rather than the forward momentum of plot, Marías relies on a downward drop into psychology; instead of hurtling through events, the reader plunges through the thick strata of contradictions, deceptions, and unvarnished need lining the hearts of the novel’s fully realized characters. It’s the best and truest kind of mystery—one of enduring questions rather than delayed answers. But what makes The Infatuations the most personally moving novel of the year for me are its asides, digressions, and tangents, which are so integral you almost get the sense that Marías constructed his suspense story to scaffold his riffs. He ruminates on the loss of a loved one in what are the most unsentimental, clear-eyed, and honest passages on either loss or love I’ve read in some time. The book finds hope, or at least consolation, in the ceaseless mutability of the human psyche. Someone you once couldn’t live without becomes someone you now can’t live with at all, to paraphrase Marías, and the person you were when you were in love becomes a ghost you simply move away from. And while ghosts do populate the novel, its ultimate power comes in letting them dissolve.”
McBride won the National Book Award for Fiction just a few weeks ago for The Good Lord Bird, the picaresque account of a slave boy nicknamed Onion who becomes entangled with John Brown’s band of abolitionists. Though McBride confesses that he doesn’t read much contemporary fiction, he says that he has a weakness for spy novels—as is reflected in his pick. And he also gave a shout-out to Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, a complex investigation of the Internet.
McBride’s pick: A Delicate Truth by John le Carré (Viking)
“I admire his approach to craft. He’s one of the few fiction writers I read consistently. It’s been a sobering education witnessing his evolution over the years. His early works portray dedicated British spies fighting for the common good that seemed to waft over the world after World War II. A Delicate Truth shows how suspicious, even outspoken, le Carré has become about the dangerous waters we’re now drowning in, with the fragile democracies of America and Great Britain slipping into a kind of totalitarianism—run by powerful, clever folks who wreak havoc with one hand, while saluting the flag with the other. It is hard to lay these elements into character and plot without preaching. In that regard, le Carré is a master.”
Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, an exposé of the secrets behind the “war on terror” by Nation correspondent Scahill, offers a disturbing version of the militarized future. In his pick, Scahill celebrates an author and veteran journalist who provides a personal counterpoint to the subject of Dirty Wars, relating the stories of the wounded returning home from battle.
Scahill’s pick: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars—The Untold Story by Ann Jones (Haymarket)
“My pick for the best book of 2013 comes from Ann Jones, who shows us a side of America’s wars that we often don’t see. She embeds with the doctors who spend their lives dealing with soldiers who are grievously wounded, psychologically scarred, or killed in combat. She talks to the families of troops who speak of their inability to recognize their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, or mothers and fathers because they have come home so transformed by their experiences in war. It’s a stunning portrait of the psychological and physical effects of war, with which we so rarely reckon. Jones, the daughter of a World War I veteran, brings a real understanding of the gap between the celebrations of our vets and the reality of how they are treated when they return. ‘America’s soldiers return with enough troubles to last the rest of their lives,’ she observes. She also questions the idea that war is inevitable. ‘War is not natural,’ she writes. ‘We have to be trained for it, soldiers and citizens alike. And the “wars of choice” we were trained for, the wars these soldiers took part in, need never have been fought.’ ”
Hill’s debut novel, Sea of Hooks, is written as a series of titled fragments. The pieces of protagonist Christopher Westall’s story coalesce into a devastating portrait of a broken man coming to terms with himself. Hill’s favorite book this year is one that, like his own, defies easy categorization.
Hill’s pick: The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit (Viking)
“In this gorgeously written and insightful book, Solnit weaves essay and memoir so that the nature of the story itself is sharply drawn from every imaginable angle. Personal history, geography, maps, ice, mirrors, and breath play back and forth, as the structural threads of narrative are wound, knotted, and unwound. The reader engages life as an emergency, the character of which can be both hidden and discovered in our stories. There are few places to hide in The Faraway Nearby. In a world increasingly bereft of the genuine, Solnit’s writing shines with heart, wit, and soul. In the equations of this architecture, empathy, granted through pain and relentless questioning, solves for x. There is a chapter that runs as a ribbon along the bottoms of the pages, from which the following is taken: ‘That moths drink the tears of sleeping birds is a template for many things; it is a container of the familiar made strange, of sorrow turned into sustenance, of the myriad stories the natural world provides that are as uncannily resonant as any myth.’ I would say the same of The Faraway Nearby.”
Sirees, chosen for PW top 10 for The Silence and the Roar, is a Syrian writer from Aleppo living in self-exile in Cairo. He was in Germany to receive the Fridrich-Coburgian prize when Mohamed Morsi was overthrown in Egypt. Unable to return to Cairo, and facing another displacement, he says that for most of the year he was unable to read or to write, and was “dependent mostly on my e-reader” for texts in Arabic. Nevertheless, for his favorite book of 2013, he has chosen Nady Alsayarat (The Automobile Club) by Alaa Al-Aswany, the Egyptian author of The Yacoubian Building and Chicago. Nady Alsayarat was published in Arabic early this year and an English translation from Knopf is forthcoming in the U.S.
Sirees’s pick: Nady Alsayarat (The Automobile Club) by Alaa Al-Aswany (Shorouk, Egypt)
“When I arrived in Cairo in May, I saw stacks of The Automobile Club in all the libraries and saw copies being sold on the sidewalks as well. I got my copy and immediately began reading it, filled with enthusiasm to discover what this wonderful writer would offer to his readers this time. It’s the story of a German named Benz who invented a car at the end of the 19th century. Al-Aswany uses the framework of the automobile arriving in Egypt to draw a portrait of Egyptian society in the ’40s under Farouk, when the British managed the country and the Egyptians served them. Al-Aswany, a political activist, has perfectly painted his picture, with an exciting story that is relevant to the situation in Egypt today. The novel is being translated into several major languages, including English, and I hope American readers will have it soon.”
L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology, is brought to life in Wright’s magnetic and controversial Going Clear. This obsessively researched book investigates the history of Scientology and reveals the odd minutiae of Hubbard’s thoughts—from his experiments on tomatoes (testing to see whether they have feelings) to his bizarre sexual proclivities. Wright recommends a biography of another enigmatic man who captures the imagination.
Wright’s pick: Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson (Doubleday)
“T.E. Lawrence was one of the most compelling and mysterious figures of the last century—a man of action who was also a great scholar and a writer of hypnotic charm. But he was also a schemer and perhaps a traitor to his own government, as the terrific new biography, Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson, demonstrates. Anderson sets Lawrence in context—that is to say, in the nest of spies that was the Middle East during the First World War. He has wonderful character sketches of Lawrence’s competitors, such as Curt Prüfer, a German spy, and Aaron Aaronsohn, a Zionist agronomist who became a British secret agent. Anderson is sure-footed in his description of the imperial powers at play in this vulnerable region. Each of these figures represents the interests of his country or his employer, giving scope to the book that a straightforward biography would not be able to manage.
Anderson’s portrayal of Lawrence, however, holds center stage. If you are familiar with Lawrence through the majestic David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia, or through Lawrence’s own startling memoir, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, you’ll be intrigued with Anderson’s respectful but unsparing portrait of an extraordinary man who succeeded in making himself one of the most memorable individuals to ever blaze across the page.
Yanagihara’s absorbing first novel, The People in the Trees, features a narrator who rivals Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in his unreliability. Like James McBride, Yanagihara struggled with our request. “I’ve read very little published this year. 2012, yes. 2014, yes. But 2013? No,” she told us. “Much of this can be attributed to my habit of buying a hardcover for my collection, but then actually reading the paperback or the galley.”
Yanagihara’s pick: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead)
“One of my favorite books this year was Hamid’s third novel. I’ve loved Hamid’s work since his first novel, Moth Smoke, which I remember reading in manuscript when it was on submission and I was an editorial assistant: it was so entrancing and grave and hypnotic. With each book, he’s proven himself a wonderful shape-shifter. Each has its own rhythm and structure and narrative voice, so that the themes he visits in all of them—the identity of a South Asian in a world that’s at once increasingly borderless and increasingly hyper-obsessed with borders, and the identity of South Asia itself—feels new and discomfiting each time.
There’s much to love about Filthy Rich (beginning with its title, and its second-person voice, which is so hard to do without exhausting the reader), but as someone who enjoys blowing on and on in my own writing, and who feels that more is more when it comes to visual description or characterization, what I admire the most is the book’s economy. Hamid can draw a complete character and his entire history in just two or three lines. One of the scenes that I remember most clearly is that of a video chat the protagonist has with his adult son, who’s living in America. In a few sentences, you know that the son is gay, that he’s never coming home, and that his father realizes both of these things and mourns and loves them both. It’s one of those books that could only be written in our geopolitical climate. And yet feels as out of time—and wise—as a fable.”