Our critics wrap up their favourite books of 2013
It’s that time of year again: time to look back at 12 months’ worth of favourite new books, the ones we counted on for brilliant company in all the waiting rooms, lineups, and commutes of 2013. Here they are, in no particular order.
The Orenda (By Joseph Boyden. Hamish Hamilton Canada)
The three first-person narrators of this powerful novel struggle to cross one of the widest cultural gaps in history: between aboriginal and white settler in the mid 17th century, near what would later be named Georgian Bay, Ontario. Boyden draws suspense naturally from the harsh climate, and from ruthlessness on both sides in the encounter. Through his images of the land and its unbroken rhythms, he sharpens the story’s guiding sense of tragedy, with Huron elders yet to grasp the size and violence of the wave approaching from Europe.
The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 (By Margaret MacMillan. Allen Lane)
Just as the Toronto-born, Oxford-based historian’s 2002 bestseller Paris 1919 mapped the outcome of the First World War, this hefty new book details the twisting path that European political and military leaders followed in the years leading up to the conflict, when together, bound by old codes of honour and shame, they stepped off a cliff. MacMillan writes widescreen European history: massively researched, consistently engaging, and ready to weigh in with opinion or wry comment. Read these two framing works, and fill in the chronological middle with graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s book/art work The Great War (WW Norton), another of the year’s head-turning releases.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (By George Packer. Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Proving there’s no such thing as an average life, the acclaimed New Yorker journalist creates a stunning social panorama by focusing on a small, randomly varied selection of Americans, none of them household names. Packer leaves analysis and conclusions to the reader, simply placing the life stories of his subjects side by side and letting the strange harmonics ring. It’s hard to conceive of a more direct way to depict an entire society warped by money fetishes and neglect.
The Five Stages of Collapse: Survivors’ Toolkit (By Dmitry Orlov. New Society)
Most of us don’t like thinking about the disappearance of central governments and the disintegration of our financial and commercial life. Russian-American writer Dmitry Orlov outlines how to prepare for this with brilliantly original insights and astonishing wit, drawing inspiration from the remarkable survival of the Roma, the Ik tribe in Africa, and the Pashtuns. Who could imagine that a guide to surviving a political and economic train wreck could be so amusing and erudite?
Lives of the Family: Stories of Fate and Circumstance (By Denise Chong. Random House Canada)
A masterful storyteller at the peak of her writing career, Vancouver-born Denise Chong has written a worthy historical follow-up to her bestselling 1994 family memoir, The Concubine’s Children. Lives of the Family features evocative tales of Chinese immigrants in Ottawa in the middle of the 20th century. By detailing their experiences alongside the challenges and outright horrors endured by family members in China, Chong seamlessly conveys an enormous amount of historical information in compelling narrative tales. Bravo.
Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind (By Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. Twelve)
Alan Weisman’s Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth? about global population was probably the most informative environmental book of 2013, but Denial brought forth the most important insight. Physician-scientist Ajit Varki and late insect geneticist Danny Brower argue that the brains of human beings—unlike those in all other species—evolved to deny reality under certain circumstances. This trick of nature manifests itself in humanity’s collective nonresponse to climate change, the public’s willingness to elect charlatans to high political office, and the eagerness to procreate despite a coming environmental apocalypse.
Tampa (By Alissa Nutting. Ecco)
Explicit and prolific, the sex scenes in Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa, were too much for some people—reviewers compared the book to porn, while some Australian bookstores banned it (yes, that still happens). But Tampa is still worth reading for its no-holds-barred portrayal of a sociopathic, pedophilic schoolteacher named Celeste, whom Nutting uses to illustrate the unfortunate double-standard in sex abuse where male victims are perceived as lucky studs. Inspired by the real-life case of Debra Lafave (who was spared jail time for being “too pretty for prison”), the book sees Celeste coldly and methodically seduce her 14-year-old students. Some complain that Celeste’s words lack the poetry of a Humbert Humbert, but she’s a pervert for the Internet age, oversexed and unambiguously monstrous.
The Circle (By Dave Eggers. Knopf)
If you thought job postings for social-media rock stars were scary, The Circle will render you tweetless (sorry!). Dystopian novels are usually set in the future, but Dave Eggers’s social-media horror story is set in a future so near, so similar to the present, that it invited accusations of plagiarism from an author who penned a memoir about Facebook. Eggers’s Google/Facebook/Twitter–like Internet behemoth, The Circle, puts current web culture on steroids, taking beliefs in things like “community”, “sharing”, and “transparency” to their logical extreme. It’s a slick, breezy read that lands Eggers runner-up status to Jonathan Franzen for reigning literary technophobe, and the nugget of truth at the core of all the hyperbole is creepy as hell.
The Residue Years (By Mitchell S. Jackson. Bloomsbury USA)
The Portland of Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, is far from the quirky hipster fairyland portrayed on Portlandia. Portraying a black family’s struggles to make it in one of the whitest cities in America, The Residue Years is honest, tense, and effortlessly lyrical. Jackson’s easy patter, his joyful dexterity with slang, and the heartbreaking realness of the story he tells makes him a new writer to watch.
Night Film (By Marisha Pessl. Bond Street)
When the body of Ashley Cordova is discovered in an abandoned warehouse in New York’s Chinatown, disgraced journalist Scott McGrath seeks the motive behind this apparent suicide and its possible connection to the victim’s father, enigmatic horror auteur Stanislas Cordova. Supplemented by news clippings, photographs, and screenshots—the action extends beyond the page with a custom app—the grandly devised universe here is Pessl’s vehicle to explore deeper ideas on privacy and the cult of celebrity, solitude, creativity, and how the terrors of the imagination bow to those of the everyday.
The Flamethrowers (By Rachel Kushner. Scribner)
Art. Sociopolitical turmoil. Motor racing. Speed. Insouciance. Kushner’s latest National Book Award–nominated novel merges these disparate elements into a brilliantly layered whole that evokes the mood of the 1970s. The anonymous female narrator, a biker and aspiring artist, gains entry into the New York art scene, yet eventually drifts toward Italy’s underground resistance movement. By framing history through cultural and industrial production, the plot becomes panoramic and effortlessly links philosophies and upheavals across time and place.
The Goldfinch (By Donna Tartt. Little, Brown and Company)
Following a terrorist attack on the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 13-year-old Theodore Decker is motherless and in criminal possession of the titular masterpiece, a 17th-century Dutch oil painting by Carel Fabritius. Tartt builds this premise into a glorious feat of storytelling, at once a reflection on art and mortality and a bildungsroman that reveals a life warped by grief and posttraumatic stress. Dickensian has often been used to describe the novel’s scope and sensibility, though another word captures the experience of reading it: dazzling.
The Orenda (By Joseph Boyden. Hamish Hamilton Canada)
Inexplicably omitted from the 2013 Giller shortlist, Joseph Boyden’s complex, painful, and ambitious novel illuminates a crucial period in Canadian history: the settlement of Ontario by Jesuits and fur-traders, and the havoc that followed. Unstinting in its depiction of war and pestilence, it’s the stuff of nightmares—and yet I’m eagerly anticipating Boyden’s planned sequel, which will delve deeper into the spiritual practices of the region’s First Nations.
Charles Edenshaw (Edited by Robin K. Wright, Daina Augaitis, and Jim Hart. Black Dog)
I’ve got some minor issues with the way Haida artist Charles Edenshaw’s work is presented in the current Vancouver Art Gallery show, which runs until February 2, but the accompanying catalogue is impeccable. Take in the exhibition and then bring this book home: you’ll be guaranteed a deeper understanding of the art that best defines British Columbia, not to mention one of its key innovators.
Vegetable Literacy (By Deborah Madison. Ten Speed)
It might seem odd to include a cookbook in a best-books list, but the culinary genre is an increasingly popular venue for looking at some of the big issues of our time. Here, in a subtle way, the author of 1987’s pioneering The Greens Cookbook addresses food security, sustainability, and ethical eating, while providing user-friendly (and delicious) recipes for everything from artichokes to zucchini. My copy is already getting nicely stained.
The Stone Thrower (By Adam Marek. ECW)
England’s Adam Marek has premises for days. Shark-wrestling contests? Tamagotchis with AIDS? How about a kid with earthquake-inducing seizures? He’s got you covered, and then some. The Stone Thrower is Marek’s second collection in as many years, and it reveals a talent and imagination that show zero signs of slowing down—not even in the near future of “An Industrial Evolution”, where apes and humans have quietly crossbred. Plus, Marek displays real anguish about the ways in which parents must slowly release their children into a world that’s too often cruel and unforgiving.
Hellgoing (By Lynn Coady. House of Anansi)
Restlessness has been kind to Lynn Coady. Her early fiction stayed close, geographically and spiritually, to her birthplace, Cape Breton Island—but as she’s moved around the country, to Vancouver and now Edmonton, she’s been able to expand her writerly palette, to great effect. The stories in Hellgoing are packed with cutting, muscular prose that only benefits from criss-crossing Canada; in “Dogs in Clothes”, Coady even makes a stop in Toronto to shine a sympathetic light on the secret lives of book publicists. Plus, there’s that whole winning-the-Giller-Prize thing—the icing on an unusually sweet-and-salty cake.
We Live in Water (By Jess Walter. Harper Perennial)
The Spokane author hit pay dirt with his globetrotting 2012 novel Beautiful Ruins, which delighted critics across the continent and was a New York Times bestseller. His follow-up, the staggeringly good short-story collection We Live in Water, returns Walter to the blue-collar world of the Pacific Northwest, where emotions of all kinds run high, hard, and sloppy. Each piece here is a knockout, and the final story, “Statistical Abstract for My Hometown, Spokane, Washington”, may have spawned an entire new mini-genre in its wake. Every city should hope for a chronicler so honest, and so devoted.