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Wrapping Up A Year in Reading 2013

Another year has flown by and so has another Year In Reading. We thank everyone who participated and all who read and shared these wonderful pieces in our series.

While we trimmed our contributor list slightly this year, they shared their thoughts on more books than our participants did a year ago. 2013 brought 68 participants (down from 74 participants in 2012) sharing 350 different books (up from 289 a year ago). We’re happy to note that 11 of those authors highlighted in our series also submitted their own pieces in the series. The books selected run the gamut from nonfiction to poetry, short stories, essays, fiction, and even a zine and an interactive story.

The oldest books selected were Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey by Kristopher Jansma. These slightly beat out (by a century or two) Michael Robbins’s selection of Confucius’s Analects.

The youngest author selected was Gabby Bess. Her book Alone with Other People was one of several selected by Roxane Gay. Bess was born in 1992. This beats out the next-youngest author, Eleanor Catton (b. 1985), whose Booker-winning The Luminaries was a selection of both Garth Risk Hallberg and Janice Clark, by quite a bit.

Finally, seven books were named by three or more Year In Reading participants, and six of those seven books were written by women. Rachel Kushner was the runaway favorite for her book The Flamethrowers, getting six mentions (picked by Garth Risk Hallberg, David Gilbert, Matt Bell, Bill Morris, Adam Wilson, and Elliott Holt.) Dave Eggers’s The Circle was picked by Choire Sicha, Hannah Gersen, and Tess Malone. Alissa Nutting’s Tampa was picked by Roxane Gay, Matt Bell, and Charles Blackstone. Renata Adler’s Speedboat was selected by David Gilbert, Matt Bell, and Emily St. John Mandel. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was picked by Sergio De La Pava, Rachel Kushner, and Teddy Wayne. Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings was chosen by three staffers: Hannah Gersen, Edan Lepucki, and Janet Potter. And Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was picked by Benjamin Percy, Edan Lepucki, and Janice Clark.


We hope you enjoyed we had on offer this month, and we’ll see you again next year.

P.S. Special thank yous are due to Ujala Sehgal and Adam Boretz, our tireless editors, who prepared every last one of our Year in Reading entries for publication. Also very deserving of thanks are Tess Malone and Thom Beckwith, both of whom have helped spread the word about our biggest Year and Reading to date, and to Nick Moran who oversaw their efforts and compiled the stats I used to write this very round-up. Thank you to our staff writers, whose pieces were some of the highlights of the series and who did wonderful work for us throughout 2013.

And of course, thanks to all of you, our readers, and to all a Happy New Year!

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year In Reading: Charles Blackstone

At the end of a year, it’s often hard to remember what I read in the preceding 12 months. This has to do with all the wine I’ve consumed throughout the seasons and the eggnog in which I’m probably swimming for the month of December, but also it has to do with sheer number of the books themselves. I write books. I’m managing editor of Bookslut. I read. A lot. But I’m often left yearning for something more in what I read. I want that kind of indelible experience I used to have with the books that meant something to me long ago — the experience that, the older I get, the less likely I think I’m going to have. But I’m still a reader, so I never stop hoping I’ll come across the book that’s not just going to be one of my favorite novels of the year, but quite possibly one of my favorite novels of life. The book I bring to you at the end of 2013 is nothing if not indelible.

Long after reading it, it’s still inconceivable to me just how good Tampa by Alissa Nutting is. Celeste Price is the kind of narrator whose words you want to keep on your skin forever. And she’s one hell of a protagonist. She’s brilliant. She’s mad (or easily perceived that way). She’s a physically attractive object to the point of paralyzing her onlookers. She’s iconoclastic. She’s funny. She’s an allegory with a little red Corvette, which is probably itself a Northern Floridian metaphor. She’s a teacher in the classroom, but she’s not a didact for the reader. She’s Nabokovian, and not simply because she bangs 14-year-olds. She lives on the page, and yet she’s absolutely, utterly, impossibly real. I couldn’t get her out of my mind after the first sentence.

Tampa really is a joyous and momentous occasion for prose. And yet, of course, some readers haven’t understood it, have declaimed against it — particularly those who haven’t actually read it. A 26-year old teacher — a female teacher, no less — who takes up, unrepentantly, with a 14-year-old boy in her class? Say just that much, and you can already hear the murmurs: On purpose? Well, that’s just terrible. End of story. Lock her up at once. Oh, she’s a character in a novel? In that case, we’d better lock up the book. Because complacency shouldn’t be riled! We’re not supposed to write or read these sorts of things, and if a book does happen to emerge, we must eradicate it at once (by way of repudiation, of course, of course, because free speech, etc.). Critical thought and analysis is reserved for the nice books, the polite books, the books that know their places. As far as the outliers go, we’re supposed to vilify, never empathize. At least that’s how the mass media would have it.

I say, bullshit! Hasn’t it always been the case that art is supposed to make you question your assumptions? And radically so? And really good art takes all of your assumptions away and reinvents you? That’s what Tampa does.

The problem people have with Tampa has nothing to do with the novel, its author, or its characters. The problem people have with this book comes from within. They’re afraid of themselves. Reading a novel like Tampa pretty much forces you to scrutinize the world — and yourself. True art reminds us of us — of what’s right with us and also what’s wrong. And we need it to.

If I could have just one wish this Christmas, it would be for you to read Tampa. But only if you think you’re ready. And I think you are. You’re tired of slogging through the kinds of books that leave faint impressions on you before quickly and permanently disappearing. If you’re lucky, and you let yourself, Tampa might just change your (reading) life.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year In Reading: Roxane Gay

By far the book I found most memorable this year was Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. The writing was so deliberate and satisfying, and I love when a writer fully commits to a premise. To wit: early in the book, Celeste Price marks her classroom with her vaginal juices, so she might better seduce one of the unsuspecting boys in her eighth grade class. As I read this scene, I literally gasped because I had never seen anything like it. The premise of Tampa, this chronicle of a relentless predator, is appalling but Nutting makes it possible to be appalled and entertained. Celeste is so consumed by her desire. She is so unapologetic. It’s freeing, as a reader, to engage with a character who does what she must to satisfy her needs. I found myself judging Celeste as much as I was intrigued by what she would do next. I was also impressed by the sly cultural critique Nutting offers throughout the novel, about the pressures and expectations women shoulder. Tampa is just amazing.

Meaty by Samantha Irby, was an outstanding essay collection. The essays are a winning combination of hilarious and tender and sad. Irby is not afraid to show the reader where she hurts and how but she does so with such energy and wit. The writing explores dating, living with Crohn’s Disease, losing both parents at a young age, race and class, and a great deal more, but each of these topics is approached uniquely and without self-pity or aimless recrimination. Irby is one hell of a writer.

I was also enamored by Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go. At first, I wasn’t quite sure where the novel was going. The first third is strangely given over to a man and his slippers. More is going on, of course, but it doesn’t make sense until you get much farther into the book. A man has died and his family must return to Ghana to mourn and to reconnect. Along the way, we learn how the family fell apart in the first place, and the price that is paid in leaving one country for another. The power of this novel lies in its completeness and the sweeping energy of the story being told. In the final pages, I found myself crying into the book as I turned each page and when I finished, I simply held the book to my chest.

Kiese Laymon had one hell of a year with two books — Long Division and How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. Long Division was such a strange book, but I couldn’t stop reading! Laymon has an audacious imagination and I admire the ambition of his novel and everything he tried to do. There’s so much cleverness, it could make you jealous if the book weren’t so good. His essay collection is hard but necessary reading because he tells the truth about race in America.

Other books I enjoyed include The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg, Alone with Other People by Gabby Bess, Love is a Canoe by Ben Schrank, The Book of My Lives by Aleksandr Hemon, Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter, Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz, The Name of the Nearest River by Alex Taylor, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote. I’m a bit mad about reading Revenge Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger because the plot was so ludicrous. The more I read, the angrier I got and by the end, I was, frankly, ready to write a letter. Andi would not make such choices! She just wouldn’t. What can I say? I get attached.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

A Year in Reading: Matt Bell

Looking back at my reading list for 2013, two books stood above all the other new books I’ve had the chance to read: The first is Susan Steinberg’s extraordinary third collection, Spectacle, which I’ve been obsessed with since it came out in January — and really, since ever before. One of the book’s stories appeared in American Short Fiction several years ago and that introduction to Steinberg set up some high expectations that were met then exceeded by the collection. In a year of great story collections, this is the one that stands apart for me. Smart and funny and brutally moving, it’s the most aggressive short story collection I’ve read in a long time, one that forces emotional participation and moral complicity on its readers.

The second book is Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, which absolutely thrilled me as both a reader and a writer. Extraordinarily ambitious and well-shaped, I found it one of the biggest reading experiences I’d had all year, the kind of enlarged experience that seems rarer and rarer in contemporary novels. My admiration for The Flamethrowers also sent me back to Kushner’s Telex from Cuba, which I hadn’t read before but which now seems like a formal and stylistic prototype for The Flamethrowers, in addition to being an excellent novel on its own. I hope Kushner keeps pushing her form and her style forward so powerfully between books — I can’t wait to read her next novel to see where she takes us next.

Some other great books from 2013: Tampa by Alissa Nutting. Red Doc> by Anne Carson. A Beautiful Truth by Colin McAdam. Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge by Renee Gladman.

Some books published in years past that were an important part of my 2013: Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. Kind One by Laird Hunt. Speedboat by Renata Adler. The Complete Tales trilogy by Kate Bernheimer. Light Years by James Salter. Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck.

Some books I loved in 2013 but that won’t be released until 2014: The Last Days of California by Mary Miller. Preparing the Ghost by Matthew Gavin Frank. Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor. Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.

Look. No, Don’t Look: My Book Cover, the Angel in the House, and Me

A year ago, when my editor at Tin House Books first asked whether I had any suggestions for the cover of my second novel, The Virgins, I drew a blank. I couldn’t think of anything specific, but I knew what I didn’t want. I tend to dislike covers that are too literal, I told him, and I think that abstraction is often a wonderful choice for fiction. My novel focuses on three teenagers at an East Coast boarding school, two of them in a complex, sexually charged relationship, and a third who observes them obsessively from a distance and tells their story. I joked: “Just promise me that it won’t be of two young people lying together in soft focus in a field. That would really depress me.”

So I wasn’t sure what to think when I saw what Tin House Books was proposing for The Virgins. Admittedly, it wasn’t two young people lying together in a field. It wasn’t in soft focus. But there was a photograph of a young girl lying languidly on her side. In a field.

That wasn’t all. She had her hand on her crotch.

Let me back up a minute. I had plenty of positive reactions to the cover. Its composition was elegant and intriguing; I loved the softness of the girl and her floral dress against the bolder geometries of the cutout circle and the rectangle of the book itself. I loved the vintage-y, dusky green jacket color. I loved the retro feel.  

I didn’t like where the girl’s hand was lying. Specifically: I couldn’t get past the way my eye was drawn straight to the spot between her legs, smack in the middle of both the photo and the cover.

Why, though, I had to ask myself, did I have such a strong reaction? My novel is about many things, but one of those things is certainly sex. The Virgins contains numerous explicitly sexual scenes. Body parts are called by straightforward names. It wasn’t as if Tin House Books was trying to grab stray eyeballs at any cost, relevance be damned. And I did find something quite compelling in the image of the girl that couldn’t be reduced to titillation. So what exactly was my objection?

There were my kids, of course. I’d so been looking forward to walking into a bookstore with them and seeing copies of my novel on a table. My kids aren’t exactly kids anymore. They are 16 and 15 years old, just about the age of the protagonists in my novel, which is shot through with the acknowledgement that teenagers are deeply sexual creatures. But we all know that even grown men and women find it seriously icky to associate their parents with sexuality. How would my son and daughter feel about the fact that — in my gloomiest judgment — Mom’s new novel looked like soft porn? I had somehow believed that for my children to know what was in my book, they would have to open it. They would have to read it, page after page. This would necessitate an act of will, which they would probably commit only if they felt really ready. I hadn’t stopped to consider that a cover image could fly right under the radar of their will, entering them and exploding its meanings within them without their full assent.

After the kids, came the worries about in-laws. Neighbors. Former teachers. That’s when I began to see that my unease wasn’t really, or wasn’t only, about the cover. It was about the way the cover advertised what was in my book and gave a taste of its sometimes solipsistic and voyeuristic eroticism. The sexuality in The Virgins has many different meanings and implications, some of them contradictory. Sometimes it is an attempt to express or forge love and affection; sometimes it is exhibitionistic, a performance; sometimes it is desperate or aggressive or, as the proposed cover suggested, self-pleasuring. If anything, the cover perfectly captured the overdetermined, shifting nature of sex in the novel. And there lay the problem. It hit me that the cover I’d hoped for, though I’d never been able to create a distinct picture of it, was really a cover that would have covered up, like the brown-paper wrappings that mask the dirty books and magazines at newsstands. If the cover accurately expressed the feel and content of the novel, and the cover embarrassed me, what did that say about my relationship to my work? And had I really never pictured what it would be like to have people read The Virgins?

Apparently not. When I was typing alone in my room, it felt entirely natural to write about sex, which has always seemed to me a great and rich subject. None of the scenes I wrote troubled or embarrassed me at the time. But now, the whole endeavor felt horribly intimate. Aviva Rossner, my female protagonist, is not me, even if I gave her my hometown and my departure for boarding school at age 16, but the sex in The Virgins clearly comes from my own, personal brain — whose else’s could it have been? Would readers find that sex — and therefore me — laughable, sick, or otherwise distasteful? Years ago, I published a long, meditative essay in the Michigan Quarterly Review about breastfeeding in which I got pretty specific about body parts as well as the spiritual and physical yearnings that breastfeeding aroused in me. A neighborhood acquaintance who happened upon the piece online told me with a frown that she “couldn’t believe” I would “put that out there.” Was I ready to be revealed to her and others as the author of a novel sprinkled with the words “cock” and “cunt?” 

I was in college when I first came across Virginia Woolf’s famous dictum, in her essay “Professions for Women” from the collection Women and Writing, that writers must kill the Angel in the House. By the Angel, Woolf meant the female — more specifically, the mother and wife — whose role in life was to be the gracious hostess-cook-and-mender, smoother-over of family tensions, and graceful supporter of the endeavors of husband and (male) children. Woolf had to kill the Angel, she said, because its top priority is self-suppression and conciliation, while to write one has to display “what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.”

My reaction at the time was: Doesn’t apply to me. It was understandable that Woolf, born in 1882, had been intimidated by the Angel ideal, prominent in Victorian poetry and sentimental novels, but to me that ideal was absurd. I was 19; it was the early 1980s. The second wave of feminism had transformed the culture, and women and niceness no longer necessarily went together. There were women on campus with shaved heads or green, spiked hair; there were rugged women athletes and pro-porn activists; the era’s patron saint was Madonna. 

But time — 20, 30 years — went by, and I went from being a student to a single working woman to a married working woman to a stay-at-home mother in the suburbs. Those changes in status, I saw, had changed me. Motherhood in particular gave me an appreciation for the value of “nice” — patience, softness, nurture, and, yes, self-sacrifice. Living in a small, tight-knit community made me want to be seen as agreeable and a good neighbor. I liked to think I in fact was patient, nurturing, agreeable, and a good neighbor. I’d spent a couple of decades building up my kinder, gentler persona, while at the same time daily sitting down to my computer to write about sex and/or people who thought and did things that were sometimes very peculiar or ugly. I had managed for a long time to keep these two sides of my life from having much to do with each other. My first novel, about an antisocial man with severely obsessive-compulsive habits, must have tipped off my neighbors that I was thinking about more all day than feeding the kids and folding the laundry, or even the local school board elections. But in part because the novel was published by a very small press and sold in limited quantities, I was able to continue to be the woman in the red-and-white house who’d written, well, something or other.      

Woolf wrote that “when I came to write I encountered her [the Angel] with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page…” I suppose I should be grateful that my Angel cast her shadow not during composition, but during the strange limbo between completion and publication. Surely this is cultural progress. Yet I’m startled at how relevant Woolf’s words remain, despite the example of so many women writers who in past years have opened up the possibilities for writing about sex. After Woolf (who never did write much directly about women’s bodies), there were Mary McCarthy, Anaïs Nin, Edna O’Brien, and Erica Jong, among many others. In recent months, Jamie Quatro’s story collection, I Want to Show You More, and Alissa Nutting’s novel, Tampa, have made waves for their powerful depictions of women and desire. My reticence, my fear of departing from the Angel ideal, feels almost silly in light of such examples. But the Angel ideal must run very deep in many of us, not excluding those who in our youth were smugly convinced we were immune to it.       

I want to be clear that I am in no way mocking or belittling the Angel ideal. In fact I have a great respect for it. It’s now clear to me now that Woolf wasn’t mocking the Angel either. When I reread “Professions for Women” recently, I discovered that I had seriously misremembered it. I’d recalled that Woolf put her hands around the Angel’s neck and strangled her. In fact she simply says that she flung her inkpot at her. We don’t even hear the thud of impact. Yet Woolf otherwise uses the strongest possible language, saying that “the struggle was severe,” that “had I not killed her she would have killed me,” that, left to live, the Angel “would have plucked the heart out of my writing.” I suspect that Woolf couldn’t bring herself to be graphic about the imagined killing because the Angel is, in fact, an angel and not a devil. Even Virginia Woolf saw the beautiful side of the ideal; she lovingly embodied it in the vivid Mrs. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse. I can’t read that novel without wanting to be Mrs. Ramsay — calm and competent, beloved, the arranger of marriages, the felt center of the family — far more than I want to be Lily Briscoe, the novel’s solitary, fretful artist. There is a place and a role for the Angel in the House, even if her perfections are unattainable, and I feel unapologetic about spending good part of my adult life aiming to be more like her.

But, like Woolf, I also sit down each day and try to tell what I “think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex.” Thanks to her and others, I can have it both ways, because, in the 21st century, the Angel need not be quite so ethereal and self-denying, and the public has a far greater tolerance — not to say appetite — for the sexually frank. There will always be neighbors ready to make thoughtless comments, or people who consider a frank book to be smut, but I don’t risk public ostracism of the sort Edna O’Brien details in her new memoir, Country Girl, or (as far as I know) divorce.

After admitting to some of the handwringing detailed above, I told my Tin House editor that I was fine with the proposed cover, but of course it wasn’t all Zen from there on. That became evident when the image was finalized and I made it my profile picture on Facebook. Not being all that Facebook savvy, I didn’t realize that this meant my new cover would pop up in the News Feeds of my however many Facebook Friends. All of a sudden people were “liking” the cover and commenting on it left and right — positive things, but I had peeled back another layer of protection and subterfuge. The same exposed feeling was roused again and again as more people saw the image or heard about the book, but I know now that this was merely the continuation of a kind of coming-out that had started well before, when my agent and I came up with the title The Virgins — no, earlier, when I’d sought out my agent in the first place. I wanted to be published again, after all; that is to say, from the beginning there was a desire to let others once more into my private imaginative world. Like the girl on my cover — like the girl in my story — I was presenting myself to be seen. Look, I said. And later: But don’t look. Look. Don’t look. Look…Does the toggling ever end?

I doubt it.

Surprise Me!

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