Our Favorite Books of 2013

Our Favorite Books of 2013

Voice scribes offer their recommendations from the year

At the Bottom of Everything, by Ben Dolnick (Pantheon, 256 pp., $24.95)

Two childhood friends, Adam and Thomas, share an awful secret, the ripple effect of which causes them to gradually become estranged. But the further apart they get, it seems, in Ben Dolnick's offhandedly masterful novel At the Bottom of Everything, the stronger the pull of guilt and dysfunction becomes over the years, until they're drawn back together and, at the risk of Thomas's life, must attempt to right the wrong they caused when they were teenagers. Dolnick whizzes the reader through all this trauma in a hyper-charming style that imbues this ripping yarn with all the self-deprecating wit, pathos, and suspense that it deserves. James Hannaham

The Best of Connie Willis, by Connie Willis (Del Rey, 496 pp., $28)

Gulp them down. By turns bizarre, hilarious, unsettling, and oddly, warmly moving, these top-shelf tales of Connie Willis hail, like most of her work, from some vanishing point where lit meets science fiction meets page-turning bestsellers. As concerned with people as they are with ideas, Willis's stories here tend to mash the normal with the impossible — and then report on how the normal muddled through. Two of the best (and longest) center around a London harrowed by the Blitz; in one, the heat of the bombings still howls, on occasion, in the tunnels of the Tube. She returned to the subject in a recent two-part novel, part of her deft, daft Oxford Time Travel series; here's a riveting primer. Alan Scherstuhl

Dissident Gardens, by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, 384 pp., $27.95)

Dissident Gardens, Jonathan Lethem's ninth novel, set in the planned community of Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, could easily be viewed as a saga of radicalism on the American left, covering staunch Communist Party politicos in the 1930s, freewheeling hippies in the '60s, and present-day manic pixie Occupiers in a narrative that spans three generations. But that's all framework. At root, Gardens is the story of an insular immigrant family and the branching multiethnic relationships that expand it. As Miriam, the story's centerpiece and only child of Rose, a fiery Communist, drags a group of Columbia students on an all-night search for Norman Mailer's party and meets her folksinging future husband in the White Horse Tavern, it becomes an invigorating portrait of New York rebellion, one that renews our love for a city that embraces the impetuous and subversive. Heather Baysa

Enemies Within, by Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman (Touchstone, 336 pp., $27.99)

Paced like a thriller with the detail of a doctoral thesis, Enemies Within goes deep inside the clandestine NYPD spying unit set up after 9-11 — a miniature C.I.A. with a $60 million budget — that installed its own officers in police departments around the globe, but nearly bungled an investigation into a Queens–raised, Al Qaeda–trained coffee cart vendor who plotted to blow up the New York subway system. Apuzzo and Goldman pry open New York City's notorious black box of a police department and draw out its closest-guarded secrets; the result is nothing less than a stunning masterwork of contemporary journalism. Tessa Stuart

The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner (Simon & Schuster, 400 pp., $26.99)

Powered by movement and movements, Rachel Kushner's souped-up gush of a novel surges across time and space in pursuit of its obsessions: speed and art and love and motorcycles. Following its young protagonist from the Salt Flats to the Village's '70s art scene to Rome itself, the headwaters of all things art/love/stylish motorbikes, The Flamethrowers summons up its long-gone worlds with prose so sharp and fine it's hard to resist reading aloud to whoever's near you. Kushner digs into heady ideas, but they're always subordinate to the fiery storytelling; it's rare to see a realistic novel — especially one steeped in such loneliness — so thick with marvelous invention. Alan Scherstuhl

Four & Twenty Blackbirds Pie Book, by Emma Elsen and Melissa Elsen (Grand Central Publishing, 224 pp., $30)

In 2010, as part of a middle-wave of DIY Brooklyn food-artisans, sisters Emma and Melissa Elsen opened Four & Twenty Blackbirds pie shop on the corner of 8th Street and Third Avenue in Gowanus. Three years later, it's a beloved neighborhood institution known for serving up the freshest, most creative pies in town (cranberry sage, lavender blueberry, and lemon verbena raspberry are some of the more fantastical options) alongside steadfast classics (pumpkin, pecan, apple). This fall, the siblings released a showstopper of a cookbook; the crusts alone (there are 11 — start with the crisp, foolproof all-butter crust, or try the gluten-free and vegan choices, if that's your jam) justify its purchase, and the dozens of fillings, helpfully organized by season, make greenmarket sourcing of raw ingredients quick and easy. Best of all, this is no coffee table sleeper: It's an easy-to-follow, compact volume that just begs to be floured and splattered in your tiny New York City kitchen. Hannah Palmer Egan

The Fun Parts, by Sam Lipsyte (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pp., $24)

The loopiest losers in Loserville fail spectacularly for our amusement in Sam Lipsyte's doozy of a second short-story collection. Bullies, scam artists, and their victims engage in wisecracking danses macabres. Lipsyte's writing drips with the brain-whirling detritus of a contemporary culture in which reference replaces emotion. "No hard feelings?" thinks a role-playing gamer of his sadistic Dungeon Master's faux apology. "What could be harder than feelings?" Richard Gehr

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