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

Lotería, by Mario Alberto Zambrano (Harper, 288 pp., $21.99)

Luz is a typical 11-year-old girl who squabbles with her older sister, idolizes her father, and cherishes her mother. But the truth that lies within these relationships is far from rosy. Titled Lotería after the Mexican bingo-like card game that features colorful images instead of numbers, this remarkable debut novel by former professional ballet dancer turned writer Mario Alberto Zambrano uses this treasured game to deliver a touching and sweet portrayal of a Mexican-American family struggling to stay united and a young girl trying to find her voice again. Araceli Cruz

Manson, by Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, 512 pp., $27.50) “Nancy Maddox loved the Bible and her teenage daughter, Kathleen, loved to dance” is how Jeff Guinn opens his engrossing biography of Charles Manson. Kathleen gave birth to Charlie, who embodied the schism between his mom and grandmother. Guinn compellingly charts Manson’s trip from Depression-era toddler to postwar delinquent to rancid troubadour of the Love Generation, a megalomaniacal cult leader who spouted fractured scripture, hustled songs to the Beach Boys, organized acid-fueled orgies, and ultimately inveigled society’s dropouts to commit ritual murder. R.C. Baker

Meaty, by Samantha Irby (Curbside Splendor, 250 pp., $15.95)

Most of the essays in Meaty began in Bitches Gotta Eat, author Samantha Irby’s blog. You can read them in their original form there, along with five years of entries about her mundane and fascinating life, or you can pick up this collection and get the best parts right away. Irby’s writing feels immediate and direct; like the best bloggers, she knows how to present intimate subjects — love, sex, childhood, colon health — for public consumption, baring her soul with a knowing, sardonic wink. Look, she seems to say, here are the ugliest, scariest, craziest parts of my life; isn’t it hilarious? This book’s only flaw is that it does not appear to have been very well copy edited, which is a shame. At only 250 pages, Meaty could’ve been twice as long and still delectable; devour it in one sitting, and come back for seconds. Meave Gallagher

Out of Time: Philip Guston and the Refiguration of Postwar American Art, by Robert Slifkin (University of California Press, 264 pp., $60)

A professor of fine arts at New York University, Robert Slifkin has combined pop-culture reviews — “What is this shit?” Greil Marcus railed in his Rolling Stone pan of Bob Dylan’s 1970 album, Self Portrait — with densely complex readings of Philip Guston’s journey from sensitive postwar abstractionist to late-1960s visionary of potato-sack Klansmen, comical light bulbs, and other maladroit denizens mired in existential limbo. Slifkin’s insightful examination of the era’s social upheavals and art theories provides fresh clues as to why Guston’s once-reviled cartoon canvases are now widely admired for their timeless authority. R.C. Baker

The Riot Grrrl Collection, edited by Lisa Darms (The Feminist Press at CUNY, 368 pp., $34.95)

What did activists do in the ’90s before social media? They went to Kinko’s, of course. The Riot Grrrl Collection is a powerful record of how a bunch of determined young women, fed up with the male-dominated punk scene, disseminated their girls-rule message across the country and beyond via xeroxed zines and flyers. Edited by Lisa Darms, founder of the Riot Grrrl Collection at NYU’s Fales Library, this compilation of smart, fearless manifestos, personal stories, letters, zine excerpts, artwork, and flyers (such as “moshing tips” for a Bikini Kill concert) — written by feminist punks including Kathleen Hanna, Johanna Fateman, and Bratmobile’s Allison Wolfe and Molly Neuman — still feels fresh, inspiring, and necessary. Give a copy to every grrrl you know. Angela Ashman

Taipei, by Tao Lin (Vintage, 256 pp., $14.95)

Tao Lin’s carefully modulated third novel, his best yet, opens with rain falling from a cloudless sky and concludes with a ray of indirect sunlight — major progress in Lin’s absurdo-realist universe. His characters take bucketloads of drugs to attain precious little enlightenment, yet his book ultimately serves as its own hallucinogen. Lin masterfully reflects his cohort’s halting, lonely, ennui-drenched tones to bracing and brilliant, if sometimes necessarily boring, effect. Richard Gehr

The Traveling Sprinkler, by Nicholson Baker (Blue Rider Press, 304 pp., $26.95)

In The Traveling Sprinkler, we never leave Paul Chowder’s side. Nicholson Baker’s narrator drags us along to Planet Fitness to use the elliptical and to Best Buy to browse for an electric keyboard. When he’s looking for a buzz, we drive to a cigar shop to pick up fat, powerful cigars and sit with him in his car as he savors the tingling light-headedness the thick smoke brings. However, it’s not all errands and cigar smoking. Chowder questions his career as a poet and faces a romantic crisis with an ex (who deals with a crisis of her own). But the modern quotidian details that meander to form the novel are what give it a lively resonance, making Chowder an affable friend whose day we can’t wait to hear about. Nick Greene

Very Recent History, by Choire Sicha (Harper, 261 pp., $24.99)

Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City is more than a treasure for future generations to discover, the people of tomorrow’s tomorrow who won’t know anyone who remembers Google, or cell phones, or money. Choire Sicha gives full portraits of his subjects — mostly people in their 20s, just settling into adulthood — with only a few precise words. He shows a world rife with economic and social insecurity, presenting its terrible absurdities and beautiful serendipities without judgment, though his spare, elegant prose and facility with language exceed mere reporting. Sicha turns a Factual Account into delicate poetry, an elegy for a sad, wondrous year. Meave Gallagher