One of the greatest things about being a critic, particularly one who writes about all kinds of media, is just how many good books, television, movies, and music come into the world every year. I can’t read, watch, or listen to everything every year, but I get to an awful lot. So all week long, I’ll be publishing some thoughts on the culture that made the biggest impressions on me in 2013. There will be no ranked lists, but there will be plenty of recommendations, as well as a few things to avoid. First up, the books of 2013!
Lightning Rod: Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg and Nell Scovell: It’s entirely possible to concede every single critique of Lean In — that it’s irrelevant to working-class women, that it ignores the disparate importance of women of color and LGBT women, that it buys into a corporatized feminism that cheers developments like the appointments of GM’s first female CEO while failing to challenge our assumptions about work — and still think it’s a good thing to have more career advice books aimed at women. In a way, the debate about Lean In reminds me of the conversations about Girls, when Lena Dunham’s show arrived on HBO. The criticisms of each work are entirely legitimate, but they’re as much critiques of the larger media environment and political status quo into which Lean In and Girls were released as the works themselves. In a world where we told vastly more stories about women of color, a deliberately insular look at often-obtuse white women in Brooklyn wouldn’t feel like such a deliberate snub. And if we had a richer dialogue about women and work, and a political environment in which the announcement of an actual paid parental leave bill didn’t feel like a revolution, Lean In could be no more and no less than what it is.
Most Revealing Non-Fiction: The Skies Belong To Us, By Brendan I. Koerner: Koerner’s account of one of the last big skyjackings in an epidemic that began to change America’s attitudes towards airport security is outrageously entertaining. For his sense of adventure alone, The Skies Belong To Us would be worth a recommendation, and I can easily imagine the David O. Russell adaptation of it that we’ll get in six or seven years. But it’s also a sharp explanation of why skyjacking became a criminal tactic of choice for both adventurers — airlines had a policy of paying out ransoms without question — and revolutionaries, for whom commandeering a plane could be a quick route to a country like Cuba, and a way to make the headlines. And Koerner takes readers back to a moment before September 11 when the airline industry and legislators believed that even simple metal detectors or screenings of a few passengers would destroy America’s airline industry. It’s a fascinating, sometimes funny, often very sad reminder of the short span of our historical memories.
Big Novel: The Flamethrowers, By Rachel Kushner: Kushner’s novel has been the subject of a kerfuffle over sexism and literary criticism. But as a novel, purely as a novel, reading The Flamethrowers is like eating a huge, beautifully-cooked meal when you’re just the right amount of hungry to finish it all, but not so starving that you wolf the food down and miss why it’s wonderful. There are Italian futurists! Downtown artists! Radical nihilists! Gorgeous motorcycles! See-through pants! Agonizing breakups! And most of all, a woman named Reno, who lives in the spaces between what she’s supposed to want, and what she does. “’I didn’t move here to fall in love,’” Reno tells a man she’s talking to towards the beginning of the book. “But as I said it, I felt he’d set a trap of some kind. Because I didn’t move here not to fall in love. The desire for love is universal but that has never meant it’s worthy of respect. It’s not admirable to want love, it just is.” The Flamethrowers is as cool as it is precisely because Reno, alone among almost everyone around her, is willing to break through the very facade of coolness.
Most Purely Enjoyable Novel: The Interestings, By Meg Wolitzer: I’ve talked so much about The Interestings that I fear I’m becoming dull on the subject. But if you thought, as I did, that a story about friends who meet as teenagers at a summer camp and try to make their center hold even as one of them becomes a fabulously wealthy and successful artist, would be twee and irritating, I implore you to reconsider. The Interestings is set in a world where even people bound up in love can commit irrevocable sins against each other, where genuine talent is not the only quality that’s rewarded with success, and where romance is not the only kind of valuable affection. And even though it’s set in an earlier moment than our present decade, The Interestings is one of the deepest assessments I’ve read of what seems like the internet-enhanced desire so many people feel to be fascinating and famous, even just to fifteen people.
Smartest Young Adult Fiction: Seraphina, By Rachel Hartman: Seraphina’s title character is a young musician in the court of a human kingdom that, after a long and costly war with a country of dragons, has only recently signed a peace treaty with their former enemies. Seraphina wants to remain invisible, for reasons that are integral to the story, but finds herself drawn into the response to a threat to the peace. She’s a lovely character, a heroine who is important not because she’s physically tough or capable of violence, but because she’s emotionally perceptive, kind, and creative. And the societal conflict Hartman’s set up feels even more relevant after the death of South African president Nelson Mandela. “The only way to lead is to drag the rest, flapping and flaming, toward what is right,” the leader of the dragons, the Comonot reflects at one point in the novel. “I treated with Queen Lavonda in secret, knowing it would be better to impose a treaty upon my own people than to endure a century of debating it in the Ker.” And Lavonda recognizes at one point that her legal peace with the dragons is not the same thing as creating cultural change: “I believed, perhaps erroneously, that our peoples would simply grow accustomed to each other, given the cessation of warfare,” she tells her subjects. “Are we oil and water, that we cannot mix? Have I been remiss in expecting reason and decency to prevail, when I should have rolled up my sleeves and enforced them?” This is more specific and sophisticated than young adult literature concerned with race or metaphors for it usually get, but Hartman pulls it off beautifully.
Most Overlooked Young Adult Fiction, Long Division, By Kiese Laymon: “Even though the book was set in 1985, I didn’t know what to do with the fact that the narrator was black like me, stout like me, in the ninth grade like me, and had the same first name as me. Plus, you hardly ever read books that were written like you actually thought,” Citoyen, the young hero of Kiese Laymon’s Long Division explains when he starts reading a novel of the same title. Long Division is a dense oroboros of a book that touches on everything from time travel, to racial history, to the complex lives of Southern Jews during the Civil Rights movement, to the fact that our parents and grandparents are sexual creatures who make complex choices. But perhaps most powerfully, it’s a story about what it means to see — or not see — yourself in fiction.
Biggest Disappointment: The Bone Season, By Samantha Shannon: Preemptively naming a young author the next J.K. Rowling is an awfully cruel thing to someone. And it’s even worse when the seven-year contract that accompanies those accolades doesn’t appear to include serious and careful editing that might help the first-time novelist in question narrow the gap between the hype and the reality. Unfortunately for Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season is dreadful. The world she’s built is one in which clairvoyants whose talents manifest in various ways have become outlaws, and the most talented are plucked out by a race of very powerful aliens who are secretly controlling human dictatorships, and trained to fight another set of fearsome creatures. But rather than using her raft of concepts to illuminate her characters, much less to say anything remotely significant about liberty, talent, or human freedom, reading The Bone Season is like being stuck in the Hogwarts Room Of Lost Things, forever. And Paige Mahoney, Shannon’s main character, is a perfect illustration of how making your main character a Mary Sue — an empty vessel into which the reader can slot himself or herself — can render a work not only creatively deadening, but morally bankrupt.
Worst Book: The Book Of Matt, By Stephen Jimenez: It’s not just that the purpose of Jimenez’s book is to try to tear down Matthew Shepard, who is fifteen years murdered, reducing the college student, who was pistol-whipped, tied to a fence, and left to die in Wyoming. It’s not even that Jimenez has been trying to prove that Shepard was some sort of significant player in Wyoming’s meth scene for more than a decade, which means that The Book Of Matt substantially recycles old material. It’s that Jimenez has written an incredibly shoddy book, using tactics like chopping up interviews with ellipses and incoherent timelines, that render his accusations even less credible than they might have been if they were presented in a more straightforward fashion. At this point, Jimenez seems to be pursuing his theories primarily so he has an ongoing reason to praise himself for his courage in bucking conventional wisdom, and persisting in the face of entirely unsubstantiated threats. The Book Of Matt is so terrible that it almost made me wonder if his publishers decided to release it simply to give Jimenez the dynamite he needs to obliterate himself from respectable publication.