All of our editors have put together a list of their favorite reads of 2013. Some are new, some old, some obscure, others classics that were revisited. We love end of year lists, and here is ours. Here’s to a happy and productive new year!
Ben Dolan | Editor-in-Chief
Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov. Taught me how make an irresistibly beautiful memoir about content that is, at turns, boring, commonplace, and tangential.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Taught me how to write about the complex mix of beauty and depravity in humans while refraining from constant moralization.
“The Man Who Saves You From Yourself” by Nathaniel Rich. Harper’s. Taught me how to end a piece of nonfiction when the subject isn’t dead yet.
“A Life or Death Situation” by Robin Maranz Henig. New York Times Magazine. Taught me how to write about tragedy untragically (and when the tragic subject isn’t dead yet).
“The Case Against Algebra II” by Nicholson Baker. Harper’s. Reminded me that the essay form applies and is necessary to all academic fields, though the university often demands writing to get back in its humanities kennel.
Christina Glessner | Managing Editor
“Man on the Tracks” by Erika Anderson. Creative Nonfiction. I kept coming back to this piece, even taught it in my creative writing classroom. I love the way both form and language techniques mimic the narrator’s thought-process. It’s a great example of how essay can explore how we feel, and how we process information, when we haven’t reached any resolution from an event. It’s so much easier to force a resolution. Here, the lack of resolution becomes the force driving this essay so powerfully.
“The Poem She Didn’t Write” by Olena Kalytiak Davis. Tin House. This poem explores our expectations about what a poem should do and smashes them. It plays beautifully with form. Lines are often surprising and witty. I had a lot of fun reading and re-reading this piece.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. While I read and was affected by a lot of writing in 2013 (and surely am missing some of my favorites in this short list), I know I can’t possibly exclude this book from a list of writing I’ve fallen in love with this year. I read it 3 times throughout the course of this year and hope to make time to read it as often next year. The book is wildly intelligent. Incredibly well-researched. I also admired how the book’s form often mimicked each stage of grief as Didion discussed it.
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. After hearing countless people tell me they’d read and loved this collection since its debut in August 2012, I finally read it this summer. It was every bit as wonderful as others repeatedly told me it would be. Watkins’s stories are incredibly honest, her images specific and alive. Her stories don’t shy away from the gritty, and in that fearlessness, we find truth.
I’m going to cheat on this last one. I’ve read a lot of Ploughshare Solos this year, and I’d like to highlight two must-reads: Chelsey Johnson’s “Escape and Reverse” and Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Phoenix .” Both stories are ripe with very vivid imagery, which helps place the stories accurately in setting and context. I deeply trust these two stories. I think it’s important to have platforms for long short stories, like Ploughshares Solos, because long short stories can sometimes more accurately mimic the breath of real-life experience, because their form has allowed them the space to do so.
Jill Dehnert | Associate Editor
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I loved this book so much. Its searing, cutting prose and critical eye were only half the reason. The other being that this is one of the best love stories I’ve read in a long, long time. For me, the characters were so deeply imagined and real that I still feel like they are long time friends. But more than anything, this book taught me about how powerful humor can be in literature. I wish we saw more of it.
Mating by Norman Rush. How I hadn’t read this novel until now I’ll never know, but I’m so glad I did. The narrative voice is smart, self-analytical, revelatory, and at times hilarious. A high-concept read in which the narrator, a female anthropologist in Botswana, falls in love with an American man who has founded a feminist community in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, somehow escapes cliched exoticism. A deeply imagined, highly entertaining, intelligent novel.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. This book was pure genius. Structurally, contextually, and narratively one of the most interesting books I have ever read. The two narrators lead complex, layered, and deeply human lives. I should note that when I began this book, I didn’t think I was going to like it. So, stick with it. You’ll be glad you did.
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. A lovely, surprising, wonderfully complex novel that spans several lifetimes. This novel examines a single family so intensely, and nothing ends up quite as you expect. Lahiri delivers another lyrical, deeply human novel.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. More than anything, I’ll remember 2013 as the year I fell in love with Donna Tartt. I know I’m a bit late to this party. I LOVED this book. I still think about it regularly. And now that I’m in the thick of The Goldfinch I feel as though I found Donna Tartt not a moment too soon and I won’t be surprised to see that novel on my 2014 list.
Sarah Sheesley | Nonfiction Editor
I’m behind the times on all of these, but each one stood out to me as worth returning for various reasons. Thinking over the year I realize that my favorites were almost all prose written by poets. We’ll see if any of their magic rubs off on my own work. I hope all the other books I read and liked won’t be offended to be left off this list (I’m talking to you Pedro Páramo – only because I still don’t know quite what to say about you).
Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. In 2013 I fell in love with Anne Carson. I was introduced via her somewhat esoteric nonfiction/poetry/artist book, Nox, early in the year but fell hard for Autobiography of Red over the summer. If you haven’t read it already, it’s heartbreaking beautiful love story about a red dragon boy that is profoundly human. She uses Greek mythology in a way that is fascinating and smart, yet did not make me feel dumb (My mythology knowledge being weak.). Her interview in The Paris Review is also amazing.
Boys Of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard. This I read and kept forgetting I was supposed to be reading strictly for craft insights. I hate/love it when this happens, so I need to go back and figure out how she did that.
Surfacing by Margaret Atwood. This is an odd one that caught me off guard. I read it in 5 hours while flying across the country just last week, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It has a distinctly 70s flavor but presses a nerve and speaks to timeless questions about femininity and identity. I even considered following the protagonist’s lead and going feral in the Canadian woods. Aside from being caught up in the continues dream of the story, I was interested in Atwood’s transition from the sane and banal to the raw psychological chaos through a shift from straightforward prose to dense, poetic language. It seems like that would be hard to manage.
“For Esme–with Love and Squalor” by J.D. Salinger – This is beautiful. How did I get this far in life without it?
Michael Noltemeyer | Fiction Editor
The Meadow by James Galvin. In eminently poetic prose, Galvin juxtaposes the natural history of a meadow along the Colorado-Wyoming border with the stories of the people who live there, making them seem simultaneously insignificant against the timeless, rugged, and often hostile backdrop and also noble for struggling to carve out an existence in such an unforgiving place. He ascribes a certain dignity to lives that will nonetheless be lost in the broad sweep of history, and in so doing he elevates his characters behind tragedy, imbuing their efforts at independence with intrinsic meaning. The genre-bending book is a natural history, yes, but it’s much more than that. It strikes me as an eloquent apology for a certain subset of the human condition.
Mystery Ride by Robert Boswell. Multiple members of the creative writing faculty at UNM recommended this book to me as one of the best novels ever written. They may well be right. In graceful, stately prose and with characteristic thoughtfulness and humor, Boswell crafts a cast of characters with which you can’t help but fall in love, and then he puts them through their paces in a plot that quickly veers toward heartbreak: you know the story is going to end badly for someone, but you don’t know who, and you find yourself rooting for all of them even as those rooting interests ensure that you, too, will have your heart broken. Most criticism I have heard of the book centers on Boz’s refusal to provide a happy ending, but the real world doesn’t often deal in happy endings, and it doesn’t have any special interest in doing so. Neither does Boz. He doesn’t give us a happy ending here, but what he gives us instead is much more important: he gives us an understanding of the way real families and real relationships actually work. Those generous insights are, in turn, what makes the book work as well as it does.
Son of a Gun by Justin St. Germain. The recent New York Times review sums up this new memoir far better than I could, but suffice it to say that I was drawn to it for many of the same reasons that I loved Mystery Ride: terrifically well-controlled prose, heart-wrenching emotion, generous insight, and an outright refusal to provide a buttoned-up ending, a neat little bow that would have felt out of place at the end of a story that doesn’t admit of redemption. Like Boswell, St. Germain refuses to conform to traditional or stereotypical narrative arcs in a gesture of fidelity to the real world and faith in their readers. Sometimes the truth hurts. Neither Boswell nor St. Germain is willing to sugarcoat it for you.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Many of you have probably already read Zadie Smith’s well-publicized debut novel, now ten years old. Somehow I didn’t get around to it until this year. I couldn’t be happier that I finally did. Smith is so raucously funny that you almost don’t notice how smart she is in capturing and cataloguing the myriad complexities of modern life — almost. The book is such a stylistic tour de force that, upon finishing, I immediately felt compelled to acquire the rest of her oeuvre. That puts her in a very exclusive club previously reserved for the likes of Steinbeck, Marilynne Robinson, and E.B. White, authors who would have easily cracked this list had I first encountered any of their work during the past 12 months.
We Are Water by Wally Lamb. Technically I haven’t yet finished reading this book, but unless Lamb just phoned in the last 100 pages, its place on this list is absolutely warranted — and having heard him read, I’m not so sure he couldn’t have dictated the end of the book by phone if he’d wanted to. As in his past work, Wally’s gift is his ability to strike a balance between critical acclaim and commercial appeal. His prose is realistic and accessible; it never shuts anyone out, and so mass audiences are able to treat his books as beach reads and still appreciate the storytelling. For those who are willing to dig deeper, though, Wally always rewards careful reading with a nuanced understanding of the big issues facing contemporary American life. He combines a critical eye with a storyteller’s ear, and the result is a treat in (and for) all senses.
Lucy Burns | Poetry Editor
Sky Ward by Kazim Ali. The words rich, lyric, imaginative, precise, and haunting come to mind when I think of Kazim Ali’s most recent collection of poetry. The poems are loosely framed around a series of dramatic monologues that reexamine Icarus’s fall and in doing so explore the concept of a highly fragmented identity.
Just Saying by Rae Armantrout. Using the sparest of language, Armantrout plays with language and sound to delve into consumerism and the power of wealth. Precise, funny, and powerful, these poems will reverberate in your mind long after you have read them.
Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen. The poems in this collection explore the suicide of a brother using a precise language that is both heartbreaking and terribly beautiful. Rasmussen offers insight into the loss using careful details and images to create a poignant narrative that easily avoids sentimentality.
Follow-Haswed by Laura Walker. The poems in this collection are collaged from single OED entries marked by the title word for each poem. The definition of each title word expands as Walker skillfully draws upon the OED definitions; she constructs haunting poems filled with sounds and images that reach beyond the common understanding of each word.
You And Three Others Are Approaching A Lake by Anna Moschovakis. This work examines capitalism, exposing its flaws and offering a cultural critique. The poems demonstrate the way in which humans become likened to machines and the consequences of doing so. Pulling from historical texts, the Internet, autobiographical material, and even an “Annabot,” the poems ask the reader to rethink what it means to be human.