Agent William Callahan lists his top books for 2013 and has us traveling through the decades with his thoughtful and offbeat picks.
The following are my favorite ten (well, technically eleven) books from 2013, books that I would unhesitatingly recommend you buy as a gift for someone. While I tried to constrain this to books that published in 2013, I didn’t. In no particular order:
Translated from the Turkish by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk
Persea Books, 2009
Hikmet is apparently the foremost modern poet in the Turkish language, and this is an epic political poem that he began while in prison in 1941. He looks very dashing on the cover of the book,like a cross between John Cleese and Fred Gwynne. I don’t know if it’s beautiful, but it’s consistently interesting, which is a tall enough order for a novel in verse, and it’s filled with lines that I would not be displeased to see tattooed on other people, like: “To kids and cats // prison or paradise—it’s all the same” and “The destiny // of iron // coal // and sugar” and “The road is wide // and long. // And littered”. This is true! Especially Bedford Avenue south of Atlantic Avenue. And the late 20th century.
Caleb Crain Penguin, 2013
This one is beautiful, for sure.It’s about an American in Prague in the 90s, so there’s great stuff in here about a society just unthawing from a long, deep freeze, and characters are uncomfortably, perilously real seeming, but I was most moved by the depiction of what dating was like when people relied on landlines. Eek!
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013
Oxford University Press, 2001
I picked up the first one and then saw the second at Unnamable Books in Prospect Heights. As I was buying it, the bookstore guy said something about how much better it sounded than the “new one”—i.e. Constellation of Genius 1922—and I said I was reading that one too, and enjoying it, and then the rest of the transaction was conducted in polite silence. I kind of understand what he meant, but he’s wrong. They’re complementary. Constellation, most fun in its footnotes, is full of great gossip (jeez, Joyce saw a lot of eye doctors!), and is weirdly, entertainingly interested in rehabilitating the forgotten silent star Harold Lloyd, and Reading 1922 is a bit denser (there’s a lot about Tractatus which is pleasantly easy to pretend to read). So they fit perfectly together, although Jackson does directly dispute North on when Egypto-mania swept America and Europe, before or after Tutankhamun. But anyway, what’s better than a combination of light and dense? Like whipped cream on top of some kind of dense dessert thing.
St. Martin’s Press, 2013
I was flipping through this book in the Strand and started crying. It’s very funny and very beautiful, but everyone already knows this. Good luck getting a copy from Amazon. KONY 2012; HONY 2013.
Text by Richard Garfield
Garfield Games, 1994
I got this book sometime around 1995, and I think the game only came into commercial existence in 1994? There’s some fabulously funny stories from the early days of Magic development (“Control Magic” actually really did exchange ownership of the actual card!),and some choice FAQ and support ephemera (instructions on where to find the support office in Freegate, a MUD accessible at something called “Illuminati Online”) but the greatness of this book is in the extremely strange and incredibly unnecessary short story that introduces what is, essentially, an instruction manual. It involves someone named Thomil, someone named Worzel, and a demon, familiar to all planeswalkers, named the Pit Lord. It is as gripping as I imagine top-notch chess fan fiction might be. I have read this book hundreds of times.
This is a great book. It takes its name from the Anna Akhmatova poem (“Madness has already covered // Half my soul with its wing, // And gives to drink of a fiery wine // And beckons into the dark valley.”), which is great, but I don’t even think the best title possibility from that stanza. A Fiery Wine! C’mon Piers! The chapters alternate between checking in with the US, Germany, Italy, France, Britain, Russia, and Japan, and, like the title promises, it is the 1930s, so there’s some bleak stuff in here, no joke. The author is transcendently knowledgeable, though, and his vantage enables him to see the gallows humor in the decade-long death march. Like, echoes of Rodgers and Hart in “Peroxided, powdered, and rouged, he dressed up (or, rather, was dressed by his valet) in comic opera uniforms,green silk pantaloons, violet kimonos and purple togas, holding the ensemble together with jewelled brooches, gold sashes, and gem-encrusted belts.” Göring! What not to wear!
This is a novel about a mouse leading a slave revolt against a seaside fort, which is simultaneously being besieged by a pirate, who is a rat. A+++++++++ When I was young, when it was perhaps more appropriate that I was reading this book, my older brother presented me a mouse that had been caught and killed in a mousetrap we had in the basement. HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA
Two great new histories of WWI.Clark’s is a throwback to Harold Nicolson-style diplomatic history, nicely appropriate for an era when foreign policy was still in its striped pants. In its reconstruction of all the crazily freelancing characters, it shows what Hastings simply states in his book: “The only untenable view of the July crisis is that was the consequence of a series of accidents.” Hastings is on the side of historians who place most blame at Germany’s feet, while Clark refrains from commentary. But, yeah, it was the Kaiser. The nice thing about WWI [sic] is that it seems to have less a clawhold in American imaginations, so the cycle of reinterpretation can move more quickly than more recent events and World Wars. Demonstrated in Hastings’ dismissal of the myth that crowds across Europe spontaneously rose up in joy at the first bugle call. It turns out that more than a few of them were busy with things like farming and being alive.
Wordsworth Editions, first
Tiberius! No! Bad!
This is a brilliant novel that will be taught for years to come in writing classes as a perfectly plotted story. More importantly, it is absolutely riveting and ingenious, and many, many people have discovered that, and many, many more people deserve the opportunity to.