Here are ten books I loved in 2013, two great books from Austin writers, one I really need to read and five we are looking forward to in the early months of 2014. Let’s do this.
1. “The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, $26.99): Weaving together two discrete yet potent moments in the late 1970s — the explosive New York art scene and the vibrant, revolutionary gyrations of Italy’s radical left — “Flamethrowers” crackles with deft energy, worked-over language and emotional heft.
2. “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief” by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, $28.95): The Austin-based author of “The Looming Tower” takes on Scientology with the cool of a veteran reporter. Fair, balanced and hypnotic.
3. “Bleeding Edge” by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin, $28.95): With typically knotty/dazzling prose, an American grandmaster of the paranoid style looks at New York tech culture immediately before and after Sept. 11 (the national reaction to the latter of which the 76-year old writes about with rage you might expect).
4. “Mo’ Meta Blues” by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and Ben Greenman (Grand Central, $26): The year’s best music memoir? Absolutely. Thompson avoids gossip about musicians he's worked with in favor of a thoughtful look at himself, at the Artist As a Young (then Middle-Aged) Record Nerd who loved Kiss, the Beach Boys, soul and hip-hop in equal measure. Long may he play, DJ and write.
5. “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, $30): Discursive, dislocating, dramatic, Tartt’s first book in a decade-plus, all 770-plus pages, is a lumbering thing, both a plot-heavy 19th-century-style door-stopper and a modern, globe-trotting yarn that owes as much to Harry Potter (no, really) as Dickens.
6. “I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp” by Richard Hell (Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers. $25.99.): Hell is an O.P. (original punk) — Malcom McClaren famously copped his look for the Sex Pistols — who did time in Television (the band) and the Heartbreakers (not Tom Petty’s) before leading the Voidoids. But he was also an OK poet, a mediocre bassist, a junkie, a stellar raconteur, and a bit of a rake. He freely admits all of these things. Call it the uglier flipside of Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.”
7. “Wave” by Sonali Deraniyagala (Knopf, $24.): The slim, devastating story of the author’s loss of her husband, sons and parents in the 2004 tsunami, “Wave” is in no way for the faint of heart. But it is an important book because, while the scale here is world-historical, disaster can strike anyone at any time. Deraniyagala has been there and back.
8. “With or Without You” by Domenica Ruta (Spiegel & Grau, $25): An oddly underrated memoir from this Michener Center grad about life with a chaotic, profligate, drug-addicted, often terrifying and extremely complicated mother. Yes, more complicated than yours. Trust me. Or rather, trust Ruta.
9. “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, $27.99): One of the sharpest alternate history (well, sort of) novels in forever. Atkinson’s protagonist keeps dying and being reborn, exploring all manner of directions her life could have taken. Genre purists (and anyone who remembers Ken Grimwood’s ’80s novel “Replay”) might object to the praise lavished on the execution of a shopworn sci-fi idea, but the execution is pretty great.
10. “Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion” by Robert Gordon (Bloomsbury, $30): Gordon is a treasure of a writer and critic; his book “It Came From Memphis” remains a terrific read about a city that all but gave birth to late 20th-century American music. Here, he narrows in on the rise and fall of one of the all-time great record labels.
My two favorite books by Austin authors: “Horse of a Different Color” by Howard Waldrop, is smart, carefully crafted science-fiction/fantasy of a very high order. He is Texas’ own Rod Serling, packing an ungodly amount of research and erudition into gem-like yarns. I was also a huge fan of Jennifer duBois’ “Cartwheel,” an often deeply funny fictionalization (sort of) of the Amanda Knox case.
Book I still haven’t read because I am not made out of time, even though, yes, it is kind of an obligation seeing as how I live here and all: “The Son” by Philipp Meyer. Yeah, I know, I know.
Five books I am looking forward to in the first half of 2014:
“Little Failure: A Memoir,” by Gary Shteyngart (Random House, $27): The novelist takes on his own immigrant experience. (Jan. 7)
“Call Me Burroughs: A Life” by Barry Miles (Twelve, $32): A 700-plus page biography of the legendary writer. (Jan. 28)
“Bark: Stories” by Lorrie Moore (Knopf, $24.95) (Feb 25): A new collection, her first in 15 years, from one of the American masters of the short story.
“The Burnist Day of Wrath” by Robert Coover (Dzanc Books, $30): Speaking of door-stops, here is the 1,100-page sequel to the foundational post-modernist’s 1966 debut novel “The Origin of the Brunists.” (March 25)
“Above the East China Sea: A novel” by Sarah Bird (Knopf, $25.95): A story of two teenage girls, one American, one Okinawan, across decades during and after World War II from this Austin author. (May 27)