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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Desiderata: Our Favorite Novels of 2013
Rob Spillman (Editor, Tin House Magazine): The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. I haven’t been as engaged and invested in a novel in a long time. The unsettling mix of art and politics that bounces between New York and Italy in the 1970s was the most satisfying reading experience of the year for me.
Nanci McCloskey (Publicity Director, Tin House Books): Well I’m afraid I’m completely unoriginal, but The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is my pick for best novel of 2013. I was captivated by the originality, and the beauty of the language. There are scenes from the book that will stay with me forever, and I know it’s a book I’ll read again.
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. I love a big group of a novel, and while I’ve always enjoyed the wit and precision of Wolitzer’s prose, she hit a new high here. It’s not just the class concerns—what happens when the scholarship kid among the economic elite has nothing to fall back on?—or the complicated emotions that govern blood family and adopted family, but the way Wolitzer follows her characters from beginning to end and makes each step feel surprising and right. Also two other mentions: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves By Karen Joy Fowler managed to be original, heartfelt, painful, and funny, and I’ll never look at a fellow primate in the same way again. Plus an extra shout-out for the most wonderfully uncomfortable and immediately regrettable sex scene in Curtis Sittenfeld’s Sisterland. I won’t spoil it by saying anything else, except that it has haunted me, in a wonderful/horrible way, ever since I read it.
Allyson Paty (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Is it fair to say the NYRB reissue of Renata Adler’s Speedboat is my favorite novel of 2013? Not only was I much in need of a new copy (multiple readings reduced my first copy to a sad stack of pages I kept in a Ziploc bag), but also the number of people who have read and will talk about the book with me have increased substantially. Foremost, Adler’s sentences are incredible; I never fail to be transfixed by the varying clip at which her phrases move. For me Speedboat holds the all the pleasure and insight of To The Lighthouse, only in reverse—the quality of passing though time brought to light through extreme exteriority and fragmentation in place of interiority and focus.
Masie Cochran (Associate Editor, Tin House Books): It’s hard to pick a favorite novel of 2013—there were so many greats. One that stands out, though, is As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni (Akashic Books, September 2013). The breadth of Antoni’s imagination is inspiring. There were times I had to put the book down and catch my breath. After reading, I went out and picked up two more copies as Christmas presents. It’s just too good of a story not to share.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): I was tempted to select Keith Ridgeway’s Hawthorn & Child as my favorite story collection of the year, but as the good folks over at New Directions have called it a novel, I will abide. Ostensibly a detective story that centers on those that commit and solve the crimes of north London, Ridgeway is less concerned with the solutions of investigations but rather in what those investigations reveal about the communities involved. Our lead detectives for whom the novel is named float in and out throughout the ten or so “cases” presented, with the melancholy and increasingly unreliable Hawthorn as our guide through the criminal mist. As a protagonist, if you will allow me to stretch the meaning of the word, Hawthorn is one of the most memorable and compelling characters I have encountered in recent years. Openly gay and forced to endure a constant barrage of jokes from family and colleagues alike, the strain of the personal and professional takes a toll on Hawthorn as the book progresses, eventually calling into question whether or not what we are reading is nothing more than lucid dream from a broken man. In one of the most memorable sequences of the novel, we are given alternating memories of a group sex encounter Hawthorn had at a gay sauna, a family gathering, and his participation in a crackdown of a demonstration. While none of these memories necessarily pertain to the case at hand, they allow the reader to better understand the lens in which Hawthorn views his job. Despite (or maybe because of) Ridgeway’s channeling of classic noir language and tone, Hawthorn and Child is a surprisingly moving novel, full of emotionally powerful fragments that chisel into your memory. And while some readers might find the lack of a traditional narrative nothing more than a clever parlor trick, I found the innovative way it plays against the conventions of genre to be both effective and unlike anything else I read all year.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor, Tin House Magazine): The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A creepy and beautiful short novel that you should read alone in bed.
Meg Story (Editor, Tin House Books): The best novel I read this year was Anthony Marra’s debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, set in Chechnya, which is beautifully written and heartbreaking and somehow manages to depict the atrocities of war while conveying a sense of the absurdity that pervades it. (For example, a doctor who has not had any news of the outside world in years confuses Ronald McDonald for Ronald Reagan. When he learns who Ronald McDonald is, he is horrified by the idea of people eating hamburgers cooked by a clown. Given the circumstances he’s been living under, his reaction to this information creates a moment of humor, and, well, he does have a point.) But more importantly, the book made me realize that despite the news stories I heard and the statistics I read and my understanding that a lot of people were dying somewhere far away, I knew very little about the actual people living in Chechnya and how the conflict affected their daily lives. Marra’s novel reminded me that one of the biggest reasons I read fiction is to learn about the lives of others, especially lives so completely different from my own.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Sometimes words no good come and wonder you how writers make good words together come in strings and lined up like a goodly something and depicting thought stuff and brain noodlings with pictures positively sharp-made like a whatsit and emotions of a human person’s emotions and so human and 2013 was no different howsoever books so good made to drool envy slobber down your chin upon a desk to pool and so many books and novels goodly made perforce difficult one from one of many winners to asseverate so with hands droolwet with slobber I knock on soggy keys The Flamethrowers and mean that and so many other goodly I words don’t have to conveyance.
How about you, dear reader?