Esquire: 14 Best Books of 2013 (So Far!)
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Best Books So Far1 of 15
The writers and editors at Esquire reveal which books have made it onto their list of must-reads for this year.
TransAtlantic2 of 15
Because of its concern with "circularity," TransAtlantic is not so much plotted as charted, its stories as apparently wayward and as factually inevitable as the currents of the Atlantic itself. In the first half, four men—fugitive slave Frederick Douglass, diplomat George Mitchell, and the two war-scarred aviators—travel from the New World back to Ireland on missions of historical import; in the second, the women, who at first seem to figure as historical backwash, show how those disparate missions are stitched together.
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Benediction3 of 15
Kent Haruf is a master of what one of his characters calls "the precious ordinary." In Benediction, a minister speaks his mind about the war in Iraq and infuriates his congregation. A daughter cleans her father with a washcloth and helps him into a diaper. In the back office of a hardware store, a woman opens up her coat and offers her naked body to the manager. With understated language and emotional insight, Haruf makes you feel awe at even the most basic human gestures.
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The Telling Room4 of 15
The subtitle of The Telling Room is A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World's Greatest Piece of Cheese. In the book, there is deep love, allegations of unthinkable betrayal, and a plot for murderous revenge—three pretty classic elements of a good story. And for a while when you're reading, you wonder whether the cheese might be incidental. But the cheese is not incidental. The cheese in question, produced in a rural Spanish cave by a huge, mysterious man who spoke in legends, was known far and wide and prized by kings and queens. Read the full review here.
The Blood of Heaven5 of 15
The voice—monstrous, fanatical, biblical, perversely comical—feels like a close cousin of Daniel Woodrell's or William Gay's. So does the poetic bloodshed, the operatic violence, with bodies beaten and drowned and stabbed and whipped and shot and lynched. You know what you're in for from The Blood of Heaven's opening passage: Our narrator, an old man named Angel Woolsack, pisses blood out an open window, spraying his red blessing all over the secession revelers in the street below. Read the full review here.
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Angel Baby6 of 15
There are books that open with a trigger-snap of trouble and blast forward with the propulsive force of a bullet and never stop moving. Angel Baby is one of them. In a luxurious compound in Tijuana, Lux lives a pill-fogged life as the beautiful, dutiful wife of El Principe, a jefe in a drug cartel who sometimes seems more pit bull than man. When she breaks away—with a Colt .45 and a stack of money stolen from his safe—he sends an enforcer snarling after her. She seeks the daughter she left behind in L.A. and the help of a deadbeat she encounters along the way.
The Son7 of 15
The Son is the follow-up to Philipp Meyer's debut, American Rust, which made his name one to remember. Like his first book, it pulses and bleeds and twitches. Every facet of Meyer's world—scent and sight and sensation—has weight and heft. The details about small arms and artillery. Details about flora and fauna. Details about the Comanche. The Comancheros. Texans. You feel the arrow wounds and smell the gun smoke. You taste the oil that the characters pull from the ground, hear the horses nickering, see Old West vistas as magnificent as those you'll find in a John Ford film.
You Only Get Letters From Jail8 of 15
It's strange to read a woman author who actually understands how young men think. You feel like there's this girl who finally gets you. Which is another reason to fall in love with Jodi Angel and her collection, You Only Get Letters from Jail. More reasons? Prose stripped down to the primer. Dialogue that burns like cheap whiskey. Teenaged guys with Doritos stains on their shirts trying to keep it together as they lose their mothers to death and drugs, as they lose themselves.
And the Mountains Echoed9 of 15
Khaled Hosseini will not disappoint his audience with And the Mountains Echoed. Like his previous books, the novel is a complex mosaic, a portrait of the Afghan diaspora as it is folded into the West, and of those left behind. The book is elevated by a strong sense of parable and some finely drawn characters and is inventively constructed as it leaps from voice to voice—here a female narrator, there a male—and from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco.
& Sons10 of 15
& Sons is an often funny, always elegant, lingering gaze back at a world in which writers are still gods at the center of culture. A.N. Dyer, the novel's version of J. D. Salinger, worries about what witticisms to scribe with his autograph. He struggles with the importance of his life and works. He holes up in his apartment and buries his friends in Manhattan cathedrals. In other words, he's the exact opposite of the thumb-sucking novelist kids who make up the current literary establishment.
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Vampires in the Lemon Grove11 of 15
The past few years have brought a surge of fabulism, with Karen Russell as one of its most celebrated champions. Her second collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, is delightfully weird. In the title story, a century-old marriage between two vampires (who satisfy their thirst by gnawing on lemons) is suffering because the husband has developed a fear of flying. In the most moving story, "The New Veterans," a massage therapist heals a war vet by kneading his tattoos.
The Miniature Wife12 of 15
It's easy to compare Manuel Gonzales, author of The Miniature Wife, to George Saunders, but it would be just as easy to compare him to Borges or Márquez or Aimee Bender. In his debut collection, a hijacked plane circles Dallas for 20 years. There are unicorns, werewolves, fighting robots. He makes the extraordinary ordinary, and his playfulness is infectious. Gonzales is at his best in his flash pieces—like "Cash to a Killing"—three-to-five-pagers that explode like gunfire.
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We Live in Water13 of 15
Even Jess Walter flirts with the fantastic. "Don't Eat Cat," one of the standout stories in We Live in Water, cleverly reinvents the zombie myth and offers up a vision of America as corporate nightmare. The rest of this badass collection aligns itself more with Walter's gritty, bighearted novels about crime, politics, and economic despair, populated mostly by lost men hungry for a dollar, a bottle, a lay.
Middle Men14 of 15
Who is Jim Gavin, author of Middle Men? The second coming of Denis Johnson if his debut collection is any indication. These are sad, funny stories about nowhere men—some young, some bent-backed, all searching for something they'll never find. No matter if their plots concern the fantastic or the commonplace, these short stories will transport you, will educate you, will entertain you, will fill you with fear and laughter and sadness—all in about 30 pages.
Tenth of December15 of 15
There is no lack of urgency in a George Saunders story. Pick up one of his books and your fingers hum with the energy stored inside. In his previous collections, he wrote about zombies, Civil War theme parks, and downloadable memories with razor wit. Legions of beginner writers consider him a deity and ape his style. For a while, though, I couldn't help but feel his work kept covering the same emotional and satirical territory. But there is more heart in Tenth of December than ever before, especially in the exceptional title story.