2013 in review: Books

Now it’s on to my favorite things: books. I actually have two separate posts for this: the best book I read in 2013 that was also released in 2013 and a more general post of books not actually published in 2013 that I happened to enjoy during the course of the year.

I start with the latter because I feel I read a large quantity of books not actually released in 2013 and a number of them were exceptional.

Three stood out from the rest: the best book I read in 2013 was David Foster Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and other Stories. It is a collection of seven nonfiction essays (I leaned overwhelmingly on nonfiction in 2013). I can truly say all of the essays are brilliant. While I hold a degree in film and aspired to be a film critic when I was younger (I’m talking about 14 years old), I don’t think I can ever match Wallace in pretty much breaking down the entire career of David Lynch and applying it to an extended review of Lost Highway in the essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Admittedly, I’ve been limited to space confines while writing for newspapers or I’ve been confined to the academic realm (actually much less confining than that of the newspaper) where I wasn’t granted a whole lot of leeway in exploring interesting tangential topics; the paper had to be focused on a specific topic, usually a dry one related to theoretical abstractions. Still, for me to pretend I could write an essay as good as Wallace would be wishful thinking at best. I’m not trying to be self-deprecating. The truth is I don’t think anyone has written a better piece on film. I’ve read book-length collections of movie reviews from Roger Ebert to David Sterritt, and I’ve never read anything that approaches Wallace’s work. It left me breathless, and that was simply my personal favorite from the bunch. The title essay actually much more acclaim from critics, and it too, is a brilliant work. Also, I’m pretty sure I’ve never laughed as much while reading as I did in “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All.” Wallace is assigned to cover the Illinois State Fair and hilarity ensues. His genius lies in the fact that he was ahead of his time in the power of observation, all while managing to be incredibly funny in his observations. To top it all off, he manages to do it with intellectual rigor and the verbosity of a well-read academic. Needless to say, I’m currently reading a more recent work and ordered another work as well.    

A writer who was influenced by Wallace and whose work bears mentioning is John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead. Sullivan isn’t as brilliant as Wallace; then again, I’m hard-pressed to find others who match such a description (also interesting to note: Sullivan wrote probably the most notable book review of Wallace’s posthumous work The Pale King). Still, Sullivan is a talented writer, and this is the best work of nonfiction written in last few years. Most of the essays are about popular culture in one way or another. “Michael” is an interesting study in how to write an essay about a pop figure without having to cut through the red tape of scoring an extremely-difficult-to-secure interview. Probably the best essay of the bunch is the opener: “Upon this Rock,” in which Sullivan attends a Christian rock festival. It deals with all the contradictions of the Christian rock music genre (and even brings up Stryper, the Christian heavy metal band from the ‘80s—talk about a potential oxymoron). But Sullivan meets a group of guys whose lives changed when they converted to Christianity, and the whole essay becomes something much greater and I would argue Sullivan handles the material extremely well—he isn’t derisive to these guys because they live for Jesus; their belief makes him have an even greater level of respect.

Finally, I’d like to mention Tiny Beautiful Things by Portland author Cheryl Strayed. While I can’t say with full candor the writing was as impressive as Wallace or Sullivan’s writing, I believe it hit me on a deeper emotional level. In part, that is because it is essentially a series of advice columns, only it turns the advice column on its proverbial head. Sure, there are the classic topics of discussion: familial problems, relationships, sex, etc. But it is Strayed’s replies that make it something different, something fresh. In particular, her general advice that really struck me seemed to be: do things from the heart and not your cluttered head, do things out of love and not selfish wantonness, and show courage in the face of fear. I was impressed with her ability to understand the questions of her readers—no matter how bizarre—and supplied tremendously candid examples—to the point that would make most people uncomfortable—as a way of offering solutions. For instance, Strayed’s mother died when she was in her early 20s. When a reader asks what general advice she would offer to the 20-something Strayed now that she is older and wiser, Strayed offers many things, but with tremendous eloquence, she tells the reader be grateful for every blessing you receive in life because you never know when it will cease to be. Reading that column, like a fair number of other columns in the collection, left me breathless, although in a very different way from Wallace’s work. Wallace is a brilliant mind and a master of writing. Strayed’s skill lies in her understanding of the human psyche. She knows joy, she knows pain, she knows regret, she knows courage, etc. Wallace hit me on an intellectual level; Strayed hit me on an emotional level.

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