As 2013 winds to a close, we thought we'd take one more look back at the year's literary highlights. We asked Printers Row Journal contributors to write about a book they read this year that will linger in their minds well into 2014. Here's what they had to say.
The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe by Vincent Michael (University of Illinois, $60)
"We know too much about surface things, too little about what lies beyond the surface." The source of this quotation? Chicago architect Barry Byrne, a Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice spotlighted in a new biography, "The Architecture of Barry Byrne: Taking the Prairie School to Europe." The book, by Vincent Michael, executive director of the Global Heritage Fund in Palo Alto, Calif., and a faculty member at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, reveals how Byrne carved a path separate from Wright's and sheds light on his interactions with Europe's architectural avant-garde.
Byrne, who died in 1967 at 83, was a devout Catholic who pushed his church in new architectural directions. Above all, as his quotation shows, he believed that function, not fashion, should determine a building's form.
Heroines by Kate Zambreno (Semiotext(e), $17.95)
Former Chicagoan Kate Zambreno's audacious "Heroines" landed late last year, but it stuck with me through all of 2013 and I don't see it going anywhere soon. Furiously researched and fearlessly personal, it is Zambreno's insistent attempt to move the "lost wives" of modernism — Jane Bowles, Vivienne Eliot, Zelda Fitzgerald — out from the shadows cast by their formidable husbands and into the light of their own life stories.
Why, Zambreno demands, as she simultaneously struggles to untangle her own creative frustration, has women's artistic ambition so often been pathologized, marginalized and dismissed as hysteria? Smart and sexy, "Heroines" reads with an almost physical urgency and has indelibly stained my own thinking about creativity and ambition.
— Martha Bayne
Daily Rituals by Mason Currey (Knopf, $24.95)
Ever since I discovered "Daily Rituals," Mason Currey's fascinating compilation of the work patterns, rituals and odd habits of more than 150 famous writers, painters, composers, poets, scientists and choreographers of genius, I've been dining out on these accounts of multiple eccentricities by many of the geniuses of our age.
Did you know that Hemingway awoke to the first light of day and set to work? And that Sylvia Plath raced through the housework so she could begin writing by 9 a.m., but that Alice Munro waited until the kids went to school? And then there are the night owls and the drug fiends, the coffee addicts and the secretive scribblers, a hundred more stories at least of fascinating anecdotal sketches about great artists and their work patterns. Many will just plain amaze you.
— Alan Cheuse
Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater by Michael Sokolove(Riverhead, $27.95)
Michael Sokolove's "Drama High" caught me so off guard toward this end of year. It's a magnificent, personal story about an underdog school in a broken town and the drama program that has sustained the teens and the teachers for many years. The care with which Sokolove reported on this manifold cast touched me deeply. It's a book that feels important on every page.
— Beth Kephart
What Art Is by Arthur C. Danto (Yale, $24)
Arthur C. Danto was perhaps most famous for proclaiming the "end of art"; yet, paradoxically, he was also arguably the most inspired interpreter of the increasingly abstruse art world that emerged during the past half century. In "What Art Is," Danto's freewheeling erudition and knack for unpacking complex subjects is on display. Danto expands upon his long-held obsession with how to present a unifying definition of art in a milieu where such things as "ready-mades" can be wrenched out of the commonplace and placed in the gallery.
Danto responds by making the convincing case that the "artiness of artworks" isn't something visible; it's the conveyance of an idea. "Much of contemporary art is hardly aesthetic at all but it has in its stead the power of meaning and possibility of truth," he concludes. Danto died this year at age 89. His work, however, will undoubtedly continue to provoke and enliven.
— Eric Been
White Girls by Hilton Als (McSweeney's, $24)
My Dirty Dumb Eyes by Lisa Hanawalt (Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95)
As at-capacity as my head feels, there are two books I probably won't shake after 2013 ends: The first is the remarkable collection "White Girls" by Hilton Als, who writes, in one of its many lovely, effortless essays, "This career — it is a handful of dust in the end."
A longtime staffer at The New Yorker, Als could be writing about himself. Or one of the artists and cultural figures he tangles with: Truman Capote, Richard Pryor, Flannery O'Connor, the fashion editor André Leon Talley. But in the context of a work so daring as "White Girls" — a sometimes memoir, sometimes act of fiction, sometimes bit of criticism, sometimes dream journal — the recognition that nothing lasts takes on the feel of a manifesto, a writer giving himself permission to offend, veer off in iconoclastic directions, even deliver a 90-page elegy to a doomed friendship.
It would be almost too easy to compare Als, a black gay man, to the timelessness of another gay black man, James Baldwin. But if that helps you buy this book, so be it.
The other book I read in 2013 that I think about often is Lisa Hanawalt's quietly accomplished collection of illustrations, comics and doodles, "My Dirty Dumb Eyes." Hanawalt, whose work often draws audible WTFs in the pages of The New York Times, Vanity Fair and Glamour, is an ace painter, an eerily adept caricaturist, but most of all, the kind of warm, compassionate absurdist that David Letterman was early in his career.
But then, sprinkled between images of Jeff Goldblum as a dinosaur and a Fashion Week report that is animals wearing hats, is some of the best movie criticism in years: hilarious, illustrated reports from screenings of "War Horse," "Drive" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Watching the latter, Hanawalt notes, "The boss character, Jacobs, just shouted 'I run a BUSINESS, not a petting zoo!' Hey Screenwriter, petting zoos are totally a business."
Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu by Monique Brinson Demery (PublicAffairs, $26.99)
A book that lingered with me in 2013 was "Finding the Dragon Lady: The Mystery of Vietnam's Madame Nhu," by Chicago author Monique Brinson Demery. It's the biography of an audacious, deeply flawed character in war-ravaged Vietnam — a woman whose reign as de facto first lady of South Vietnam was cut short by a U.S.-backed coup. I had never heard of Madame Nhu but soon realized that her story brought the U.S. experience in Vietnam into sharper focus. (Another memorable book I read in 2013 — but published in 2010 — was "The War Lovers" by Evan Thomas, which explained how Teddy Roosevelt and his allies pushed the United States into the Spanish-American War.)
— Mark Jacob
An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-43 by Rick Atkinson (Holt, $18)
I bought Rick Atkinson's "An Army at Dawn" at O'Hare, almost as an afterthought. I had long admired Atkinson's writing in the Washington Post, and his "In the Company of Soldiers" was the best of several books I read tracking the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But 700 pages plus on the 1942-43 Allied campaign in North Africa isn't exactly the sort of light, mindless reading I normally seek out for airplane travel — never mind that it won the Pulitzer Prize for history a decade ago. But winter weather stranded me in Washington D.C., and as my fellow travelers scrambled for alternate connections or hotel rooms, I sat serenely immersed in a book that reminded me just how wonderful history can be when retold by a master. I'm not looking forward to my next travel delay, but I can't wait to crack the next two volumes in Atkinson's Liberation trilogy: "The Day of Battle" (2007) and this year's "The Guns at Last Light."
— Kerry Luft
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward (Bloomsbury, $26)
"Men We Reaped," Jesmyn Ward's poignant memoir about young black men in rural Mississippi, is an artful and clear-eyed meditation on poverty and race, and a vital reminder of the pervasive inequality in America's Deep South.
Ward, a 2011 National Book Award winner, is a secondary character in this critical portrait of her hometown. She deftly chronicles the struggles of five men she grew up with, traces her family's history from slavery to the present, and exposes a system dealing black men a cruel hand in life. Ward's story of these men, and her underlying message about the cyclical nature of poverty, will likely resonate long after the last page has been turned. "Men We Reaped" is a gem — unsentimental, poetic, and told with love.
— Hope Reese
Storm Kings by Lee Sandlin (Patheon, $26.95)
In "Storm Kings," Lee Sandlin's study of America's obsession with tornadoes, nonfiction is as seductive as Latin-American magic realism. The book's chronicle reaches into the YouTube era, but it's an early scene that's indelibly etched in my brain. Sandlin (a Chicagoan) morphs the caricature of kite-flying Ben Franklin into another comic book-worthy image: Indiana Jones-ish adventurer/scholar! Sandlin does a great job contextualizing the key/kite business: 18th Century "electricians" were traveling performers presenting electricity as magic; Franklin was a fan. Super Ben emerges when the Founding Father's studies compel him to ride his horse to the edges of tornadoes for closer observation. After that absurd and cinematic passage, I'll never look at a $100 bill the same again.
— Jake Austen
The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory by Jesse Walker (Harper, $25.99)
At the end of a year when politics and madness sometimes seemed a hair's breadth apart, it's oddly comforting to remember that imagined enemies, conspiracy narratives and other shared delusions have been part of the American scene for as long as there has been one. From 19th century rumors of mass poisonings to 9/11 truthers, America's collective imagination has always made room for devious forces — simultaneously alien and internal — on the move. The evildoers supposedly pulling the strings change with time — Native Americans, rebellious slaves, Communists, Islamists, the CIA — but the allure of the conspiracy is eternal and distinctly American: "We will never stop finding patterns," Walker writes.
— Joshua Benton
You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity, $45)
Peter Sloterdijk's "You Must Change Your Life" will linger with me into 2014 and doubtless into 2015 as well, and not only because I've only begun to scratch its surface. Sloterdijk argues in this anti-"Chicken Soup for the Soul" that the much-touted "return to religion" is in fact a post-secular return to a conception of self-formation through training. Taking in monasticism, the Pauline revolution, the Russian Revolution, Martin Heidegger, Emil Cioran, L. Ron Hubbard, extreme sports, and much, much else, this is a book that demands to be lived with, as Kiefer Sutherland used to say, in real time.
— Michael Robbins
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Knopf, $28.95)
The one book this year that really sticks with me is "Going Clear," Lawrence Wright's book about Scientology. It's utterly convincing (you can tell this book has been vetted by the lawyers until their eyes bulged out of their heads) and deeply frightening. Anyone who thought Scientology was a religion and not a cult should read it. So should Tom Cruise.
— Tom Moran
Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Life and Doctrines by Andrew Radde-Gallwitz (Wipf & Stock, $18)
Basil, a bishop in what is now Turkey, was an important thinker in fourth century Christianity, and, as Andrew Radde-Gallwitz makes clear in "Basil of Caesarea," he was a vibrant writer whose ideas still resonate today. For instance, Radde-Gallwitz notes that Basil was suspicious of hermits: "'If you live entirely on your own,' Basil asks, 'whose feet will you wash?'" Basil won me over with that phrase when I read this book last January — so earthy, so direct, and so deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus. A couple months later, there was a new Pope who, in one of his first acts, washed the feet of prisoners, male and female, Christian and Muslim. Perhaps he's a fan of Basil, too.
— Patrick T. Reardon
The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage with Alzheimer's by Jeanne Murray Walker (Center Street, $22)
I picked up Jeanne Murray Walker's new memoir, "The Geography of Memory," because I have long admired her poetry. Could there be a more complex frame for memoir than a mother's inability to remember her own life and hold together her family? Walker offers a compelling portrait of her Midwestern upbringing and of how she and her sister accompanied their iron-willed mother in her desperate struggle not to "lose her mind." Walker is a pilgrim, as the subtitle suggests, but a slow and bungling one — the only kind possible in such circumstances. And this is the great power of the book: Walker's own confusion and humility are revealed with such honesty and emotional acuity that readers can't help but find their own story in hers.
— Tom Montgomery Fate
In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler (Metropolitan, $25)
By virtue of her audacious creativity, drive, caring and courage — not to mention a survivor's sharp wit — Eve Ensler, of "The Vagina Monologues" fame, lures us into confronting horrific facts about human beings we would prefer to ignore. In this indelible memoir, Ensler revitalizes the mythic trope that conflates the Earth with the female body as she reveals shocking facts about violence perpetuated against women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the long war over minerals used in our electronics, and her own drastic battle with uterine cancer during the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. "Our Bodies, Ourselves," now considered a feminist classic, encouraged women to take charge of their health. Four decades later, Ensler widens the lens: our bodies, our planet.
— Donna Seaman
Winter Journal by Paul Auster (Picador, $15)
Paul Auster's "Winter Journal" was published in mid-2012, but I didn't read it until earlier this year, and I have not stopped thinking about it since. There is something exquisitely moving about the straightforward survey of his existence that Auster offers here, as he moves with a kind of dream logic through his life: his various brushes with mortality, an exhaustive and detailed list of houses and apartments he has inhabited, the idiosyncrasies and indignities of the aging body, his relationships with his parents and with women. Told in the second person — as if it were a letter to some later or earlier version of himself — the journal achieves a gripping intimacy that is not easily forgotten.
— Troy Jollimore
Autobiography by Morrissey (Putnam, $30)
The grand revelation of Morrissey's autobiography is not necessarily the bits and pieces he reveals about his tenure in The Smiths, the British band he fronted in the early 1980s. That period, and the legal battles that follow, actually feel routine. Instead, the great takeaway of this book is the strength of his prose. Close your eyes and put your finger on any passage, and there's no mistaking that voice: a singer whose big hurts and cruel targets have created some of the most memorable songs of the post-punk era.
Unlike many rock memoirs that are either dictated to a ghostwriter or go to great lengths to soften the rough edges, Morrissey presents a first-person, present-tense voice that puts you in the room during the moment of his birth (yes, he goes there) all the way to his ending redemption at a Chicago concert. For a singer whose public figure is so sharply defined, there is great satisfaction in spending pages with him, a testament to what we should expect from great testimonials.
— Mark Guarino
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh (Touchstone, $28)
Most of Allie Brosh's book, "Hyperbole and a Half," is dedicated to briskly told, funny stories about her childhood and her dogs' eccentricities. Brosh adapted the book from her blog, illustrating her stories with crude computer cartoons that depict her as a google-eyed creature with a ponytail like a dorsal fin. The book might feel light if it weren't for chapters in which Brosh details the depression that led her to consider suicide. Brosh is unsparing about her feelings of nothingness as well as the well-meaning, clueless people who tried to persuade her of life's worth. In a culture that encourages people to carry mental illness as a secret burden and prizes self-improvement and redemption, Brosh's bracing honesty is a gift.
— Dan Hinkel
Meaty by Samantha Irby (Curbside Splendor, $15.95)
I read "Meaty" in one sitting, the ending of each story leaving me no choice but to begin the next. Published by Chicago-based Curbside Splendor, the book features the hilariously candid and irreverent writing that made Irby's blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, popular: relationships gone sour, men behaving badly, and poop (the latter an emphasis because Irby has Crohn's disease). But Irby surprised longtime readers (myself included) with perfectly poignant stories of her painful childhood growing up poor in Evanston and her loving yet complicated relationships with her parents. The book's combination of emotional prose and Irby's usual joke-filled, R-rated rantings mirrors her multifaceted life.
Recipe for Joy: A Stepmom's Story of Finding Faith, Following Love, and Feeding a Family by Robin Davis (Loyola, $13.95)
When Robin Davis moved back to Ohio for love and a new family, I moved to San Francisco to take her job as a food writer and restaurant reviewer. So, this book appealed to me right away because I knew the author, former food editor of the Columbus Dispatch, and some of the Bay Area crowd she wrote about. What hooked me in the end, though, was the far more universal story of how she found faith as she forged a life with her new husband, a widower, and his children. It's an honest story of people falling in love, written simply and richly, that warms the heart.
— Bill Daley
On literary fiction
Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt (St. Martin's, $25.99)
Though many of our cultural byways are in their golden ages — dramatic television, for one — Southern fiction is not one of them. Thank goodness, then, for "Lookaway, Lookaway" by Wilton Barnhardt, a funny, humane novel about the well-bred Johnston family of Charlotte, N.C. Barnhardt is acid but forgiving about his region's cathectic Civil War nostalgia and revealing about its political credulity. But above all he is concerned, like novelists everywhere, with what it means to be an adult in our time. In that sense his book is a cousin to "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer; as a reviewer I try to forget most books as quickly as I can, but those two together will stay in my mind, envoys from this time of my life, because they share a rare trait: wisdom.
— Charles Finch
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Riverhead, $27.95)
I read Meg Wolitzer's "The Interestings" over the summer, which seemed appropriate, given the book's setting: a summer arts camp in 1974, where the extremely ordinary Jules Jacobson (who arrived at camp as "Julie") meets five friends she spends the next few decades envying, pitying, dissecting, emulating and, through it all, adoring. Jules and her friends have remained with me well beyond summer, though, as I contemplate the quiet theme woven throughout: Is it better to be solidly, contentedly ordinary or wildly (and possibly miserably) exceptional? "Specialness — everyone wants it," Jules' husband, Dennis, says at one point. I often recognize his frustration — and Jules' genuine ambivalence — when I struggle to find my footing in my own life's endeavors.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood/Putnam, $26.95)
When Rosemary Cooke is 5, her twin sister, Fern, vanishes. The family never recovers. Her father drinks. Her mother disappears into her dark bedroom. Her brother spends ever more hours with friends and, eventually, wanders away.
For all the books I've read about chimpanzees and our evolutionary and genetic relationship to them, none so clearly limns that boundary — and our fraught relationship to it — than this novel by Karen Joy Fowler, the story of a family that adopts an infant chimpanzee. Little did the Cookes realize that they were experimenting not only on Fern, who afterward would never be a fit chimpanzee, but on themselves as well.
— Jenni Laidman
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman (Henry Holt, $25)
In Jane Austen novels, the nicest, smartest women in the room is pretty much a shoo-in for happily ever after. This is not Jane Austen. Since reading debut novelist Adelle Waldman's astute exploration of the ways good people with fine intentions can fall hopelessly out of love, I've repeatedly held my own youthful misadventures up to its harsh light and discovered new layers of delusion and naïveté. This isn't a reassuring book by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one of the most realistic, wrenching and wise depictions of single life I've ever read.
On historical fiction
The Son by Philipp Meyer (Ecco, $27.99)
On the one hand, "The Son," Philipp Meyer's sprawling novel of Texas cattle and land and oil and family, is undeniably something of a soap opera, in the tradition of "Dallas," "Giant" and "Lonesome Dove." On the other hand, it's tougher minded than those works about the costs of taming Texas, and it does propel you from one page to the next. I don't love "The Son" as a literary work. Meyer's three main narrators, different generations of the McCullough family, are not particularly likable in their successes and failures, and their voices could be more distinct from one another.
But the book keeps rattling around in my head for another reason: His descriptions of what it took to settle the frontier — to be raised Comanche, to try to have a conscience in that environment, to win the Texas land battle, and so on — are so vivid and so precise that they've become as close to indelible as anything gets in my brain these days. Shoveling snow the other day, I looked at a footprint and heard Eli McCullough explaining how the shape of a moccasin print and length of its fringe will tell you which Indians you're tracking. An author's research can weigh his book down; in "The Son," it elevates the work from an entertaining historical novel to a memorable one.
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver (Blue Rider, $26.95)
My magical read for 2013 was "Mary Coin." Part historical fiction, part "novel inspired by real life events," part psychological time-travelogue, Marisa Silver's latest is evocative, lyrical, mysterious, compelling. It's the kind of book you rush home to get back to, the kind of book you envy other people for not having read yet. Silver reimagines the lives of photographer Dorothea Lange and her most famous subject, the "Migrant Mother" whose weary visage became an icon of the Great Depression. With a surgeon's skillful hand, Silver uses the momentary overlap in the two women's lives to explore disturbing truths about the fragility and resilience of the human spirit. I think I'll read it again.
— Meredith Maran
S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (Mulholland, $35)
"S.," J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst's celebration of the physical book, sits on my nightstand, where it has for weeks, long after I finished it. I reach for "S." occasionally, just to thumb through it. "S." is a wonder. It could have been a disaster, a gimmick timed for the holidays, cynically cashing in on Abrams' fandom. It's not. Ambitious and earnest, "S." is an all-in piece of art. Serious, "S." is also fun.
In this world of digital-first, "S." is proof that we haven't exhausted the possibilities of old art forms. It's evidence that physical books can feel fresh in ways that cannot be replicated in digital bits. It's a comfort, at least to me, to have books that can age, smell and be touched.
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (Mulholland, $26)
Mystery fans love nothing more than a surprise ending, and that's exactly what we got when the news broke in July that Robert Galbraith's "The Cuckoo's Calling" was actually written by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling. Its twisty-turny investigation into the death of a super model is supremely satisfying, but London private eye Cormoran Strike steals the show. Rowling creates a living, breathing veteran who lost a leg in Afghanistan. Strike, drinking too much, unlucky in love and not properly caring for his aching stump, broke my heart. I've been worrying about him for months. Not real, but realistically drawn, he embodies the heroism of countless PTSD-stricken veterans. If I could text him I'd ask how he's doing. I'd tell him I'm looking forward to tagging along when he works a new case. Book two in the series is coming sometime next year.
— Carol Memmott
Walter Meckling, an aged farmer, is a minor character in Julia Keller's "Bitter River." His son has lost his leg in an explosion, and Walter tells a visitor about bringing a stack of cards from friends at church: "He tore up every last one of them cards and he threw 'em back at me. Them little pieces of paper went everywhere. All over the floor of his room. So I got down on my hands and knees and I picked up all them little pieces of paper." Walter crawling on the floor, picking up the pieces of paper — that gives a sense of Keller's deep sensitivity to the people of her story, a crime novel as good as any by P.D. James or James Lee Burke.
— Patrick T. Reardon
On science fiction
The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing (Vintage, $15)
Doris Lessing, who died in November, was a difficult, even unyielding writer, despite her straightforward prose; the 2007 Nobel Laureate's legacy will unfold slowly as readers connect to individual works in her large and uniquely unsettling oeuvre. "The Golden Notebook" may be Lessing's meatiest meditation on fragmentation of the self in a capitalist, imperialist patriarchy, but her slender, strange 1974 novel, "The Memoirs of a Survivor," explores similar themes with elliptical brevity and offbeat humor.
The narrator weathers a nameless apocalypse inside her flat while caring for a sullen teenage girl and the cat-like dog (or dog-like cat) she calls Hugo. As the world outside deteriorates, so, too, do the boundaries holding the narrator's identity and reality in place; walls dissolve, both literally and figuratively. Lessing called the book a "failed attempt at autobiography," but rereading it amid stories of drone strikes abroad and fights over women's bodies at home, I felt it was at once timeless and prescient — perfect for surreal times.
— Amy Gentry
Bushman Lives! by Daniel Pinkwater (Houghton Mifflin, $16.99)
Rarely has a book caused me to rethink my own neighborhood as delightfully as Daniel Pinkwater's "Bushman Lives," a characteristically unhinged tribute to the Chicago of the early Beat era as seen through the eyes of a geeky teenage artist — who probably resembles the young Pinkwater himself. Pinkwater mythologized Chicago in earlier novels (such as "Lizard Music" and "The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death"), often disguised as Hogboro or Baconburg. But here the Art Institute, Bughouse Square, the Loop and of course the famous gorilla of the title get the full surreal treatment. Anyone who hasn't read Pinkwater because they think he's just for kids doesn't know what he is missing.