Saturday, January 25, 2014
After the first twenty pages of E.L. Doctorow's newest novel Andrew's Brain, the reader is presented with a decision: continue reading, or abandon the novel completely. Technically, this is the same decision every reader faces when they begin a book, especially when the opening pages are less than auspicious; after all, every reader is haunted by their very own troupe of unfinished books, which often appear--at the bedside, on overlooked shelves, in library fees--like Dickensian spirits come to remind us of our unfulfilled selves. No one enjoys leaving a book unfinished, regardless of how unfailingly dull or offensive its first moments might be, because every book is a promise in its own way...and by setting it aside permanently, we are seeing a promise go unfulfilled, a path go untrod.
However, Andrew's Brain is another matter. The first half of Doctorow's novel is, for lack of a better term, insufferable. The greatest cause of this problem--in fact, the only cause--is the narrator, whose entire story is delivered via dialogue with a nameless psychiatrist. Sometimes he shifts into third-person, telling his psychiatrist what "Andrew" did recently, as though he were Doctorow himself outlining the novel to an editor, and all lines between book and real life were blurred; the prose is frequently interrupted by [thinking], which feels like the fossil evidence of a dramatic script that once existed before Doctorow razed the entire thing and began again; and the entire conversation--all 200 pages of it--is rendered without quotation marks or indicators of any kind, no "Andrew said" or "the doctor replied," making it less of a verbal back-and-forth and more of a confusing puzzle.
All of which leads us to the decision: continue or stop. At this point in the book, the impulse to abandon Andrew's Brain will be tempting, and rightly so: in addition to the aggravating stylistic and narrative choices, the plot is little more than the story of a professor who falls in love with a cheerleader--one of his undergraduate students--while she continues to date her quarterback boyfriend--also one of his undergraduate students--and holds casual conversations with his ex-wife and her new husband that are so philosophical and jargon-laden that they exist deep in the jungles of Farce. But this is where that impulse to flee from Doctorow's book becomes complicated. Were this the first novel of a heretofore unpublished writer, the decision would be easy: we would stick up our noses, highlight its flaws to ourselves, and dismiss the entire thing as the ramblings of a workshop spawn. However, this is E.L. Doctorow, not just one of America's most respected living writers, but one of the few American authors--living or dead--who can lay claim to having written a Great American Novel, Ragtime.* He knows how novels are written, understands how to develop nuance and meaning, and keeps everything in balance from beginning to end; he is not the sort to spin cliched dribble without a reason, and it's that elusive reason--the idea that it has to be somewhere--that gives us pause before setting the book aside for good.
Which, as it turns out, is the reality of the situation. As the first hundred pages give way to the second, the truth about Andrew becomes clear, and those strange, rambling, insufferable opening passages begin to make much more sense in the grand scheme of the novel...which presents yet another series of problems for Doctorow, only these aren't as easy to overcome. If, after the first 20 pages, you decide to continue reading, your mind will still need to justify the continued agony to itself; after all, it will be another 80 pages before the underpinnings of Andrew's life begin to become less abstract, which is a long road to walk. And so your mind begins to generate ideas, one after the other, and when you compare the interpretations with what we hold in our hands, our mind quickly comes to a conclusion: Andrew is insane. It's the only plausible reason that someone with Doctorow's skills would write something so hackneyed, so unrealistic, so burdened by haughty adjectives and self-righteous monologues. It reads like the work of a 17 year-old, his dog-eared thesaurus and a stack of New Yorker magazines at his side...even though the narrator himself is middle-aged and a professor of cognitive science.
There is another novel that comes to mind as this realization takes shape, this one also concerned with an unreliable narrators who might be crazy: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire. I say "might be" in reference to Pale Fire, not to draw parallels between Nabokov and Doctorow's books, but because the mental status of Nabokov's narrator remains uncertain well after the novel's close, whereas there is little question about Andrew. (In fact, as the volumes of critical attention paid to Pale Fire attest, there is very little agreement as to whether Nabokov's character, Charles Kinbote, even exists at all.**) What does differentiate Nabokov's classic with Doctorow's novel is subtlety: the former's novel is so complex and measured, even as Kinbote inadvertently reveals his delusional mental state, that questions persist, while the latter's is so straightforward that questions become irrelevant. Readers and critics alike return to Pale Fire because it's both a great work of literature and a great mystery, a novel that allows you to swim in its depths without ever seeing the shore. Andrew's Brain, on the other hand, is neither a great work nor an interesting mystery, and to swim in its waters is to understand why a puddle will never compare to the ocean.
*As a sidenote, I should add that the whole idea of The Great American Novel--a singular work of literature that encompasses every fantastic and paradoxical element of American life, people, and history--is preposterous. However, should we ever need to nominate a book that best fits the complex nature of our country, Ragtime would be a commendable, if not entirely final, choice.
**Doctorow's ironic little ploy of making his unreliable and insane narrator a professor in cognitive science would be interesting if it weren't laughably sophomoric, almost like writing a novel about a proctologist who gets hemorrhoids. I'd be willing to concede that, just maybe, Andrew isn't a professor at all...but Doctorow doesn't even write his novel in a way that would allow this possibility.
Tuesday, January 14, 2014
The only fashion book I own--and the only one I will probably ever own--is Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, which was published--fittingly enough--by the Metropolitan Museum of Art after the designer's 2010 suicide. I knew very little about McQueen outside of what had been repurposed for his obituaries, and internet photos did his work little justice, so the hefty tome seemed like a justifiable purchase. Needless to say, it sits with a place of honor on my shelves, though because of its size it must sit awkwardly, edging out other books while demanding to be noticed--a perfect metaphor for the fashion of McQueen himself. What makes McQueen's pieces so worthy of publication is that, besides being works of fashion, they are also works of art in that they could easily--and sometimes only--sit in the wings of a museum among paintings and sculptures, rather than from the shoulders of a model or client, and still have the same effect on passers-by. Where one of McQueen's pieces--the gazelle-antler jacket or the crucifixion-print shirt, for example--may be stunning on a catwalk, it would be just as equally impressive put on display, where the emotional appeal and symbolic undertones could be appreciated as though it were an O'Keefe or Picasso, ripe for understanding...though perhaps unwilling or unready to be understood.
Appropriately enough, it is McQueen himself who, through his own words, answers a question at the very heart of A Queer History of Fashion, a collection of essays and photographs from Yale University Press. Valerie Steele, opening her eponymous contribution with a series of questions, asks in essence why an institution so universally recognized--fairly or unfaily--as a bastion of LGBTQ creativity never been examined as such in an academic setting. She asks this, not just as a defense of the exhibition on which this book is based, but because she's genuinely curious and, as it happens, not entirely incorrect. So ingrained are the queer-fasion stereotypes--again, whether they're fair or not--in fashion culture, not to mention basic world culture, that we either accept them without question or find ourselves too afraid to delve further...for fear of stoking homophobia, promoting stereotypes, or focusing on the sexual orientation of designers rather than the quality of their work, whatever the reason may be.
And in asking this question--what drives these perceptions of fashion designers, and why do we not study it more?--Steele offers us answers from a variety of important figures past and present, including McQueen himself, who once said, "My collections have always been autobiographical, a lot to do with my own sexuality and coming to terms with the person I am--it was exorcising my ghosts in the collections." A few pages later, another designer, Karlo Steel, is quoted as saying, "When you're growing up and you realize that you are different from everyone else, that feeling of being different can often be alienating. At a very young age, queer people tend to create their own reality as a place of refuge. Often it's a place of beauty." Taken together, these two ideas--fashion as exorcism, fashion as refuge--seem to be almost contradictory, with McQueen expressing a belief in fashion's ability to bring things out--a physical, external release--while Steel believes in the safety of fashion, an internal soothing. However, taken in context with both designers' sexualities, they are one in the same idea, as both underscore a reckoning with self.
Even today, most LGBTQ kids grow up in environments that are not conducive to acceptance and belonging: if their parents and family accept them, their classmates may not; if they grow up in bastions of liberal politics and equality, they can easily turn on the television or find online platforms for those who believe in the "other-ness" of queer people and find themselves demonized from a distance. The progress of the last 40 years--or the last 10, or the last 5, or the next 5--does not erase the deep inequalities that still exist in our society and culture where gay and trangender rights are concerned, and at an age when identity is already a complicated personal issue, adding sexuality to the mix can only cause further turmoil. It is here that fashion plays a role in the formative years of LGBTQ boys and girls alike, as it gives them an outlet they would otherwise not have--a way in which they can express and understand themselves slowly, without the pressure of being "out" before they're ready. Fashion serves as both a safe place and the force disassembling that very same fortress brick by brick--refuge and exorcist simultaneously.*
Which offers us perhaps the only honest answer to Steele's question as to why a book such as this has never before been written: its existence speaks to an unnerving truth about our world. If we take McQueen and Karlo Steel's words to heart, it means that much of the beautiful fashion we have today is the result of young men and women reacting to the hatred, confusion, homophobia, and even self-loathing in their own lives. Yes, they produced stunning, personal works as a result, but is the end result worth enduring its cause? Many artists throughout history have been haunted by demons, and it's difficult to say how much of their work was inspired--if that is the word--by internal struggles rather than external stimuli.
We can never know what would've happened to Alexander McQueen or Christian Dior or Yves Saint Laurent had they grown up in a world in which their sexuality was as important as, say, the color of their eyes or the length of their hair--that is to say, not important at all--if they still would've become fashion designers, and if their work would've had the same effect, without the same haunting past...no demons to exorcise, no refuge to break down.** Books such as this do not exist in great numbers because understanding the history of queer fashion requires us to understand the history of inequality and suffering, and attempting to reconcile that with the beauty we see is a paradox without an answer.
*The essay that follows Steele's--an examination of 18th century fashion, written by Peter McNeil--provides an interesting contrast in that much of the "queer" fashion of past centuries was mostly worn by LGBTQ people rather than made by them. This shift is yet another condemnation of the change in our culture over the last few decades, as those who lived in the 18th century were less constrained by gender roles and sexual repression, though problems of prejudice and violence still existed.
**As Christopher Breward writers in his essay on courterier autobiographies, "On the actual sexual preferences of [courteriers like Dior] I remain uninformed and respectfully silent--maybe they have no bearing at all on the powerful legacy left by their extraordinary work. But in some sense the delicate question of queerness in couture and its material manifestations requires no answer."
Sunday, January 12, 2014
As someone who is predisposed to hating hair as the focus of any scholarship, simply because I myself am genetically predisposed to having very little of it within the next few years, reading a book not only about hair but the most famous dresser of hair in history seemed like an interesting challenge. After all, Will Bashor has written 250 pages almost entirely about the relationship between Marie Antoinette and her hairdresser, a long-forgotten Frenchman by the name of Leonard Autie; the next challenge--the obvious challenge--would be to see how long a reader not especially interested in hair or its history would be willing to go before giving up.
Thankfully--surprisingly--Bashor's book reads less like archaic history and more like a Harlequin romance novel with academic citations. The historical figures featured in its pages are brash, haughty, vicious, pitiful, jealous, and sexually unquenchable. The circle of attendants who looked after Marie Antoinette was populated by what we'd today refer to as drama queens, ass-kissers, and backstabbers; more often than not, they saw their position in the palace in terms of their own futures, and any outsiders were a threat to their standing in the realm of wealth and power. Marie Antoinette herself is presented as a impulsive teenage girl who spurns queenly etiquette in favor of romping with young children, riding horses, and seducing her attractive and similarly-aged brother-in-law. (Though Bashor goes to great lengths to present this information only as it was recorded--that is, with great vagueness and couchings--the suggestions are clear.)
When we think of centuries-old France, especially the years leading up to its revolution--the years depicted herein--we like to think cinematically: powdered hair and faces, dainty movements, overblown fashions and lush architecture, and social customs so rigid that any lascivious behavior would seem almost impossible. (After all, conducting an affair of any kind would require quite a bit of clever manuevering, with bodies wrapped as they were in ridiculous layers of clothing.) As Bashor enjoys disproving, often through the pages of Autie's own journal, pre-revolution France--at least for those lucky enough to be upper-class--was a realm of wealth and debauchery more befitting Caligula-era Rome or 1970s New York City than the Paris of artistic fantasy and literary illusion. Had there been television in the 18th century, there certainly would've been cameras at Versailles, and the ensuing show would've been a resounding and entertaining success.
What gives Bashor's book its edge is how utterly unbelievable Autie's life seems, and the fact that such an unimpressive man holding such an unimpressive position--hairdresser to the queen--could scale to such heights, earning enough money and trust to build his own massive theatre and becoming recognized throughout France's upper class as a sort of social mark, speaks to just how illogical and other-worldly pre-revolution France actually was. We like to think of that era in terms of Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake" quote--a fallacious offhand comment that speaks to the royals' detachment from their starving, impoverished population--and Bashor's book proves their detachment was no historical distortion. But it also supports the cliche about never forgetting history lest we be doomed to repeat it. Autie survives the revolution--though Bashor is forced to reconcile with some accounts that say otherwise--but his attachment to the crown ruins him in France, and he never regains the status or wealth he possessed before the revolution, dying virtually anonymous and having spent the last few years of his life in an unnecessary government post...an eyewitness to one of history's most important events, dead and all but forgotten.
We live in an era much like the one depicted in Bashor's book, not so much for ridiculous fashion and hair, but for the gulf that is widening between the Marie Antoinettes and her hungry citizens. What Autie's skills represented all those years ago--status, wealth, prestige, connections--remains to this day, transformed over the centuries into material items that announce our class with much more permanence than a hairstyle: expensive foreign cars, McMansions, million-dollar works of art, lavish parties, expensive--even illegal--foods, boats, planes, political influence, wide tracts of land, and so on. It's the same sort of social preening and wasteful materialism that dominated the American landscape one hundred years ago, before the likes of Teddy Roosevelt and the Muckrakers were forced to reign in the ever-powerful industrialists, just as it did in 18th-century France.
These moments in history--not just American history, but world history--appear like the tide, covering the same ground as the last wave before receding back into the wide waters. And if we're not careful, if we let these waves reach too far into shore, we'll face a wave like the one that eventually brought France to revolution. Because once the gulf begins to widen between rich and poor--the haves and have-nots, the Marie Antoinettes and their citizens--it doesn't close back up on its own accord, only when outside influences step in. Usually those influences are public figures with enough clout and power to get legislation moved; sometimes, though, the responsibility for reversing the seemingly irreversible falls on the shoulders of the people themselves, whether or not they're unwilling. In those situations, the only unknown is what will serve as the catalyst for change. We'd like to think it's an outrageous overstepping of boundaries, an incredible violation of the law, a callousness that threatens thousands. However, it could just as well be the hair of a young and foolish girl.
Monday, January 6, 2014
Near the end of Mary Oliver's most recent collection of poetry is a short essay in which she has a revelation about the titular animal, one that deserves to be reprinted in full:
But I want to extol not the sweetness nor the placidity of the dog, but the wilderness out of which he cannot step entirely, and from which we benefit. For wilderness is our first home too, and in our wild ride into modernity with all its concerns and problems we need also the good attachments of that origin that we keep or restore. Dog is one of the messengers of that rich and still magical first world. The dog would remind us of the pleasures of the body with its graceful physicality, and the acuity and rapture of the senses, and the beauty of the forest and ocean and rain and our own breath. There is not a dog that romps and runs but we learn from him.Suddenly, after over 100 pages of short verse, Oliver explains the true significance of dogs in the lives of human beings--they are a connection to our long-ago days of wildness and freedom, they are an appreciation of what a physical body can do, they exist beyond themselves--and in doing so demonstrates an understanding of her subject that is, sad to say, entirely missing from the three dozen poems that come before, in which Oliver gives herself over to blatant sentimentality and literary simplicity. There are good ideas here, all of them based on Oliver's lifetime of ownership--one dog who cannot stop breaking the ropes that bind it, another that is buried in the wilderness from which its forebearers came, a third that is "a hedonist" in its eating--but they are rendered empty by her inability to separate her own emotional attachments to each dog from the lines she writes about them. Reading her book is almost like--and excuse me for the crassness of this analogy--a lonely pet-owner reduced to boring her friends with silly stories because she has so little else to talk about.
The other dog--the one that all its life walks leashed and obedient down the sidewalk--is what a chair is to a tree. It is a possession only, the ornament of a human life. Such dogs can remind us of nothing large or noble or mysterious or lost. They cannot make us sweeter or more kind.
Only unleashed dogs can do that. They are a kind of poetry themselves when they are devoted not only to us but to the wet night, to the moon and the rabbit-smell in the grass and their own bodies leaping forward. (117-118)
Which is not the way it should be, and it's not the way it has to be. Oliver is a gifted writer who understands how to balance all the ingredients of poetry--emotion, personal significance, meaning, style, form--so they become a cohesive work of art. She's been doing it for decades, and about aspects of her own life--her sexuality, faith, death--that would cause other, less-skilled poets to crumble.* And yet with Dog Songs, she seems to have lost--or thrown aside--the scales that have kept her poetry in measured equilibrium for so long. For example, take "Percy Wakes Me," a poem in which Oliver literally describes being woken up by her dog, she ends her account of the morning--Percy under the covers, Percy on the kitchen counter, Percy being doted upon with delight before breakfast--by writing, "This is a poem about Percy. / This is a poem about more than Percy. / Think about it." This simple, three-line stanza violates the very foundations on which poetry is based, namely that any sort of underlying meaning does not need to be highlighted: you must trust the reader to see your meaning, as well as whatever meaning they themselves bring to the poem, and if they cannot or will not, then at least leave them with a decent poem in which they can escape for a minute or two. By concluding "Percy Wakes Me" with a winking imploration to her readers, almost like we ourselves were being trained to do some little trick for the amusement of our owner, Oliver is betraying a mistrust in her readers...a belief that, without prodding us, we won't know to look further and figure something out.
Which is not the only time Oliver does this in her collection. At the end of "Benjamin, Who Came From Who Knows Where," Oliver caps a study of the titular dog--a hound who is scared of brooms and kindling--by writing, "Benny, I say / don't worry. I also know the way / the old life haunts the new." A meaningful closing thought, to be sure, but one that not only summarizes the lines that have come before it--again, showing a complete mistrust in the abilities of her readers--but could easily be substituted with the author's own ruminations on what it's like to be haunted, thereby adding depth to her poetry and drawing connections between two differing species in a way that would add an extra level of humanity to their relationship without it being so blatant. At the end of "Bad Day," in which a dog named Ricky rips up Oliver's couch after she ignores him for most of the day, Oliver allows Ricky to speak: "Honestly, what do you expect? Like / you I'm not perfect, I'm only human." And at the end of "How A Lot of Us Become Friends," in which Oliver's Ricky meets another dog--Lucy, owned by a woman named Theresa--in the park and become friendly with each other almost immediately, Oliver comments, "So how could Theresa and I not start / on that day to become friends?"
That's not to say Oliver can't write whatever poetry she wants to; the entire point of art, after all, is to create something personal, regardless of any meaning it may or may not have to others. Art is emotional, expressive, and revealing in its own right, and we be a different person at the end of an artistic adventure, have a new understanding of ourselves or our craft...otherwise, the entire practice is pointless. It's clear from Oliver's poetry that she believes in this fully--the ability of poetry to represent our own world and experiences in new ways--and again, that's a good thing. Where Oliver runs into problems is that she has collected and published those poems without tempering her own emotional investments: they are so prevalent, so heavy, that anyone hoping to access those same emotions cannot, as Oliver's claims over them are almost impenetrable. Sure, there are places in which dog-owners and dog-lovers can see similarities to their own experiences--a lonely puppy being chosen from a basket, an attention-starved mutt ripping at furniture, an old dog falling asleep in the nooks of your arms--but the parallels to our own lives, not to mention the importance of dogs in understanding ourselves, which Oliver herself advocates, are rendered almost untouchable.
The greatest irony in Oliver's poetry is that, when taken with the revelations in her closing essay, she seems to fight back against her very own observations on what we should learn from dogs: she is keeping her poetry focused almost solely on herself, her feelings, and her experiences rather than what they teach us about ourselves. (And when she does unleash her ideas, as she does in "Percy Wakes Me" and "Benjamin, Who Came From Who Knows Where," she cannot help but tell us just what she wants us to see, learn, and understand. In a sense, she cannot let us off the leash long enough to explore on our own before the rope is back around our necks and she is leading us away from the rich, unexplored wilderness and toward the lawn she herself has manicured into soft perfection. Sure, it's a lawn--it looks and feels and smells of nature--but it's no substitute.) Oliver says that dogs are a poetry unto themselves who are devoted "not only to us" but to the great openness life, and yet she has collected a few dozen poems that do not take after the very subjects they praise.
*To see an example of Oliver's skill at balancing her poetry, see her poem "Wild Geese."
Dogs: A Poem
A dog should be wild, unkempt,
It hair slick with the dirt and dandruff
Of life among the trees;
Pick out the burrs and needles by the fire,
The mud caked in balls like
A universe of worlds along his spine,
And toss aside those manufactured toys--
A dog plays with wood and earth only,
His teeth worn down by branches that have been
Shed by trees older than you and him,
Older than the blood that runs like rivers
Through both of your tired bodies;
A dog works with paws rough with the calluses
Of his ancestors, as though he were made
To dig trenches in which he will prepare for war:
Against the creatures he does not know,
The sounds he doesn't like to hear, the loneliness
In which you will eventually leave him.
A dog works with his eyes--bright ghostly novas
Rendered as marbles in a darkness
That your own eyes will never understand;
He understands that night is what he visits
Upon the animals of the forest, and that soon
This darkness will turn its allegiances.
Let this tired warrior curl up beside you,
And let the fire of his heart compete against
The fire of your hearth, burning your skin
Like a tattoo one thousand years in the making--
A carving on a cave wall, initials in the bark of a tree,
A fortress of rock that is scarred by rain.
Tomorrow you and he will rest,
Eyes unable to see the shadows around you,
Of man and beast traipsing in from the past,
Stopping only to wipe their feet on the rug
While the man, his eyes adjusting, slides a hand
Down behind two tired ears, and scratches.
Wednesday, January 1, 2014
A few years ago, I began keeping track of all the books I read, not because I'm someone who feels that everything I do is worth recording and publicizing--it's not, on both accounts--but because I'm simultaneously obsessed with lists and completely distrustful of my own memory. And, not surprisingly, in compiling every book I read in 2013 into the list that follows, I discovered that quite a few of them were so insignificant that they'd already been flushed from my memory. (In the interest of being diplomatic, these specific titles shall remain unspoken.)
However, I was also given the chance to relive books that gave me joy, opened my eyes to new experiences, and angered me by detailing what was and no longer is. According to this list, I read 126 books in 2013, a number that is both impressive and sad--an indication that I have no life whatsoever outside of books, though that's far from a terrible place to be. (And in my defense, this was also the year I cut back my television-viewing habits to the barest of bare minimums, which left quite a lot of wonderful time to fill. Volume-wise, I don't expect a year like this to happen again in quite some time.)
Below is a list of books read in 2013--old, new, and repeats (*)--in as close to chronological order as I could get them, followed by a short list of the ones I especially (and subjectively) liked, in some particular order.
- The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien)
- Call of the Wild (Jack London)
- A Tale of Sand (Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl; illustrated by Ramon K. Perez)
- Wolf Story (William McCleery; illustrated by Warren Chappell)
- Solitary: Escape from Furnace 2 (Alexander Gordon Smith)
- Rabbit Hole (David Lindsay-Abaire)
- Death Sentence: Escape from Furnace 3 (Alexander Gordon Smith)
- The End of Your Life Book Club (Will Schwalbe)
- Seed (Ahnia Ahlborn)
- *Moby Dick: The Graphic Novel (Herman Melville; adapted by Lance Stahlberg; illustrated by Lalit Kumar)
- *Animal Farm (George Orwell)
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
- The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald; illustrated by Nicki Greenberg)
- My Brother's Book (Maurice Sendak)
- Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (James Lasdun)
- So Long, See You Tomorrow (William Maxwell)
- My Friend Dahmer (Derf Backderf)
- Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage (Jeffrey Frank)
- Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
- Batman, Volume 1: Court of Owls (Scott Snyder; illustrated by Greg Kapullo)
- The Dinner (Herman Koch)
- *Anthem (Ayn Rand)
- The Radioactive Boy Scout: The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor (Ken Silverstein)
- City of Truth (James Morrow)
- The Boy With the Cuckoo-Clock Heart (Mathias Malzieu)
- Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone (Stefan Kiesbye)
- The Burn Journals (Brent Runyon)
- Let the People In: The Life and Times of Ann Richards (Jan Reid)
- Flying Leap: Stories (Judy Budnitz)
- Wave (Sonali Deraniyagala)
- Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindberg, and America's Fight Over WWII, 1939-1941 (Lynne Olson)
- Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West (Dan Schultz)
- The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
- Iron West (Doug TenNapel)
- What's Wrong With Homosexuality (John Corvino)
- Fugitives: Escape from Furnace 4 (Alexander Gordon Smith)
- Wonderstruck (Brian Selznick)
- A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Josh Neufeld)
- Execution: Escape from Furnace 5 (Alexander Gordon Smith)
- Ten (Gretchen McNeil)
- *The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
- Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon (Steven Sheinkin)
- The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates (Wes Moore; eBook)
- Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President (Candice Millard; eBook)
- The Silence of Our Friends (Mark Long and Jim Demonakos; illustrated by Nate Powell)
- The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows (Brian Castner)
- *Big Fish (Daniel Wallace)
- The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011 (edited by Dave Eggers; eBook)
- In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (Erik Larson; eBook)
- Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls (David Sedaris)
- The Murder Room: The Heirs of Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases (Michael Capuzzo)
- Batman, Volume 2: The City of Owls (Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo; illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque)
- American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (Dan Savage)
- The Origin of Feces: What Excrement Tells Us About Evolution, Ecology, and a Sustainable Society (David Waltner-Toews)
- The Miracle of Father Kapaun: Priest, Soldier, and Korean War Hero (Roy Wenzl and Travis Heying)
- Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? (Edward Albee)
- Wise Blood (Flannery O'Connor)
- Million Dollar Baby: Stories (F.X. Toole)
- The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin)
- The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon; translated by Lucia Graves)
- Octopussy/The Living Daylights (Ian Fleming)
- When You Are Engulfed in Flames (David Sedaris; eBook)
- Time's Arrow (Martin Amis)
- The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History(Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter; eBook)
- The Kings and Queens of Roam (Daniel Wallace)
- City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago (Gary Krist; eBook)
- The Ramayana (translated by R.K. Narayan)
- Fences (August Wilson)
- The Heart of a Dog (Mikhail Bulgakov; translated by Mirra Ginsburg)
- The Humans (Matt Haig)
- The Age of Miracles (Karen Thompson Walker; eBook)
- An Abundance of Katherines (John Green)
- *I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down: Stories (William Gay)
- *Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)
- The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror, and Empire at the Dawn of the American Century (Scott Miller; eBook)
- The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge (David McCullough)
- Real Talk for Real Teachers: Advice for Teachers from Rookies: "No Retreat, No Surrender!" (Raef Esquith)
- Wintergirls (Laurie Halse Anderson)
- The Epic of Gilgamesh: An English Version with an Introduction (Anonymous; translated by N.K. Sandars)
- Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America (Dan Balz)
- Snow Hunters (Paul Yoon)
- Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West (Cormac McCarthy)
- Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Reza Aslan)
- The Color Master: Stories (Aimee Bender)
- Pink Sari Revolution: A Tale of Women and Power in India (Amana Fontanella-Khan)
- Harris and Me (Gary Paulsen)
- The Car (Gary Paulsen)
- The Trap (John Smelcer)
- Love in the Time of Global Warming (Francesca Lia Block)
- Saturday Night Dirty (Will Weaver)
- 13 Reasons Why (Jay Asher)
- Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune (Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.)
- I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains Real and Imagined (Chuck Klosterman)
- *Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson)
- *Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck)
- The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)
- The Shining (Stephen King; eBook)
- One Summer: America 1927 (Bill Bryson)
- Last of the Blue and Gray: Old Men, Stolen Glory, and the Mystery That Outlived the Civil War (Richard A. Serrano)
- Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars (Lee Billings)
- Eleanor and Park (Rainbow Rowell)
- The Inheritor's Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science (Sandra Hempel)
- Unwind (Neal Shusterman)
- Chasing Lincoln's Killer (James L. Swanson)
- The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution (Henry Gee)
- Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air (Richard Holmes)
- Cinder (Marissa Meyer)
- The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a 13 Year-Old Boy With Autism (Naoki Higashida; David Mitchell and K.A. Yoshida, trans.)
- This Land That I Love: Irving Berlin, Woody Guthrie, and the Story of Two American Anthems (John Shaw)
- Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems (Billy Collins)
- Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (Allie Brosh)
- Confessions of a Bad Teacher: The Shocking Truth from the Front Lines of American Public Education (John Owens)
- The De-Textbook: The Stuff You Didn't Know About the Stuff You Thought You Knew (Cracked.com Editors)
- A Prayer Journal (Flannery O'Connor)
- Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture (Dana Goodyear)
- The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible (Simon Winchester)
- Roosevelt's Second Act: The Election of 1940 and the Politics of War (Richard Moe; eBook)
- In the After (Demitria Lunetta; eBook)
- The Aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, Charles Lindbergh, and the Epic Age of Flight (Winston Groom)
- Divergent (Veronica Roth)
- Humans of New York (Brandon Stanton)
- *A Christmas Carol (Charles Dickens)
- The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
- Someone Could Get Hurt: A Memoir of Twenty-First Century Parenthood (Drew Magary)
- God Got a Dog (Cynthia Rylant; illustrations by Marla Frazee)
- Marie Antoinette's Head: The Royal Hairdresser, The Queen, and the Revolution (Will Bashor)
The (subjectively) best books I read this year, in some particular order, and not limited just to new releases, but excluding the repeats. In a sense, these are my Top 13 From '13:
- My Brother's Book by Maurice Sendak
- The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin
- Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton
- Divergent by Veronica Roth
- The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore
- The Long Walk by Brian Castner
- One Summer: America 1927 by Bill Bryson
- Million Dollar Baby: Stories by F.X. Toole
- Flying Leap: Stories by Judy Budnitz
- Hyperbole & A Half by Allie Brosh
- I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck Klosterman
- The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo
- Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson