Top Ten Books of 2013: Ashley Bethard
Our series of Top Ten lists concludes with Ashley Bethard, a writer, editor and digital geek whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, PANK and Hobart, among others. She splits her time between Dayton, Ohio and a 65-acre farm in northern Ohio. Find her here: ashleybethard.com and on Twitter @AshleyBethard.
I hate listicles, but I like Mensah and books, so I agreed to write this. My disdain for the year-end tradition of list-making is trumped by my belief that sharing books we love and our reading practices are incredibly important for human beings. Some books that have made the biggest imprints on my life were not ones I would have voluntarily chosen, they were recommended by others. The choices in my list are completely subjective, as most listicles tend to be, and aren’t listed in any particular order.
I had a valuable moment of self-discovery in writing this: my reading choices are rather indicative of where I am and where I’m pushing myself to, mentally. It’s important to understand outside views of America. It’s important to know how others stumbled through the mess of art-making as a woman in a world dominated by men. It’s important to give voice to and to be lifted by those labeled “subversive,” “problematic,” “different” and “difficult.” With that, cheers to all our good reads of 2013.
Revolutionaries, romance, art, sex, politics. This novel layers it all in a bildungsroman of a nameless young woman called Reno, who’s learning that love and the world outside her are often at odds with one another. The risk becomes abundantly clear: your choices become ways you can lose or learn yourself, often one or the other. Kushner’s protagonist is an intelligent, curious artist navigating the male-dominated worlds of art, politics and motorcycle racing (yes), learning the many ways the body becomes a battlefield. Who am I? What am I for? These are questions Reno struggles with, and you’ll find yourself struggling alongside her, rooting for her all the while.
2.) “No One,” by Gwenaelle Aubry
Much has been written of mental illness and its many calibrations: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizo-affective disorder, the list goes on. But this outsider account of a daughter whose father wavers in and out on the tides of his illness spotlights an often-overlooked yet equally important experience: that of a “normal” person whose loved one suffers with sickness. Told in alphabetic chronology (each chapter is a letter with a word), the form is effective, surprising and fresh. The result is a patchwork of vignettes revealing the life and character of the author’s mostly-unknown father, but more poignantly her struggle to understand him and relate to him, and how their relationship has often shaded or changed her own life.
3.) “The Day Walt Disney Died,” by Sean H. Doyle
“Doing drugs in the desert” may be a good enough hook to drag in plenty of readers, but it’s Doyle’s razor-sharp writing, punch-in-the-gut sentences and understated humor that make this one particular trip transcendent. The narrator and his friend Buddy are hanging out, looking forward to enjoying some weed – except, OOPS! It ends up being laced. With PCP. What follows is a mini-romp through drug culture, and the tale of a kid who’s just trying to figure it all out. There are plenty of gorgeous and horrifying moments in this chapbook that will make you hold your breath – only to let it out in bouts of hysterical laughter and relief seconds later.
4.) “Dora: A Headcase,” by Lidia Yuknavitch
Dora kicks all other protaganists’ asses by miles. Acerbic, witty, angry, and compassionate, the complicated Dora views each appointment with her shrink as a crucial battle in an epic war. She and her band of misfits are pros at making mischief, but their hearts are in the right place, and I found myself rooting for Dora no matter how crazy the plan or how high the stakes. Beyond the stellar, pitch-perfect voice, Yuknavitch does a great job conveying that Dora does, in fact, have a lot to be angry about. Political and feminist undercurrents provide context to Dora’s argument, making the book highly entertaining, well-written AND socially conscious.
5.) “I Love Dick,” by Chris Kraus
My favorite books are the ones that contain so much great stuff they make me feel stupid, like Kraus’ letter-memoir-cum-case study. Packed with art, politics, sex, letter-writing and self-psychology, it’s an incredible look at the narrator’s very rich interior life – and what happens when you decide to make the interior public. For those unfamiliar, Chris (the narrator) and her husband Sylvere have an acquaintance named Dick. Chris falls in lust and begins an academic conversation with her husband about the impending affair. While that précis may sell it as bourgeois, and while parts of it may very well be, it remains an excellent look at a woman making art – and how love and sex interfere, threaten and enrich both process and product.
6.) “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh,” by Michael Chabon
This incredibly tender story about a young man navigating life, love and family ties post-college is one that sticks. Quirky characters with depth populate its pages, making for plenty of interesting conflicts. Elements of noir and crime sit alongside traditional themes of literary fiction, making what could arguably be a top American novel an exciting page-turner. It’s a story you’ll find yourself totally immersed in.
7.) “Tampa,” by Alissa Nutting
Hilarious, unrepentant satire lightens the load of an otherwise-awful sex predator of a teacher, whose penchant for push-up bras and tight clothes serves to seduce her young male students. Another catch? It’s narrated from the teacher’s point of view. It’s absurd comedy until it suddenly isn’t, taking a deep plunge into noir territory. Disturbing and funny, you’ll probably never root for the protagonist – but you’ll still have a hard time putting the book down.
8.) “Heroines,” by Kate Zambreno
Equal parts memoir, history and literary criticism, “Heroines” was another book that I adored (and that made me feel stupid). Zambreno traces the histories of many “forgotten women” of literature, the female artists overshadowed by their god-like husbands. Modernist wives like Zelda Fitzgerald and Vivienne Eliot, artists in their own rights, were often relegated to the sidelines of creation and art-making, their histories written and re-written by the men in their lives. As the narrator digs into the lives of these women, she calls forth her own in a parallel structure, working to answer questions of what it means to be a female artist.
9.) “Stone Arabia,” by Dana Spiotta
A dazzling literary collage is the best way to characterize this book, which tells the story of a pair of aging siblings through scrapbooks, faux-articles, music and more. The sibling relationship and its many complications are explored here as both brother and sister come to their own terms and conclusions about their lives’ successes and failures – often with conflicting opinions. How well do you know your brother? Your sister? The answers can carry all the weight in the world.
10.) “Eat the Document,” by Dana Spiotta
Another great story about revolution, this time set in both 1960s and the present. Spiotta manages to weave two concurrent narratives that ultimately converge on one very key moment in history: a protest gone wrong, a demonstration that irrevocably altered the course of its participants’ lives. What becomes of the revolutionary youth? Spiotta’s novel explores this idea by juxtaposition, and ultimately by highlighting the consequences of young actions, no matter how well-intentioned they may be