We present to you the magna opera of 2013, that is, a list of superlative books, each a magnum opus.
Perhaps the best thing I’ve read all year is NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names. Marketed as a novel, it’s actually a group of interconnected short stories about a Mugabe-era Zimbabwe girl and her friends from the local shantytown. The kids go into the wealthy areas in search for guava, their main food staple. The writing is spare and at times forces you to figure out what’s going on, but trust Bulawayo, she knows what she’s doing. I was very happy to wrangle an excerpt from the book for Guernica. Another novel I enjoyed is Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois. To describe the book in broad terms isn’t to endear it, though: it’s the Amanda Knox story, transported to Argentina. While that sounds like something out of TMZ, the novel exceeds its inspiration: it’s laced keen observations on what it’s like to be young, privileged—and deeply naïve. These two books are different, but perhaps complement each other: one is about a girl named Darling who has nothing at all except her friends. The other is about a possible murderer who discovers she has far fewer friends than she’d originally thought.
– Meakin Armstrong, Senior Editor, Fiction Editor
Aisthesis by Jacques Rancière
Jack is back.
After several years of pumping out timely but slim volumes of topical essays Jacques Rancière has risen once again to the cutting edge of theory with his highly anticipated English translation of Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. A self-described magnus opus, Aisthesis definitively breaks away from the grand master narratives of history in favor of an interweaving series of case studies.
Aisthesis is composed in a loose chronology of fourteen chapters—from Dresden in 1764 to New York in 1941—that provides an idiosyncratic and poetic counter-history of modernism. Those looking for analysis of masterpieces from art history will be disappointed. Manet’s famous painting of the Folies Bergère is swapped for Loïe Fuller’s burlesque show in Paris in 1893, and American Abstract-Expressionism is disregarded in favor of an analysis of James Agee’s book on Dust Bowl sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941).
Deftly written in flowing, lucid prose, Aisthesis is not just an intellectual tour de force. It is also a pleasure to leaf through—one can pop in on an interpretation of Johann Winckelmann’s 1764 analysis of the ancient Roman Belvedere Torso; Hegel’s lectures on aesthetics in 1824; or Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World (1926). A restorative read for the theory-fatigued and a pleasant discovery for the unversed, if there’s one theoretical tome to be read this year it is Aisthesis.
– Chelsea Haines, Art Editor
Children of the Days by Eduardo Galeano
Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano is a messenger for the disenfranchised and shepherd of the misplaced in history. His works are compelling because they subvert the Eurocentric model, while offering stories to recount over fires and deep into the night. His latest history novel is fragmented over the course of a year, each day receiving its own martyr or token of wisdom. Children of the Days is the tail of epic living, shortened by early deaths or unfair obscurity. Accessible history from an able storyteller encouraging completion in one sitting—or useful for the occasional Bible dip.
– Samuel Hernandez, Editorial Intern
Dark Lies The Island, the latest story collection by Irish writer Kevin Barry, arrived in the U.S. this year courtesy of the great Graywolf Press. It’s a wonderful book packed with glinting comedic observations, sentences that run through you like electric shocks, and characters it’s tough to get enough of. Reading Barry has also led me onto a few younger Irish writers he’s exerted an influence on, and one of these is Colin Barrett. Barrett’s story collection Young Skins is to be published by Jonathan Cape in the U.K. and by Grove in the U.S. A writer to watch out for next year.
– Jonathan Lee, Senior Interview Editor
Long Division by Kiese Laymon
I have a tendency to speak in superlatives, and that goes doubly when it comes to books. Which is to say that picking one book as my “best of the year” is a losing battle from the outset. What I can tell you is that Kiese Laymon’s Long Division was the book that stayed with me the longest this year. It was the one I kept going back to. It was the book that felt the most honest, the most urgent, and the one that was written in the most wholly original and unforgettable voice. It’s exceptionally difficult to describe Long Division, and summarizing the novel here wouldn’t do it justice.
Laymon’s story manages to travel through time and include a book-within-a-book, all while addressing race, young love, history, marginalization, body-image, Mississippi, and 1964’s Freedom Summer, amongst other things, in 270 pages. But each of these pages is filled with a love of words, a love of black culture and language, a wicked sense of humor, and deep sense of outrage at the racial injustice that still exists throughout this country. I laughed mightily, I cried more than a few tears, and I wished all the while that I could give a copy to every single teenager in America who doesn’t know that there is someone out there writing about their reality, in language made real by its love, wisdom, talent, and rage. And for all of these reasons, I’ve pressed this book into the hands of anyone who would take it and whispered it into the ears of anyone who would listen.
– Lisa Lucas, Publisher
Fame Shark by Royal Young
Fame Shark, the writer Royal Young’s memoir, is a fluid account of his adolescence in New York City’s Lower East Side. Young and I are the same age and I am also a native New Yorker, which is originally what drew me to the book. The writing is so terrific, though, that even someone who has never been to New York would enjoy it and perhaps also relate to him, since the memoir is a bildungsroman and addresses many life issues.
Young is an author to watch out for. He manages to paint a panoramic yet intimate portrait of his changing neighborhood, family dynamic and inner life. The book takes place during the 1990’s and early years of the 21st century, and Young places his development parallel to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. It is at once hilarious and sad. He captures the angst and confusion of growing up as he battles with his sexuality and alcoholism, among other demons.
The eventual pride in his family, nationality, and background he achieves in his early twenties leads to a self-acceptance that is beautiful and is a triumph for the reader as well as Young himself. He has recorded his life as a testament to his influences and the city that raised him.
– Allegra Warsager, Assistant Publisher