Staff picks 2013: Helen

2013 has been a year of prolific reading for me. I partially credit my Master's thesis with driving me away from all academic reading into the seductive, distracting arms of fiction, poetry, and comics. It took me about seventeen tries to narrow my favourites list down to ten, and I still had to resort to an honourable mentions addendum. (So you can probably look forward to a "top-ten-books-I-didn't-include-in-my-top-ten-plus-honourable-mentions-list" list later in December).

Anyway, on with it!

Speedboat, Renata Adler

Adler's dazzling Speedboat grabbed me unceremoniously with its first lines and didn't let go until I had publicly embarrassed myself countless times by launching into uncontrollable laughter at inopportune moments. I can hardly remember anything about "what happens" in it (unimportant), but I will surely not forget Adler's particular cadence, and her remarkable ability to concoct a gripping, astute portrait of a certain echelon of 1970s New York society out of what (at first) appear to be a tumult of disconnected fragments. I also recommend this review in the Believer.

Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, lectures by Jorge Luis Borges, edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis (translation by Katherine Silver)

The English Canon 101 class all of us lit nerds wish we'd had. Borges as professor is an erudite, hilarious, and highly idiosyncratic lecturer. He recites countless poetic fragments from memory, energetically lauds the beauty of the Anglo-Saxon language, and makes unlikely and brilliant literary comparisons across centuries and continents. Would that I could go back in time and fervently thank the student(s) who recorded these lectures (merely for studying purposes) back in 1966. Although, I guess if I were able to time-travel, I'd simply attend Borges' classes myself!

red doc >, Anne Carson

The long-awaited follow-up (in the loosest of senses) to Autobiography of Red got under my skin and into my bones one evening and had me mumbling its lines to myself well into the next morning. I stayed awake for the towering glaciers, the toaster-sized bats, the older and sadder versions of Geryon and Herakles, the loyal goat Io, and, of course, for Carson's verse, which is both formal and playful, and endlessly surprising.

You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Tom Gauld

I keep this in my living room so that if there's ever an awkward social moment, I can open it at random, and make everyone, without fail, burst into fits of laughter. Gauld's hilarious takes on literary history and the human condition (past, present and future) are sure to entertain even the most stubborn curmudgeon.

 "Life Zone", Simon Hanselmann

This comic is filled with selfish, embarrassing, and generally unlikable characters whose plights veer from the ridiculous to the depressing, and back again - and that is exactly why I love it so much! There's something so relatable and poignant about it; it almost brought me to tears several times. Tears of mirth, tears of existential despair - what's the difference, really? Hanselmann's excellent drawings are also more than enough reason to pick this one up.

The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon

Hemon writes with wit, anger, and searing candor about his childhood and adolescence in Sarajevo, the rumblings of war in then-Yugoslavia, his subsequent exile during the Bosnian genocide, and his slow adaptation to being a Chicagoan. The last essay, and elegy to his young daughter Isabel, is exquisite in its restraint and also the most devastating thing I've read all year.

Taipei, Tao Lin

Every so often during my reading of Taipei, I had to throw the book aside and cower in the corner with cries of "Too real! Too real!" I think that's part of why I enjoyed it so much, or at least why it lingers with me months later. The self-recognition it engendered in me was both alarming and comforting. And now whenever I fall into the internet k-hole (either literally or figuratively) for hours in my bed in the dark, contemplating my "depletion", I at least feel that I am fitting into some larger, possibly literary space in the world.

This is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, Ulli Lust (translation by Kim Thompson)

Ulli Lust’s exquisitely drawn graphic novel chronicles a year from her adolescence during which she survived street life in a string of Italian cities. It’s 1984, and she and her fellow punks struggle to resist the encroaching trappings of capitalism by attempting to live outside the system. This is no romanticized “self-discovery on the road” type of story. Ulli’s experiences are exhilarating and sometimes liberating, but just as often harrowing and traumatic. A powerful read. (We also have the French translation, Trop n'est pas assez!)

Showa: A History of Japan 1926-1939, Shigeru Mizuki (translation by Zack Davisson)

I am a huge fan of Mizuki's work and was therefore thrilled that Drawn & Quarterly published two translations of his work this year (Kitaro also makes an appearance on my list)! Showa, the more recent of the two, is single-handedly feeding my appetite for gekiga, Japanese history, and yokai trickery. Mizuki's childhood hi-jinks (familiar to readers of 2012's Nonnonba) are juxtaposed against a darker background of war and political intrigue.

Ways of Going Home, Alejandro Zambra (translation by Megan McDowell)

Zambra writes with exquisite economy of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, through the experiences of those who were children during those years. As adults, these characters grapple with their memories, trying desperately and confusedly to reconcile their own childhoods with the monumental suffering of their parents’ generation. Zambra manages to fit meditations on writing, the vast sweep of history, and intimate personal moments into this short and deceptively simple novel.

Very Honourable Mentions

White Girls, Hilton Als; Very Casual, Michael Deforge
Vil et misérable, Samuel Cantin; Kitaro, Shigeru Mizuki 

Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat; Brief Encounters with the Enemy, Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

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