The Best Thing I Read This Year

From memoir to nonfiction to poetry, Portland's literary community weighs in on the best books of 2013.

My pick—Antidote by Corey Van Landingham—is unabashedly biased. Van Landingham was my student at Lewis & Clark College, and, for me, part of the thrill of reading this book comes from my knowledge of the journey behind it. That is, however, only a small part of the thrill. Antidote is a heady, haunting new collection of poems filled with strange and seductive proposals. Van Landingham takes us on an endlessly inventive, exhilarating journey that transports us past conventional perception and language, past “the airspace for all the monologues worth flying from.” These poems hold us close and throw us far, plunging and soaring without turning away from the disasters at their hearts. This is the real thing: unflinching, urgent, luminous work. I will turn to it again and again. MARY SZYBIST, author of Incarnadine.

In the past few years, I've become a comedy junkie. I need it and get it however I can—live standup, TV specials, books. I went through a very rough spot in late 2012, and 2013 was all about shaking that off, letting the love back in, getting crazy and laughing as much as possible. Marc Maron's Attempting Normal is a smart, sad, dark and if-you-can't-laugh-you'll-cry hilarious book that helped me on my mission. If you listen to his podcast, you'll love it. If you're human and have even an ounce of humor in your cold, fucked-up heart, you'll dig it. In it he writes: "I was thinking about how temporary disappointment can be if you don't linger on it too long and how there are beautiful things in the world if you look up. It's up to you to find them for yourself." Aye aye. This book happens to be one of them. LIZ CRAIN, co-author of Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull and editor at Hawthorne Books.

Oh, man, Alice McDermott's Someone. Masterpiece. Lean and amazing and deft and you emerge blinking and a little awed. There are writers who absolutely own a place and time, and McDermott owns Irish-Catholic New York 1940-1970. You wouldn't think someone could write a book every bit as good as her own Charming Billy and After This, but she did. She might be the best novelist in America, period. BRIAN DOYLE, author of Mink River.

My favorite book of the year scared the daylights out of me for the way it suggests war is imminent this century in the Middle East. Scott Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia details the controversial exploits of T.E. Lawrence—known as Lawrence of Arabia—during the Hashemite uprising against the Ottoman Turks during World War I. The consequences of the Arab Revolt led to the creation of contemporary Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Distrust toward the West, which was at the heart of the conflicts of that era, have hardly lessened. I learned that today's Middle East powder keg was packed 100 years ago in the Hejaz during the Great War. DAVID BIESPIEL, author of Charming Gardeners.

The best book I read in 2013 was The End of Eve by Ariel Gore. It's a wonderful story about a mother and daughter—and oh brother what a mother! The depth of insight often took my breath away. Not to mention the book's drop-dead humor, sadness and rage. Gore's memoir is in its essence a how-to book: in the face of death, our grief, how to breathe, how to be brave, how to be funny, how to be authentic. How to make it through. (The End of Eve from Hawthorne Books won't be out until March, but you can order copies now.) TOM SPANBAUER, author of I Loved You More.

My pick: Sexual Boat (Sex Boats) by James Gendron. I've been reading more poetry the past couple of years, and this collection was my favorite. It has a sneaky quality to it, like a shapeshifter. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's sad and other times it's odd and disturbing. This Portland poet writes lines that get under your skin and influence your dreams. I felt transformed and almost drugged by this cool little treasure chest of deep thoughts. KEVIN SAMPSELL, author of This Is Between Us.

Typically, my literary genre of choice is fiction. While I enjoy poetry in snippets, an entire book of poems can feel a bit unapproachable. But Mary Szybist's collection Incarnadine flows from page to page like a letter from an old friend. Recurring themes of love, faith, motherhood and aging are grounded in precisely realized settings. I was delighted, though not surprised, when Szybist was awarded the National Book Award for poetry. It's well worth the deviation from your regular reading to bask in the rosy glow of Incarnadine. PENELOPE BASS, WW books editor.

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