The payload of this post is a list of recommendations, but first a few caveats and disclosures. I'm calling this the 2013 Holiday Gift Guide, but unlike the New York Times lists, these are not necessarily books published in 2013. Rather, they are books I read in 2013. I keep in a notebook a list of everything I read, a practice that becomes more valuable the older I get. Looking back on my 2013 entries, I notice that many of them were published last year, but many are much older than that. Some I happened to see on a table at the library or a bookstore, or they were mentioned in a magazine article or in some other book I was reading. Some simply fell from the sky. All of them are still in print and can therefore be purchased as gifts. All of the authors (and publishers) will be glad you did.
Speaking of authors...when you're a writer, you tend to know a lot of writers, and when you know a lot of writers, you tend to have friends' books stacked on your bedside table. Sometimes I worry that I don't have time to read anything but friends' books. But here's the thing: I don't read them all, just as I don't read all the books I check out of the library, or all the strangers' books I'm given as gifts. I hereby acknowledge that the lists below include some books by writers I know personally, but because I don't tend to treat friends' books with any special deference, I don't think it's a conflict of interest to include them. Look at it the other way--it would be a shame to exclude an excellent book just because I know the author. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this issue in the comments.
So then, without further ado, here is Nick's 2013 Holiday Gift Guide.
Hutchins, Scott. A Working Theory of Love. (2012) - Set in Menlo Park, this novel tells the story of an artificial intelligence being developed by a Stanford professor and a team of assistants, one of whom (our narrator) has an unusual personal stake in the project: the AI is modeled on his father, a conservative Southern dentist whose voluminous diary has been scanned into the computer and serves as the AI's history. Our hero's job is to sit at a terminal and converse all day with the machine, comparing its behavior to that of his late father. Hutchins's writing is crisp and ironic, and the Menlo Park cameos are not to be missed.
Lin, Tao. Taipei. (2013) - This one is for the under-30 recipients on your list, specifically those sullen, pale-faced kids whose eyes are perpetually glued to their cellphones and never seem to take out their earbuds. Tao Lin has been hailed as the voice of his generation, which is a terrifying proposition: his characters stumble through their aimless lives addled by prescription drugs, dividing their time more or less evenly between the virtual and physical worlds. For these young people, sex is an afterthought (which I can't quite understand...) and work is indistinguishable from recreation (ie, typing a stream of consciousness into a computer). Does this sound like hell to you? Me too--but I'm too old.
Atkinson, Kate. Life After Life. (2013) - This beguiling novel is part Forrest Gump, part Groundhog Day, and part Downton Abbey. A strange brew, but an addictive one. We follow the protagonist, Ursula, from sickly baby to war hero, with stops as a British politician's mistress and a German politician's wife. How can that be, you ask? Atkinson's conceit is to kill of Ursula every couple of chapters, and then resume narration on the next page as though she hadn't died (you get used to it after a while). This was easily the most conversation-provoking book I read this year. My wife and I are still arguing over what happened.
I also recommend We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo and Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff, which I've already reviewed.
Next time...recommendations in Nonfiction and Poetry.