It’s that season again: time for the annual purge of my bookshelves. As usual, my ambition outstripped my reviewing appetite this year, and I’m left facing a shelf full of worthy titles that I somehow never got around to. So, as I did in this space last year, I’m making my year-end compilation not a greatest-hits list but a list of the books I regret not having written about. Among them are two novels (one a very impressive debut), the best collection of short fiction I’ve read in years, an essay collection, and a memoir.
Open City, by Teju Cole (Random House). Reminiscent of the works of W.G. Sebald, this dreamy, incantatory debut was the most beautiful novel I read this year—the kind of book that remains on your nightstand long after you finish so that you can continue dipping in occasionally as a nighttime consolation. Julius, the narrator, is a young doctor from Nigeria who has come to New York to do his psychiatry residency, in the wake of a broken heart. The novel follows his peregrinations around the city, usually at night, which bring him into contact with a varied cast of local characters (many of them immigrants like himself) and serve as a trigger for his reminiscences of his girlfriend, of his estranged family back in Nigeria, and of the global history that has left its traces in his adopted city, particularly at the site of the World Trade Center. Like Sebald’s narrators, the person who allows us into his thoughts here is a gentle, damaged man, at once elusive and peculiarly intimate. As a side note, Cole—a Nigerian writer who now lives in the United States—is also one of the most original writers on Twitter. Every day he tweets what he calls “small fates,” crime stories from the Nigerian newspapers condensed haiku-like into miniature parables, capped off with a twist.
The London Train, by Tessa Hadley (Harper Perennial). I’ve been interested in Hadley’s work since her first novel, a subtle tale of infidelity with the perfect title Accidents in the Home, appeared in 2003. The London Train, her fourth novel, is set largely in Hadley’s home country of Wales, and occupies the fictional terrain that she has claimed as her own: the relationships between wives and husbands, brothers and sisters, parents and children. Here, one couple’s marriage breaks apart after the husband discovers that his grown daughter, pregnant, has abandoned her familiar life, and becomes drawn into her relationship with a mysterious pair of Polish siblings. Hadley is as perceptive as Alice Munro in teasing out the subtle changes in the emotional temperature communicated by a misspoken phrase or a wrongly placed glance. But unlike Munro, she inhabits the men in her stories as fully as she does the women, which deepens her fictional world.
This Is Not Your City, by Caitlin Horrocks (Sarabande Books). I discovered Horrocks through her amazing story “The Sleep,” the tale of a small-town group of people who take to hibernating through the winter, which appeared in the Best American Short Stories 2011. The story is brilliant and evocative and deeply uncanny as it imagines the effects of the hibernation trend through all its unintended consequences, personal and political. It left me with high expectations, but This Is Not Your City, her first collection, did not disappoint. Horrocks’s stories, many of which take place in frozen climates—from Finland to upstate Michigan, where she now lives—have the slightly muffled quality of a landscape beneath snow: Their emotional payoff comes gradually. I was moved to tears more than once reading this collection, especially by the title story, “Zolaria,” which describes the death of a child through the eyes of a girl who was once her best friend. This collection was published by Sarabande Books, a nonprofit literary organization operating out of Kentucky—more power to them, but I cannot imagine why it was not picked up by a major publisher.
Karaoke Culture, by Dubravka Ugrešić (Open Letter). Ugresic, a Croatian novelist and essayist who now lives in Amsterdam, is one of the most stringent and wide-ranging commentators at work today, bringing an ironic sensibility honed under communism to global pop culture. In the pieces collected here, many originally published in European newspapers, she sounds like the fantasy cultural-studies professor you never had, making crazy connections between unlikely ideas that turn out to be brilliant. In the long essay that opens the collection, she riffs on the concept of karaoke as a catch-all metaphor for the new forms of creativity, technologically enabled and often anonymous, that characterize the artists of the digital age—from users of the program Second Life to a performer on “Bulgarian Idol” who became an Internet sensation for her bastardization of the English language, rendering the chorus of her song as “Ken Lee / tulibu dibu douchoo” (“Can’t live / if living is without you”). Ugresic’s anecdotes and aperçus are as irresistibly quotable—“The Internet is the final, most explosive powder keg strewn on the eternal flame of our fantasies”—as they are haunting.
One Day I Will Write About This Place, by Binyavanga Wainaina (Graywolf). Wainaina, the founding editor of the Kenyan literary magazine Kwani?, first came to broad attention in 2005 with a satiric piece in Granta titled “How to Write About Africa” that became an instant classic: “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. … Make sure you show how Africans have music and rhythm deep in their souls, and eat things no other humans eat.” Now Wainiana, who is also an accomplished short-story writer and journalist, has written a full-length memoir about his coming-of-age in Kenya and South Africa. From an early age, Wainaina’s outlook on the world around him was characterized by his vivid imagination, from his vision of the sun’s rays poking through the grass as “a thousand tiny suns” to the “hot snails of thick feeling” that suffuse his body during a hot bath. Throughout it all, he is keenly in tune with those who are outsiders, particularly his mother, a Ugandan who is the subject of xenophobic attacks from her neighbors.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. You can follow her on Twitter: @ruth_franklin.