TQC Favorite Reads of 2013: Geoff Wisner

We are running down favorite reads of 2013 from Quarterly Conversation contributors. This list comes from Geoff Wisner, whose most recent contribution to The Quarterly Conversation is a review of Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D.O. Fagunwa.

To read all entries in this series, click here.

Early in 2013 I landed a new day job with an engineering company based in New Jersey. My two-hour megacommute gave me more time for reading, beginning with several books by Henry Petroski, the John McPhee of engineering. (In books like The Control of Nature, of course, John McPhee is himself the John McPhee of engineering.)

Some of the books I read this year I would recommend enthusiastically if only you had a reasonable chance of finding them. I read some of the more obscure works of Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Mission to Gelele, Two Trips to Gorilla Land, Vikram and the Vampire, and Goa, or the Blue Mountains. I also bought and burrowed through the four-volume 1952 edition of The Diary of George Templeton Strong—foolishly discarded by the University of West Florida.

For an essay on the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra I read through all the fiction available in English, and uncovered a telling image that recurs in nearly every one of his books. (When will someone translate Crazy Scalpel and Bastards’ Fair?)

I did read some books published in 2013, however, and some of my favorites are listed below.

African Fiction

NoViolet Bulawayo, We Need New Names.
The rude, brave, honest children in this first collection of stories by the Caine Prize winner are immediately believable. Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina offer a fresh view of contemporary Zimbabwe.

Chinelo Okparanta, Happiness, Like Water.
After the first couple of stories, I thought I had this book figured out: cautious, well-made tales of women’s victimization. I nearly set it aside. But the young female narrator of the next story, “Fairness,” is a bit twisted, and with “Story, Story!” Okparanta turns out to be a more devious and surprising storyteller than I would have imagined.

Other Fiction

John Kenney, Truth in Advertising.
The hero of this sharp, funny novel is an ad man on the edge. The next big ad campaign could make his mark, his bosses tell him. It’s worth reading the book to enjoy his explosion on page 290 when someone says that once too often.

Norman Rush, Subtle Bodies. After three works of fiction set in Botswana, at the age of 80 Norman Rush has published his first novel to be set in America. A kind of high-brow Big Chill, in which a death brings together a group of college friends, Subtle Bodies has the same high energy, antic wit, and political astuteness that marked his blockbuster novel Mating.

Short Stories of John Updike (Library of America).
Edited by my old friend Chris Carduff, this handsome two-volume set brings together some of the 20th century’s best short fiction. I had read most of these stories before, so I jumped to the end for the heartbreaking final tales that appeared in My Father’s Tears.


William Friedkin, The Friedkin Connection.
Friedkin directed three of my favorite films in a row: The French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer. If you like them half as much as I do, you will enjoy the fascinating backstories told here. As unsparing with himself as with the studio executives who made his life difficult, Friedkin recalls a time when authenticity in moviemaking mattered more than high-tech gloss.

Charlie LeDuff, Detroit: An American Autopsy.
You’ve seen the eerie photos of the ruins, but what is it really like to live in Detroit? This edgy account covers the urban underbelly of a city where firehouses don’t have poles because the brass has been sold for scrap. I won’t forget the homeless man whose body has to be chipped out of several feet of ice.

Amy Wilensky, Farewell, Fred Voodoo.
“Fred Voodoo” is the dismissive name Western journalists gave to the man in the street in Haiti, a person they are often too busy and self-observed to talk to. Amy Wilentz has spent years getting to know Fred Voodoo and his friends and relatives, and although no longer as romantic about Haiti as she once was (as he remarked to me this year when I asked her to sign my copy of The Rainy Season) she is one of the best observers of that fascinating country.

Geoff Wisner, African Lives.
Well, if Norman Mailer could advertise himself . . . It would be dishonest to deny that reading my page proofs of my new anthology African Lives was a highlight of my year. Most of the credit goes to contributors like Bessie Head and Binyavanga Wainaina, but as the editor I’m pleased with the way I was able to arrange the selections so they follow the countries of Africa from A to B and the continent as if it were a printed page.

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