Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder. In terms of painful precision and scholarship, nothing that came out this past year comes close to Wilder’s amazingly detailed research and accounting of the ways in which the earliest institutions of higher learning in colonial and nineteenth-century America benefited from—and often had a direct hand in—the removal and genocide of Native Americans as well as the importation and exploitation of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. Early on in the book Wilder asserts, “The academy never stood apart from American slavery—in fact, it stood beside church and state as the third pillar of a civilization built on bondage.” And a bit later, he points out the following:
“Colleges were imperial instruments akin to armories and forts, a part of the colonial garrison with the specific responsibilities to train ministers and missionaries, convert indigenous peoples and soften cultural resistance, and extend European rule over foreign nations.”
Wilder then takes us deeply into the colonial archive to illustrate in explicit and horrific ways how the founders and benefactors of our highest institutions of learning also played a part in the traffic, exploitation, and extermination of other humans. Ebony and Ivy is particularly exciting to me as it resonates with Minnesota’s own list of published and forthcoming works including Roderick A. Ferguson’s The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (2012) and our forthcoming collection of critical essays, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, edited by Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Nothing is ever finite in Kate Atkinson’s inventive, genre-bending novel. The story follows Ursula Todd, whose life ends over and over—then starts again in a slightly different fashion. In one life, Ursula is an air-raid warden in London during the Blitz. In another, she lives in Hitler’s German mountaintop retreat with Eva Braun, his mistress. It’s a story about reincarnation—a bona fide Groundhog’s Day—that shows how one minor decision can affect an entire lifetime. It’s a fascinating storytelling device, and gives readers some interesting insight into the historical and emotional consequences of life in London and Germany throughout the first half of the 20th century.
—Katie Nickerson, Test Division marketing and training manager
The Dinner: A Novel by Herman Koch. This whole novel takes place over the course of one meal, where two couples have met to decide the fates of their fifteen-year-old sons who together have committed a horrible act of violence that is now under police investigation. As each course is served, conversation turns from the polite and banal to a heated “discussion” of the real matter at hand. It’s a gripping and shocking look at how far parents would go to protect their children.
Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich. “The body is a stacked atlas of memory,” writes Barrie Jean Borich. In these essays—a series of maps and insets, as she calls them—Borich explores the layers of memory, history, and place that make up her own personal geography, marking the physical coordinates of Chicago and Minneapolis—the dual skylines of these cities tattooed across her back serving as a reader’s legend, as she maps out her own Midwest in an attempt to understand the terrain of self. This gorgeous read had me lingering in its lush language, imaginative form, and in the unexpected meanderings in Borich’s journey.
Tenth of December by George Saunders. No surprise because it has appeared on many Best of 2013 books published. He’s a master of the short story, which demands conciseness but also full-throttle “meaning,” read “morality” for Saunders as his characters confront extreme situations demanding moral courage. His originality in character and plot creation is breath-taking. No chance that the question we’d prefer not to have posed after reading a book—”Was it worth the time?”—arises after reading Tenth of December.
The Third Man by Graham Greene. This is the kind of book you can lose yourself in, much like its setting in post-war Vienna. Because it was written for the screen, it retains much of the cinematic quality that made the 1949 film so captivating. You’ll find it hard not to hear the film’s famous zither score in your head as you turn the pages.
The Circle by Dave Eggers. I wanted to pick a not-so-mainstream book as tops for the year but just cannot in any year Eggers has something new out. This is a lively and believable cautionary tale about our contemporary tendency to give friends and total strangers alike unlimited access to our lives. (Runner up: This is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange.)
—Maggie Sattler, direct and electronic marketing coordinator
The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker. Every so often characters from a novel haunt me long after I’ve read a book; Chava and Ahmad, monsters among humans, have haunted me for weeks. Each is attempting to create a fulfilling life while hiding their magical identity from the human communities in which they live. Eventually these two isolated beings cross paths. Chava’s search for goodness tempers Ahmad’s contempt for humanity while both come to understand and appreciate the mortal humans who have touched their lives. At its heart The Golem and the Jinni is an exploration of the influence of fate and free will, and the reckonings we face over the choices we make.
The Facades by Eric Lundgren. I enjoyed former University of Minnesota Press editorial assistant Eric Lundgren’s highly praised first novel, an existential noir in which an opera singer goes missing, philosophy is banished to a nursing home, and armed librarians are the last defenders of high culture in a decaying midwestern city.
Another book that amazed me this past year is Melville House’s rediscovery of Mary MacLane‘s scandalous 1902 diary I Await the Devil’s Coming, in which a Butte, Montana, teenager longs for seduction, and damnation, after her affair with an older woman is abruptly (and for undisclosed reason) brought to an end. A bestseller in its time, and the basis of a now lost silent film, I Await the Devil’s Coming makes you reconsider the American literary history’s view of sexual liberation being worked out in the much more genteel turn-of-the-century works of elite writers such as Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton.
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood. Although not as compelling as the first volumes in the trilogy, anyone who’s anyone should be reading Atwood. She’s fabulous.
Titus Groan, the first book in the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake. This is definitely not a 2013 novel—it was written in 1949. But I kept seeing this trilogy on lists of the best fantasy novels, so I decided to give it a shot this year and was not disappointed. The plot centers on the immense castle Gormenghast and all of its inhabitants, but namely the kitchen boy Steerpike, who connives to manipulate his way into power in the castle and overthrow the royal Groan family. The strength of the book is in rich character development and world building—it’s easy to get sucked into daily life in the castle and invested in the fates of the castle’s inhabitants. I’m always looking for new books and worlds to get lost inside of, and this one really fit the bill.
If I’m lucky, I’ll have six days in 2013 to read The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton because someone will give it to me for Christmas. (Hint, hint!) A book I read and loved this year that was published earlier is The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich.