A Literary Year in Review, 2013 Edition
I have to say, I wasn’t particularly sad to see 2013 go: It’s not that it was bad, it just wasn’t a banner year for me on several levels. Fortunately, 2013 did grace us with some really good books, though. In the midst all the general malaise of last year, I managed to steal time here and there to savor some truly great works of both fiction and non-fiction. And with my new Kindle, I was able to read more new releases without having to wait for them to come out in paperback. Of course, again, as in years past, my circle of interesting, diverse, and intelligent friends has come through with the best of their reading lists, too! I hope you find something to inspire and entertain you in 2014; I know that I have!
An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin: Besides reading it & hearing him like an audio book in my mind, the story is all about the inner workings of the art world from inside auction houses to deception in museums. Being an art history minor, I loved it.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends, by Rob Lowe: Yes, another celeb pick, but this autobiography is well-written, heart-felt and revealing. I totally dug him back in the day as a pre-teen crush, but this gives a deep sense of his personal journey with only a passing mention of the Atlanta incident. It also provides some cool snippets about others in & around his circle.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn: This story took twists & turns I never saw coming — a rare, rare thing. I couldn’t put it down as I wanted to see what I couldn’t possibly imagine happening next. I only hope that twisted people like those characters don’t exist in the real world.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple: The characters are caricatures of women I know, so that made this book all the more intriguing. It’s fun to imagine a complete escape from the life I lead (though maybe not to such an extreme!).
The Death of Santini, by Pat Conroy: Conroy is my favorite author, which is sometimes annoying as he isn’t a prolific writer. That said, his few works are all gems on my bookshelf. One should really read a The Great Santini & The Lords of Discipline as sort of prequels to Conroy’s latest offering. His personal stories are rough, yet eloquently told.
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens: Hitchens knew he was dying when he wrote this gigantic book. As a result, it had a greater impact on me, although it is difficult to tell whether that was deserved. Nothing escapes this man’s attention; many of his essays are read with more than a bit of envy at the depth and breadth of his knowledge and education. In addition, his gifts are all the more dazzling given his Churchillian alcohol consumption.
Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by David Foster Wallace: Like Christopher Hitchens, this guy is incandescent; throughout, I was blown away with his protean mind and his insights. Reading this after his death (again as with Hitchens) made me a bit melancholy, albeit grateful for his writings before he left us too soon. This makes me want to reread Infinite Jest.
Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family, by Gary Pomerantz: This should be required reading for all Atlantans. It is extremely detailed, but you want it to be.
Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, by Zadie Smith: She radiates intelligence, asks great questions (“what is femaleness?”) and pontificates on my major crush David Foster Wallace. She has a friendly and funny and accessible voice.
Spooner, by Pete Dexter: At bottom, this is a beautifully rendered father/son story that made me think about how individuals can change our lives profoundly for the better.
“Nothing life-changing this year. They’re all mysteries in one way or another, but they were super enjoyable.”
5. Lexicon, by Max Berry: This one’s a thriller based on a truly original premise about the power, not of words per se, but of scant syllables on the brain’s neural pathways. It made my list as much for sheer originality as for enjoyable writing.
4. Gun Machine, by Warren Ellis: Engrossing criminal procedural, with fantastic dialogue, which gave me a wonderful new phrase to use during the — exceedingly rare, now that I have a toddler — moments of a morning hangover.
3. The Abominable: A Novel, by Dan Simmons: Epic mystery set during an early attempt to climb Everest. Vampires, zombies, and witches have all had their 15 minutes of fame… it’s about time for a possible Yeti sighting!
2. Night Film, by Marisha Pessl: I’ve waited for this book for about seven years — after reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics. It didn’t disappoint! A washed-up journalist goes in search of answers to the mysterious death of the daughter of a reculsive Kubrik-esque director.
1. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton: Far and away the best book I’ve read all year (sorry, Marisha!). Not necessarily a whodunit as much as a what-the-heck-happened-here?? It’s as character-driven as it is plot-driven, written in a semi-victorian gothic style, and is simply a wonderfully satisfying example of solid storytelling.
“I read SO MANY good books in 2013, but here are the ones that really stand out.”
The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan: It has been a decade since Amy Tan has had a new novel out, and this is among her best. This is a story about Chinese courtesans in Shanghai during the early 1900s, prompted by her favorite photograph of the grandmother she never met. It helps that Amy is one of my all-time favorite authors, and that I met her and she signed my copy of this book in December.
The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin: It was a book club selection, and I am not usually one who enjoys non-fiction (particularly “year-long project” books), but this was enlightening, easy to read, and enjoyable. After reading it, I decided to incorporate some of her “experiments” into my own life, and have subscribed to the author’s blog and daily emails. (Note: her next book, Happier at Home, was released this week, and I plan to read it as well).
Then I Found You, by Patti Callahan Henry: Her premise from the novel came from a Facebook request by a young lady who turned out to be the baby Patti’s sister had given up for adoption 17 years earlier. A lovely, touching story about the birth mother’s side of adoption, and what happens when a reunion takes place. (It doesn’t hurt that Patti is a fellow Auburn alum! War Eagle!)
Praying for Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit, by River Jordan: Another non-fiction, based on the year River’s two sons joined the military at the same time and she had to find some way to find grace and gratitude. Each day for an entire year, she chose a stranger to pray for – sometimes they knew it, sometimes they didn’t. The stories are touching and renew faith in the human spirit.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald: I re-read this one, to prepare for a discussion I was invited to give at a senior women’s book club. I try to re-read one classic every year (in 2012 it was East of Eden, by John Steinbeck, in 2011 it was To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee), and I am always amazed by how different the book affects me, reading as an adult vs. as a high school or college student.
“So, these are the top 5 that I remember reading in 2013, but probably remember them best because I read them later in the year…”
things we set on fire, by Deborah Reed: I like books that I can lose myself in – this book fits that fairly well. I also like that the main character is someone who appears to have a simple/straightforward life story – widowed grocery store clerk with two grown daughters, but there is a back story that isn’t so simple. also, I like the author’s own personal back story – this is the first book she ever wrote. she hit pause and wrote two bestsellers before coming back to this one and finishing it.
Coming Clean: A Memoir, by Kimberly Rae Miller: A book about leaving behind the bad experiences of childhood to become a “normal” adult by shedding all that is dysfunctional from your past. How do you shed past bad memories/bad experiences when the authors of that are your very own parents? Another page-turner book of self-discovery and survival that made me thankful for my own wacky parents.
Bossypants, by Tina Fey: A guilty pleasure of a read that I have been putting off for 2 years because it was “lightweight” and yes, it isn’t a heavy, inspirational tome of wisdom, but it is good fun and a good laugh (out loud) counter balance to some of the heavier stuff that life and even books bring to us.
Dad is Fat, by Jim Gaffigan: What happens when you read one piece of fluff (see above), it just leads to more. I really enjoyed this book and congratulate myself for not having 5 kids and trying to live in NYC. His tale of trying to walk down the NYC sidewalks with 5 little kids is both nerve-wracking and hilarious.
Zen and the Art of Happiness, by Chris Prentiss: We create the world with our thoughts. Easy to say, sometimes difficult to believe. This book is an example of a real life example with some helpful hints on how to live this Eastern way in our very Western world.
“I am just going to point out that I would have included WYGB in this list, and recommend that everyone read it, while not including it in my top five for the sake of redundancy.”
1. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton: This book was also picked by Shannon, but it was the best book I have read in many years, and I am totally in love with it, and I am happy to know that others share this love. When I finished it, I wanted to start over and read it again. This book has everything – shipwrecks, gold fever, forgery, blackmail, prostitution, adultery, friendship, opiates, intrigue, buried treasure, insurance, unrequited love, gambling, the supernatural, religion, murder, family discord, smuggling, and an excellent history lesson. I obtained some new vocabulary words – bonanza, pure (in the context of gold mining), laudanum, along with a new favorite place I would like to visit – Hokitika, New Zealand. The novel does have a dearth of female characters, but it’s set in a remote frontier mining town on the coast of New Zealand, so it would be weird if there were lots of women. Catton’s previous book is called The Rehearsal, and I checked it out of the library, but I haven’t read it yet. It appears to have lots of female characters.
2. Under the Dome, by Stephen King: I mean, why has it taken me so long to read a Stephen King novel? I started watching the television show Under the Dome, and when I realized it was a book, I was thrilled. I love reading books that are also television shows. Books go so much faster. Under the Dome has some strange parts, that might be too much for anyone turned off by fantasy or science fiction, but if you can get past that, it’s an amazing character analysis of small towns and people in general in a crisis. King is truly a master storyteller. His characters are round, intriguing, with flaws and redeeming qualities. This book was a true pleasure.
“(I apologize that my first two books are in combination more than 2,000 pages. I can appreciate that not everyone loves a saga like I do.)”
3. In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson: The Devil in the White City has been a popular choice on this list in the past, and I would recommend In the Garden of Beasts to anyone. The book follows the story of the unlikely US ambassador to German from 1933 to 1937, and he and his family’s interactions with the Nazis and the Communists. Larson gives a fascinating history of the Foreign Service, in Washington and abroad. The book offers a frightening glimpse into the concessions afforded to Germany in the hopes of European stability, and the possibility of Germany making good on the enormous debts from WWI owed to the United States. Such concessions resulted in neither repayment nor stability.
4. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green: I can’t believe this book wasn’t on anyone else’s list. I hesitated to read it; the depression factor associated with a cancer support group for teenagers initially gave me pause. However, the attitude of the narrator in this novel is realistic without being maudlin, with a sense of humor that is somehow appropriate without bitterness. It is a story about appreciating the people you have in your life, and not letting the circumstances that you cannot control take away from the beauty of today. Parts of the story are absolutely ridiculous, but completely believable. It made me cry, but it left me with a good feeling about what life has to offer.
5. The Girl of the Limberlost, by Gene Stratton-Porter: Apparently this is an old favorite for many people, in line with Anne of Green Gables. If you ever loved L.M. Montgomery, I think you will like this book. It is a little more educational than Montgomery, in terms of wildlife and entomology, and the emotional lessons learned are a little more advanced. I now feel much more educated on moths. Moths generally ruin my day, but this book gave me a new appreciation for the monsters. The heroine is a happy example of how hard times can make you stronger and that adhering to your own moral compass is the best way to live life.
“As a side note, I also read the Divergent trilogy. I enjoyed it. I didn’t love it, and the last book was vastly inferior to the first two, I assume less time was spent on it. But the first movie is coming out soon, and they are easy, thought provoking reads.”
The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith (nom de plume of J.K. Rowling): Well written (a nice change from other fiction I read this year). This book is a good mystery with main characters that you hope to catch in a sequel.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë: Classic. Worst last line in a book, but the rest of the story is good. I can’t lie, I preferred the movies (Orson Welles; the new one…) because they ignored the terrible last line.
Other books I’ve read are mostly history. The Good Man of Nanking [by John Rabe] is the book/diary kept by a Nazi during the “Rape of Nanking” by the Japanese during WWII. Most interesting about the story is what happens after the war.
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt: A story about overcoming loss and tragedy, and also a mystery about a missing Dutch masterpiece, it hooked me from the beginning and didn’t let me go until well after I’d finished it. The characters are real, flawed, and believable. The writing is beautiful and evocative, particularly the descriptions of the horror and confusion of the terrorist act which sets the rest of the book’s events in motion. Well worth the wait from the notoriously non-prolific Tartt, this was hands down my favorite book of 2013 (her first book, The Secret History, appeared on my 2011 list).
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain: Through meticulous research and eloquent argument, Cain validates the often solitary feelings of introverts (1 in 3 people are introverts!) and highlights the value they bring to companies, organizations, and society. She also provides tools for introverts to help navigate in a world that prizes extroversion. Her TED talk on the same topic is also worth watching.
Alif the Unseen, by G. Willow Wilson: A techno-thriller with the political rumblings that underpinned the Arab Spring and a healthy dose of mystical realism. A computer hacker in a Middle Eastern emirate has to outrun the state security agency, assisted by genies (jinn) of varying moral persuasion. This was such a fun — yet thought-provoking — read.
Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver: Faith and science collide when a foreboding environmental phenomenon occurs in a small Appalachian town. The event propels Dellarobia, the restless protagonist who discovered it, to question what she believes about the world she lives in and whether she is meant to do something bigger with her life.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple: When eccentric, agoraphobic, and talented Bernadette Fox suddenly disappears, her precocious and intelligent 15-year-old daughter sets out to find her using a myriad of sources to piece together her mother’s whereabouts. A hyperbolic, yet wildly entertaining and entirely relatable tale that hits a little too close to home on those days when the absurdity around you seems like too much to handle.
This year’s Honorable Mention goes to Hanna Pylväinen’s We Sinners. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different member of a family of Finnish descent that belongs to the ultra-conservative Laestadian Lutheran Church. A beautiful book that illustrates how faith can simultaneously bring family members closer together and also tear them apart.
What Are You Reading This Year?
Hopefully you’ve found something in these lists that grabbed your attention and got added to your “to-read” list for 2014. Of course, my sincere thanks go to my amazing friends who took the time to compile their thoughtful and thought-provoking lists; my life is richer and my reading list has gotten better each year because of them.
As always, it’s not too late to join the fun: Either e-mail me, or comment below, and I will add your selections above. And I also invite you to join me on Goodreads to share recommendations throughout the year. Of course, I’ll be back in another year to collect your favorites from 2014. Wishing you a happy and fulfilling 2014 that finds you surrounded by good books and great friends!
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