02 January 2014

The Year in Review: Best Books of 2013

      This is how excited I am about 2014    
Based on the infrequency of my blog posts for the last couple of months, you could be forgiven for thinking that I'd been abducted by aliens or trapped under something heavy. It has been exactly one entire month since my last blog post, and even that one was the only post I wrote in December.  Sometimes Real Life just gets in the way of Blogging Life and I'm trying hard to choose forgiveness over self-recrimination for my lengthy absences this fall/winter.

But I'm still here and I'm ready to talk about all of my favorite books from 2013 of the 123 books that I read. Didn't quite reach my Goodreads goal of 125, but 123 ain't shabby. My list for the year combines both my favorite reads and the best reads, which don't always, or even often, align.

The #1 best book for me this year was easy to pick.  I've read a ton of good novels this year, but this one set standards for literary excellence that made every other book I read after it a little lackluster.  I'm talking, of course, about Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. I somehow managed not to review this one, despite making many assurances of doing so. Sorry. But if you like meaty novels that illuminate the human condition of the 21st century and are so finely crafted that the author's use of metaphorical language shifted from character to frickin' character, AND if you're not afraid of books that are nearly 800 pages long, then you should by all means read this book.  It's amazing.

I was tempted to be a little disingenuous and claim that The Goldfinch was also my favorite book of the year, but that would be stretching the truth a little too far. It comes close, certainly, but I think the honor of my favorite book must go to the one that I've read three times this year. That's unusual for me, but it was so damned funny that I turned to it during my stress times this year. Therefore, my favorite book of 2013 is The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I've given it to a lot of folks for Christmas this year, and people I know, ranging in age from early 20s to late 70s have all read and loved it.  Mostly women, to be sure, but a good handful of men I know, too. Here's my full review.

The other top novels for me this year, in chronological order of when I read them, are as follows.  I should note that I have only selected novels that were also published in 2013.  Lately I've been reading a lot of books to be published in the spring of 2014 but I'm not considering them for this year.

1. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Okay, technically I read this one in December 2012, but I saved it to include with my 2013 list.  One of the best pieces of meta-fiction I've ever read.  Quantum physics, Japanese pop culture, Zen buddhism, and two terrific narrators all combine to make this an exceptional book. Full review here.

2. Benediction by Kent Haruf, for the gentle dignity with which he treats small town, middle America. Stark language that reflects the landscape of the high plains in which it's set. He also had a small section on religion that rather broke my heart. Full review here.

3. Flora by Gail Godwin, for producing a literary masterpiece of a life told in reflection. I didn't write up a full review, but here's the shelf-talker version: Helen, the book’s narrator, looks back in her old age to the summer of 1945, when her cousin Flora moves from Alabama to North Carolina to take care of her. A precocious, moody, and sensitive child, Helen is devastated by her grandmother’s death and her father’s temporary abdication to Oak Ridge for the war effort, but determined to maintain a certain snobbish propriety in the face of Flora’s country ways. Godwin channels the spirits of Jane Austen and Eudora Welty in this brilliant examination of loss-haunted lives, all redolent with Southern atmosphere.

4. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. This book is gorgeously written and depicts a woman brimming with an incandescent anger.  It also sparked some debate about "women's fiction" and character likeability and our expectations for male vs female authors. Full review here
5. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This debut novel is seriously impressive. Lyrical writing, using a handful of characters and their various intersections to depict the horrors of war--in this case, the recent Chechen civil wars. Sorry, I didn't review this one, but it's making the rounds on lots of other folks' Best Of 2013 lists, so track down some of their reviews to read.

6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for addressing in a real and provocative way the issue of race in America and the subtle differences between being African American and being an African in America. She's an amazing writer and has been given a Macarthur, so if you read literary fiction and haven't already read her, you absolutely should.
7. The Son by Philipp Meyer. Wow, this is one tough novel, but so worth the reading. This is one of those books where I was aware that it was good as I was reading it, but it wasn't until I came to the end and reflected on it that I was aware how *astonishingly* good it really was. Full review here.
8. A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik. This is one of those books where sparsely lyrical language juxtaposes with the horrors of humanity. This was a helluva fine read and a complicated one. I didn't write a full review, but here is a shelf-talker for you: a survivor of the civil war in Liberia makes her way to Santorini. Homeless there, she focuses on two things: day to day survival and maintaining her sanity after what she witnessed. As the book unfolds, the reader gets an intimate portrait of both Jacqueline and the island, the beauty of one acting as a counterpart to the horrors in her mind.

9. This Is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila. I didn't read many short story collections this year, but this one would stand out even if I'd read a ton of them.  It should be required reading for all tourists who visit a tropical locale for vacation, but particularly for anybody vacationing in Hawai'i. Full review here.

10. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.  I have been a huge fan of her short stories since 1999, when she published Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection.  I was not, however, a fan of her longer work until I read this book.  This history of a family spools out slowly and deliberately like a tendril of not-quite-room-temperature honey, but with all of the clarity and luminous language that I've come to appreciate in her stories.



So those are the best novels that I read this past year, but I'd like to give out a couple of honorable mentions:

Longbourn by Jo Baker. It came as quite the surprise just how much I enjoyed this backstage version of  Pride and Prejudice, told from the point of view of the servants.  This is a finely researched and well-written piece of historical fiction, not to mention an important reminder that not all young Regency ladies are as lucky as Elizabeth Bennet. Full review here.

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt is also a notable book.  I didn't review it, but it's the story of two girls growing up during the height of the USA-Soviet scare.  When one girl disappears with her family in a plane crash, the other one never really recovers from the betrayal she discovers. This novel was well written and interesting and remarkably self-assured for a debut.




I read and/or listened to 17 works of nonfiction this year and two of them really stand out:

Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial, a work in true journalistic style about the Hurricane Katrina disaster at a New Orleans hospital.  Even though these events happened a few years ago, she still had my heart racing.  I somehow never wrote a full review, but here's my two-bit version: This is narrative nonfiction of the highest order, dealing with Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans, and the misappropriation of both common sense and decency in one of the cities' hospitals. So good. So frustrating. Were medical staff euthanizing patients during those dark hours of madness? If they were, was it justifiable or criminal? I predict that this book will be making the awards circuits when the time comes.

The other nonfiction is surprisingly NOT the new Bill Bryson book (which I also loved), but Ann Patchett's first essay collection, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. My husband read it eons ago on vacation and I meant to read it then myself, but one thing led to another and I somehow didn't.  But about a month ago I was reading through my blog roll catching up on other people's posts and I saw this one from Bibliophiliac. I was reading it, nodding along with all of her excellent points, when I ran across my name.  I'd forgotten that I'm mentioned in passing in the essay about short stories (it's a long story), so I grabbed my husband's copy and started reading it that night.  SO, so good.  I'm a bona fide fiction girl, but even so, this book might be my favorite of Patchett's works.  This book is incredibly useful and insightful if one wants to be a better writer, but I actually think it is just as useful and insightful if one wants to be a better human being.  No, seriously. This book is amazing. Just read it.


That leaves me with...YA.  The very best book of YA that I read this year won't be published until spring time 2014 (Maybe One Day), and the very best YA book published this year is a book I actually read last year, but it was SO good that I'll mention it here anyway.  I'm talking, naturally, about Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.  Full, gushing review here. But as for the best YA book that I read this year that was also published this year?  Well, that's got to be the delightfully anti-Twilight vampire book from Holly Black called The Coldest Girl in Coldtown. I even [temporarily] colored my hair blue for the event.  This was an absolutely rollicking read. Full review here.

My reading stats break down a little differently from previous years.  I read fewer books this year than the last couple of years and I read a higher percentage of non fiction this year.  This was also the first year that I started to embrace e-books. Or at least e-galleys from publishers.  Despite the douchiness of Amazon, here's a shout-out to Goodreads for helping me keep these things straight:

Total books read: 123
Fiction: 106 (86%)
Nonfiction: 17 (14%)
Audio books: 22 (18%)
E-books: 10 (8%)
Fanfiction (novel length): 8 (7%)
Short story collections: 4 (3%)
YA/middle grade: 31 (25%)

I read at a roughly 3:1 ratio, female to male writers. Interesting.
I read at a roughly 9:1 ratio of white writers to non-white writers.  Boo.

What about y'all?  What did you read and love in 2013?  What surprised you?  Disappointed you? Thrilled you?  I want to know!

25 comments:

  1. Ha! I haven't ready any of your top books, but I do have several on my TBR for 2014! I suspect more may be added to the pile ......

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    1. hi, Suzie, and thanks for stoppping by...off to see if you have a blog now that I can check out!

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  2. Well, cripes almighty, Crowe! This is a splendid wrap up of 2013 and I find that while I have read some of these already and agree with your assessments, there are a whole bunch more that I now want to read like right now, today. I wish today would be a longer affair so I could sit down right now and not get up until it was done. Thanks for taking the time to write such a beautiful end-of-year survey!

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    1. Belle, oh Belle. You flatter me, but I will accept it because you make me feel better and really, the end of 2013 was hard!

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    2. It was not my intention to set out to flatter. I just want you to know how much I appreciate your blog. I can always rely on you to get me to my next best read. I don't know what it is, but I want 2014 to be a little brighter for you.

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  3. Damn that real life. All "heeeey, pay attention to ME!" Very needy.

    FINE, I will read Goldfinch.

    123 books is beyond "not shabby". It's pretty impressive, so well done.

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    1. Real LIfe is WAY to needy sometimes. Pretty pathetic!

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  4. "and are so finely crafted that the author's use of metaphorical language shifted from character to frickin' character"

    Oh. I missed that. BUT STILL THOUGHT IT WAS A SWELL BOOK.

    I'm going to read The Rosie Project. For definite.

    Ann Patchett! Coldest Girl in Coldtown! Five Days at Memorial! Also a lot of books I have not heard of, but am impressed you read/liked.

    Yay 2013. 2014's gonna be awesome.

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    1. Umm...it's possible that maybe I didn't come up with that metaphorical observation on my own. And by "possible" I clearly mean "100% for sure."

      I think you will like The Rosie Project. I've talked with anybody who hasn't. And you're smart and funny so clearly you will like a book that is smart and funny.

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  5. Holy actual crap, that's a lot of books you read. Good work! I'm with Red up there, re: Goldfinch. We may be the last people on the internet to read it. I love your description of it, though! I need it in my face.

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    1. Goldfinch: so good! And I will be seriously put out if it doesn't win the Pulitzer.

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    2. Goldfinch came in for me at the library while I was out of town for 2 weeks so I missed my Hold Shelf Window. BOO! But at least I'm in good company.

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  6. WOW. 123 books is intimidating. I was amazed to have managed 55, and I only managed that with all of the audiobooks that I read and reread. Of the books you mentioned, I've only read "This is Paradise," but the Patchett book is next on my shelf and lots of others are on my when-they-come-out-in-paperback list. As for blogging...it's been a month for me as well. I should really write something before y'all think I'm dead!

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    1. Hey, you've been trapped under something heavy, too? I remember your Austin book festival post and will have to be on the lookout for your come back. ;)

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  7. Hot damn, you did good :)

    Yay The Rosie Project! It was fantastic. Maybe I can squeeze a re-read in of it this month... it's calling me.

    And I have a copy of The Goldfinch purely because I saw it used for only $4.... MAYBE I'll get around to reading it. Tartt has gotten a lot of hype lately.

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    1. $4 Goldfinch? That is definitely the best book deal I've heard of in a LONG time!

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  8. I just realized that I have Goldfinch on my shelf. (!) Must read. aaaaand...I think I also have A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (?!) I loved Benediction (bought on your recommendation!) so I'll definitely be looking into The Rosie Project and few others on your list. Thanks for keeping me up to date in what needs to be read. :)

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    1. I've put copies of The Rosie Project into the hands of more readers this year (as a bookseller, I mean. not a blogger) than any book in a long, long time. It will now always be a go-to book for me to recommend to just about any reader.

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  9. That is a LOT of books. And I know you work at a bookshop which I always feel is vaguely cheating in the book count, and I've seen the pictures of you reading on the beach in Antigua. BUT STILL. You're increasing the number of books the average American reads (some pathetic number like... 3?) by a not-insubstantial amount!

    Ok, so the only book I read on your list is E&P. That seems... wrong. Holly Black is already on my list for 2014, as is Donna Tartt. Have you read any Catherynne Valente? She's my contribution thus far.

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    1. Catherynne Valente? Not only have I not read her, I've never heard of her. Unless I read a post you wrote about her and then promptly forgot the name, which is entirely possible...off to scavenge info about her.

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  10. My turn in the very looooong library hold line for The Goldfinch finally came, and I'm just sort of looking at it from behind a pillow now because it intimidates the crap out of me. But I'm sure I can't renew it and it's 800 PAGES. So. *inches toward it*

    I'm also on a long hold list for The Rosie Project precisely due to your recommendation, and the other day I saw it on the hold shelf with someone else's name on it and almost did something very naughty but resisted in the end.

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    1. Sounds like your true Hufflepuff nature won out over a temporary Slytherin impulse. Well done!

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  11. Happy to see that This Is Paradise made it onto your list, as it did mine. Shockingly, I haven't read any of your other top choices, but I've just begun the Ozeki and will add The Goldfinch, The Lowland, The Rosie Project, and Eleanor and Park to my personal TBR list. And I'm going to suggest A Marker to Measure Drift, Americanah, and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my local book group.
    Can't go wrong with your picks, E!

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    1. I miss seeing your book reviews--seems like every time I check your blog it's for the Poem in Your Post posts. Which I am absolutely not sophisticated enough to appreciate as I should.

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)