My favorite books of 2013

Everyone’s posting “best” lists at this time of the year, so here’s mine.  I’ve indicated where I listened to the book. A great audiobook novel–beautifully written with a great reader–is a treat. I often feel that I’ve enjoyed the book more for listening to it. Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Lowland, is a case in point. The  narrator wrings every ounce of emotion out of every scene. It’s a tour de force of narration and though I’m sure I would have enjoyed reading the book, I’m also sure that listening was better. Trust me and get the audio if you can; if not, read it, but don’t pass it up.

Here’s the list, divided by fiction and nonfiction, in no particular order:   

Fiction
Breath by Tim Winton. Picador, 2009.
I read this in preparation for a trip to Australia, but it could have been set on the California coast. It’s a coming of age story about surfing and the word “breath” sums it all up–the way the ocean breathes the surfers in and out, the way the boys breathe with the waves, waiting for the moment of decision, and the way I held my breath as the story became more and more tense.

Billy Lynn’s Long Half-time Walk by Ben Fountain.  HarperCollins, 2012.
This was on all the best lists last year; if you put off reading it, as I did, go back  and read it, listen to it if you can.  I listened to this novel–the reader, Oliver Wyman, was terrific. I can’t imagine that it would be as fun to read as it was to listen to. Wyman distinguished all the voices and clearly conveyed every ounce of nuance in the text. There was also so much to love in the writing–one of my favorite lines refers to someone who “flounders in the swamp of self-expression.” Don’t we all at times?

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. Little, Brown. 2013.
I’ve read everything by Atkinson that I can put my hands on, starting with Behind the Scenes at the Museum, her first novel and continuing through her 
Jackson Brodie mystery series. If I say that there’s time travel involved, don’t be put off; it’s a literary historical novel of the first order about a women whose empathic  nature puts her in mortal danger repeatedly and each time she returns to the beginning of her life to start again. The section set during the Blitz in London is wonderful, maybe the most evocative account I’ve read in a long time.

Brewster by Mark Slouka. W.W. Norton, 2013.
Set in upstate New York, this coming of age novel is so dark that you may want to read it in daylight. It’s not perfect but it’s close. Two male high school students navigate the minefields of their families in the company of a beautiful young girl. For fans of Daniel Woodrell, Tom Franklin, and Wiley Cash, add this to your list.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. Crown, 2013.
So hard to believe that this is Marra’s first novel; it’s so polished and right. Set in a village in a war-torn Eastern European country, it begins when a doctor watches as his neighbor is carried off by one of the factions. The doctor rescues his neighbor’s young daughter and takes her to a hospital for safekeeping. From this simple beginning, Marra weaves a story of the ambiguity of good and evil with mythic properties. It just gets better and better as you read, until the perfect last page. 

Wash by Margaret Wrinkle. Grove/Atlantic, 2013.
There have been so many books in the last few years set in the South during the period of slavery and now I’m sure the movie Twelve Years a Slave is set for Oscar nomination. How can I recommend another slave narrative? I feel strongly that this is the one to read; the writing is exquisite and the story unusual and totally absorbing.

Sparta by Roxana Robinson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2013.
On the very first page, Robinson puts us inside the thoughts of Conrad Farrell, returning Iraq war veteran. I’ve read several excellent novels about the Iraq War (The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk–see above—come to mind) but haven’t found anything that shows us how it feels to return to civilian life in quite the same way. The title refers to the explicit Marine attitudes that exalt the culture of war and soldiering. I thought it was brilliant and I was fortunate to meet Roxana Robinson so I could tell her!

The Explanation for Everything by Lauren Grodstein. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013.
A fun suburban novel with a philosophical twist; I enjoyed Grodstein’s last novel, A Friend of the Family. I really like the way she develops character.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins, 2013.
I hadn’t been reading Erdrich recently but heard good things about this one and was very glad I read it. It’s set on an Indian reservation in North Dakota; you could consider it a coming of age story about a teenage boy who tries to avenge a crime committed against his mother. It’s filled with the issues of the way we continue to mistreat Native Americans, but it’s not a polemic. 

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt, 2009.
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. Henry Holt, 2012. Read by Simon Slater.
I listened to both of these during the summer and was riveted by Mantel’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell. I had picked up Wolf Hall to read it and was impatient with the level of detail, but listening to it was an entirely different experience. Cromwell came alive for me as did the period and all the famous characters. I hope book 3 is coming soon although I’m not looking forward to Cromwell’s downfall.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins, 2013.
I listened to Gaiman read this–what a treat! I don’t normally read or listen to science fiction or fantasy–Gaiman’s the exception since he’s such a great writer. (Anansi Boys is one of my favorite books.) It’s short; just go read it. 

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel. HarperCollins. 2013.
I read Daniel’s first novel, Stiltsville and was enchanted. She just knows how to capture the spirit of a place. Sea Creatures had the same combination of strong setting (Miami) and interesting characters. Nothing earthshaking here, just people’s complicated lives, well done, a little edgy, a pleasure to read. I still think about the characters in both novels. 

You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Grand Central, 2014.
Writing about this book is cheating since it won’t be published until March, 2014, but I received a copy from the publisher and thought I’d read it since I remember reading Korelitz’s first novel, Sabbathday River, years ago. I couldn’t put it down and read it obsessively over the course of 2 days, then passed it on to a friend who stayed up until 3am reading it. Now it’s with a third friend. I found myself thinking about the characters and the story when I wasn’t reading it. In brief, a woman psychologist, happily married, Upper West Side, with a son in a tony private school and a pediatric oncologist husband, writes a book about how we really know, when we find a partner, if there will be issues in the relationship, but we fool ourselves, so….thereby hangs the title of the book. It’s not too great a leap to figure out the plot, but it’s the character development and the writing that make the novel so compelling.  

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Europa Editions, 2013.
See my review here.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf Doubleday, 2013. (Audio read by Sunil Malhotra.
The death of a young man reverberates through the lives of his family members, setting them adrift in India and Rhode Island, unable to build stable lives. I listened to this haunting novel, so beautifully written and read, but so sad that it was often hard to go on. Lahiri has the remarkable ability to make her story relate to her readers’ own lives and choices, even if we’re not immigrants from Calcutta; she knows the human heart. 

Nonfiction
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity  by Andrew Solomon. Scribner, 2012.
It’s hard to know where to start to write about Solomon’s book about parenting children who are different–it’s such a huge accomplishment and so overwhelming to read. My nonfiction book group read this, although I suggested we read only certain chapters in order to focus discussion better. We read the chapters on deafness, dwarfism, Down Syndrome, and prodigies. Some of the chapters (like the ones on autism and schizophrenia) were so painful to read that I felt it would derail some of the group members.  This is a book that will change the way you think about disability. 

Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire by James Romm. Knopf Doubleday, 2011.
Alexander died young and unexpectedly; there was no second-in-command to step into his shoes, only a group of generals and confidants. The empire stretched so far at his death–all the way to India–that is had become difficult to administer. Romm tells the story of how his generals (and others) fought to divide the kingdom. It’s a great story, nicely told, and the reader is left with an interesting picture of how the Hellenic world moved on without its brilliant leader. 

Dancing to the Precipice: Lucie Dillon, Marquise de la Tour du Pin and the French Revolution by Caroline Moorehead. HarperCollins, 2009.
A friend recommended this to me and I think it’s the best kind of biography, filled with details that make the era come alive for the reader and characters that step off the page. Lucie Dillon had the misfortune to live in interesting times: 1770-1853, and as a noblewoman, she experienced all the ups and downs that the era had to offer.

Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II by Keith Lowe. St. Martin’s Press, 2012.
Lowe’s book fills in the details of post-WWW II European history that we didn’t learn  in school. Europe was devastated: infrastructure gone, governments gone, millions of people displaced, partisans continuing to fight their own dirty wars of vengeance and ethnic cleansing. So much of what we see in the news today comes from that time. Ultimately, Lowe tells us that we should think about WWII in a different way. There was far more going on than defeating the Germans; the racial and ethnic conflicts that started during the war were not resolved by peace treaties but continued to smolder and burn and in fact, they still do. Read the newspaper.

The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding by Robert Hughes. Knopf Doubleday, 1986.
I read this in preparation for a trip to Australia and found it fascinating and disturbing. Hughes, the great art critic, here turns his attention to the colonial period in Australia, roughly 1799-1840, when the British, out of prison space at home, shipped thousands of prisoners to the Antipodes, some guilty of no more than the theft of a loaf of bread. Convinced that these convicts were congenital criminals, the authorities placed no restrictions on the  treatment they could receive. Hughes’s catalog of floggings and other tortures is specific and horrible but there’s great stuff here as well about the events and landscape that formed the Australian psyche.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Simon & Schuster, 2006.
It took me a long time to get to this book; I wanted to make sure I had space cleared in my life to allow time for its daunting length. Goodwin, as usual, tells a great story and brings Lincoln to life in a wonderful way. When I was a child, I visited my mother’s parents every weekend. My grandfather idolized Lincoln and had several books about him. There wasn’t much for a child to do on those long afternoons when the grownups talked and drank tea, so I read those books. I especially liked the one called Lincoln Talks, which was full of funny stories attributed to Lincoln, and I read it over and over, so I’ve always had an affection for him. Goodwin’s portrait of Lincoln is so generous and warm, that it’s a delight to read. She also makes the details of mid-19th century politics fascinating. My book group read this one, although I missed the discussion.

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Crown, 2013. Read by Dan Woren.
Acemoglu and Robinson suggest that the difference between “inclusive” and “extractive” political institutions is key to how successful a society will be, whether it will thrive.  An inclusive society develops institutions that allow its citizens the liberty to become educated and pursue innovation. An extractive society erects barriers to personal freedom and seeks to contain power in the hands of a few who extract wealth from the society. Using examples from many countries and many eras, they make their thesis abundantly clear. It’s a great framework for looking at history and  reading the morning’s newspaper. Highly recommended. The audio version was very well done, although it’s a book that worth reading or hearing twice: I plan to read it in 2014.

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin. Random House, 2013.
I read this for my book group and found it quite an amazing story. Here’s the link to what I wrote on my book group page.

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