The Best Books I Read in 2013

It’s never too late to talk about good books, right? This little “best books” post is one I hope to make a habit of. I had planned to write it around the beginning of this year, but I was sick from about December to February and wasn’t able to do all my favorite year-end posts. But now the time has come! Like last year, I have ten gems to share with you. I’m putting them in the order that I read them.

1Q841Q84 was on my list in 2012 because I was just starting it, but I knew it was going to be important. I finished it this year (eyes glued to Kindle). I don’t know if it’s my favorite Murakami ever, but I don’t think that matters. I think some of our love for certain books is bound up in the memory of the experience, and entering a world of Murakami’s for the first time is something you never forget, something that probably can’t be topped, at least in your own mind. In any case, I actually read Murakami’s Underground (on the sarin gas attacks in Tokyo) a few months ago, and it really illuminated a lot of this novel for me. I recommend it!

In the WoodsI picked up Tana French’s In the Woods on a whim at the library. I had seen several of her novels on my mom’s shelves, so I thought I’d give her a try. I was completely mesmerized: the narrative, the character development, the mystery at the center of the text, the unexpected fallout. I also loved reading about Dublin and heartily enjoyed the lingo. This is really a recommendation for ALL of her books. When I finished the most recent one, I was so sad that I’ll have to wait for another one.

The Brothers KaramazovI am a dyed-in-the-wool Dostoevsky girl. I also love Tolstoy, just to muddy my position on the eternal dichotomy of Russian literature…but if I had to choose, I’d take Dostoevsky’s gritty, desperate, intense realism any day. I love that he is so unafraid to plumb the depths, to seek out the dark underbelly of humanity; he exposes it in all its ugliness…and then he finds a way to shine a light upon it. I have loved The Brothers Karamazov from the first time I read it, but I read it again this year for my book club. The very same passages moved me still, and I delighted again in how utterly funny Dostoevsky is (yes, it is true!). It’s hard to describe the place this novel has in my heart. It’s the warmest cup of tea on a cold day. I would recommend it to anyone.

What to EatSometime this past summer I got really interested in nutrition. I am constantly amazed by the bounteous array of food in the world: shiny eggplants and tiny mustard seeds, rich cream and tart rhubarb. I wanted to know a little bit more about the vitamins and minerals we get from our food, and I discovered What to Eat. What’s so great about it is that it’s structured as a stroll through the grocery store with a nutritionist, and one who is entirely level-headed and impartial at that. This is not a diet book or even a guide to shopping–it’s a fascinating history of lots of the elements that make up our modern grocery stock and a balanced consideration of the issues we face when we choose what to put on the table. It decodes the terms we hear thrown around all the time and makes a clear case for what’s worth worrying about and what’s just fluff. There’s no preachiness, and that is so refreshing. I read an older version, but there is an updated one now. Come on, library, order it!

Homeward BoundI read a review of Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound in The New Yorker and knew I wanted to read it. It was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and a book with its finger on the pulse of the DIY movement. Matchar identifies the reasons for the resurgence of interest in domesticity, and I agreed with every one. Eric read this book after I finished it, and we had some great conversations about where these issues crop up in our lives. I have to admit that I was a little bit afraid before I started it that the book was going to condemn women for leaving the workforce to pursue non-traditional career paths, but I was pleasantly surprised by Matchar’s empathy, understanding, and humor. The truth is that there are still just an awful lot of policies in our national work culture that make it a difficult place for women, or at least, a place where women have to make difficult choices. Having chosen my own path outside of the field I was trained in, I was left with a sadness about the current state of affairs. I am so very happy with my decision and would not change it for the world. But I still wish that the workplace were a friendlier place for women in general.

GraysonHillary lent me Lynne Cox’s Grayson, and I devoured it on a flight to Seattle. It’s an incredible true tale of a young woman helping a lost baby whale to find its mother. The writing is so beautiful, and the descriptions of the animals she sees along the way are luminous.  But the heart of the book is this rare interaction between a human and a mammal of enormous size and intelligence.

Night FilmMarisha Pessl’s Night Film was my lunchtime company while we were in Santorini. I loved the multimedia aspect of it, and was completely drawn in after a few chapters. I loved her first novel, and while this one is very different, it’s very compelling. Some have complained of some of the storyline seeming impossible…but the whole premise of the novel is the suspension of disbelief. And I will say this: it is a powerful author who can have a reader so invested in something she cannot see. The end was like opening a treasure box. And that’s all I’ll say, for fear of giving too much away.

A House in the SkyI read an excerpt of Amanda Lindhout’s memoir of her captivity in Somalia, and I had to read the book. A House in the Sky was the most riveting thing I read all year. I read it every second I could, including standing up at the laundromat. It is a harrowing tale, of course, but it is also a story of finding humanity where it has all but disappeared. It’s beautifully written and utterly heartbreaking. You will not be able to put it down.

Daily RitualsMason Currey’s Daily Rituals is a compendium of the creative routines of a wide range of artists, writers, musicians, and philosophers. It was fascinating to read about the some of the stranger quirks, but also tremendously inspiring to have a better understanding of how these great artists shaped their days. What I loved most was finding out how many of them had a daily walking habit, which was integral to their creative process. Makes me feel like I’m in good company (even if the company consists of giants towering over me!)

Life After Life And finally, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. I’ve never read a novel with such an interesting narrative structure, and I loved following the main character through all of the twists and turns her life might have taken. I also have a soft spot for historical novels about war; they can illuminate individual experience so much more richly than history books can.

Even though this post is much later than I expected it to be, I have enjoyed thinking about it these past few weeks. I must say, it was a magnificent year of reading. Wishing you all the same!

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