My FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2013
2013 was a time of great binge-watching and great binge-reading. Here are some of the books I couldn’t put down this year. All are highly recommended.
THE ONE THAT DESTROYED ME (IN A GOOD WAY)
Meet Reno, the most intriguing heroine of the year: she’s a motorcycle thrill seeker, an interloper in the downtown New York art scene of the mid-1970s, part-time model, a naive American who gets embroiled in radical Italian politics. She also has terrible taste in men. The Flamethrowers weaves together these interconnecting threads of Reno’s life, the excitement and glamour, but also Reno’s vulnerability, her abject unworldliness. Page by page, sentence by sentence, word by word, the best book of 2013.
TWO SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS YOU SHOULDN’T MISS
With all respect to George Saunders, Tenth of December doesn’t need a plug from me. Here are two collections from 2013 that didn’t get as much love as they should have. Let’s change that.
I’m gonna use the word “experimental” now. Shhh. Don’t be scared. Trust that I’m using the word to describe a style of writing that feels exciting and new and different, not pretentious or unnecessarily complicated. The linked stories in Spectacle feel like they’re breaking new ground even as they zero in on universal emotions.
I would like to live inside the title story in this collection, in which a dinner party gets all kinds of awkward. All of the stories in Bobcat contain worlds that feel perfectly self-contained and satisfying, and yet each and every one could be expanded into a novel that I would hungrily read.
MOST ANTI-YOLO NOVEL
Life After Life explores the biggest of Big Questions: What would you do if you could live your life over and over again until you get it right? What does “right” even mean? Does it mean avoiding heartache, defying death, meeting a soulmate, having a family? Maybe not! Probably not! It takes a writer of great vision and discipline to create a story that has so many disparate threads, but feels so compact and elegant. Get through the first 50 pages and you’ll be hooked—I promise.
MOST LITERARY TAKE ON DATING JERKS, BROOKLYN-STYLE
AKA The One That Hits Too Close To Home. Adelle Waldman’s title character is a nice, smart, sensitive writer-type who happens to have no emotional intelligence whatsoever. What happens when the kinda-nerdy guy your parents would positively adore turns out to be kinda a dick? The fact that Waldman can make Nate P.’s personal life both so relatable and so deplorable is a testament to her critical eye.
My resolution for 2013 was to savor more of what I read, rather than racing through in a panic to get to the next one. Necessary Errors was a novel that forced me to take it slow—to get caught up in all of the wonderfully imagined details of Caleb Crain’s debut about a recent college grad who travels to Prague in 1990, just as Czechoslovakia bid adieu to socialism. Hard not to see parallels between the nation’s attempt to find itself and a young man’s attempt to find himself, but the novel is so much bigger—world-expanding—than that.
From the very first pages of At Night We Walk in Circles, we know that something terrible is going to happen. We learn about a young, ambitious actor who tours through a nameless Latin American country with an experimental theater group, and we know that he meets some sort of tragic end. Despite the outcome, it’s a joy to take the journey with him, to ponder what it means to be a performer and what kinds of roles we play even when we aren’t on stage.
THE LITERARY THRILLER YOU SHOULD BE TALKING ABOUT
I argued that Cartwheel should be the new Gone Girl (I even used GIFs!) and I stand by it—if you’re looking for a totally addictive and thought-provoking thriller that’s both masterfully written and fun to read, look no further.
Read the first few pages of The Woman Upstairs and revel in the anger of Claire Messud’s protagonist, an elementary school teacher in her late 30s who is still waiting for her life to begin. Love her or think she’s lacking in likability, the woman upstairs vents a level of frustration with daily life with which I couldn’t help but sympathize, even as she grapples with the distinction between how much of life is real, as opposed to the stories we tell ourselves.
Most of the time when I read a mystery, I don’t really care too much about descriptions of where it’s set—I just want a fast-paced plot to push the narrative along. The Facades is the exception, a novel in which a decrepit Midwestern city is as much a moody, complicated character as it is the setting. When a beloved opera singer goes missing, her hapless husband attempts to track her down through the crumbling streets of Trude, a city that feels bizarre and surreal and also more than a little familiar.
BOOK I WISH I’D READ WHEN I WAS 20
OK, so the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award of 2013 will be awarded within hours, and I happened to have fallen in love with one of the shortlist contestants. I am not ashamed. Don’t let the dubious nomination fool you—My Education is hot as hell 99% of the time. Susan Choi’s novel about the complicated love life of a graduate student details all the shit we have to learn about in life that doesn’t take place in a classroom or lecture hall.
Note: If you haven’t yet read The Secret History, you should probably do that before you read The Goldfinch. But if you already have, then call in sick to work and prepare to get swept away in a narrative that more than one critic has called “Dickensian.”
Thanks to Meaty I was the deranged lady on the subway who couldn’t stop giggling. Samantha Irby, of Bitches Gotta Eat fame, just keeps on telling it like it is, essay by essay, rapid-fire blogger-style. A joyous mixture of bad language, bad behavior, and bad relationships.
MOST HORRIFYING (AND FUNNY!) NONFICTION
I had to stop underlining the sentences in Going Clear that made me gasp in horror because I would’ve ended up underlining the whole book. Lawrence Wright’s clear-eyed, phenomenally researched takedown of Scientology is straight-up terrifying. And also undeniably funny. I made a list of some of the most astounding/awful/hilarious quotes from the book, presented by Wright with very little editorializing. The bat-shitness of the whole enterprise speaks for itself.
Everything is blowing up around us, but there are still those who care about a broken lock, and others who are dutiful enough to try to fix it… But maybe that’s the way it should be. Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.
Haruki Murakami (Samsa In Love)
For my fourth graders, #library time is the highlight of their week :) If you’re interested in donating old books to our class library- we can use everything from encyclopedias to Enid Blytons to kindergarten books- please drop me a line and I’ll reply with my shipping address :) #books #reading #teaching #teachforindia #TFI
Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.
Nora Ephron (via afraid-of-my-darkest-desires)
This was my first time reading a book by Erich Segal, and I really enjoyed it.
I come from a family of doctors, and with my interest in science and the medical profession, I found this book very engrossing. The look into the secret lives of doctors, who’re merely human after all, was both humbling and profound. The amount of work that medical students have to do, the daily pressures of healing the sick, and the private demons that doctors struggle with daily- this book examines all that, and more, through the lens of a highly readable story.
Rating- 4/5 stars
When we meet and I discover that we have read and loved the same books, we are instant friends. We know a great deal about each other already if we both read. I imagine this is why I strive so hard to get people around me to read. If you don’t read, I don’t know how to communicate with you. I know this is a shortcoming. Perhaps my mother, who worried that reading would make me socially stunted, was half right. I can never express who I really am in my own words as powerfully as my books can.
Donalyn Miller, in The Book Whisperer.
She is doing what she is talking about — she says better than I could my experience and my life!
I thought this book got off to a slow start. The first sentence of the novel is arresting and enticing, and that’s what led to me buying it:
"I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was an instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany."
…but it wasn’t until after the first 100 pages that I truly began to appreciate the intricacy and grace of Irving’s writing.
The next 500 pages race by, full of brilliantly insightful prose, detailing things about family, friendship, love, religion, and God, that most people could never articulate.
I’ve copied down numerous quotes from this book, and added it to my Goodreads favorites shelf. I know it’s a book that’ll keep me going back, for its wisdom, beauty, and sheer comfort.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough.
Rating- 5/5 stars
I LOVED Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal, which I read ages ago. Her memoir has been on my to-read list ever since it came out. And now that I’ve raced through the book in a couple hours, I can frankly say I found everything I was looking for- candid insights, Chua’s beliefs and motivations, and the reactions of her daughters- all packaged in the author’s compellingly honest prose.
The book races along, chronicling the sometimes hilarious, sometimes unbelievable, and sometimes wrenching story of an Asian American family, while attempting to explain what drives perfectionism and why. I found that Chua’s story helped me understand my mother better- as the author repeatedly explains, Indian parents are not that different from Chinese ones when it comes to demanding and achieving excellence :)
A delightfully tongue-in-cheek novel that everyone can relate with, in one way or another.
Rating- 4/5 stars