Friday, January 3, 2014

My Book Year 2013

In 2013 I read thirty-four books, not bad considering that one of them was War and Peace, which took me almost two months.

A word about the above. As an English major and lover of nineteenth-century literature, I’ve always been embarrassed/guilty to say that I had never read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, widely considered the greatest novel of all time. So I decided this was the year. I bought a paperback copy of the latest translation, complete with notes, list of characters, list of historical personages—everything I thought I’d need as a first-time reader. I immersed myself in it for about seven weeks.

I have to confess that I was underwhelmed. I kept waiting for that “kick,” that moment when I knew this was a GREAT book, something that compelled me back to it, that gave me an unforgettable experience. And I never found it. Too many very long battle scenes, characters not as luminous as imagined they would be. Interesting history, as I hadn’t known much about the Napoleonic wars, especially in Russia. But I was not very impressed with the translation. The translators made a point of stating, in the introduction, that they had been as true as possible to Tolstoy’s style, including his use of repetition—but I found myself wishing they’d followed other translators and varied the language more! I kept thinking of the old “Cheers” episode when Diane and her ex-boyfriend are raving about W&P. Sam, jealous, forces himself to slog through the book to impress Diane, then at the end finds out there’s a MOVIE!

But at least now I can say I read it. On to what I really did enjoy in 2013.

This isn’t a list of the best books of the year; just the best ones I read in 2013. I only read a few that were actually published during the past year. Some are from recent years, others are much older, but all were outstanding and well worth reading. (They’re given in the order in which I read them, not in ranked order.)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This psychological masterpiece examines the mind of a young student who believes that the “superior man” is above ordinary morality, and to prove that he murders an old pawnbroker and (unintentionally) her sister. But guilt racks Raskolnikov in spite of his philosophy. It has the best elements of classic thrillers, including a wonderful cat-and-mouse game with a canny detective.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. A love story in the claustrophobic setting of a snowbound small town and farmhouse. Intense, with a chilling (no pun) ending.

Three Novellas: The Leaf Storm, Nobody Writes to the Colonel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Three of his best novellas; the final was my favorite, a story about how good people almost unwittingly allow evil to happen within their midst though it could have been stopped at any of a number of moments.

As Nature Made Him by John Colapinto. This is the disturbing and infuriating nonfiction story of a boy who in a botched operation as an infant loses his genitals; doctors advise his parents to raise him as a girl. But the child suffers through a wretched childhood and adolescence before learning the truth. The hardest part to read about is the doctor, a well-known "sexologist" who might well be a character in a horror novel, a man with some very odd ideas about children, gender, and sex who tests his theories with real children.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. My best book of the year. I had to read this after finishing the previous book on this list. Eugenides’ protagonist is an “intersex,” a girl who never really identifies as female and who carries a stunted set of male genitals that never developed. This material could easily be exploitive in a lesser writer’s hands, but Eugenides’ compassion and generosity toward all his characters makes it transforming and beautiful.

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel. After having loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies last year, I was eager to read Mantel’s earlier work. Radically different from her latest two but still showing the deft hand of a master, this tells the story of a girl and her problematic relationship with a schoolmate who pretty much attaches herself to the reluctant narrator from childhood well into young adulthood. The schoolmate, Karina, is a fascinating character in the way that psychopaths are—but is she one? We’re never really sure, even at the end.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Another one that’s been on my list for years. Along with the famous title story, the book incorporates a collection of stories revolving around Vietnam and featuring mostly the same characters, and comes across as an amalgamation of fiction and reality.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. My second reading of this, first since college. I didn’t remember very much of it. Although I wouldn’t call it one of my all-time favorites, it’s great reading, and Austen’s characterizations and dialogue are sharp and witty, as of course are her observations of English class life. I loved the character of Mr. Bennet.

Winner of the National Book Award (yes, this is the title) and The Writing Class by Jincy Willett. I just discovered Willett’s writing this year, and I love it. She’s bitingly funny but also profound and touching. The first is the story of twin sisters, one a librarian who’s more comfortable with books than people, although she’s outspoken and dry witted; the other is the outgoing type, continually involving herself in one dysfunctional relationship after another. There is nothing cliched in Willett’s writing or in her characters; the book is both comic and psychologically gripping. The Writing Class is her version of a murder mystery with liberal doses of humor, starring a rather cranky ex-writer who’s now teaching extension classes and the motley group of students who nevertheless coalesce over the course of the novel and bring out the humanity in their teacher as they bond with each other when one of their classmates is killed.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I had resisted reading this for the first couple of years, even though for some reason it intrigued me; I’m not a thriller/mystery fan, so I kept wondering whether it was worth investing my time in. I eventually borrowed it from a friend and was really pleasantly surprised. It was very well written (my top criterion) to begin with, and I found myself fascinated by the interlocking stories of (supposedy) no-account Nick and perfect wife Amy. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the ending, but in my mind, though a little jarring, I think it fit quite well—and I don’t believe the story was really over when it was over.

Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. Lamott’s essays dealing with the development of her faith are hilarious, moving, and inspiring. She recounts her trials as a single mother, her sudden awakening to religious belief in adolescence, and the deaths of several important people in her life, and reading her is like talking with a treasured friend. You come away from this book wishing you knew her and just being glad that she’s in the world.

Finally, the most exciting book I read this year: Left  by Tamar Ossowski, who was a classmate of mine in an online writing course several years ago. During and after the course, she, I, and one or two others continued “meeting” online to work on our novels; this was Tamar’s, and I knew it was special. I was thrilled to see it published this year. It’s a very moving story of two sisters, one of whom is autistic, and what happens when their mother leaves one of them behind and flees with the other.

Now, onward to the books that await me in 2014! I’ve already started The Goldfinch, and I suspect that will make my best list for next year.

Happy reading!!


  1. Wow. Thanks for the book list. Now I know where to come when I need my next pick for the GoodReads challenge! And I've always wondered about that War & Peace book.. It seemed so daunting to me sitting on my dad's book shelf.. Maybe one day I'll read it to. :)

  2. Love the list Elaine and there are quite a few that are on my TBR list. I won't go back to War and Peace though - have tried at least five times over the years and find I just cannot. do. it. Excruciating read for me so kudos to you!

  3. Great list! I have a couple on my own list, so it's nice to get the reminder and affirmation that they're worth reading. I only wish there were more hours in the day!