In 2013 my reading took me to a nineteenth century farm in England, South Africa, the slums of Mumbai, a village under the searing Afghanistan sun, and a small village in Chechnya. I was stunned by a tale of a serial killer during the Great Depression, and haunted by a brutal attack on a North Dakota Indian Reservation. I was entranced by memorable characters like Bernadette, Mr. Darwin’s gardener, Ade, and Charlie Crosby. I was reminded of the racism behind the Boxer Rebellion, the mystery of death, and the extraordinary powers of animals. I laughed. I cried. I was transported by beautiful prose, and moved by profound observations. 2013 was another fabulous year of great books.
Here is my long list, short list and winner for the best books I read this year. Short and long listed books are in no particular order.
LONG LIST – 2013
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (Scribner, October 2013) – Based on the true story of Henry Powers who was a serial killer during the Great Depression, and lured his victims through lonely-hearts advertisements which promised marriage. Jayne Anne Phillips has done a masterful job of recreating the events of 1931 and in the process introduces the reader to beautifully wrought fictional characters. Her novel is a blend of fact and fiction, eliciting strong emotions and in the process giving a voice to the victims of Powers’ crimes. (read my review)
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Reagan Arthur Books, April 2013) – Who among us has not wondered about the small choices we have made which steer us down a path we might otherwise not have found ourselves traveling? Atkinson’s writing is flawless, darkly comic, and filled with a poignant insight into what makes us human. (read my review)
Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple (Back Bay Books; Reprint edition, April 2013) – A wildly entertaining, sometimes poignant, and often hilarious story about parenting in the 21st century, religion, American culture and finding oneself in the process. (read my review)
And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Hardcover, May 2013) – And the Mountains Echoed is a novel about family, loss, identity, and connection with others. Hosseini explores the idea that a simple choice will echo across time and have deep ramifications for generations to come. (read my review)
Enon by Paul Harding (Random House, September 2013) - Enon is the protagonist’s journey through the painful year following his daughter’s death. Eloquently written, difficult to read without sadness, and beautifully observed, the novel examines grief, despair, redemption, and how the passage of time can bring about the slow process of healing from loss. (read my review)
This is Paradise: Stories by Kristiana Kahahouwila (Hogarth, July 2013) – This is Paradise: Stories is a haunting, beautifully crafted collection from a penetrating and talented new voice in fiction. Kahakauwila writes with a finely honed and observant point of view. Her characters jump from the pages, real and fully formed. Readers who are new to short fiction will find this collection accessible and poetic. (read my review)
SHORT LIST – 2013
Ade by Rebecca Walker (Little A / New Harvest, October 2013); Hardcover; Literary Fiction (Novella)
Walker explores the big themes of identity, romantic idealism, and the impact of civil war on the lives of individuals. The writing is luminous and beautiful, the characters captivating. Long before the end of the story, the reader sees the conflict and watches as Farida slides toward a reality she has not yet imagined. It is tense and riveting – the kind of literature which holds the reader in its thrall while it comes to its inevitable conclusion.
Round House by Louise Erdrich (Harper Collins, October 2012); Hardcover; Literary Fiction
Despite the serious themes in The Round House, Louise Erdrich manages to inject humor which often made me laugh out loud. I have come to appreciate Erdrich’s ironic sense of humor, and this ability to lighten her often dark stories is just one reason I look forward to reading her work. The Round House is filled with memorable characters, ingeniously plotted, and delivers its message without being preachy.
Dr. Darwin’s Gardener by Kristina Carlson (Peirene Press, June 2013); Soft Cover; Translated Literature (Novella)
In the end, Kristina Carlson delivers a story rich and profound with writing that feels like one long poem about what it means to be a human and struggling to understand the greater question of life.
River of Dust by Virginia Pye (Unbridled Books, May 2013); Trade Paperback; Historical Fiction
River of Dust is a wholly original novel with luscious prose and compelling characters. Pye puts a spin on the essence of faith and in the waning pages reveals a dark secret which the Reverend has kept from his wife. The effect is a vividly imagined book that gives readers a glimpse into what life was like for Christian missionaries living in China in the early years of the 20th century. But more importantly, perhaps, it examines the importance of understanding cultures different from our own, and asks the essential question: What are the universal connections we have as humans, regardless of our culture or religion?
The Colour of Milk by Nell Letshon (Harper/ECCO, December 2012); Hardcover; Literary and Historical Fiction
Leyshon’s writing is powerful, incredibly moving, and filled with a grace that many authors are not able to find in their prose. This is a penetrating and compelling look into the life of one young girl during a time in history when women were considered property and had no real rights. It is shocking, empathetic and provocative.
White Dog Fell From the Sky by Eleanor Morse (Viking Adult, January 2013); Hardcover; Historical Fiction
White Dog Fell From the Sky is a novel of tremendous scope and depth, giving the reader an unflinching look into a region of astounding beauty and cruelty, a look at political and military brutality against the backdrop of a vivid culture which depends on the environment, ecology and the unrelenting flow of wildlife for survival.
BEST FICTION of the Year
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra
Published by Hogarth (May 2013)
I love fiction set in other countries and Marra’s first novel, set in Chechnya between 1994 and 2004, is an amazing and emotional book about the impact of war on every day people. Marra humanizes the conflict in Chechnya by creating memorable characters. The book takes place over five days, but allows insight into the characters by taking the reader back into their pasts.
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena weaves the lives of these primary characters back and forth in time. In doing so, Marra explores themes of interconnectedness, hope, betrayal, and love. Even while showing us the horror of a neighbor informing on a friend, Marra defines the very essence of what it means to be human.
I read this book in the early part of May, and I still think about it from time to time which is a sure sign of literary greatness. Anthony Marra’s book is well deserving as the best book I read this year. Read my complete review for more information.
BEST NON FICTION of the Year:
Handling the Truth by Beth Kephart
Published by Gotham (August 2013)
Last year Beth Kephart’s novel, Small Damages, was my favorite book of 2012. This year, her non fiction book about the writing of memoir easily made my list for the best non fiction book of 2013.
Don’t be fooled by the slimness of this book – it is thick with knowledge and shared wisdom, plump with book recommendations, and fat with the kind of observations which I have come to expect from Beth Kephart’s writing.
Beth Kephart is a writer with great talent. She never, ever disappoints me. And Handling the Truth is a work of lasting importance. Read my full review for more information.