Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013″ lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.

8 comments

  1. This was so fun to read through! I’ve always felt that it doesn’t matter how many books you read in a year, it’s the quality of them that matters, and it sounds like the books you read in 2013 were by and large very good. At least half the titles you mention are ones that I have recently flagged and plan to read this year, so hopefully that means there are good things in store for me! :)

    Somehow I am not surprised to hear that Ann Patchett comes off smug in her non-fiction. She has always seemed that way to me (remember, I lived in Nashville for 7 years, the home of her bookstore) and I always found her offputting. I think she’s one of those authors, like Elizabeth Gilbert, who is actually really talented, but needs to stick to fiction because her real life personality is kind of insufferable.

  2. I love any list that contains ‘A Fine Balance’!! I also enjoyed ‘Night Film’ and ‘Lamb’. I wasn’t a big fan of ‘The Goldfinch’ but I can relate to the experience of being unable to settle with another book after reading an amazing one – I hope you manage to find another gem soon :-)

  3. Hi Steph! I’ll be interested to see what you read off the list and what you think. I really felt like I hit the jackpot this year overall, even with books that didn’t make my list. I only suffered through a few disappointments, but that might also be because I was more willing this year to put down books that just weren’t clicking for me on some level (looking at you, Dissident Gardens).

    That’s funny about Ann Patchett. I actually liked Truth & Beauty, but maybe because she was so focused on Lucy Grealy in that book I didn’t notice it so much. I also think The Getaway Car is a nice, solid little book on writing. But these essays, taken all together…I just thought she seemed kind of like a jerk. I’m glad I’m not the only one who gets that vibe.

  4. Jackie, I picked up both A Fine Balance and Lamb because I saw you recommended them, so pat yourself on the back! I am so glad that you enjoyed Night Film. I thought it was great fun, and I felt great relief for the author and for myself as a reader because I was such a fan of Pessl’s first book. I’m sure I’ll get back into the swing of things soon…I can’t complain too much because I had such a great reading year last year overall. And this year there will be a Sarah Waters and Lorrie Moore to look forward to!

  5. I think this will be the year I read A Fine Balance. I feel like I’ve been seeing it everywhere, which is interesting for a book that was released over fifteen years ago. Also, I’m pleased to see American Salvage on your list. It’s on my to-read list, but I had forgotten why I added it and was suspecting myself of choosing it because of its striking cover.

  6. Christy, A Fine Balance is destined to become a classic, I think, so I would expect people to keep talking about it. And American Salvage – the stories are as striking as the cover. I read many of them more than once. Let me know if/when you get around to reading these!

  7. I’ve tried so many times to read The Little Friend and been completely unable to get through it. One of these days I swear I will have a breakthrough with that book. I love The Secret History and I loved The Goldfinch — glad you liked The Goldfinch too!!

  8. Jenny, I swear it took me five or six tries to get into The Little Friend. It has a completely different pace than either The Secret History or The Goldfinch, which I think share some similarities. I can’t say why it finally clicked for me, other than that I was determined to read the whole damn thing for once, and one day I looked down and realized I was halfway through and completely engrossed.

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