Man, the new year really snuck up on us there, didn’t it? I feel like it was August like, a month ago. But 2014 gallops apace, and once again I’m going through my review archive and compiling my list of my favorite books from this past year. Loyal readers will note that I have learned from last year and am writing this entry on December 31th, instead of attempting to write a “best of” list on January 1st whilst fighting an angry hangover. Hooray for progress.
As always, the following list contains books that I read in 2013, not books that necessarily came out in that year. Once again, it’s a pretty eclectic list, but I think it represents the scope of my reading this past year. And I’m more or less caught up with my backlog of reviews by now, so this year there is a corresponding review for almost every book on this list. Please enjoy, loyal readers.
Loud Bookish Type’s Ten Favorite Books of 2013, in No Particular Order:
1. Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
I adored Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and the second book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy did not disappoint. I loved it mainly for its narrator (Cromwell is a great choice to narrate a book about the Tudors, because unlike the women who authors often choose to center their stories around, he actually influenced and controlled events; and he’s also such a fascinating and mysterious character), but also for its smart, well-done writing. It’s the best historic fiction novel I’ve ever read, and I’ll be waiting anxiously for the third book in the trilogy.
2. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I allow myself one or two Bandwagon Books per year, and Gone Girl was this year’s big winner. Yes, I know: everyone and their mom read this book, it’s pulpy and silly, and I’ve seen arguments that the character of Amy is a feminist nightmare and that Flynn is just giving ammunition to the Men’s Right’s Activists by creating such a character. (I disagree with this last reading for a lot of reasons that I don’t have time to get into here) I am aware of all the criticisms, and I was aware of them even when I read the book. But fuck that, because this book was fun. It was contrived, unrealistic, and melodramatic to the point of hysteria, and I devoured every page. It only could have been better if Law and Order: SVU‘s Stabler and Benson had showed up halfway through to investigate Amy’s disappearance.
3. War Dances by Sherman Alexie
Before I bought this book on impulse one day, it had been several years since I read one of Alexie’s books, and it was almost comforting to slip back into his particular style of writing and storytelling. I love his writing because of the way he mimics traditional Native American stories while also showing the (often harsh and ugly) realities of modern reservation life. His way of embracing and subverting traditional narratives is best illustrated in this line I quoted in the original review: “At age nine, I stepped into the pool at the YWCA. I didn’t know how to swim, but the other Indian boys had grown salmon and eagle wings and could fly in water and sky.”
4. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Reading Lahiri’s stories always gives me a warm, comforted feeling, while also reminding me that I should call my mom more often. I enjoyed this collection of short stories more than her novel, The Namesake, because I liked seeing all of the different perspectives and characters, and also because her stories contain very little dialogue (not her strongest suit as a writer). With a few exceptions, Interpreter of Maladies explores the same scenario over and over: a young Indian couple has moved to the United States recently so one of them (usually the husband) can teach at an East Coast university, and they have to adjust to their new marriage and their new home simultaneously. It never gets repetitive, though – first because Lahiri is always showing us slightly different versions of the story and examining it from different angles, and also because her writing is so nuanced and beautiful.
5. Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
Is it weird that one of the people I identify most with is a middle-aged male chef? Because sometimes I suspect that Anthony Bourdain are the same people. He’s also on my list of Men I Wish Were My Dad, a list that also includes Gordon Ramsay – apparently I just have an affinity with cranky profanity-prone chefs? But I digress. This is one of Bourdain’s early books, back when he was known primarily for cooking and not for traveling around the world and eating and getting drunk with all the locals and generally having a great time (seriously, does Anthony Bourdain need an assistant? I’m sassy!). He documents his rise in the culinary world while also revealing some unpleasant truths about what goes on behind the scenes of restaurants. It’s an awesome collection, and made me want to track down some of his other books.
6. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Read this book. That is not a request.
7. Grace: A Memoir by Grace Coddington
I’ve never been seriously interested in fashion, but I do find its strange and extravagant world pretty fascinating. Grace Coddington is a great choice to write an accessible fashion memoir, because even if she is a little too entrenched in the industry (the book is worth it just for how severely Coddington misunderstood Zoolander) her voice is entertaining and sensible. The memoir is full of great anecdotes about models, photographers, and celebrities, and shows how the fashion industry has changed since Coddington started in the 1960’s.
8. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
I’ve recently become mildly obsessed with the Jazz Age, and Okrent’s book is a great overview of the period. With his history of the Eighteenth Amendment, he attempts to answer the question of how exactly the people of the United States managed to make alcohol illegal for over ten years, and how that period drastically and permanently changed the course of history. The long-term affects of Prohibition that he describes are staggering in their scope – did you know that Prohibition was directly responsible for women’s suffrage, mob culture, and the at-home dinner party? My only critique of this book is that Okrent is focused almost entirely on the political aspects of Prohibition and doesn’t give us a lot of information about daily life under the Eighteenth Amendment. But on the other hand, the Jazz Age has been sensationalized so often (sit down, Baz Luhrmann) that it was nice to read a clear-eyed account of the period.
9. A Passage to India by EM Forster
Huh. Even though I read this back in September, I apparently forgot to upload my review here after I posted it on Goodreads. My bad, guys, I’ll correct that soon. Anyway, this was the second Forster book I’ve read, and I liked it much more than A Room With a View. I loved how Forster took the issue of British colonization of India and shrunk it down to a manageable size by showing us a conflict between a native Indian and a British newcomer. He also resists the urge to paint the British as evil and the Indians as good, instead showing every character as a person, warts and all. Plus, the writing is gorgeous.
10. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt has published three novels in thirty years, making the publication of a new Tartt book about as rare as a lunar eclipse. I waited months for this book to come out, and devoured it in a matter of days. I won’t say it was worth the wait (ten years!) but it was definitely incredible. It’s Tartt at her Tartt-iest: showing us morally corrupt characters making morally questionable choices while being utterly charming and intelligent, demonstrating how deeply and personally a piece of art can affect a person, and showing how that obsession can blind a person and make them do horrifying things. Everything’s beautiful and everything hurts, and I love it to death.
Honorable mention: Divergent by Veronica Roth
Yes, I know. But like I said: two Bandwagon Books per year. Divergent certainly isn’t perfect (for one thing, Veronica Roth needs to go back to Worldbuilding School and work on a few things), but I still had fun reading it. Not enough that I have any desire to read the next two books in the series, but still. I haven’t put my review on this blog yet because the one I wrote for Goodreads is mostly me complaining about the surplus of bonus material at the end of the book (there’s an author playlist, for Christ’s sake) and not really talking about the story, so one day I’ll have to write a more helpful review and post it here. I’m mostly mentioning the book because I was so fucking excited to read a Young Adult dystopian novel that didn’t have a love triangle. This trope was tired to begin with, and it’s been really run into the ground lately, so I was very proud of Roth for avoiding the temptation.
So there you have it! I hope everyone has a wonderful and mostly-responsible New Year’s, and may 2014 bring us many good books and faithful film adaptations.