Wednesday, January 01, 2014

2013 In Books

I guess I only use this blog for best books lists now. Part of me misses blogging--it was probably good for me to write something other than Facebook posts or work emails--but then the rest of me remembers that I don't actually like writing very much. 

This was a good year in reading, at least by count, even though I continued my New Yorker subscription (and obsession). I read 115 books, many of those on buses and trains during our 4.5-week vacation in India and Nepal. I hate to admit this, but the count is also high because many of those books I read in India were--gasp!--romance novels. I don't typically read them, but for a few days in India we were riding trains and buses in Rajasthan in 115-degree weather and I was sick and surviving solely on orange-flavored rehydration salt water and I desperately needed something to distract me from my misery but couldn't concentrate because of nausea, and, well, Nora Roberts was there. I tore through nearly 15 of the romance novels my mom had on our shared Kindle account, and was thoroughly sick of them by the time we got back to more reasonable temperatures. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at a Fabio cover again without feeling hot and uncomfortable. (And sorry, Fabio, not even in the way you'd expect.)

As usual, I read more fiction than non-fiction, but once again I was surprised by how much better I liked the non-fiction. I don't know for sure why that is, but here's my speculation: I've been a fiction reader for so long that at this point I've read most of the truly great novels out there, and plus I have a much higher quality bar from my wide experience. I'm still newer to non-fiction so I get to choose (and enjoy) the time-tested greats. This year the effect was probably also exaggerated because for a while over the summer and early fall I concentrated on my goal to read all the Booker Prize-winning novels (I only have 8 out of 46 left). I continue to think Booker books are mostly pretentious and unreadable (William Golding? Give me a break!), so the fact that they were heavily represented in my fiction doesn't speak well for the category.

Anyway, on to the lists. Top non-fiction is a pretty crowded field this year, so I added some sub-category breakdowns to make sure some good books get mentioned. 

Top 5 Novels
Schindler’s List, by Thomas Kenneally. I should take back all my Booker Prize criticism for this one. It deserves to be a classic. 
The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. I have no idea how accurate to North Korea this is--can anyone?--but it had me hooked anyway.
A Short Stay in Hell, by Steven Peck. The premise sounds like a gimmick (and maybe it is), but it was still genuinely thoughtful. 
Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon. This wasn't in the same league as, say, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but I have to put it on the list just for being set in my neighborhood. (Literally: the main characters lived about 1.5 miles away.) It was an odd (and awesome) experience to read a passage about the MacArthur BART station while walking home from the MacArthur BART station.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I don't read much YA but this got such rave reviews that I couldn't resist. I can point to plenty of flaws here but I was still touched; I knew a book about teenagers with cancer was going to be sad, but I didn't know exactly how much I was going to cry. (It was embarassing.)

Fiction Honorable Mentions
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn. A twist! And what a twist; I can see why everyone on BART has been reading this one. 
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. This was beautiful, and I'm happy to see literature start to come out of the Iraq war, but it wasn't stayed with me the way I'd expect.
The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin. Maybe I'm terrible, but I enjoyed how bitter Mary was.

Top 10 Non-Fiction
I read of lot of depressing history: 
King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown

And a lot of feminist history:  
Mother Nature: Maternal Instincts and How They Shape the Human Species, by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy
Century of Struggle, by Eleanor Flexner

And even some depressing feminist history: 
Unnatural Selection, by Mara Hvistendahl

Occasionally I branched out:
Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann. This successfully explained the concept of "regression to the mean" to me, a real achievement.
The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver. This successfully explained Bayesian statistics to me, another achievement.
The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik. This had the most persuasive argument about why to have children I've ever read. (It boils down to "they're a great psych experiment," but that's more persuasive to me than "they're cute.")
The Places In Between, by Rory Stewart. This was just the most British thing I've ever read, and I've read a lot of P.G. Wodehouse. (Note: my parents know him, and apparently he really is that British.)

And now, a whole bunch of assorted categories--basically, books I'd want to mention under "best non-fiction" if that list were 25 books instead of 10. 

Best Memoirs
Bad Indians, by Deborah Miranda. Poetic and eye-opening.
Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.  Okay, so this was the world's most incompetent backpacking trip (bringing jeans!??!), and animal lovers should probably avoid this, but Strayed is a really, really, really beautiful writer and managed to make me sympathize with and then even admire her crazy, stupid persona. I also loved Tiny Beautiful Things, so consider this a plug for both. 

How To Be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran. Look! I read funny feminist stuff as well as factual feminist stuff and depressing feminist stuff. (And I'm not even including all the radical feminist stuff on these lists; Germaine Greer's work hasn't aged very well.) 
Gulp, by Mary Roach. Gotta include a Mary Roach on here. Maybe it's just that I've suffered from digestive ailments, but I thought Gulp was one of her funniest. 
Sleepwalk With Me, by Mike Birbiglia. I think his stand-up is funnier, but I was still reading nearly every other line out loud to Mike. 
Mapheads, by Ken Jennings. I'm easily amused by nerdiness, apparently. 

Best Books By Someone I Know
I don't usually even have a category for this, not to mention three books in the category, but 2013 was an embarrassment of friend riches. 
Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg
How Will You Measure Your Life?, by Clayton Christensen 
Elders, by Ryan McIlvain

And finally, Most Racist
Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. This was really disappointing, since I had read some other wonderful books about Native Americans this year, and this was a highly praised Pulitzer Prize finalist, but despite the fascinating story I found it really hard to stomach the author's attitude towards the Comanches, which appeared to be lifted wholesale from the nineteenth-century white sources he was using. I'm no expert on Native history or race relations, but it doesn't take an expert to realize it's ignorant and racist to unironically describe Native Americans as "low-barbarian" or "savage" or "dark-skinned pariahs" or a "backward tribe of Stone Age hunters" or even to call their languages "primitive." (He clearly doesn't know anything about Native languages.) What's even more shocking is that the vast majority of reviews--and, apparently, the Pulitzer Prize nomination committee--don't even mention this.


Th. said...


So now you can rail against the Pulitzers rather than the Bookers.

Th. said...


So now you can rail against the Pulitzers rather than the Bookers.

Portia said...

I love your book round-ups. I freaked out a little inside when I saw your name at the Board reunion.

Unknown said...

spending half an hour reading it has been a kind of religious experience thanks you and jack kero

Unknown said...

jack kerouac