I hate year-end rankings. You find them in every newspaper and magazine and web site, and I generally ignore them. In fact, rankings in general rub me the wrong way. Especially when it’s books that are touted as the best, second best, etc.
These are some of my unranked favorites from the past year. In no particular order. Some of them aren’t even 2013 titles, but things I decided to take up only recently. They are all books that captured my imagination, that made me want to crack them open day after day and keep reading. Alright, I didn’t crack my Kindle open, that wouldn’t be smart.
I’m not a fast reader except when I’m on deadline, but I’m quick to throw a book across the room if the writing exasperates me. So these are selections you can be sure I really wanted to spent some time with.
The Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, Jill Lepore, 2013.
This luminous telling of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s little sister Jane is animated by the letters the two exchanged from youth through old age, but it goes beyond biography to become a study of the arts of reading, writing, and living for eighteenth century American women.
Tenth of December, George Saunders, 2013. Eery, dark, compelling and unexpectedly humorous, these stories are to be savored even as they haunt you.
The Master, Colm Toibin, 2010. I avoided this biography for a few years even though I heard it was fantastic, as I didn’t feel Henry James had granted me access to his head. But this intimate life is so terrifically well done that I was glad I picked it up.
Portrait of Lady, Henry James, 1881. The third time I’ve read the Master’s masterpiece, and I get something new from it with every immersion – I think this time Isabel Archer’s rise and fall meant more to me because my own daughter is about the same age as the lovely, lively, rebellious young American lady.
Stoner, John Williams, 1965.
A new French translation of this odd, underappreciated novel has caused something of a stir in literary circles. Set in 1920s-era academia, it’s about an English professor’s slog through academia and marriage, but the writing is so refined and austere that reading his story is a transfixing experience.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, Barbara Demick, 2010. I decided to take up this journalistic work out of book club loyalty, and I was so glad I did. The author starts with a satellite photo of the two halves of Korea by night, the north in total blackout, and goes on to tell the intimate stories of citizens who are trying to escape the horrific conditions there. Compelling and totally readable.
The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, Ayana Mathis, 2012. A stirring novel lays out the lives of the Shepherd family, parents and nine children, with pitch-perfect authority and grace.The Great Northern Migration of African-Americans becomes real. Does a much-talked-about book (an Oprah pick) deserve the ballyhoo? In this case, yes.
The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner, 2013.
In which a 20-something art maven and biker babe hits the downtown scene of 1970s New York City. I resisted a bit before getting sucked in to the story of a girl getting sucked in to a scene that’s perhaps not as cool as she thinks it is.
Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat, Bee Wilson, 2012. I make it a practice of dipping in to these confectionary morsels of information when I need a respite from heavier thoughts. It’s easy to give in to mini-surveys of how such day-to-day implements as cooking pots and kettles came about.
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton, esp. “The Other Two.” Wharton’s short fiction rarely reaches the heights of her novels, but some of her attempts stick with me, like this narrative about a twice-married woman and her beleaguered third husband. So fascinating to observe his anguished humiliation at the idea that his wife has had sexual relations prior to their life together.
The Portable Edgar Allen Poe, esp. “The Tell-Tale Heart.” After visiting the Poe exhibit at the Morgan Library I went back to his writings to find that some of them were just as hypnotic and chilling as they’d been on first reading. I actually found myself terrified by a story that had first been published in 1843.
The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger, 1945. Was all the brouhaha over Salinger this year (massive biography, in depth documentary, articles galore) deserved? I thought I’d better go back to Catcher. A nice little novel, I think you’ll like it.
The Painted Girls, Cathy Marie Buchanan, 2013. Edgar Degas’s life intersects with those of two adolescent ballerina sisters in Belle Epoque Paris. I loved the funky details and the narrators’ voices.
Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, 1973. Long, long ago, in the 1970s, feminism was a lens through which to view subjects like the history of medicine. This tasty fruit of that approach is something I’m drawing upon for work on a new novel, and it’s made me think about the power of women midwives in a whole new way.
Fever, Mary Beth Keane, 2013. I’d always wondered about Typhoid Mary, and this novel gave me a glimpse into her inner life – very stoic, very sad. It’s about New York, too, at the turn of the century. I found myself totally there.
I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson, 2010.
I’m bringing this one to my book group for discussion and I’m pretty sure they’ll like it. In 1989 Norway, a man in his late 30s has lost his way – his mother is dying and he revisits his youthful experiences to try to achieve some foothold on his present. Sound dark? It is, but I assure you Arvid’s story is heart rending.
This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz, 2012. If I’d known how dazzled I would be by these interconnected stories I’d have jumped on the book when it first came out. The prose offers ribald, irrepressible poetry about the power of love.
The Last Banquet, Jonathan Grimwood, 2013.
The sexy Frenchman in this foodie novel braises a wolf whose neck he has broken in the woods, corresponds with Voltaire and becomes Lord Master of the Menagerie at Versailles. Historical fiction at its sensual best.