Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reading Envy's Best Books of 2013

I previously posted a list of other people's best books of 2013 lists, and now it is time to make my own!  These are roughly in the order I liked them the most.  These are books I read in 2013, and not all of them were published in 2013.

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

About halfway through, I had to take a break from this book. It is an intense read of a too-recent war-torn Chechnya, from a perspective not quite the same as what we were hearing in American news. However this book has stuck with me and I think it is probably my best book of 2013.

The author moves backwards and forwards in time, but always tells you exactly where you are at the beginning of every chapter, which starts from a timeline listing the years from 1994-2004. The year in question is in bold, to leave no mistake. And then as the reader, you get dumped into the events of that year, concerning a rather small cast of characters in a small Chechnyan town.

The darkness almost got to be too much for me, but there are some things that balance it out. Other readers have pointed out moments of humor to me, and while I wasn't ready to see them as funny while reading, they did have a balance, a humanity, that the senseless violence really needed. Also the author will sometimes show you the future of a minor character, many living decades longer and having completely fulfilling lives. This helps to counteract some of the bad situations and bad decisions for some of the people on the periphery, but the more we learn about the main characters, the worse it gets. There is no humanity in war.

Five Star BillionaireFive Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

Five Star Billionaire follows characters in very modern Shanghai as they attempt to survive expectations and pull themselves up economically and socially through plain hard work - or through deception, if needed. It's like the "Protestant Work Ethic" without any time for religion, turbo speed.  I appreciated the portrayal of a very modern China. So much of what I read, even from living authors, feels somewhat traditional to the point of old-fashioned. This was a world where a girl might spend the last money on her copycat handbag in hopes that it will help her acquire the new job/boyfriend that will change her life, where people are sitting around eating matcha muffins, sipping lattes and talking on their smartphones. The characters believe in this China, and in their potential to do more, to be more.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and LongingMastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
by Anya Von Bremzen

"Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire."

Anya Von Bremzen was born in the USSR and later emigrated to the United States with her mother. Her James Beard award winning cookbook, Please To The Table: The Russian Cookbook, was published in 1990, so her knowledge of the food of Russia is not to be disputed. Instead of the regional focus that her cookbook had, this memoir is divided into decades of Soviet Russia. Each chapter takes a decade and discusses the historical events, the food, and how each impacted her personal story - her family, her ancestors, her memories - from 1910s into the twenty-first century.  From reading how Lenin had a fondness for apple cake to the puzzling "luxury" of Salat Olivier, I enjoyed reading about the very Russian foods and stories. Highly recommended!

A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern IraqA Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq by Fernando Báez

This is an incredible book, too overwhelming to read cover to cover, and it took me two months to read it. I stopped when I started to cry, which happened more than I expected. For this is the story of libraries and books from ancient times up to Iraq in the last decade, and their destruction, by fire, by war, by censorship, by librarians, and by worms. Rough reading, but Fernando Baez, the director of Venezuela's National Library, did an amazing job researching the details and the history.

The PrestigeThe Prestige by Christopher Priest

I read this for an SFF Audio readalong discussion podcast, and watched the movie, and probably wouldn't have done either otherwise. But wow, I'm not sure why not. This book is great. The more I talk about it, the more I like it. All the questions left at the end, all the missing pieces and the way the pieces we are given fall together. I can't really say much more than that but this is really good stuff.  If you've only seen the movie, I think reading the book is a different story.

The Brothers KThe Brothers K by David James Duncan

No, not those Brothers K.  I have had this book on my radar for a long time but it took a group read to get me started.  I've had it on my mind ever since I finished! This was a wonderful book. I don't even care that it had baseball in it and that sometimes I needed to skim those parts. This novel about a family going through life, in the 1960s in Camas, Washington, and the characters are so vibrant and real I may never forget them. Highly, highly recommended.

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Read by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne

This audiobook, my favorite of 2013, was 19 hours and I finished listening to it in three days. That's on my 3 mile commute. I just couldn't stop. I'd make up reasons to listen. This is a very well-written thriller that I can hardly discuss without giving things away. I almost hate myself for liking it because of all the hype, but it really pulls you in and makes you want to know where it is going. I don't read many thrillers, but this was a good one!

The audiobook is a great way to "read" this, because the chapters are divided between Amy, who has gone missing, through her diary, and Nick, her husband who is a key suspect. The two readers, male and female, really bring the story to life.

The Forty Rules of LoveThe Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

This was my favorite book from the Turkish authors I read this year. I had  reasons to be interested in Shafak. When I took a visiting Turkish artist to the High Museum in Atlanta, and her English was just a bit better than my Turkish, we still managed to have a conversation about books and authors. I learned that Elif Shafak is her favorite author, and that this is her favorite book.

This is a love story, on so many levels. The love of the outcasts, the love of the self, romantic love, teacher-student love, love of people who move us closer to god and to ourselves, it just goes on. I was surprised that it touched me so deeply, and I almost feel silly reacting in a strong way to it, but I suppose that says quite a bit about Shafak's writing. The chapters are short and the frequent move between centuries kept me reading just... one... more... page until I had sat and read the entire book in one day.

Infinite JestInfinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

After years of post-modern reading boot camp, I embarked on the journey to finally read this book with a bunch of amazing readers in the Summer of Jest group. I'm more proud of myself of finishing than I think I enjoyed the book.  I loved the readers I met through the experience, and we are all still reading together and will keep doing so. 

This is a novel where you would discover new parts every time. There are questions I can't answer after one reading and may not ever be able to answer, about abuse, wraiths, supernatural, yogurt beards, etc. The chapters aren't in chronological order, which makes the ending of the book a bit of a letdown. There are people out there who have sat down and figured out how to read it chronologically, and I'm tempted.

Detroit: An American AutopsyDetroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff

I'm surprised to find so much non-fiction on my Best of 2013 list! This was a great book that I couldn't put down, as much as you can say a book about a destroyed city is great. What makes it great is the journalist-author Charlie LeDuff, who is from Detroit and has lost several family members to terrible situations there. This makes it different from a detached, paid-to-experience book that most journalists will write, forgotten the minute they are published. This is partly about the city of Detroit, and partly about Charlie's own life and background. The mix is great, his writing is great, kind of a combination of old newspaperman and gumshoe detective in tone, with short clipped sentences and metaphors that actually work. In anyone else's hands I'd probably be rolling my eyes, but not here.

The Shining GirlsThe Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

This is almost purely a horror, serial killer novel, except for the time travel element. The story is not told in linear time order, but in the order of events as the killer is experiencing them, as he goes to different time periods from a house that he believes is sending him. This isn't what I expected from Lauren Beukes, whose previous two novels have bridged cyberpunk and urban fantasy, but that isn't a bad thing.

I'm always trying to not just make my blog a duplication of my GoodReads reviews, and I've left a lot of great books from this year off of my list!  If you want to see all my thoughts on the books I'm reading, please add me as your friend in GoodReads!

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