When I look over the books I’ve read in 2013, I realize that very few of them were published this year. So instead of a best books of 2013, I figured I’d do a best reads of 2013. My rules were simple: these had to be books that I read for the first time in 2013 (no rereads), and they had to be books that left me feeling transformed in some powerful way. I’ve arranged the books in an order that makes sense to me, but it isn’t a ranked ordering. I loved all of these books, and I’m not claiming that any one is better than the others.
My one best read of 2013 that was actually published in 2013: Good Kings Bad Kings: A Novel by Susan Nussbaum. This novel, with multiple narrators, is set in a residential care facility for disabled teenagers. Some good things happen; many bad things happen. The individual characters are an eclectic bunch, all of whom manage to carve out lives of their own in a situation that at times seems unbearable.
My next two best reads are both pieces I included in my recent post on narrative voice. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles (2012) is a lyrical retelling of the Trojan war. Nell Leyshon’s The Colour of Milk (2012) is a heart-breaking story of one young woman’s attempt in 1830 to transcend her impoverished, violent environment through the power of literacy.
Hilary Mantel’s 1998 The Giant O’Brien is (unlike many of Mantel’s works) a quick, if heart-breaking read about a group of impoverished friends in 1782 London—one of whom makes his living as a side-show giant and whose corpse is coveted by the anatomist John Hunter.
Helen Humphrey’s 2007 The Frozen Thames straddles the fiction/non-fiction divide and is a Fabergé egg of a book: a collection of very brief, sparkling vignettes—one for each known year in which the Thames froze—based on historical sources.
Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies is the oldest book on my list, originally published in 1994. Like The Frozen Thames, it’s inspired by history—in this case by the story of four sisters who participate in the struggle to free Honduras from the Trujillo dictatorship.
Debra Dean’s The Madonnas of Leningrad (2007) is set in two time periods: the siege of Leningrad during WWII and the present-day U.S. This novel has a thread of magical realism running through it that comes as a delightful surprise within the context of the brutal Leningrad winter.
Ramona Ausubel’s No On Is Here Except All of Us (2012) depicts a Jewish village in Romania that attempts to write itself out of history and to begin its own history anew in order to avoid the growing anti-Jewish violence of World War II. This achingly painful work is made bearable by a remarkable thread of whimsey.
Heidi Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010) tells the story of a young woman of mixed heritage who is the only survivor of the murder of her siblings by their mother, who then committed suicide. She’s being raised by her African American grandmother and wrestles continually with both being and not being a part of the community she now finds herself in. This book shines a light on the complex and volatile role of race in present-day America while simultaneously creating unforgettable, highly individual characters.
I’m finishing up my list with Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees which was issued in hardback in 2012 and has just been released in paperback this winter. I have been buying up the remaindered hardbacks wherever I find them because I feel compelled to share this remarkable novel with as many of my friends as possible. This book, the story of two sisters who bury their dead parents in the back yard in order to avoid being put into the foster care system, depicts a world of poverty, violence, and drug use—but this bleakness is balanced by unlikely relationships the girls build with some of the adults around them.
And there you have it. I’ve read 180+ books this year (yes, yes, a bit obsessive) and these ten beauties are the best of all of them.