Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Stef's favorite books of the year 2013

Favorite books of the year (2013 that is...)
This is admittedly freakishly late. Crazy Christmas rush late. Fast-approaching maternity leave late. Last minute new bookstore inventory system late. Newborn (fussy) baby late (That's right Dominic-- Mommy's throwing you under the bus). Excuses, excuses. Anyway, for what it's worth, here are my favorite books from 2013. Due to my lateness, they are likely soon to be out in paperback-- actually, a few already are!
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (Hachette)
Wow. Just, wow. This novel is simply stunning. It felt like a revelation to read. Atkinson is such a gifted writer and she creates such vivid characters that you are willing to go along with practically anything. Ursula Todd is born on a snowy night in 1910--in one life, she dies. In her next life, she is born on a snowy night in 1910 and lives. Her story, as it happens over and over again, is just exhilarating.  

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Hachette)
You know those rare books where the world is so fully formed you feel it all around you when you read? This is one of those books. As I read, I found myself in the New York apartment where Theo Decker lives with his mother, at the Met as his world falls down around him, and later when he moves to Park Avenue to live with his friend Andy’s posh family and their cold, confusing lifestyle. I moved with Theo across the country with his father, to his white washed, thickly carpeted McMansion where Theo meets Boris and both of them run wild. And all along, I felt presence of The Goldfinch, the painting that changes Theo’s life. This novel is sweeping and written in glorious, carefully crafted prose. It’s quite clear that Tartt took a decade to write this novel. It’s a masterpiece. 

Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Random House)
I am crazy about this book. Why, you ask? It may have been the New York Times website screenshots with photos of the arrestingly beautiful girl who floats around the center of the story. It may have been the mythology of Stanislas Cordova himself: a famed filmmaker whose movies have inspired madness and violence, and which have driven him into hiding on a huge, Gothic estate in upstate New York. Whatever it is, it grabbed me by the shirt collar and didn't let go for 600 pages or so. Pessl has created a lovely band of characters whose relationship brings a touch of levity to an otherwise dark story. Her writing is crisp and the story is addicting.

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne (Simon and Schuster)
This book is just amazing. It's smart, funny, sad, and just terribly current and real. Jonny is a sweet 11 year old kid with an amazing voice who is discovered on YouTube and becomes a Justin Bieber-like superstar with his hit song, Boys Vs. Girls. Jonny is fully immersed in the business side of his world, more so than any 11 year old should be, as his mother does everything she can to manage his career straight to the top, whether that's cutting his daily calorie count or making late night backroom deals with promoters. All Jonny really wants though is a normal life, and to find the father they left behind. Great storytelling, and a great take on our obsession with celebrity culture and the consequences of lost innocence. But above all is the voice. Wayne just nails Jonny's voice. It's unreal.

Bobcat: Stories by Rebecca Lee (Algonquin)
This collection of stories is absolutely stunning-- Rebecca Lee is one to watch. I love discovering new writers who amaze me-- with each story, each new glimmer of writerly talent, there is a delicious anticipation of the long, wonderful writing career ahead of her. Many of her stories take place in and around college campuses-- from college students to professors to a young child taken to see a professor of child psychology at the local university who teaches her to go to "Slatland" when troubles face her, that is, float about herself and see her experience as a dot on the line of her life. The stories are excellent--nuanced without being New Yorker-style opaque. The story "Min" is the strongest among a strong collection. When I finished reading it, I felt like a had witnessed something almost magical.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon by Anthony Marra (Random House)
Get ready for a powerful story set in Chechnya of a young girl who loses her family, the broken doctor with a painful past who takes her in, the man the girl’s father called his best friend, and a village elder, a man who has seen it all and still can’t believe what he’s experiencing. Learning about the Chechen experience alone is worth the price of admission, considering especially that it happened in the very recent past, much of it not covered by Western media (at least, as a teenager, I feel like I only knew of the atrocities happening there obliquely at best). Marra’s writing is just exquisite, and the story of the characters spinning toward their separate, mostly tragic, fates is done with an honesty and authenticity that felt respectful of the many true stories undoubtedly hiding behind Marra’s fiction. 

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (Penguin)
This book is really incredible. Hamid manages to get you to know and care about both the nameless, anonymous narrator and the nameless main character, the "you." The story is told as a self help guide, teaching you how to go from being a poor boy in a small village to a rich, powerful man in a big city. The writing is clear and sparkling and clever and often actually funny. Reading it feels more like having an experience than just reading a book. And the ending is truly remarkable, with its tender grasp of humanity and love.

Other favorites (because apparently I can't narrow down worth a damn this year):

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Random House)
Someone by Alice McDermott (Macmillan)
The Night Guest by Fiona MacFarlane (Macmillan)
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Penguin)
You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (Penguin)
The Last Summer of the Camperdowns by Elizabeth Kelly (WW Norton)
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood (WW Norton)
All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian (HMH)
Z by Therese Anne Fowler (Macmillan)
This is Between Us by Kevin Sampsell (Tin House)

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Random House)
This book is nuts! But it's also an important investigation into a powerful organization. The thing is, most people assume that Scientologists are just a bunch of crazy Hollywood people and that we should just leave them to their craziness, and there is something to be said for that. Sadly though, the fact of Scientology existing in its present form is something that should matter to us because as a religious organization, they are tax exempt. Read the book to find out how that came to be and the implications of it. (Plus insane human rights violations, mental cruelty, corruption, crime, and the shocking influence that power, money, and intimidation can have.) Read this book with someone close by (preferably some nice person who doesn’t mind constantly being interrupted), so that you can read passages aloud while gesticulating wildly. At least that’s what I did. 

Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Mossman (Random House)
Here’s my warning: don’t read this book if you don’t want to know just how crappy the crap you’re eating is! This is an extremely detailed, in-depth look at the processed food industry, focusing specifically on the different ways that salt, sugar, and fat have been used to tempt us, trick us, and completely transform our palate. Moss focuses a lot on the companies and individuals who have attempted over the years to decrease the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in their products, but who were stopped because without these ingredients, many of the foods simply don’t hold together. Add to that the pressure companies face from Wall Street to constantly increase sales, and there isn’t much incentive for these huge companies to go healthy.  One of those books that manages to be equally entertaining and appalling.

The Girl Factory by Karen Dietrich (Globe Pequot)
This is just the most lovely, most sweetly sad, most powerful memoir I’ve read in a long time. Karen tells her story of growing up in a small factory town outside of Pittsburgh in the 1970s and 80s. Her middle class family is normal, she has an older sister and parents who work at the local glass factory, except when it isn’t. Something happened to her as a child that affects her whole life, without her even realizing it. Karen has amazing recall of her life-- her description of the small details of growing up, playing the Picnic Game in the car, learning about the Challenger explosion, her mother’s summertime lemonade recipe, made me remember my own small childhood memories, even though they weren’t the same as Karen’s. It’s a pretty special thing when a writer can bring you to your own conclusions, as she comes to her own. The writing is just stunning. I can’t wait for more from her.

Five Days at Memorial by Sherri Fink (Random House)
Some of you may remember hearing about the patients stuck in hospitals in New Orleans during Katrina. I think many of us either heard it and forgot it, or didn’t catch it in the flurry of news stories about that city and that storm. I remember hearing about the Super Dome and FEMA, about President Bush’s flyover and the Ninth Ward. The story about what happened to the patients in one of New Orleans’ most beloved hospitals, Memorial (known for decades before as Baptist), is an important story that needs to be told. Fink takes us day by day through the storm, from the day when staff & family members sought refuge in the hospital because they optimistically, and foolishly perhaps, thought it was the safest bet, to the day when the hospital’s parent company chose not to send additional rescue helicopters, to the day when decisions were made about which patients would make it out and which would not.  It’s a terrifying story, with many important lessons. Let’s hope the right people read this book, and make changes accordingly. 

Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel (Penguin)
This book is so important. It's one that everyone should read if they care about the troops, if they want to know what it's like to come back from war and have to reintegrate into a world you don't recognize, a world that can't handle or understand the person you've become. Finkel tells these solders stories with such poise and respect, while not leaving out any difficult detail. Some of their stories are hard to read, and must have been hard for them to agree to share with him. Finkel demonstrates with these personal stories that we've really doomed a whole generation of soldiers, and their families, by not taking care of them properly, by not doing for them the service they did for us. This book is a must read-- well written, with compassion, insight, and wisdom.

Topic I became obsessed with (Scientology) 
and the books I read:
Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill
Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman

More Than This by Patrick Ness (Candlewick)
This book has so much going on. I’ll just tell you, because you’d find out pretty quickly anyway, that this book starts with a boy drowning, dying. It’s pretty awful, but keep reading. Keep reading because he, Seth, wakes up, and because the story he has to tell is pretty amazing. When he wakes up, he realizes that he is back in his childhood home, which is impossible because it’s in England and he died living in America. It also makes no sense because he’s completely alone--there isn’t another soul on the street he lived on, anywhere at all. Where is he? Is this the afterlife? Is it hell? Seth flashes back to his previous life, to how he ended up drowning, and to what led up to it. It’s a heartbreaking story. But don’t worry-- this book isn’t all sadness and loneliness. Seth soon realizes that there is something he can do to change his situation, and he gets to work. The author delivers some great characters and great twists, with a crazy ending you won’t see coming. Great follow up by Ness to another really special book, A Monster Calls.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (Macmillan)
Gahhhhh this book is so cute. Just. so. cute. And awesome. Just awesome. Cath and her twin sister Wren are starting their freshmen year at college together. Wren is “the pretty one,” makes friends easily, popular, etc. etc. Cath (short for Cather...the two names together make Cather-wren, get it?) is the loner. Well, loner in real life. In the virtual world, she is practically a god, as the author of the most popular Simon Snow fanfic on the website (Simon Snow is a Harry Potter like character, and fanfic, if you don’t know, are stories people write online about characters in their favorite books, movies and TV shows). Cath doesn’t take well to college-- her roommate is a scary, sexy goth, and her first writing assignment gets panned by her writing instructor. But soon things get even more complicated. Read on with delight as Cath’s romance life heats up. Sweet, funny, adorable.

Picture books
Paul Meets Bernadette by Rosy Lamb (Candlewick)
Hank Finds an Egg by Rebecca Dudley (Peter Pauper)
If You Want to See a Whale by Julie Fogliano and Rebecca Stead (Macmillan)
Cozy Classics: Emma, Jane Eyre, War and Peace (Simply Read Books)

I blame the fact that I didn't go on vacation this year for not having read any backlist books this year. Seriously, not a one. I'll try to do better next year.

Books I can't wait to sell next year:

Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley (Harper, March 2014)
This is such a lovely book. Stella tells her story, from girlhood living with her mother in a small city bed-sit, to living in the suburbs with her mother and new stepfather, to her first young, wild love, and the baby that comes out of it, all the way through her life till she’s in her fifties, in quite different circumstances. We follow her struggles and her triumphs, her many heartbreaks, the joy her children bring her, her loves, achievements, and deep disappointments, her constant need to run away from it all and her equally strong need to always come back. The writing is sharp and crisp and glittering with clarity and wisdom about the human experience. It’s a story about one woman’s life, but it’s so much more than that. Just lovely. 

Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random House, July 2014)
This is a truly masterful novel. It builds slowly and quietly, much like the slow and quiet life that married couple artist Gus and writer Owen share in the country, to a truly explosive, though entirely deserved, ending. I was shocked and devastated by what happened, while also realizing that all the pieces had come together perfectly and in the only way they could have. Black’s characters are fully human, flawed and difficult, aware of the sacrifices, disappointments, and secrets all marriages require. I sympathized with, rooted for, hated and loved all of them. A finely written first novel that explores the joy and pain of self discovery and the power of secrets and betrayal with grace and wisdom. 

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez (Random House, June 2014)
The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Random House, January 2014)
Last Days of California by Mary Miller (Norton, January 2014)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello (Algonquin, February 2014)