Bustle's Best Books of 2013: Writers Pick Their Top Titles of the Year
You may have noticed that we read a lot. In our page-turning, we've been lucky to come across authors and books that've shifted horizons for us; language that gives us pause, storylines that make us travel with them, commentary that augments entire world outlooks. This is, in fact, why we read a lot. I asked some of our regular Bustle Books contributors to write about the books that shook up 2013 for them. From new voices like Anton DiScalfani and Eleanor Catton to those we'd expect to deliver earth-shakers like Amy Tan and Meg Wolitzer (who rules this list), these are the books that made our year in literature so rich.
Antonio Muñoz Molina’s In the Night of Time , which I reviewed earlier this month, is not the kind of book you encounter often today, with the literary fashion of the moment preferring the mundane and the minute rather than the epic. Therefore, this novel’s sweeping scope gives it the feel of hefty, acclaimed 19th century novels like War and Peace, but its crisp, rhythmic language makes it more approachable than those canonical tomes.
George Saunders’ Tenth of December is at times hilarious, at times poetic, and always compelling. That this collection of short stories, with its message of small acts of kindness, did not win the National Book Award doesn’t mean it isn’t the best of book of the year.
The year 2013 has been a busy year for me in terms of books, but the standout favorites are Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and especially The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. In Valley of Amazement I got the treat of watching an author I've read for years reach what I felt was a new level of craft. I've read most of Amy Tan's novels, but none of them impressed me so much as this latest.
Ocean at the End of the Lane was also a new favorite book from a long-time favorite author. I have never found a single false note in anything I have ever read by Neil Gaiman, and yet his latest still exceeded all of my expectations. If I had to sum the book up in a single word, I would simply call it beautiful.
And of course, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries was an entirely different kind of amazing read, a novel that experimented with structure, with form, with character and story and narration, and succeeded at every turn. And yet it also told a compelling story, something not often found in high-minded literary novels. It more than earned its Man Booker Prize.
There are plenty of memoirs written by sociopaths — business and political manifestos, mainly — but M.E. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath is unique look into what living with psychopathy is actually like. Thomas is unashamed of her condition and is open about all the times she’s lied, stolen, and cheated to get what she wants. On the sociopath scale, she’s not quite up there with Ted Bundy, but she does take a wicked pleasure in ruining people — making false accusations of sexual assault and unceremoniously dumping friends — and is remarkably disconnected to the harm she can inflict on herself (she walks around with a burst appendix for two weeks). Thomas wants to make it very clear that she’s not insane — and she’s right, she isn’t insane. She’s completely aware and in control of her actions. She’s just biologically hardwired to be a jerk. Well written and fascinating, Confessions will both horrify you and make you reconsider personality disorders.
I almost felt the need to meditate to a copy of The Interestings. Jules' struggle to live an "interesting" life and set off on a trajectory of "excellence" in light of the expected success of her talented and creative friends — this struck more chords than I had hands or pedals. Meg Wolitzer has given Millennials a novel to dream, argue, and cry about.
Browsing the shelves of my local bookstore can be a painstakingly time-consuming process, as I find myself torn between the non-fiction and fiction aisles, ineffectively calculating what my budget will permit. I was, therefore, delighted to find Half The Kingdom from the always remarkable Lore Segal, which marries cultural commentary I seek in literary reportage with the delightful escapism of fiction. Half The Kingdom is set almost entirely in the dystopian halls of a New York City hospital wing, where patients are subject to a seemingly rampant dementia epidemic. Despite their shared ailments, each character is imbued with a unique voice through Segal’s nuanced tone and her wit energizes what would otherwise be an overwhelmingly dark subject.
If you read one novel this year, make it Paul Harding's Enon . Though technically a sequel to his first novel, Tinkers, which was pulled out of the slush pile and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, it's not necessary to read Tinkers first. Although, why wouldn't you want to? Both novels are fantastic. Enon tells the story of Charlie Crosby — a man whose life falls to pieces after his beloved teenage daughter is killed, struck by a car. Yes, get out your hankies, but more importantly, buckle down for a marathon read. Despite its rough subject matter, Harding's gift for language and incredible imagination (at one point Charlie imagines his daughter having an afterlife discussion with one of the town's famous residents, Sarah Good of the Salem Witch Trials) make Enon un-put-down-able. Harding has captured the deep, depressing quagmire of grief — but he's also captured the other side of loss — the nearly frenetic high that comes from losing someone who's youth and potential results in endless questions of "what if?"
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton DiSclafani somehow managed to wrap all of my guilty pleasures — historical fiction, boarding school novels, wealthy teens, horseback riding, and an illicit relationship to put 50SOG to shame — up into something that was way more than the sum of its parts. Not only is this novel steamy, but it’s also a coming-of-age story armed with an emotional gut-punch.
Speaking of guts, I loved Mary Roach’s Gulp , an unflinching look at the alimentary canal and everything we put in it. No other book has made me more annoying on long car rides — every three pages I’m spitting out facts like “Did you know there are taste-testers for cat food?” or “There are these things called fecal transplants" — until someone finally begs me to stop. It’s compulsively readable, wryly funny, and a definite favorite (even for those who shun non-fiction).
Topping my list is Michael Pollan’s latest, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, in which he explores the art of cooking through the lens of the four classical elements — fire, water, air, and earth — situating the cook in a spider web of cultural, social, and ecological relationships along the way.
A close second is Deborah Madison’s landmark cookbook, Vegetable Literacy. It reads as an encyclopedia of uses and insights for all the good green things that grow. Without a doubt, it is the most inspired thing to happen to vegetables since the gratin.
I loved Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings, which takes a hackneyed premise (friends meet at an artsy summer camp, then try to 'make it' in NYC in subsequent years) and makes it fresh based on the strength of the characters alone. Plus, I'm a sucker for novels written as longitudinal studies of individual lives.
And Choire Sicha's Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City was a pretty incredible fiction-y bit of nonfiction about young folks in New York: sharp without being snarky; grim, yet bizarrely hopeful; full of millennials possessing various levels of control over their affairs, most of whom remain likeable despite doing unlikeable things. It was everything I expected from the co-founder of The Awl, and then some.
Despite the horrifying material in the book, it would be hard for me to pick a story I more enjoyed reading this year than Herman Koch's The Dinner. First published in Europe, Koch's seemingly simple story hit U.S. bookstores this year and immediately struck up debates about the moral quandaries that arise in the book. Koch's book tells the story of a man and his brother, who is soon to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, and their wives as they discuss a mysterious, ominous action their sons took. It all takes place over the course of one elegant dinner out, and as each course is served with a description from the waiter, details are revealed about their sons' crime. The pacing is incredible forces you to turn the pages until the end.
Though probably not a "best" book of the year, my sentimental pick for favorite YA read in 2013 is Lauren Oliver's Requiem — the final novel in her Delirium series. Oliver's original Delirium book was by far the best of the series, but Requiem is a satisfying conclusion that brings back characters, particularly the main character Lena's best friend Hana, which allows for an emotional and rightful end to a story that originally made me awkwardly sob behind my sunglasses on the subway during the day.
These are my favorite kind of books: stories about friendship, stories that span decades, and stories that are told from multiple points-of-view. Normally, I'm thrilled if an author gets one of these things right; with The Interestings, Meg Wolitzer manages to include every item on the list — and succeeds brilliantly. The Interestings is a sweeping story about a group of friends, bonded as teens at arts camp and tested over the years due to marriage, money, and the passing of time. Each character is vivid and relatable, each sentence bitingly honest. By far, it's my favorite book of the year.
I also read and loved Kimberly McCreight's Reconstructing Amelia, a Gone Girl-ish novel about the questionable death of a teenage girl. I'm not normally one for mysteries, but Amelia drew me in with its never-predictable twists and sharp, searing prose. A movie version is already in the works with Nicole Kidman as a grieving mother in search of the truth about her daughter's "suicide," so read the novel now before someone spoils all the best parts.
My two favorite picks this year come from authors who both make their homes overseas. I've extolled my love for Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Sound of Things Falling nearly everywhere I can this year: on best of lists, on gift guides, and by shoving it into people's hands whenever I can. (I even lost my copy, and immediately picked up a new one.) I was whiplashed by the power of the Columbian author's prose, which is piercing at every turn, and unlike any novel I've ever read before. The psychological study of main character Antonio Yammara is unique and nuanced, and provides a look into the way we twist and turn memory — about ourselves and others — to construct what we want to about the past, present, and future.
Another hugely influential title for me was Ryan O'Neill's The Weight of a Human Heart . Short story collections don't always hold my attention throughout, but Australia's O'Neill made his book un-put-down-able through experimentation with form that never felt insincere, and by tapping a range of human emotion that is, in a word, resonant. When I initially reviewed it in July, I wrote that "its range is, simply, flawless," and as I've gone back to the stories over and over again, it's continued to ring true.