It’s that time of year — 2013 is fading fast, and before you’ve had a chance to recover from Thanksgiving’s gluttonous just desserts (no pun intended), it seems as though the new year is fast upon us. Some of us are perhaps not sorry to see 2013 go. After all, many folks are still recovering from setbacks due to being furloughed as part of the October shutdown. For others, perhaps 2013 had a slightly more positive outlook.
Regardless of how you feel about the past year, there was certainly plenty to read. We’ve scoured the Internet’s “best of” book lists for 2013, and compiled a shortlist that comprises the best of the best. The following is an amalgamation of award winners, bestsellers, and talked-about favorites from the past year.
Set in the Kansas territory in 1857, a period of the state’s history that’s characterized by conflict between the state’s abolitionist and pro-slavery forces, The Good Lord Bird centers around John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, and Henry, a young slave. Thrown together after Brown and Henry’s master come into conflict, Henry finds himself participating in Brown’s anti-slavery crusade, and eventually, witness to the raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 — an event which became an important catalyst of the civil war.
The Tenth of December, George Saunders
George Saunders’ collection of short stories appeared on five of the eight “best of” lists we reviewed, making it the single most talked-about book of the bunch. In this collection, Saunders ebullient writing style tackles stories about class, sex, love, loss, despair, and war, addressing questions that delve deep into human morality.
Written by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Namesake, The Lowland takes place in India and the United States, beginning in a neighborhood of Calcutta, which the story returns to over and over again even as the plot progresses elsewhere. The novel tells the story of two brothers, at times inseparable, yet with distinctly opposite futures ahead of them. One brother, Udayan, becomes vehemently absorbed in a political movement to end inequity and poverty, while the other, Subhash, quietly pursues a scientific career that leads him to America. But Udayan’s political fervor puts him into danger, and Subhash finds himself returning to India, and a shattered family.
The Goldfinch debuted in October and quickly stampeded up the best-seller lists at the New York Times and Amazon.com. Tartt’s first novel in 11 years is a big one, coming in at a hefty 784 pages. It’s a thriller with elements of, as New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani puts it, “the Dickensian.” The novel is one part coming-of-age story, and several parts crime novel, all of which hinge on the Goldfinch, the mysterious painting at the novel’s center. It’s a Dutch masterwork that is thrust into the possession of 13-year-old Theo Decker after an unlikely explosion at the Metropolitan Museum kills his beloved mother.
Karen Russell’s praises have been sung before: her previous novel, Swamplandia!, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and the young author’s talents have caught the attention of critics and readers alike. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the 32-year-old author’s third book. Described alternately as “electrically original,” and defying genre, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a collection of eight absurd, dark, and daring tales that showcase Russell’s unique and innovative language, and the lush range of her storytelling abilities.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief, Lawrence Wright
Another book that was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, Going Clear is an in-depth exploration into the world of Scientology. Wright conducted over two-hundred personal interviews with both current and former scientologists, as well as pored over archives. Wright focuses the book on two main players in particular — L. Ron Hubbard, the science-fiction writer whose dark and active mind invented the religion, and his successor, David Miscavige. Further, Wright examines whether scientology deserves constitutional protection, as well broader, more fundamental questions of what makes a religion.
Eleanor & Park is the story of two high school misfits who fall in love; and for that reason, on the surface, anyway, Eleanor & Park seems like a story everyone has heard before. “Been there, done that,” but the story is more nuanced than that. With Eleanor’s character, the story is able to make observations about how poverty and abuse can come together to oppress and marginalize people. Even Park, who is “passably popular,” is bound by his race (he is half-Korean) and his interests in comics and music, and further, their interactions with one another address both the fleeting ephemerality and enchantment of high school love.
And the Mountains Echoed by the acclaimed Afghan-American author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns addresses the many issues surrounding the family through the “prism of sibling relationships.” The story expands outwards from Afghanistan to the West, following each of the family’s members, and growing in complexity as the novel progresses. And the Mountains Echoed showcases how much Hosseini’s depth and skill as a storyteller has developed.
Stephen King wrote The Shining in 1977. More than 25 years later, Doctor Sleep is the long-awaited sequel. The novel picks up with the now middle-aged Dan Torrence, who has retreated to a small New Hampshire town, where he works in a nursing home. The remainder of Dan’s shining power provides relief to his dying charges, and hence, he becomes known as “Doctor Sleep.” But then he meets twelve-year-old Abra Stone, the brightest shining he’s ever seen, and finds himself wrested into a battle for her survival against a band of immortals called the “True Knot.”
On the shortlist this year for the National Book Award, The Flamethrowers centers around Reno, our twenty-something protagonist, eager for adventure and possessed with fervent fascination with motorcycles that eventually leads her into an affair with the son of an Italian motorcycle baron, Sandro Valera. The novel is set amidst the fiery throes of ’70s New York and Italy, where the art scenes of SoHo and the East Village are burgeoning out of desertion, and a radical youth movement is in the midst of overtaking Italy.
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