The Best Books I Read in 2013

Did you think year-end lists were over? Well, they’re not. At least not here. I wanted to wait until the year closed out to bestow my favorite books that I read in 2013 on you, mostly because I was still reading one until the very end. (Actually, I’m not quite finished with it.) Here they are, without too much commentary because I still have one more roundup to do and if the books aren’t covered there, then they certainly were covered in one of these three other roundups I did of 2013 reads: January-March, April-June, July-September. Also, they’re sort of in an order. The ones toward the top are the ones I liked the most, I think.

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How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

This book caused a lot of anxiety for me this year. I felt very strongly that it was great, one of the best I’ve ever read. Many of my friends and fellow readers felt…opposed. I hate disagreeing with anyone – except for people I dislike, that’s fine – but I will defend this book probably forever. You can read my thoughts on reading this book last January here.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I went crazy for this book. I recommended it to everyone, except I think I told my mom not to read it but I forget why. It certainly wasn’t perfect but I loved it for its overstuffed-ness and repetition and all that Dickensian stuff that turns some people off. (Not surprisingly, I am a huge Dickens fan. Bleak House is one of my favorite books of all time.) I think this will be a great book to cozy up with this winter. Here is what I wrote about The Goldfinch after finishing it a few weeks ago.

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford

The Mountain Lion is intense, especially for a book about children. It’s a brilliant tragedy and the story of siblings Ralph and Molly affected me very much. Honestly, I’m still not sure how Stafford pulled it off, but I’m very glad she did.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

I feel like I’d been avoiding this book for years. Despite my awareness of all of the praise heaped on Bel Canto, something about the premise seemed really unappealing to me. A group of notable people from around the world – including a famous opera singer – are held hostage in an unnamed South American country. I never should have let that get in my way. This book is wonderful.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I had never read Donna Tartt before this year. I think everybody ever has read this book at some point, but I didn’t read it until this summer and man, I am glad I finally got to it.

The Fox in the Attic by Richard Hughes

This book is INSANE. I loved it. But it’s insane. The first volume in almost-trilogy “The Human Predicament” – Hughes died before he could finish the final book – The Fox in the Attic is suspenseful and horrifying and wonderfully captures the changing tides in 1920s Europe.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I fell hard for this book, which I think I literally did not put down, when I read it last month. It’s Y.A. for sure, but that doesn’t mean adults can’t enjoy it. And not in the guilty pleasure kind of way.

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Do I really have to write anything about this book?

The Likeness by Tana French

This book is basically The Secret History but written as a police/detective novel set in modern Ireland. After reading The Likeness, I became a big Tana French fan. I look forward to reading more of her this year.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

This one had been sitting on my shelf for years and I finally picked it up when I realized I didn’t have anything to read on a flight to Chicago. As a person who is anxious about many things, especially those things considered to be dangerous or life-threatening, it was amazing to get to experience Amazonian adventure through Grann’s superb narrative and portrait of the lost explorer Percy Fawcett.

The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy

I’m so, so happy that working my way through so many NYRB Classics led me to Elaine Dundy last year. Her first novel, The Dud Avocado, became one of my most beloved books ever after I read it. The Old Man and Me, her second novel, is I think slightly more absurd with a darker tone and a less likeable heroine. I don’t mean any of that negatively. It’s just as enjoyable, just a bit less comfortable.

Between the Woods and the Water by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I’ve recommended Patrick Leigh Fermor on this blog about a million times at this point. I’ve been tearing through his writing for the last year or so. This second book about his trip on foot from Holland to Constantinople in the years before World War II is simply awesome. (But definitely start with the first book in this intended trilogy, A Time of Gifts, if you want to read him.)

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

This is definitely one of my favorite memoirs I’ve read. I wished Decca had gone deeper at times, but considering the generation and the family she grew up in, I’m glad she shared all of the entertaining – and often tragic – personal details she did.

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent

History nerds! You should definitely read this one. The storytelling is wonderful and the abundance of little-known (well, at least by me), sometimes hilarious facts alone makes the time spent reading this worthwhile.

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Before I read this book I told everyone that I just didn’t get George Saunders. Then I read it. And I’m still not sure that I get George Saunders, but I know that I really loved many of the short stories in Tenth of December.

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Merry Christmas! I Made These For You.

In theory, Christmas baking is one of my favorite things. In reality, it’s a huge pain in the ass. I wait until the last minute to do anything and never make as many things as I had planned. Everything always takes so much time. (Keep in mind that I’m a person who sat on the couch and watched like 15 movies this weekend.) This year, I had committed to baking for a holiday party, and also for my family’s annual Christmas shindig tomorrow, so I did end up baking quite a few things which I will share with you now.

 

thumbprint cookies

I made these thumbprint cookies topped with raspberry jam a few weeks ago for a holiday party. I would share the recipe, which my mom got from an old friend, here but I am too lazy.

christmas cupcakes

These chocolate cupcakes with buttercream frosting were for the same holiday party and I made them only because I couldn’t find ingredients in the grocery store for other cookies that I wanted to make. Also, you can’t tell here, but I used Christmas cupcake liners because I impulse bought some when I was at the Christmas Tree Shoppe with my grandma over Thanksgiving.

snickerdoodles

I made these snickerdoodles on Sunday using this Smitten Kitchen recipe. They turned out well, according to my brother, who said they’re the best snickerdoodles he’s ever had.

sugar cookie cut outs

I have been making these sugar cookies every year for the past few years. I use this Martha Stewart recipe.

We’re down to about 3 cookie cutters at my parents’ house. Every year I say that I’m going to buy a few more and, shockingly, I never do. (We threw the shamrock in for my brother Dayton, who is currently a student at Notre Dame, and my brother Johnny, who will be headed there next year.) Anyway, I was up until about midnight finishing baking these last night.

frosted sugar cookies

And today…we frosted! I usually just wing it when I make royal icing. Confectioners sugar, egg whites and a little water. This Joy of Baking recipe (the one with egg whites) is basically what I do.

Thank you to Tori and Johnny for helping frost and decorate these guys. Frosting – without eating the cookies – is really hard work.

And Merry Christmas to all!

Summer Leftovers

R.I.P., Summer 2013. You were a really, really good one. Here are some photos from the last few months that haven’t made it on here yet.

Every Book I’ve Read So Far This Year (and Whether or Not You Should Read Them, Too), Part Two

I wrote some mini-reviews of the books I had read in January, February and March a few months ago. Here’s the second edition of that, covering the months of April, May and June.

Did any of you read anything great this year that I should read and review in the next one? I’m looking for suggestions!

APRIL

Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro (2012)

What’s it about?

There are fourteen stories by Alice Munro in this collection. If you are a Munro-head, then you already know that these stories are usually about people, most often women, whose lives, which are lived almost entirely in Canada, are invaded by some kind of sadness. If you are not a Munro-head, well, now you know what this book is about.

Did I like this book?

I did. There is something about her writing that always satisfies me. I’ve learned so much from her ability to say a lot with a few words, her dialogue and her structure. This isn’t to say that I model my writing on hers, but reading her as a writer has been truly helpful in my development. And reading her as a reader has almost always been enjoyable. I had read a bunch of these stories in The New Yorker during the past few years and liked most of them even more upon second reading.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, I think so. There are other collections that I like better. (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage or Runaway are my favorites.) But I think that you can probably read any of her collections and get a sense as to whether or not you’d like her writing, if you’ve never read her before.

Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)

What’s it about?

There are ten stories in this collection. I guess most of them are satirical in nature.

Did I like this book?

More than I thought I would! I had never been able to finish a George Saunders story before reading this book for my book club. After trying to read one of his stories in Best American Short Stories 2012, I cursed his name and declared him overrated and horrible. Of course, this story ended up becoming one of my favorites in the collection. I still found his particular style grating at times, but reading so many of his stories in a short period of time made me respect and appreciate his work. I think I would read another one of his collections.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t just like, recommend this to anyone. For example, if you are my mom, who enjoys reading murder mysteries almost exclusively but sometimes enjoys other stuff, I would say, “NO! Don’t read this!” But if you’re someone who likes being challenged by the fiction you read, or has always wanted to read George Saunders, or has liked reading George Saunders in the past, then I would say, “Yeah, go for it.”

MAY

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker (1962)

What’s it about?

This book is about Cassandra Edwards, who is hyper-intelligent, insecure, paranoid, gay, and trying to ruin her twin sister Judith’s wedding. (I think I’ve read the description of this book so many times, because I had considered reading it for so long, that I originally wrote it out almost verbatim here.)

Did I like this book?

Eh, I feel ambivalent about this book. What I liked about it: the interesting structure, the extreme intelligence of the characters, the exploration of very complicated family dynamics. What I didn’t like about it: Cassandra (almost everything about her). It’s still really difficult for me to like a book when I find the main character unlikable. I wanted to be on her side throughout the novel, but her actions and general way of being made that impossible.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I struggled though this, but I definitely learned from this novel in terms of structure, mechanics, and writing an interestingly unlikable protagonist. I don’t think I’d recommend it, though.

The Way of the World by Nicolas Bouvier (1963)

What’s it about?

This is a memoir. A young Swiss journalist and his artist pal set out to travel from Geneva to the Khyber Pass in a really shitty car.

Did I like this book?

Parts of it. I found the details about the Balkans and the Middle East in the 1950s to be fascinating. I found that I didn’t care about Nicolas or his friend Thierry as much as I cared about, say, Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote the Introduction to this book, in his travel books.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I wouldn’t bother. Unless the subject seems terribly interesting to you, but I’m not totally pleased that I spent almost a month reading this.

JUNE

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

What’s it about?

This Pulitzer Prize winner is about the  journey of Jun Do, a man who grows up an orphan and faces danger, violence and death as he climbs the ranks in totalitarian North Korea.

Did I like this book?

Well, since I didn’t finish it, I’m going to say that I didn’t. The prose was beautiful, but I just couldn’t get into it.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

I mean, you’re going to anyway. So go right ahead. And then please convince me to try it again? I hate not finishing things.

The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (1947)

What’s it about?

This coming-of-age novel follows a brother and sister duo, Ralph and Molly, through their childhood in California and on their uncle’s Colorado ranch.

Did I like this book?

Oh my gosh, yes! This portrait of two children who exist uneasily within their family and the world at large is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. There is a lot to love about this book and I’m sad that it seems to be mostly forgotten. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Jean Stafford and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes. I think this novel is unique in its intelligence and unexpected brutality. It is definitely worth reading. Also, it’s not a huge commitment, as it’s pretty short.

The Likeness by Tana French (2009)

What’s it about?

Dublin Detective Cassie Maddox goes undercover as a murdered woman who looks like her twin.

Did I like this book?

Oh, boy, was this ever a page-turner! Yes, I did like this a lot. I thought it was a very smart thriller and a perfect summer read for those who aren’t big fans of “light reading”. Actually, it was perfect read for the rainy weather in June.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Do it! Especially if you’re in book club with me and haven’t started it yet. Our meeting is next week-ish!

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

What’s it about?

Jim Dixon is an underqualified junior professor at a second-rate English university. During the course of this novel, he must navigate the horrible sea of academia, put up with his on-again off-again girlfriend who is recovering from a suicide attempt and write a lecture on “Merrie England” while trying to remain in the good graces of Professor Welch and steal Welch’s pompous son Bertrand’s girlfriend.

Did I like this book?

This was a re-read for me. I love this book. So, so much. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, right up there with The Dud Avocado.

Should you read it? Why or why not?

Yes, yes, yes. I think we can all find something to relate to in Jim.

(All images via newyorkbooks.com)

This Is A Summer Reading List

When I was a kid, our public library had this summer reading program where you would keep track of the number of books you read during the summer in order to receive prizes, like gift certificates to the local ice cream store. I participated in it every year, until I realized that my friend and I were the oldest kids still doing it at age 10 or 11. I quit out of embarrassment. But I continued to keep track of the books I read that summer.

I’ve always had a competitive drive when it comes to reading. With others, of course, but mostly with myself. Since my summers spent skulking around the children’s section of the Bronxville Public Library, I’ve obsessively kept lists of books I’ve read and books I’d like to read. I love reading lists of books that other people make so that I can mentally – and sometimes, physically – cross off the ones I’ve already read. (I still carry around a handwritten list of Time’s 100 Best Novels, which I’ve been working my way through since 2008.) I know it’s unlikely that I’ll ever read all of the books I want to read in my lifetime, but I’m going to try to read as many as I can.

I’m coming into this summer fresh off a month-long spell of not being able to finish a book. Luckily, that spell has just been broken and I’m hoping I’ll be able to get through some of the following books that I think will make for some good summer reading. So. Behold, my summer reading list!

The Mountain Lion

Author: Jean Stafford

Year Published: 1947

OK, I actually just finished this, but it was the first book I read in June, so I think it still counts. This is a book about two children – Ralph and Molly Fawcett – who travel each summer from their home outside Los Angeles to their Uncle Claude’s ranch in Colorado. Over the course of the novel. the siblings confront the precipice between childhood and adulthood in different and startling ways. Spoiler alert: This book is dope.

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The Likeness

Author:  Tana French

Year Published: 2008

I’m reading this excellent mystery/thriller right now. My friend Jen chose it for our next book club discussion, which I’m sad to say is over a month away because I actually can’t put this book down. (I almost missed my subway stops during my commute this morning.) The Likeness is Tana French’s second book and follows a character from her first novel, In the Woods, which was a pretty big deal when it came out in 2007.

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Lucky Jim

Author:  Kingsley Amis

Year Published: 1954

For a long time, I’ve been telling people that Lucky Jim is one of my favorite books, if not my absolute favorite book. I actually say this about books all the time in attempts to get other people to read them but I really mean it about this one. Lucky Jim has always been a summer-y book for me, since I read it at the very end of my freshman year of college. (School didn’t end until June for me.) My opinions about many books have changed over time, so I’m looking forward to revisiting Lucky Jim this summer and seeing if I still feel the same way about it.

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A Dance to the Music of Time

Author:  Anthony Powell

Year Published: 1951 (A Question of Upbringing)

Welp, this is actually a twelve-novel cycle. I’ve intended on starting it for a long time and I intend on finishing at least the first novel, A Question of Upbringing, or the “First Movement”, which consists of the first three novels, by the end of the summer.

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The Bling Ring

Author:  Nancy Jo Sales

Year Published: 2013

What can I say? Sometimes I like a good beach read, as long as it’s not the chick lit sort. (Though based on my current schedule, I’m not so sure that I’ll actually get to the beach this summer.)

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HhHH

Author:  Laurent Binet

Year Published: 2012

I’ve been wanting to read this book for the last year and I think I’ll finally get around to it this summer. This highly praised historical novel is about the hunt for Reinhard Heydrich, known as the “Butcher of Prague”, during the Second World War. I’m really hoping HhHH lives up to the hype.

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The Middlesteins

Author: Jami Attenberg

Year Published: 2012

Another book from last year I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Luckily, someone just loaned me a copy of this family drama, so I will definitely get to it pretty soon.

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The Wooden Shepherdess

Author: Richard Hughes

Year Published: 1973

I read The Fox in the Attic, the first novel in Hughes’ intended The Human Predicament trilogy earlier this year. I was completely pulled in by the story of Augustine, a young Welsh aristocrat who escapes accusations of the murder of a young girl for his German cousins’ castle outside of Munich. I wanted to take a break between The Fox in the Attic and the second novel in the trilogy, The Wooden Shepherdess, but I think enough time has passed now for me to get started on this one.

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Infinite Jest

Author: David Foster Wallace

Year Published: 1996

Haha. I don’t know. I kept telling myself I’d read Infinite Jest this summer but like, we’ll see.

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Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn

Author: Harvey Swados

Year Published: 1986

Short stories about Brooklyn (and the rest of New York City) in another time.

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A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century

Author: Barbara Tuchman

Year Published: 1978

I miss reading history books – I was a history major in college – but I find that now I can’t get through them unless they’re written with some sort of narrative. I’ve had A Distant Mirror on my list for a while and the book examines the fourteenth century through one figure, a French nobleman named Enguerrand de Coucy.

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Seraphina

Author: Rachel Hartman

Year Published: 2012

And I’m gonna round out this list with a young adult fantasy novel because WHY NOT?

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So, happy summer reading! I’m going to check back in later this month with what I’ve read during the past three months. (You can check out what I read from January through March here.)

Images via New York Review of Books