Sunday, January 12, 2014

Best of 2013: Books

reads of 2013

Thanks to goodreads for the above image of the books I read in 2013.

My friend Lara created a Book BINGO group on FB, and while I stopped filling in my Bingo card sometime around June, I loved having a bit of book talk pop up on my Facebook feed. I’m playing again this year, though I am very wary of any “obligatory” feelings toward reading---as soon as I “have to” read a book, I’ll read anything but that book.

Favorite Fiction reads of 2013

Home by Marilyn Robinson

I was prepared for disappointment because how could it possibly be as good as Gilead. Yet it was. Robinson’s writing is cerebral and spiritual, but her real power---to me---is her dialogue.  Eventually it felt like every word the characters spoke was exactly theirs---I can't describe it any better, but that sense of yes---that is exactly what he or she would have said and with the best of intentions and then, see how it wounds, how terribly wrong it was to have said. Three people who clearly love each other and nonetheless hurt each other so easily. That sounds terrible, but it was beautiful and true.

"My life became your life, like lighting one candle from another. Isn't that a mystery? I've thought about it many times. And yet you always did the opposite of what I hoped for, the exact opposite. So I tried not to hope for anything at all, except that we wouldn't lose you. So of course we did. That was the one hope I couldn't put aside."

Not just a best book of 2013 but one of my all-time favorites now. I want my professor-sister to teach a class on siblings in American literature with this beside A River Runs Through It.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivy

A thoroughly enjoyable read. I love when I am so pulled into a story, when the characterization and language and plot are all three strong and I am too invested in the story to stand by and wonder about how the author is doing all this. I had no interest in peering behind the wizard’s curtain while reading this book, but enjoyed it all.

“It would be a hard life, but it would be theirs alone. Here at the world's edge, far from everything familiar and safe, they would build a new home in the wilderness and do it as partners.”


Beautiful Ruins by Jess Waters

There are moments when JW seemed too clever for his own good, and I felt I could almost see him smile over his keyboard. But can I blame him? He is clever---Adequate View and his self-absorbed screenwriter who is addicted to epiphanies (best text-exchange in a novel). Has the over-worked face of a Hollywood producer ever been described as well? I loved his Hemingway-esque Albus chapter and even the Donner pitch. Dee Moray is great name, but she was the one character who remained flat for much of the book. So many unexpected riches in this book---love Pasquale’s reply to "What took you so long?" And Claire’s acceptance of less than museum-sterile perfection, whether in the collaborative art of movie-making, or in accepting the heart wants what it wants.

“He thought it might be the most intimate thing possible, to fall asleep next to someone in the afternoon.”

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) by J.K. Rowling

I’m about five years late to this party, but still reeling in admiration of the world Rowling created, and how she carried her vision to fruition. True to the story she’s been telling, Rowling’s story doesn’t end with a battle of brute strength, though the film tried to create that kind of epic show-down. Rather, Voldemort, who has split his soul in an effort to defy mortality, is destroyed by his own killing curse; Harry’s final curse is a disarming one. I never was a great fan of Rowling’s prose but she more than made up for it in characterization and plot. I loved the story of the hallows, how each character had to face their greatest weaknesses, and the overall theme of parental love. I’d been annoyed at Dumbledore many times throughout the series and now, even that made sense as his brother Aberforth explains: “Secrets and lies, that's how we grew up, and Albus ... he was a natural.”

Sean and I raced through the final two books this year, and our last day reading the final three chapters together is one of my favorite memories from this year. Thank you, J.K. Rowling.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

When You Reach Me  by Rebecca Stead

 I had commented to Aidan what a clever cover I thought this was, and he surprised me with a copy at Christmas. It’s not a YA novel nor a picture book---it’s the genre I didn’t have a name for before now: juvenile fiction (hat tip to Elizabeth Dillow). So many lovely touches---Richard was just right, and the moment at the door with her mother when she realizes her mother sees the dinginess too---or at the school, that moment with the girl who always needed to pee. The puzzle pieces fit so perfectly without being too obvious. A wonder. Aidan is intent on making a movie version of it when he’s older. I hope someone doesn’t beat him to it.

“Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way. But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love.”

Favorite Nonfiction reads of 2013


My nightstand sometime in January 2013. Two of the same books remain this January: The Secret Garden because Sean and I read it (between HP 5 and HP 6 last winter) and now Nolan and I are reading it (three chapters to go!) and Magical Journey, because I wasn’t ready to be finished with it even when I finished it.

Magical Journey: An Apprenticeship in Contentment by Katrina Kenison

I feel grateful to have Katrina Kenison as a guidepost and companion throughout my years as a mother. My friend Angie gave me her first book, Mitten Strings for God: Reflections for Mothers in a Hurry, the year Aidan was born. I loved The Gift of an Ordinary Day, which was less didactic and breathtakingly vulnerable. Her latest memoir was my reading companion throughout the year. It’s a story of parenting children on the brink of adulthood, of marriage shared with more honesty than I’ve seen elsewhere, and of a journey within that is both personal in detail but universal in its truth. I started it in January and didn’t finish until December. Not a fast read, but a lovely one, one I’m glad to own and revisit again.

“I wanted to hold on tight to everything and everyone I cherished and, at the same time, saw in a way I never had before that living on this earth, growing older, and growing up in the true sense of the word is really about learning how to let go.”

Million Little Ways, A: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live by Emily Freeman

Emily’s blog, Chatting at the Sky, is one of my favorites. Sometimes I feel like an imposter there, as Emily’s audience is mostly (I assume) Evangelical Christians. But I feel the same way on the blog of my favorite Buddhist writer. Like Pi Patel, I am curious about the mystery of God and creation, and eager to learn from everyone.

I remember being shocked when a friend, raised in the same faith as I, expressed her understanding of “made in God’s image” to mean that God had arms and legs like us. I was taught to be wary of re-making God “in our own image” and understood that we, of all God’s creation, were made with the ability to create. We are closest to our creator when we too create.

Emily’s book treats our life as the canvas. This is another read that won’t go onto a shelf in my bookcase but remain on my bedside table. “The miracle, upside-down work of God is that our failure isn’t an obstacle, it’s an opportunity to remember to sink into God. Not having what it takes is not a liability, it’s a prerequisite…I’m looking for dry ground, but God gives me water and tells me to sink. But this is not a sinking into worry or self-help. This is sacred sinking into knowing he is God.”

2013 04 26_1257 nightstand books

Same nightstand, different books, some time in April. Three of those books remain unfinished (Teddy Roosevelt, Pushcart and Dogs of Babel, though I hope to revisit all three). ETA: for the record, the book at the top of that pile is the worst book I read in 2013.

Until I Say Good-Bye: My Year of Living with Joy by Susan Spencer-Wendel

I heard of Susan via one of my favorite features in The Week Magazine---a spotlight on a specific author and their favorite books. I liked her choices, and her own memoir was described as being about "making the most of her remaining time" after her diagnosis of ALS at age 44.

Here's what I appreciated most: that she was frank about the time spent in denial, frank about her own weaknesses and vanity and that she shared her own story without sentimentality (in a way only a former beat reporter could).

Many of her planned "memories" didn't turn out the way she had hoped/planned, but by the end (when she is writing the book painstakingly with only her thumbs on her iphone), she has learned to not have expectations, and she treats us the reader to her intense awareness of what she does have access to---being alive, and her senses---such beautiful and sensual descriptions of Greek dishes, and the ocean and the sky. I can still picture her, poolside under the tiki hut with her Goldie nearby.

I only cried twice---when she got the book deal, because if I were sick, that relief would be the greatest gift to me, and again, at the very end, as she typed her children's names. I can't fathom all that she has surrendered, but, whether you read this book or not, you and I will one day have to give up all of it too, and it was a generous gift for Susan to share with all of us her journey of letting go.

Best Books of Previous Years:




2007 Fiction and 2007 Nonfiction

You can find all of our (the boys and mine) posts about books here.

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