My Favourite Reads of 2013

1 Jan

 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

~ T.S. Eliot, (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2014, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2013. Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

I have broken out my list into four categories (but the books are not listed in any particular order):

  • Literary Fiction Published in 2013;
  • Contemporary Literature.;
  • Classic Literature; and
  • Nonfiction.

I. Literary Fiction Published in 2013:

1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. This is a wonderful novel of historical fiction. It is well-researched and Fowler has beautifully imagined (and, maybe, at moments recreated certain aspects of) the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, beyond just the wife of the famous/infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fowler show Zelda forging her own identity while fighting her own personal demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

2. Kicking the Sky, by Anthony De Sa. I read this book in October, 2013, and shared my thoughts at that time. Three months later, I still find myself thinking about this story and wowed by De Sa’s talent.

3. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. This was my first time reading Kushner, and she blew my mind. I loved everything about this novel – it was tough, edgy and sensitive.

4. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This novel ticked all the boxes for me: ballet, belle époque Paris, Degas, Zola, La Figaro.  While fictional, I loved the way Buchanan wove the history of the real events throughout this story. I read the book quickly – two very late-night reading sessions that kept me up way, waaaay past bedtime. The subsequent daytime sleepiness was well worth it though.

5. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. The Crooked Maid is many things – historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction, homage. Vyleta’s doing a lot with this novel, which could be a worry – but it’s very good, and Vyleta can really write. His ability with description is pretty stellar.

6. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The only word that keeps rolling around in my brain, concerning Gilbert’s new novel, is: LUSH – this book is so lush and enveloping. It was pretty delightful from start to finish. And if you know me, you know I don’t really use the word ‘delightful’! This novel may have been my most surprising read this year.

II. Contemporary Literature:

1. Indian Horse (2012), by Richard Wagamese. I managed a 5 word review, after I read this novel in February, 2013: “Stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Required reading.” Wagamese’s book affected me very deeply. For all its heartbreak, it was also very much a hopeful story. This is a book that can, and should, be read by everyone.

2. The Wreckage (2005), by Michael Crummey. My love for Michael Crummey’s writing runs fairly deep – I think he is brilliant. He wowed me again with The Wreckage. Reading this novel made me want to spend some time in Crummey’s brain…or, at the very least, take a writing class with him.

3. Sweetness in the Belly (2005), by Camilla Gibb. I read this book for the third time in 2013, and man, it’s great!  Gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose I could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book – Lilly’s life in Harare, and her life in London were both so vivid.

4. A Complicated Kindness,(2004) by Miriam Toews.  Another third reading. (2013 was unusual in that regard, I don’t generally re-read much at all.) I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!  I think this books gets better with each reading. The way Toews captures the voice of 16-year-old Nomi is incredible. Sure she’s wise and precocious, but she’s also still a kid and Toews gets her voice so right.

5. The Round House, (2012) by Louise Erdrich. What a great novel! It’s evocative and hard but using a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist adds a layer of nuance that would be missing in an older main character (I think – given the arc of Joe’s story.) I really loved Erdrich’s perspective on family, love and justice. The supporting characters are all very interesting and well developed, and served to make this a very tightly woven novel.

6. Arcadia (2011), by Lauren Groff. I loved Arcadia a lot. i viscerally responded to the settings and people Groff created here, and i am kinda floored by Groff’s talent. I was totally caught up in Bit’s life. I loved the timeline and following him along life’s path.

7. The Snow Child (2012), by Eowyn Ivey. What a fantastic debut novel! It’s a magical and sometimes heartbreaking story, perfectly set for a wonderful winter read.

8. The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño.

bolañover

bow-lah-nyoh-verr;  noun

1. weird physical and emotional effects caused by reading the works of Roberto Bolaño. symptoms may include: confusion; anger; awe; dry eyes; headache; idolatry; exhaustion; the strong desire for alcohol, drugs or both; feelings of filthiness and the need to shower to remove the grit; wonder; sadness; curiosity; the unexplained urge to pimp out a 1970s impala. symptoms may ease with time or they may worsen.

2. a thing that has survived from the past.

III. Classic Literature:

1. Two Solitudes (1945), by Hugh MacLennan. What a dense, wonderful important novel. This was a re-read for me, but I had lost so many details over the years it was like a new experience. Following the strands of story arcs concerning ‘two solitudes’, through this novel was amazing. MacLennan wrote about so many important issues and brought heart and humanity to the telling. Certainly a canadian classic, and a book that should continue to resonate for generations to come.

2. Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen. Late in the book there is this quote:

“Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.”

And when I read that line it made me think of the details in Austen’s writing and how, in fact, the minutiae present with her manner of storytelling sucks me right in every time. But…with Persuasion I feel this is very much a novel of Anne’s restraint and resolve, as much as it is a tale of different persuasions. So given Anne’s nature, though we aren’t privy to her inner workings in great detail, I was seeing everything through her eyes and completely immersed in her world.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck. Oh for the love of humanity — is there any family as hard done by as the Joads??? The Joads’ humanity and hope, in the face of utter hopelessness, is incredible. And the way Steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. The man was a genius. But i don’t really know what I could possibly say here that hasn’t been said earlier, and better, by others? Read it! Do it!

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. I made it all the way to page 317 without crying…even though I felt like I could a couple of times earlier on. But page 317 did me in, the bastard! Heh. (I am not really a person who cries while reading – though Grapes of Wrath last week (see above) and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) Now, I am all teary and soppy, and I ugly-cried and I got the hiccups and I have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. So how about this: Harper Lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!  Yeah? Cool!

5. Twelfth Night (1602), by William Shakespeare. A re-read (again with the re-reads!!) after many years, and still as great as I remember it to be. Shakespeare can be lots of fun.

IV. Nonfiction:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), by Susan Cain. I am an introvert. But I am not shy. So I have been trying to explain the difference to people for years. Instead, I should just carry around copies of Cain’s great, great book. Being an introvert and having a good and thoughtful understanding of what this means, I still learned a lot from Quiet. Cain’s research seems very well done (and so interesting), and her style is very engaging. I think this is one of those books that everyone should read as it will likely help open some eyes and minds, and allow people to better understand and respect one another.

2. The Truth About Luck (2013), by Iain Reid. Sometimes you read a book and it becomes something you connect with so personally and deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review it constructively. That happened with this amazing book by Iain Reid. But, I  thought about it for quite a while, and i think – my personal attachment aside – the strength of Reid’s writing, the flow of the story, and his ability to make us care about what he and his grandma are up to make this book totally worth its 5-star rating. (I wrote about the book in more detail, in March, 2013.)

3. Belonging: Home Away From Home (2003), by Isabel Huggan. This book is wonderful – and was my #1 favourite read for 2013! The majority of the book is a memoir of place – the search for home. Not just the physical: the location and the structure, but also the feeling. Feeling one is home is a big deal. At least it is to me, anyway. And it’s something I have been hoping to find my whole life.  Huggan gives voice to this search, this sensation, and does it so beautifully and naturally. There’s a lot of excavation of memory that goes on in the telling, and it felt very much like I was just listening to Huggan in conversation. Also contained in the story are small snippets of Huggan’s writing life, something I really appreciated.

4. The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton. What a great book!!! Pierre Berton is an excellent storyteller and, it would seem, he is also an impeccable researcher. But that’s not really a surprise!! Shamefully, this is the first time I have read a Berton book. OOPS!! He definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. Weird, right?? I was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. The British expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts, and judging the Inuit, while useful to them, ‘savages’ and ‘unintelligent’.

5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster Wallace.  Each essay in this collection has its own strength (and each is fairly brilliant), but overwhelmingly evident, when taken as a whole, is DFW’s ability to assess and read people, and analyze a situation or instance in the context of a bigger picture. It’s uncanny, really.

6. My Ideal Bookshelf (2013), by Jane Mount & Thessaly La Force. Or, as I like to call it, porn for book lovers! This is just a beautiful book to look at, and it also gives great satisfaction on the ‘snooping the bookshelves’ front.

7. Bottomfeeder (2007), by Taras Grescoe.  LOVE THIS BOOK!! Seriously; it’s fantastic. It should be required reading for everyone. Grescoe has a wonderful ability with delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. The structure of the book is fantastic: each chapter is like a little case study. A species is examined – the supply, the demand, the problems and the science – and explained. Grescoe travelled the world while researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry, and about the choices he makes for his diet.

***************

So, there you have it – all of the absolute stand out books I had the pleasure of reading in 2013.  Altogether, I read 121 books last year. This was definitely not usual. Generally, I average somewhere between 60 and 70 books per year. I am not really clear on what happened in 2013 to cause my pace to double, but it was quite the adventure and I will look back fondly on ‘that one crazy reading year’.

A few stats:

  • Total books read: 121
  • Total pages read: 41,839
  • 71 female writers
  • 49 male writers
  • And 1 collection featuring male and female writers
  • 12 works in translation

You can view my full reading list on Goodreads.

Thank you for visiting Literal Life, and continuing to be interested in the books I am reading and talking about.

As always – please feel free to share your favourite reads with me – I would love to hear about them

Happy reading!

4 Responses to “My Favourite Reads of 2013”

  1. lauratfrey 1 January 14 at 11:50 pm #

    Whoa, what a great list. I’m pretty excited to read Indian Horse. It’s the MacEwan book of the year in 2014 which means the author will come to Macewan University here in Edmonton to talk about it… I think that’s in March so I’ll have to read it soonish.

    Agree completely on Sweetness in the Belly. I read it for the first time this year and thought, why on earth didn’t I read this sooner?

    My favourite read of the year was The Cat’s Table, sort of an unpopular choice!

    • Jennifer Dawson Oakes 2 January 14 at 9:18 am #

      Hi Laura. Thank you!! What a great opportunity at MacEwan. I hope that will be an amazing experience, and that you love Wagamese’s novel a lot. He’s a wonderful speaker and it should be a truly fantastic event!! Aw, right?? Gibb’s book is fantastic, and I am so pleased it has held up on re-readings. I read it with a book group last fall, and that added even more to my appreciation of the novel. Heh – ‘Cat’s Table’ = unpopular; that cracked me up!! I really disliked that book a lot. Though I find Ondaatje’s books are really hit or miss for me as a reader. I appreciate you stopping by, reading my post and making a comment. Happy new year!

  2. Claire 'Word by Word' 3 January 14 at 6:20 am #

    A really great list indeed, I shall have to bookmark this and come back, so many unknowns to me and a few I have on the shelf that I must get to! Love that had so many winners in 2013! Bonne continuation.

    • Jennifer Dawson Oakes 3 January 14 at 9:34 am #

      Hi Claire!

      Thank you. I was absolutely thrilled to have so many excellent reads last year! I hope 2014 will be just as great. I also hope some of the books you are interested in will be wonderful reads for you too!!

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