Another year brings another set of Top Ten lists and another reminder that those lists are supposed to be about the quality of the books rather than the number of them. That is, we like compiling our Best of the Year lists in fiction and non-fiction (and for the first time this year, in children’s and tween/teens) because it gives us a chance to look back over the last twelve months and remind ourselves how great the books we read were. The ten titles we listed in each category are our collective favorites, but it’s not as if we can really argue that they’re measurably better than the eleventh- and twelfth-best ones. Different readers (or the same readers in different circumstances) will have other favorites, which is why we always like to talk about the books that almost made the cut.
For example, The Infatuations by Javier Marías and The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez were among the last titles knocked off our fiction list. The first is a slowly unspooling mystery set in Spain and written wiith great psychological acuity by an author we’ve previously trumpeted as a potential Nobel laureate; the second is a novel that deals with decades of drug trafficking, not by explicitly detailing it, but by showing the after-effects on the next generation of Colombians. Both are intelligent, even brilliant works, but there didn’t seem to be room for them alongside Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles, which addresses political violence in Peru. Could we have included all this great Hispanophone fiction? Sure, but we felt like that would have unbalanced the list, so out those last two went.
That kind of horse-trading forces a great many excellent books off the winners page on our website, but fortunately, we have room on Message in a Bottle to give them their due. The rest of the best fiction of 2013:
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: There’s no truth to the rumor that we dropped this marvelous novel of romance between two Nigerian immigrants from our list because we were afraid to type the author’s dauntingly long name. We can prove that it’s false: Emma mentioned the book on our blog earlier in the year.
- Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: It’s hard to believe that fifty years have gone by since Pynchon first published. He remains as inventive, energetic, and in touch with the zeitgeist as ever.
- Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Sparkling wit and emotional resonance don’t often walk hand in literary hand, but Segal marries them like no one else. James rhapsodized about her on the blog just recently.
- The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The youngest-ever Booker Prize winner also wrote the longest-ever Booker Prize winner, concocting a rich historical stew that updates the 19th century for 21st century audiences.
- & Sons by David Gilbert: A great novel for book lovers (aren’t we all?) about a genius writer who’s a sub-par father.
- The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: Winner of this year’s National Book Award (and author of the beloved memoir The Color of Water), McBride has outdone himself with this tale of a young boy, born a slave, who must pass as a girl to survive.
- And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Another success for Hosseini, long a favorite of island readers. Miriam took keyboard in hand some months ago to tell us exactly how good it is.
- All That Is by James Salter: We don’t always trust the jacket flap to tell the real story, but in this case we do: “[A] young naval officer in battles off Okinawa, Philip Bowman returns to America and … finds that he fits in perfectly. But despite his success, what eludes him is love. Romantic and haunting, All That Is … is a dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition, a fiercely intimate account of the great shocks and grand pleasures of being alive.”
- The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: A great discussion sparker, Messud’s novel provoked strong feelings that Miriam expressed in yet another blog post.
Great non-fiction that deserves a mention includes the following titles:
- Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr: Can you imagine the meals M.F.K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, and all their other friends cooked when they were together in the south of France? You don’t have to imagine them when you read Barr’s vivid history.
- Mercer Island History by Jane Meyer Brahm: Local kid Brahm makes good. As the only book of its kind, anyone around here must obtain a copy. As a really tremendous book, all considerations about geography aside, you’ll be ecstatic to own one.
- Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson: What was a “sideshow of a sideshow” in World War I, the carving up of the Arabian peninsula, set the stage for the most important geopoliticking of the current age. Anderson’s account is the best imaginable explanation of how those times led to today.
- The Lost Carving by David Esterly: Our staff, but especially Roger, is interested in any book that deals with real work and the struggle to maintain a sense of authenticity in our increasingly plastic, ersatz era. Esterly’s memoir of self-education, about teaching himself the techniques of the master woodworkers of the 1600s, is riveting.
- I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai: Her story has often been told in the media, but not so well, nor so inspirationally, as she tells it herself.
- Surfaces and Essences by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander: This is a very difficult book to summarize, but James gave it a shot earlier in the year.
You probably have other books in mind, and we’d love to hear about them. There’s always room on our blog for comments, and we love to read your emails too, so don’t hesitate to share your opinions with us and your fellow customers.