Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best of 2013: Fiction and Nonfiction & Bring on 2014!

I adore "Year in Review" lists. Every year, I hungrily devour all of the "best ofs" that I can get my hands on. I create wishlists, I binge, I lust. This year's no different.

From a personal standpoint, 2013 was an amazing year. I got engaged, I found my professional footing for the first time in my adult life, and I started to build a wonderful community in a new city. From a bibliophile standpoint, the year was a bit more uneven. The books I loved, I obsessed over. But there seemed to be far fewer of those this year than in the past couple years. There seemed to be more that I had a hard time finishing, but many left no real impression either way.

This list is comprised of books that I read in 2013, but they did not necessarily come out in 2013. That being said, here goes:

Top 10 Non-Fiction

10. Home: A Memoir of My Early Years by Julie Andrews
Confession: I love all things Julie Andrews. I may have snow-shoed while listening to the Sound of Music soundtrack. Last week. Listening to this on audiobook with Julie Andrews narrating? There was no way this wasn't going to make the list.

9. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
This is one of those psychology/business books that I read, highlighting everything and saying "Yes!" the entire time. Carol Dweck discusses her theory of "fixed" and "growth" mindsets, and what that means for you in various aspects of your life. Essentially, a growth mindset (the one for which we should strive) is one that is focused on growth and resilience, that is open to new ideas. Practical and research-based, this is a book I intend to read annually.

8. Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz
This book was fascinating. It begins with discussing the concept of "mass extinction" and how various species have survived throughout history. Author Annalee Newitz then discusses how humans have survived mass extinction in the past, and what we're currently doing to avoid it in the future. She speculates on what we might face in the coming years and what we can do as a species to survive.

7. Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines by Richard A. Muller
Professionally, I organize conferences for the energy industry. However, I had no background in energy prior to taking this position a year and a half ago. This is the most balanced, pragmatic book that I have come across since beginning my quest to learn more about energy policy. Richard Muller, a physicist, writes this book as though the reader is about to take office as the president and needs a primer on all aspects of energy- from wind energy to hydraulic fracturing. The book discusses the benefits and downsides to every aspect as well as the short and long-term future of energy. A "must" first read for anyone wanting to learn more about US energy prospects.

6. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling
I wasn't a big fan of Mindy Kaling's character in "The Office", but this book converted me into a strong Mindy Kaling fan. The collection of humor essays is hilarious and smart. Plus, she discusses forcing her parents to watch her perform the entire "So Long, Farewell" scene from The Sound of Music by herself, as an 8-year-old sporting a bowl cut. What's not to love?

5. Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
Another collection of humor essays. Jim Gaffigan is hilarious and self-deprecating as he discusses parenting his five pale children. As someone who doesn't have kids, I still found this book really funny.

4. The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian and the Making of a Navy SEAL by Eric Greitens
This memoir follows Eric Greitens, a Rhodes scholar who first volunteers internationally and then joins the Navy SEALS. He currently runs a non-profit organization dedicated to the rehabilitation and reintegration of veterans. His story is riveting and inspiring.

3. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
Not all of Sheryl Sandberg's philosophies or anecdotes applied to my specific experiences of goals, but I love that she has furthered the crucial conversation about women, work and families. Everyone- male and female, regardless of profession or career goals, needs to read this book and weigh in on the conversation.

2. A House in the Sky by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett
Amanda Lindhout was a fledgling journalist working in Somalia when she was kidnapped by Somalian rebels and held for 15 months. This is the most powerful memoir I've read in recent history. Lindhout's struggle for hope, resilience and courage is truly amazing. The book is hauntingly well written.

1. Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh
This book contains some of the same material of Brosh's popular web comic, Hyperbole and a Half. Brosh uses crude drawings and text to describe stories from her childhood, her insane dogs, and her battle with depression. Sometimes compared to David Sedaris, Brosh uses humor and brilliant descriptions to illustrate her life. I've yet to encounter anyone who can describe the hopelessness of depression in such an accurate way.

In college, my best friend and I classified people as "in spite ofs" and "because ofs": People who liked us despite our weird sense of humor and quirky interests, and those who liked us because of them. With her unabashed honesty and ability to find humor in her bizarre childhood behavior, Brosh is a champion for everyone searching for "because ofs".

Top 10 Fiction

10. The Mystery of Mercy Close by Marian Keyes
I adore Marian Keyes. Her books are quick reads, sweet and funny, and tend evoke genuine feelings without being emotionally manipulative. Her latest book followed Helen Walsh, the youngest of the Walsh sisters (the other sisters have been chronicled in Keyes's earlier novels). I was thrilled when this came out: Helen has always been my favorite. She's off-kilter, sarcastic and seems to be completely hopeless. This book finds Helen as an out of work PI who is moving back in with her parents, including the formidable Mammy Walsh. When one of the members of a 90's boy band (poised to do a reunion show) goes missing, Helen sets out to find him.

9. Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close
This book will speak to most women who have experienced the post-college drunken nights, shit first jobs, whirlwind of bridal showers and weddings. I love Closes's sparse writing. She doesn't spend a lot of time on physical descriptions or character backgrounds, and for that it feels like you're gossiping with your new best friend. The vignettes within the story are hilarious- the tragic relationships, horrible bosses, and the wedding that takes place the weekend after Michael Jackson died that inadvertently turns into an MJ tribute. I could not put this book down.

8. The Passage by Justin Cronin
I picked up this book because its sequel was on a "Best of 2012" list. I loved them both equally, but this one made the list as it needs to be read before The Twelve. The book follows Amy, a six year old abandoned by her mother. She is captured by top-secret government agents who are experimenting with humans in a nightmarish way. When the experiments backfire, society collapses during the escape of vampire-ish once-humans. As a band of a few survivors work together to build a new way of life, Amy wanders through the devastated land, knowing that she alone may be able to save humanity. Trust me, I understand how corny this sounds. Cronin's character development is fantastic and the pacing is perfect. This is the best horror novel I've read since The Stand.

7. Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Clay Jannon, a web designer impacted by the great recession, finds himself working nights at a shadowy 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco. He soon realizes that this is no ordinary bookstore. Instead of purchasing books, a small group of regulars check out books for a united but unknown purpose. This book reminded me of the YA adventure stories I used to read as an awkward preteen, where a group of misfits band together and anything is possible. Also, the cover of the book glows in the dark.

6. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
When I was a young and melodramatic middle schooler, I was obsessed with Lurlene McDaniel, who wrote (I understand now) trashy, emotionally manipulative novels about teens dying of things. My parents laughed at me whenever I read this novels, but I would hotly contest that they were teaching me about real life issues. Looking back, I cringe. The Fault in Our Stars is the opposite of Lurlene McDaniel: what I had thought she was as a teen and realized she wasn't as an adult. Hazel meets Augusts at a cancer support group. The book follows their relationship and their struggles in a way that feels authentic. This book moved me more than any other book that I read this year.

5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
How had I not read this???? I loved this story.

4. The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
Probably one of the best days of 2013 was when I found out that JK Rowling had come out with a mystery novel under a pen name. Among my friends, the post-Harry Potter JK Rowling books are met with mixed reviews. I love them. I loved the Harry Potter books, but I'm so happy that JK Rowling had the courage to move to entirely different genres. This book follows Cormoran Strike, a detective who has recently broken up with his long-term on-again, off-again girlfriend and is living in his office. He (somewhat accidentally) hires Robin, an eager recruit who is trying to start her professional career. When a starlet is found dead, Cormoran and Robin work to discover his killer. This book was funny and fun, with great twists and turns.

3. Night Film by Marisha Pessl
This book follows Scott McGrath, a once-acclaimed crime journalist who has fallen from grace. The book opens with the death of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of infamous, reclusive cult-underground horror director Stanislas Cordova. In order to redeem his credibility as a journalist and take revenge upon Stanislas Cordova (who was the reason for his downfall), McGrath sets out to discover what "really" happened to Ashley. As a mystery/horror novel, this book is immensely satisfying. Also, the mixed-media format of including press clippings/internet articles was well done and a fun supplement to the novel.

2. The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman is a professor of genetics who is literal-minded to the point of alienating most people he meets. When he creates a16-page survey as the logical way to find his perfect partner, his world changes in ways he never would have anticipated. I don't have a lot of patience for books with what I call "Shopaholic" characters- ditzy girls who can't pass up a sale and their bland, cookie cutter counterparts. Give me the weirdos any day. I devoured this novel. It is sweet, smart and funny.

1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
This book begins with eighteen-year-old Rosemary Cooke starting college and shedding her childhood identity for the first time. Throughout her childhood, Rosemary was known for one thing- she was raised with a chimp, Fern, as her twin. For reasons unbeknownst to Rosemary, Fern is taken away when they are six, never to return. As Rosemary navigates college and attempts to build an identity away from her bizarre, secretive family, she also grapples with the mystery surrounding Fern's expulsion from her family. This book was funny and achingly bittersweet.

Books I Wanted to Love and Just Didnt
1. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
Following a group of summer camp friends from one fateful summer through adulthood. What's not to love? Every single one of these characters. This book earned much critical acclaim and I was so excited to read it. Unfortunately, I just didn't like any of these characters. And although liking characters isn't a pre-requisite to loving a book (see Choke by Chuck Palahniuk), reading about spoiled, self-absorbed and whiny characters just isn't much fun.

2. Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
I was game for this book about a woman from Tennessee experiencing a "miracle" that ends up being the result of a breach in the delicate ecosystem. But this book is just too preachy.

3. The Dinner by Herman Koch
I'm a sucker for any book touted as "for those who love Gone Girl". It's not that I think that Gone Girl is the perfect novel, but that's usually code for "dark psychological thriller": which I love. However, this book again falls into the same trap as The Interestings. The story follows two families having dinner to discuss what to do after one of their sons has committed an unspeakable crime. There was nothing redeeming about any of these characters and I found that I didn't care what happened to any of them.

4. Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel
In a lot of ways, this book was well written. I loved Mantel's portrayal of Thomas Cromwell. But this book felt formless and shapeless. It seemed to be much more of a stream of consciousness than a fully formed novel, and at 604 pages, it dragged way too much.

5. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
I understand why critics described this novel as "haunting" and "beautiful", and it had all of the ingredients of a novel that would stay with me (man escaping Nazi-occupied Poland, love that has survived the decades, bizarre child who thinks he's the Messiah), but it just fell flat for me and left me feeling sad and empty.

Books I'm Excited to Read in 2014:
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
The Panopticon by Jennie Fagan
S by JJ Abrams
Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh
Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld


Frau McCreery said...

I was JUST about to tell you to read S by JR Abrams, then saw it on your list at the bottom. Make sure to choose a block of time without to many outside obligations for this one. It feels like you're participating in a mystery research project while you're getting to know 5 different people and reading a book.

Erin Seals said...

That'll be the next one I start! Thank you- I'm so excited to read it!