The Best of the Best
It is the time of year when we are awash in “Best of” lists, and many worthy publications have put forth their recommendations for the best books of the year that is about to pass us by. A friend of mine professed herself overwhelmed by the lists, and asked me if I would curate them for her. I read quite extensively, tending to prefer contemporary fiction with a dash of the classics, and with an unconscious bias toward books by American women (gee, I wonder why?). Here then, for Julie and for the rest of you, is my “best of the best,” a list of books I think you should find a time and a place for in your busy schedule.
First of all, here are two writers you should know if you don’t already: Jayne Anne Phillips and A. M. Homes. Both are prolific, so here’s some guidance on where to start. In 2008, Phillips published Lark + Termite, which was then her first novel in nine years. It was quickly followed by this year’s entry, Quiet Dell. Both are excellent, but Lark is by far the more profound work. It’s Faulkneresque in its multiple points of view and its poetic writing. It’s challenging literary fiction, but those who stick with it will find glimmers of genius.
Homes’ work is dark and funny, and she has great skill at creating vivid characters. Even her walk-ons are fully fleshed out. I greatly enjoyed her newest book, May We Be Forgiven. I also recommend This Book Will Save Your Life and an older book, In a Country of Mothers (like books about therapy? Read this!). Other works of hers are even darker and more terrifying; I’ve not yet worked up the courage to read Music For Torching.
Ann Patchett is a writer who doesn’t really need my promotion, but I would encourage you to go back and read some of her earlier works, particularly Taft, a poorly titled but excellent novel. Her newest, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is a collection of essays. As The New York Times mentions, it’s particularly fascinating to read if you’ve read her fiction, as she provides glimpses into the thinking behind some of her books. Her best novel by far is Bel Canto, so if you’ve never read Patchett, start there.
I’m currently in the midst of reading another novel that’s appearing on a number of lists: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. It’s a sparsely written and yet complex book that plays with time and muses on the frailty of life and the tragedy and capriciousness of death. One of the characters references Virginia Woolf; I think the writing resembles Woolf as well.
Others I haven’t read yet but plan to:
The Goldfinch: Donna Tartt’s newest, her first novel some time, is getting excellent reviews. I really liked The Secret History and can’t wait to read this. But it’s long, so I’m a bit daunted. But I’ll get to it!
Someone by Alice McDermott: I’m a fan of this excellent writer and have read several of her novels. I heard her speak recently at the Free Library of Philadelphia and she proved herself to be the wise and calm writing sage I suspected she would be.
All That Is by James Salter: Vanity Fair featured him hangin’ in the Hamptons with his long time luminary literary buddies Robert Caro, E.L. Doctorow, and Jason Epstein and marveled that after a long period of dormancy, the eighty-something year old has turned out a master work.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: Chosen as the recipient of this year’s National Book Award for fiction. He’s got the Philly connection too!
The Golem & the Jinni by Helene Wecker: Got a great review by our local selection committee for the One Book One Jewish Philadelphia.
The Rosie Project by Graeme C. Simsion
It’s sweet and it’s charming and I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite my tendency toward heavier reads. The voice of the main character, a quirky scientist who hasn’t really clued in to the fact that he has Asperger’s, reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time.
Now as for those classics, here’s what I’ve reread and thoroughly enjoyed of late:
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (as if I really need to name the author!): Can’t help myself – love it every single darn time. Pared-down prose without a single extraneous word or action.
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton: I cry over Lily Bart every time.
Anything and everything by J.D. Salinger: don’t particularly love Catcher, but how I adore those Glass children and Nine Stories. And now: there’s more! Can’t wait!
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck: needed to reread the classic by our local Philly author. Expected to find it dull and plodding; instead found it to be quite moving and insightful.
I could go on and on of course, but this should keep you busy for a while. Now you please tell me what’s on your personal Best of 2013 Books list!