The Sunday Salon: Year in Review: The Best Books I Read in 2013

The Sunday SalonEvery year, I have the best intentions. You see, I usually start thinking about my Best Books of the Year list sometime around Halloween. Sometimes earlier. By then, I generally have an idea of how the reading year is shaping up and what is going to make it onto the elusive list. (Like this is something you’re all waiting with bated breath for.)

And then? After all that build-up and thought and to-do? I write and re-write the list, but never post it until a week or so into the New Year. I mean, what if one of December’s last books turns out to be a contender for The List? Plus, as my friend Florinda says, if the movie and music awards for 2013 can be given out in 2014, then that’s good enough for us.

Here, then, are my selections for the best books I read in 2013:

The Dangers of Proximal AlphabetsI'm Looking Through YouThe Bird SaviorsThe OrchardistSea-CreaturesDog YearsStill Life with Oysters and LemonThe Devil in the White CityTwo Boys KissingSongdogsThe Virgin CureThe Other TypistWhen It Happens to YouIn Persuasion NationTenth of DecemberThe GrieversBetween Shades of GrayHelen Keller in LoveThe Age of MiraclesThe Illusion of Separateness

Links take you to my full review. If a review isn’t posted, that might just mean that I haven’t gotten to it yet. Quotes are from my reviews.

  1. The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, by Kathleen Alcott (2012)

“…how does one accept not being able to be with someone who you love and know completely and who you have spent your entire life (since childhood) loving completely? And, if the answers aren’t what we want and need them to be, how do we get to a point of comfortable acceptance with that? That’s slightly spoilerish-sounding, I know. But I’m not giving anything away that you don’t discover early on in this one. Right from the beginning, there’s the sense that Ida and Jackson have a bit of a history together and something went way, way wrong.

We can live with someone, grow up with them, watch them sleep, be intimate with them – and yet, still not know them. What they experience, how they interpret that experience, is not necessary how that person interprets it. Even if you have known the person forever. Even if you don’t know where you end and the other begins. Even if the lines between family and friend have gotten blurry.”

2.  I’m Looking Through You: A Memoir of Growing Up Haunted, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (2008)

3. The Bird Saviors, by William J. Cobb (2012)

“The Bird Saviors is set in modern-day Colorado in a seemingly not-too-distant future (maybe closer than author William J. Cobb thought) marked by a confluence of high unemployment, food and fuel shortages, extreme climate change and dust storms, illegal immigration, mysterious avian-borne viruses similar in scale to HIV/AIDS, and religious zealots.

But it is in the vivid descriptions of this desert landscape, and the counting of the birds, and the saving of the ones that are rare and injured, where Cobb’s skill as an author truly shines. The birds become a stand-in for our own fragility and how we all need some saving from the people we encounter in our lives – our loved ones and strangers alike – and sometimes, even ourselves …. Sometimes, as Ruby and some of the other well-developed characters discover in The Bird Saviors, we find someone else who is also similarly injured, just as broken, who can help save us as we make our way through a scary and uncertain world.”

4. The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin (2012)

“In regards to The Orchardist, the word “classic” has been used in connection with this one, alongside the names Steinbeck and other great American novelists. I believe this has earned its rightful place with them (it is even better than some of them, I think). It is more than worthy enough to be studied and discussed in English classes. I can think of very few modern day novels that could stand the test of time to become classics. With The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin may have just written such a book.

5. Sea Creatures, by Susanna Daniel (2013)

“After [Georgia’s husband] Graham loses his tenured position at Northwestern, the couple and their toddler son Frankie move back to Georgia’s hometown in South Florida. There, they begin a new life aboard their houseboat with extended family nearby and a new research assignment at sea for Graham. But even in new places, unresolved issues have a way of refusing to stay buried. What we couldn’t see before sometimes has a way of surfacing in new surroundings.”

6. Dog Years, by Mark Doty (2007)

7. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, by Mark Doty (2001)

8 The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson (2003)

9. Two Boys Kissing, by David Levithan (2013)

“Two Boys Kissing grabs you at the title and with that gorgeous in-your-face cover picture. You know what this is going to be about – but you’re only partially right. Because while you expect this to be about two teenage boys (Craig and Harry) and their complicated relationship with each other, you don’t expect them to be observed (as they publicly try to break the world’s record for the longest kiss) … by anonymous, once-closeted voices from a past and an era defined by an epidemic that once turned thousands of young men like Craig and Harry into instant ghosts.”

10. Songdogs, by Colum McCann (1995)

11. The Virgin Cure, by Ami McKay (2012)

“Ami McKay immerses her reader in every aspect of life in 1870s New York [a time when 30,000 children were homeless, living on the streets] bringing such a depressing, politically corrupt, and overall difficult time period to vivid life. She does this by including ephemera from that era alongside the narrative. Lyrics, poetry, letters, descriptions of clothing, author’s notes, and more provide more of a vivid picture (if that’s possible) of the timeframe and hardships.

I loved this additional information. As it was, I was right there in the Bowery with Moth slurping oyster stew, and with her lacing up Mrs. Wentworth’s corset, and in the hall as she was kissed. My heart broke several times in this book, over and over again. (If you have a tween-age daughter or love a girl who is that age, know that there will be parts of this that will be absolutely heart wrenching to read.)

But it is for those very reasons that I cannot emphasize how important a book The Virgin Cure is. And like much of life itself, then and as well as now, the heartbreaking parts are also what gives this novel its unparalleled beauty.”

12. The Other Typist, by Suzanne Rindell (2013)

13. When It Happens to You, by Molly Ringwald (2012)

14. In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders (2006)

15. Tenth of December, by George Saunders (2013)

16. The Grievers, by Marc Schuster (2012)

17. Between Shades of Gray, by Ruta Sepetys (2011)

“As future generations become more removed from World War II, names like Stalin will become just that – just names. We will forget, and the stories will become detached to their names. We can’t forget that there were real people and real lives that simply disappeared when Stalin eradicated entire countries (Lithuania, Lativa, and Estonia) from the map from 1941 until 1990.

Between Shades of Gray has been described as an important book – and it truly is. It’s a young adult novel, but that seems almost a mis-characterization. It’s more historical fiction, really, but with that crossover appeal that makes it on par with The Diary of Anne Frank for its historical significance, perhaps even moreso. For as much as we know about the Holocaust and as important as it is for future generations to continue to learn about it, the ethnic cleansing that occurred in the Baltics is just as much a pivotal, important event in history that most people don’t know much about.”

18. Helen Keller in Love, by Rosie Sultan (2012)

“We can allow our own fears and insecurities to prevent those we love from living their own lives and making their own mistakes. We can be blinded by another’s fame. (“They say love is blind. But fame can blind a person, too.” pg. 11). There’s fear of the unknown and of a future we can’t see.

To me, Helen and Peter’s presumed sexual relationship wasn’t the disturbing factor of this book. It’s how she was supposedly treated by those closest to her for having the audacity to want to marry him. Because of their own issues (unresolved grief over having a child with a disability, betrayal of a husband, being needed by Helen 24/7 in such a dependent way), it was impossible for Mrs. Keller and Annie Sullivan to see Helen as a separate, independent individual with the same desires and needs as any other woman.

I realize that much of this mindset was part and parcel of the times. But, in many ways, this still permeates our society today. Too many people view people with disabilities as not having sexual feelings – or, if they are thought of in that regard, they are often automatically, wrongfully, and hurtfully labeled as horrific monsters and predators.”

19. The Age of Miracles, by Karen Walker Thompson (2012)

“What makes this novel so remarkable is its ability to take the reader on  a constant journey of asking what if….? In this case, the earth’s rotation starts to slow down. It happens on a regular, normal Saturday in October, in a typical California town. Initially, life as 11 year old Julia and her parents doesn’t change dramatically; an extra half hour and then (and then some more) added onto each ends of the day isn’t much of an inconvenience. (Kind of the opposite, actually.)

But soon, “the slowing” does become the norm and the days and nights become twice as long. Everything from school schedules to crop yields are disrupted as everyday people try to figure out what’s happening and how to cope – and, how to survive. The reactions of the community vary; some adapt and some revolt. Some become survivalists and others continue on with their lives.”

20. The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon van Booy (2013)

Later this week, I’ll have additional year-end posts with analysis and trends (we book bloggers love this stuff) and thoughts and goals for 2014.


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5 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Year in Review: The Best Books I Read in 2013

  1. Pingback: The Sunday Salon: Reading Stats for 2013 | melissa firman

  2. Lisa (Southern Girl Reads)

    Great list of books! I borrowed Tenth of December from the library and had to return it before I was finished (too many other books going on at the same time). And I’m dying to read The Orchardist. After reading your thoughts, I definitely need to move it up on my list.

  3. Florinda

    I’ll look forward to your reviews of the ones you haven’t gotten to yet. The Other Typist is pretty high on my own list of “Books I Wanted to Get to in 2013, But Didn’t” so hopefully I’ll remedy that before 2014 is even half-over. Happy New Year!

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