20 Best Books of 2013

In a stellar year that included new work by Donna Tartt, Jhumpa Lahiri and Eve Ensler, these are the books that stood out from the pack

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"Anything that Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture"

by Dana Goodyear; Riverhead

 

I don’t think I’ve ever used the word disgusting as a compliment, but here goes. Goodyear’s riveting, hilarious, disturbing and downright disgusting new book is the perfect antidote to a Martha Stewart Thanksgiving. This journalistic thriller, set among the culinary avant-garde, is all about dangerous eating. A rose-haired tarantula spider roll. Frog fallopian tubes. And the most extreme: an unhatched chick, eaten whole. But this story isn’t meant to gross you out; it’s a window onto a world of chefs, purveyors, farmers, scavengers and gonzo foodies. —Dani Shapiro

 

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"The Goldfinch"

by Donna Tartt; Little, Brown

 

A summary of Donna Tartt’s marvelous third novel must be brief and oblique in order to avoid spoilage: 13-year-old New Yorker Theo Decker blames himself for the death of his mother in a startling tragedy, one that connects him not only to the people who will foster and form him but also to the art world—particularly a lovely 17th-century Dutch painting of a captive goldfinch. Whisked away to Las Vegas by his weasel of a dad, Theo harbors a secret and makes a lifelong best friend, a Ukrainian classmate with secrets of his own; their lives will entwine in unexpected ways. Tartt (The Secret History) deftly surfs the zeitgeist (teenage druggies, the foreclosure crisis, international crime). But The Goldfinch is also deliciously Dickensian in scope and themes (loss, class, redemption, the power of art) and in its lovable, hateable, memorable characters. Though judicious pruning might have given the most brilliant passages more room to shine, the book is never less than a pleasure. As the artist Mae West is said to have purred, too much of a good thing is wonderful.  —Judith Stone

 

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"Dirty Love"

by Andre Dubus III, Norton

 

These four exquisite novellas are linked loosely by the coastal New England town in which they take place and more strongly by the particular ways their central characters fail, and fail again, and still manage to find hope so authentic—so earned—that it takes the reader’s breath away. Dubus is a master of description, always choosing metaphors that cut straight to the heart of his character’s predicament without compromising any of its emotional complexity. A bartender “worked the service bar but kept feeling the dark woman’s presence behind him like good news in a letter he wasn’t opening.” A teenage girl whose “new radiance shines not from the boy who has found her but from the chance to direct all the love that’s been pooling inside her.” This is the best kind of fiction: rendering humanness in all its vulnerability, each sentence crafted as though all our lives depend on it.  —Pam Houston

 

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"The Lowland"

by Jhumpa Lahiri; Knopf

 

The painful partitioning of a great country is echoed in the life of one family in Lahiri’s gorgeous novel of love’s tragic missteps and the sustained devastation of personal independence. The Lowland’s beating heart is the relationship between two devoted Bengali brothers born 15 months apart before the tumultuous 1947 birth of an independent India, which also resulted in the creation of Pakistan. The younger, Udayan, becomes a Communist revolutionary while Subhash, alienated from his radical brother, pursues an academic career in America. “He felt their loyalty to one another, their affection, stretched halfway across the world, stretched perhaps to the breaking point by all that now stood between them, but at the same time refusing to break,” Lahiri writes. After Udayan is assassinated, Subhash must revisit Calcutta, where he faces his brokenhearted parents and marries Udayan’s widow, the brilliant but stifled Gauri. Lahiri’s beautifully wrought characters make decisions that isolate them further inside their haunted thoughts. Gauri, for instance, agrees to marry a man for whom she feels nothing as a way to hold on to the spirit of her dead husband. “But  . . . she knew that it was useless, just as it was useless to save a single earring when the other half of the pair was lost.” —Susanna Sonnenberg

 

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"Someone"

by Alice McDermott; FSG

 

In this stunning hymn to the ordinary, a woman recalls her life—her accumulated experiences as daughter, sister, wife and mother in an Irish-immigrant, World War II–era Brooklyn neighborhood. That’s the extent of the plot. But the sentences shimmer, engaging all the senses: the feel of her father’s hand in hers, the consoling voice of her brother, even the smell of the funeral home where she works. The narrator’s scattered memories flicker from light to shadow, in the way that perception alternates between clarity and bewilderment. Like every other particular someone, she is cherished and misused, heartbroken and beloved; her life is exceptional not because it represents some unusual equation of hope and grief but simply because it is hers. The reader is left with bittersweet impressions: of safety twinned with suffering, of love twinned with loss and of the narrator’s sense that nothing will ever change—even alongside the certainty that everything must. —Catherine Newman

 

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"Knocking on Heaven's Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death"

by Katy Butler; Simon & Schuster

 

This braid of a book—memoir, exposé, spiritual guide—forensically examines the battle between death and the imperatives of modern medicine. After Katy Butler’s father had a stroke in 2001, a cardiologist put in a pacemaker, which kept his heart thumping after his mind and body failed. Her 84­year­old mother was crushed by six years of constant caretaking—joining some 66 million Americans, mostly women, in the same situation. Impeccably reported, Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Simon & Schuster) grapples with how we need to protect our loved ones, and ourselves, now that our technology has outpaced our humanity. —Kristy Davis

 

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"Sparta

by Roxana Robinson; Sarah Crichton Books/FSG

 

When Conrad, a well-off Westchester boy and classics student at Williams, tells his parents he is joining the Marines, his mother, admiring his “brave, mournful eyes, the slanting cords in his neck,” thinks, “He can’t be risked.” But he is risked, repeatedly, for four years in Iraq, where he suffers and commits violence that for most Americans is simply unimaginable. And therein lies the problem with coming home; safe now but racked with shame, with rage, with brain-scrambling PTSD, Conrad confronts the bottomless chasm between here and there, between a Marine and his iPhone-obsessed countrymen who can’t find Iraq on a map. Robinson’s compelling and sensitive novel is born of the desire to help close that stultifying gap. —Pam Houston

 

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"Flora"

by Gail Godwin; Bloomsbury

 

Ten-year-old Helen has a lot to mope about. Lisbeth, her not-terribly-nurturing mother, died when Helen was three. She has just lost Nonie, her loving but secretive grandmother (worse yet, in a way the child feels responsible for). And now, in the fateful summer of 1945, Harry, her alcoholic father, has taken a mysterious assignment in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, leaving Helen in the care of Flora, a sweet, weepy, abjectly admiring and embarrassingly unguarded cousin from the despised poor-relation side of the family. As the summer ticks along toward its explosive ending (friends depart; a polio scare keeps the cousins quarantined; an adolescent crush turns into a triangle; tempers simmer), long-buried stories emerge that explain Lisbeth’s chilliness, Harry’s cynicism (“I look forward to the day,” he tells his daughter, “when you can spot the unsavory truths about human nature for yourself”) and Nonie’s code of selective silence. In a coming-of-age novel as exquisitely layered and metaphorical as a good poem, Godwin explores the long-term fallout from abandonment and betrayal, the persistence of remorse and the possibility of redemption.

 

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"In the Body of the World"

by Eve Ensler; Metropolitan Books

 

Writer and activist Eve Ensler went mano a mano with mortality and emerged healed and whole; her powerful and satisfying new memoir tells us how. Diagnosed with advanced uterine cancer in 2010, the creator of The Vagina Monologues found that grueling treatments and a brutal recovery brought unexpected transformation. “I was forced to. . .release the past and be burned down to essential matter,” Ensler says. Confronting a lifelong dissociation from her body and the world, she’s able to inhabit both fully for the first time. That may seem a startling arc for a pioneer celebrator of female sexuality who’s also an astonishingly effective global reformer (V-Day, the nonprofit she founded, has raised $100 million for groups working to end violence against women). But a history of abuse by her alcoholic father explains the disjunction. Ensler writes with verve and urgency about dealing with disease, facing her demons and repairing relationships, an account as entertaining as it is harrowing. Ultimately, she rededicates herself to fixing a mightily screwed-up planet, and she expects us to help. How could we not?

 

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"The Interestings"

by Meg Wolitzer; Riverhead

 

At an arts camp in the Massachusetts woods, six smart teenagers create a force field of friendship that will last a lifetime. Wolitzer’s compelling and compassionate new novel begins in 1974, the summer that Nixon resigns and 15-year-old Julie Jacobson, a gawky scholarship camper, is reborn as Jules, the nickname bestowed by the Interestings, a charmed circle of talented young men and women she’s astonished to have penetrated. Wry Jules finds she wants a bigger life than dull Julie did. Wolitzer, a More contributing editor, chronicles that complicated quest movingly and often hilariously, following the group over 35 years of triumphs, sorrows, couplings, splits and twists. Through characters inescapably shaped by their times but winningly idiosyncratic, Wolitzer tackles the big stuff: money and class, envy and loss, the meaning of success, the mysteries of marriage and parenthood. The Interesting who achieves the greatest fame and fortune is a brilliant animator; so is Wolitzer. —Judith Stone

 

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"Gulp"

by Mary Roach; W. W. Norton & Company

 

You’ll want to eat first. Mary Roach’s Gulp (Norton), a gleeful investigation of the human digestive system, may not whet your appetite, but it could be the tastiest read of the season. Roach’s wit spills over into the footnotes as she tests the cleaning power of saliva, probes the mysteries of constipation (alas, poor Elvis) and visits a prison to learn about what drug smugglers call hooping (no, they’re not talking about basketball). Having learned to relish muktuk—raw narwhal skin—she quizzes scientists about our culture’s squeamishness. “The same chanterelle and Gorgonzola galette that had the guests swooning,” she writes, “is, after two seconds in the mouth, an object of universal revulsion.” What Roach brings to the table is more like reverence, salted with delight. —Cathleen Medwick

 

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"Wave"

by Sonali Deraniyagala; Knopf

 

Imagine yourself on a seaside vacation in Sri Lanka, with your husband, your young sons and your parents. It’s the day after Christmas, and life is rich and good, you and your husband are still in love, your parents still healthy, your boys bright, interested, loved by all. And then imagine, out the window, a wave where no wave should be and the dawning realization that you must run, must leap with your family into a jeep, which speeds toward safety until the wave swamps it, tumbles it, tearing from you your husband, your boys, leveling the hotel where your parents wait, leaving you clinging to a branch, alive when the wave recedes but stripped of everything. How do you, left utterly alone, go on? Deraniyagala’s unmitigatedly honest, immeasurably potent memoir recounts the eight dark years since the 2004 tsunami erased her life, and her reluctant progress toward rejoining the living. Relentless in its explication of grief, this massively courageous, tenaciously unsentimental chronicle of unthinkable loss and incremental recovery explodes—and then expands—our notion of what love really means. —Pam Houston

 

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"With or Without You"

by Domenica Ruta; Spiegel & Grau

  

As a girl, Domenica Ruta, aka Nikki, would beg her “deranged circus act” of a mother to “tell me a story about me.” But drug-addicted Kathi could only talk about herself, bring home guys, sleep or rage. Still, our lonely narrator brims with love for this scrappy woman, recounting how Kathi would take a job for just a few weeks so she could buy her daughter a coveted doll or a computer. With cutting humor and a marvelous violence of language, Ruta acknowledges the terror and excitement of being raised by someone who could “build me up and tear me to shreds in a single breath,” who “loved me so much that she couldn’t stop hating me.” Sexually assaulted at a young age by a man she calls her uncle, desperate for attention (sex becomes her “gateway drug”), Nikki grows up to be a blackout drunk, and though she works hard for sobriety, “no friend, no boyfriend, not even a room full of people throwing a party just for me, could pry the lonesomeness from the body it inhabited.” A shattering memoir, written with a passion that soars. —Susanna Sonnenberg

 

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"Vampires in the Lemon Grove"

by Karen Russell; Knopf

 

A teenager haunted by the wax effigy of a boy he betrayed performs a life-changing penance. In 19th-century Japan, a silk maker regrets the impulsive decision that led to her enslavement (or was she the victim of forces beyond her control?); now half woman, half worm, she attempts to spin a new fate. A couple wed for centuries probes the subtle relationship issues of the undead.

 

The stories in Karen Russell’s wonderful collection embrace the monstrous, the mutant, the mysterious; they chart startling transformations (perhaps none more shocking than ordinary adolescence, which Russell captures uncannily). Set at the intersection of destiny and free will, nature and the supernatural, light and dark, the stories—even the frothiest—are sea deep, scary smart, richly inventive, highly illuminating and gorgeously written. —Judith Stone

 

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"Shouting Won't Help"

MORE: We don’t hesitate to wear glasses, but many of us feel odd getting hearing aids. Why are people more embarrassed about losing their hearing than their vision?

 

Katherine Bouton: Hearing loss is often associated with mental disability. But the biggest stigma is the association with age, though that’s somewhat misleading. Nearly two thirds of Americans 70 and over have hearing loss, but in fact half of the hearing-impaired population is under the age of 55.

 

MORE: What’s the biggest cause of hearing loss?

 

KB: Noise. OSHA has done a good job of mandating noise-protection measures in the workplace, but recreational noise—in concerts, stadiums, as part of activities like hunting, the ubiquitous iPods, in restaurants, on city streets—goes on unabated.

 

MORE: Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?

 

KB: If you’re at a loud concert or in a loud restaurant, try earplugs. You’ll probably still be able to hear quite well despite them.

 

MORE: In your book, you talk about the joys of noise, too. Now that you are functionally deaf, what sounds do you miss?

 

KB: Music is at the top of the list. Hearing loss and hearing aids cause distortion that makes most music unrecognizable. I also miss whispers—secrets. You don’t realize how precious they are till you can’t hear them anymore. And I miss jokes. They go by too fast; I may get the punch line but not the joke, or the joke and then miss the punch line.

 

MORE: What are the three best things you can do for a loved one who is having trouble hearing you?

 

KB: One, look at the person you’re speaking to. We hear with our eyes as well as with our ears, by intuitively reading lips and body language. Two, if the person doesn’t understand what you’ve said, don’t simply repeat it. Paraphrase it, put it into some context. The worst thing you can say is, “Never mind, it doesn’t matter.” Everything matters to the person who can’t hear it. Three, speak in a normal voice and articulate as clearly as possible. That’s where my title comes from: Shouting won’t help.

 

Interview by Judith Newman

 

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"The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad"

by Lesley Hazleton; Riverhead

 

As a metaphor, the desert is endlessly fertile; throughout history, its radical emptiness has given sustenance to thirsty souls. In The First Muslim (Riverhead), Lesley Hazleton vividly paints the solitary landscape, external and internal, that allowed Muhammad—an orphan born into Meccan nobility and raised by Bedouin sheepherders—to make room in his heart for holiness. Like her subject, Hazleton brilliantly navigates “the vast and often terrifying arena in which politics and religion intersect,” revealing the deep humanity of faith. —Cathleen Medwick

 

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"Dear Life"

by Alice Munro; Knopf

 

For anyone who isn’t already aware of Alice Munro’s astonishing brilliance, this new collection will open up endless possibilities of what a short story can do—to our hearts, our sense of the world, our hunger for empathy and insight. For those already in the Munro cult, Dear Life offers familiar pleasures as well as surprises: As always, the locations are palpable (small towns near Lake Huron in Canada), but the time frame is deliberately vague (it could be the ’50s or today), amplifying the truth that our relations to one another, the things we run to and flee, remain constant as the decades rumble by. —Elaina Richardson

 

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"Thank You For Your Service"

by David Finkel; Sarah Crichton Books

 

There’s war, and after-war. This quietly heartbreaking book by the best-selling author of The Good Soldiers focuses on the members and families of a Fort Riley, Kansas, battalion who are struggling with the physical and psychic legacy of service in Iraq. Adam Schumann, with “PTSD, depression, nightmares, headaches, tinnitus and mild traumatic brain injury,” is guilt-ridden and suicidal “about being a bad husband, a bad father, a disappointment”; Tausolo Aieti, 26, has memory impairment and recurring dreams of a dead friend who demands, “Why didn’t you save me?” Their wives vow “bottomless” patience, only to crash against the reality of life with men who veer from grief to violence. Finkel’s remarkable reporting and spare, poetic prose make this book as compellingly readable as a novel, but there’s no happy ending. Feeling terrible tenderness for these broken people isn’t the same as feeling hope. As a wife concludes—and she could be speaking for everyone—“Nothing will be as it was before.” —Carol Mithers

 

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"The Asylum"

by Simon Doonan; Blue Rider Press

 

For those of us who adore the word fabulosity and the men who use it—and really, who doesn’t?—Barneys’ legendary creative light, Simon Doonan, has put together what he calls “a collage of couture reminiscences.” Fashion, he writes, “has always given a hearty willkommen bienvenue welcome to all the misfits, kooks and original thinkers of the world.” These people make good copy. In vignettes as witty and outré as any Barneys window, Doonan brings us dictatorial doyennes with their goofy why-don’t-yous, persnickety designers, wildly superstitious models, bizarre cleansing beverages, catwalk catastrophes (falling ceilings! rampant goats!) and gritty roots (he keeps a running tally of how many fashion stars are escapees from the “bleak naffness” of “crap towns”). Along the way, he doles out his own brand of advice. For the plus-size: leopard prints “and a damn good pedicure.” On choosing a career: “When you are young, you simply need to throw a bunch of fabulosity against the wall and see what sticks.” —Amanda Lovell

 

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"Farewell, Fred Voodoo"

by Amy Wilentz; Simon & Schuster

 

In the 1980s, when journalist Amy Wilentz first visited Haiti, Fred Voodoo was veteran reporters’ slang for the man or woman on the street, tapped for quick local-color interviews but otherwise unconsidered. Wilentz went deep; she learned Creole and established abiding relationships in a country that still enchants and confounds her. Farewell, Fred Voodoo (Simon & Schuster), an account of her return to Haiti after the earthquake of 2010, is savvy, acerbically affectionate and unsparingly probing, especially on the motivations of the hordes of helpers who descended on the island post-tragedy. The cast of characters—among them a dedicated young doctor, resourceful survivors and, yes, Sean Penn—are people you’re glad to know. Each vignette helps readers explore, in a nuanced way, our questions about this perpetually hard-hit place, starting with “What the hell?” particularly enlightening are Wilentz’s lucid recaps of Haiti’s history, revealing European and American complicity in the nation’s descent into misery. —Judith Stone

 

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Next: 10 Page Turners for Travel Delays

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12.22.2013

How can I get a print out of just the list "20 Best Books of 2013" to check my library's website if any are available? I enjoy the write-ups but need a single page list.

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