Books of 2013

I don’t know why I always let so much time go by between my book posts. I am constantly reading- almost never leave the house without a book, in fact.

I read 42 books this year—which might be a lot for some people, but I’m feeling like a slacker after learning that Kirsti read 168. Yeesh! After seeing Schindler’s List, I became really interested in the true story behind it and read a lot of books on the subject. I also read some books on theology, and there were some books I re-read, among them The Book Thief, Olive Kitteridge, and The Imperfectionists. Some books I disliked (really didn’t like Death Comes to Pemberley), but there were many others I loved. Here are the highlights:

Hyperbole and a Halfby Allie Brosh

Allie Brosh is my favorite blogger of all time. She’s hilarious and super-talented and seems like such a cool person. She also took an extended break from the Internet due to severe depression, so I was happy when she emerged upon publication of her book. I’m thrilled that this book has been so successful and even more thrilled that her depression is now under control.

Anyway, the book is about half stories from her blog and half new content. Among the highlights of the new content are one new story about finding a letter she wrote to her future self as a child and another about her mom taking her and her sister into the woods when they were kids and getting lost. We also learn more about the Helper Dog (Simple Dog gets the most coverage on the blog). One caveat—there’s one story from her blog that was previously unillustrated, and I refuse to read it on the blog or in the book because it’s about a goose getting into her house, which is my worst nightmare. I’m even more scared of geese than Allie is of spiders. So that story might be the funniest one in the whole book, but I will never know.

Anyway, highly recommended. While I was reading it, I spent a couple of days being the crazy person on the T because this book was making me laugh every two seconds.

The Disaster Artistby Greg Sestero

You know of my enormous affection for the glorious, awful wonder that is The Room. This year, Greg Sestero, who played Mark (oh hai Mark), wrote a book with Tom Bissell, who had written about The Room in Vanity Fair. It’s all about how he met Tommy Wiseau and the making of The Room, and it’s just as insane as you think it is. It’s very well-written, so I suspect that Bissell did most of the actual writing, but the memories Sestero supplies are priceless. I can totally imagine Tommy Wiseau saying all the book’s dialogue with his crazy accent. One thing I didn’t expect, though—I actually came away feeling bad for Tommy Wiseau. We still don’t know everything about his background at the end of the book, but we do know that he’s lonely and longs for acceptance. Even so, the book is hilarious and a must-read for anyone who’s seen The Room.

What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell

Man, this book unfolded in a way I didn’t expect. It’s a young adult novel that I’d vaguely heard of awhile ago and decided to read based on the eye-catching title. In the late 1940s, fifteen-year-old Evie travels from New York to Palm Beach, Florida with her mother and her stepfather, who recently returned from World War II. Once there, she meets and falls in love with a handsome young soldier who served with her stepfather in Europe. Gradually, secrets start to be revealed, and…you know, I hesitate to say too much else because it’s so unpredictable. Evie is a very sympathetic narrator, and the mood, although it’s two decades earlier, reminded me a bit of Mad Men—lots old-fashioned glamour, but also lots of ugliness lurking beneath the surface.

The Receptionistby Janet Groth

Speaking of Mad Men, I hadn’t even heard of this book until I stumbled across it in the bookstore and noticed a blurb on the front comparing it to Mad Men. Great job, publicity department, because Season 6 of Mad Men had just ended and I was looking for a fix. I found that the description was pretty accurate. Janet was the receptionist at The New Yorker for twenty years and met a lot of interesting people. Is it the most fascinating story in the world? No. But there is lots of literary name-dropping, glimpses into office life in the 1950s and 60s, and an identifiable story about trying to make it in New York as a young woman. It’s actually more about her personal growth than it is about The New Yorker, which is what I liked the most.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

I’ve read all of Curtis Sittenfeld’s other books, and they’re all very character-driven and episodic, with sections like novellas with large gaps in time between them. This one is completely different—it’s much more plot-driven and has only one straight storyline. It also has an element of magical realism to it that none of her other books have. The narrator, Kate, and her twin sister Violet have had a degree of psychic ability since childhood, but Kate has been trying to put the ability out of her mind as she goes on with life as a stay-at-home mom of young children in St. Louis. Then Violet appears on TV, saying that an earthquake will hit St. Louis on a certain date. In the ensuing media frenzy, Kate feels her own psychic ability returning and reflects back on their sometimes painful childhood.

This book kept me guessing right up until the end. Kate is actually not a very sympathetic character, but the book is still very well-written with a very tight plot.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Bernadette was a respected architect whose greatest accomplishment has been destroyed. Now she’s an agoraphobic wife of a Microsoft bigwig whose life consists of driving her intelligent teenage daughter to and from school, having tasks completed by a virtual assistant in India, and fighting with an obnoxious neighbor. As a reward for perfect grades, she and her husband are taking her daughter Bee on a promised trip to Antarctica, but as stresses in her life accumulate, she disappears before the trip.

Based on the plot, you would think this book would be all dramatic and serious, but it’s actually really funny. It’s mostly told through emails but somehow manages to be full of action despite that. It also takes place in a wealthy Seattle suburb where a lot of people work at Microsoft and the author gets in plenty of digs at that company.

The Fault in Our Starsby John Green

When I was about twelve, I loved Lurlene McDaniel’s sappy novels about teenagers dying of horrible diseases. This book, amazingly, is like John Green took a plot from Lurlene McDaniel and rewrote it so that it was actually a good book. The narrator, Hazel, is a teenage girl with cancer who meets and falls in love with a fellow cancer patient named Augustus. What follows is a plot remarkably free of cliché that involves the two of them planning a trip to the Netherlands to get answers from a crochety old author about the fate of characters in a book they’ve read—but that also involves tragedy.

I read on the T a lot, but this book was only the second one ever to make me cry on public transportation (The Book Thief was the first). John Green is an awesome young adult author—I haven’t read An Abundance of Katherines yet, but I enjoyed Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. All of his other narrators have been teenage boys, and in this book I discovered that for someone who never was a teenage girl, he writes them very well.

The Engagements by J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan has quickly become one of my favorite authors (and I got to meet her at the Boston Book Festival—she was very nice!). Her previous books Commencement and Maine were great, but I think this one is my favorite. There are five stories involving five characters in very different circumstances: a woman in the 1970s who, after finding love twice, is distraught by her son’s impending divorce; a paramedic in the 1980s who wants to buy his wife a ring despite his financial struggles; a French expatriate in New York in 2003 having doubts about her whirlwind romance with a younger man; a happily partnered but unmarried woman in 2012 attending her cousin’s same-sex wedding; and Frances Gerety, the real-life 1940s copywriter who coined the slogan, “A diamond is forever.” Marriage, weddings, and diamond rings permeate all these stories, but we don’t find out the common thread in them until the end of the book. It’s full of memorable characters, and the true story of Frances is especially interesting. (She was like a real-life Peggy Olson!) I read the whole thing on the plane home from Ireland and absolutely loved it.

Run by Ann Patchett

I have a weakness for books set in Boston. In this one, the widowed former mayor of Boston and his two adopted young adult sons are involved in an accident on a snowy day that ends with a stranger being injured trying to save them. When they find out who the injured woman is…well, I won’t spoil you, but that’s what leads to the rest of the plot, which takes place over twenty-four hours.

This is both a compliment and a criticism of this book: I wanted more. It’s such an interesting set-up, and I read that Ann Patchett had originally intended for it to cover a longer period of time but ended up cutting it down for space purposes. That’s a shame, because most of the flaws stem from not having enough room to expand on things. The characters are all very nice people, but except for the mayor’s biological son, they needed more complexity. I also think it didn’t go deep enough into racial issues (the mayor’s adopted sons, way too obviously named Tip and Teddy, are black while the mayor is white and Irish). But I was completely absorbed in the book when I read it and just wanted more story and more of the characters when it was over. One other thing—I appreciate how it portrays Catholicism as an instrument for good, which is hard to find in fiction.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Poetic language isn’t usually my thing, but this book was so gorgeous and had so much heart and soul go into the writing that it won me over. Short on plot but long on character, description, and contemplation, it’s about a septuagenarian minister in the early 1950s writing to his young son and looking back at his life as he realizes that he may soon die. His articulate words on faith, love, and family moved me and stayed with me for a long time. I think it’s hard to write a main character who’s sympathetic and deeply religious without turning the book into a sermon, but Robinson has managed to do it. I can’t wait to read her book Home, a companion book to Gilead that focuses on some of Gilead’s supporting characters.

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