One of my favorite things about the end of the year is reflecting on all of the wonderful books I read this year, and so I present my 12 most compelling books of 2013.
The book that affected me most is a debut novel by Anthony Marra. “A Constellation of Vital Phenomena” recounts the story of people caught up in the second Chechen war. The lives of an 8-year-old girl whose father was taken away by secret police, the neighbor who rescues her and a young doctor looking for her sister all collide in a fascinating way.
Donna Tartt takes 10 years to write each novel, and her latest one, “Goldfinch," is more than worth the wait. Twelve-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum and his journey to find a home and the people he meets along the way makes for a breathtaking book.
Alice McDermott’s quiet “Someone” tells the story of Marie, a young girl growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s. She reflects on the big and small moments of her ordinary life, and she will touch your heart. McDermott is a SUNY Oswego graduate, and this continues her remarkable writings of the Irish-American experience.
Mary Beth Keane’s “Fever” takes the Irish historical character Typhoid Mary and brings her to vivid life. The characters, the setting — Keane gets all of the details right, and we see how immigrant women, particularly those who were not servile in attitude, were looked upon with suspicion.
In “Me Before You,” British writer Jojo Moyes brings us two intriguing characters: a vital, wealthy young man who becomes paralyzed after an accident, and the working-class young woman hired by his parents to care for him. Their relationship starts out rocky, but soon we see why she was hired and how they change in each other in profound ways. This is a wonderfully sad love story.
Another sad but thought-provoking debut novel is Priscille Sibley’s “The Promise of Stardust,” about a doctor whose young pregnant wife has an accident that leaves her brain-dead. This will make you realize the importance of having a discussion about tough issues with your loved ones.
Laura Hemphill spent time working on Wall Street and puts that knowledge to good use in her novel “Buying In.” We see the inner workings of financial analysts and any book that can make aluminum manufacturing this interesting is one worthy of being on this list.
Meg Wolitzer’s novel “The Interestings” intersects the lives of six teenagers who meet at a summer camp for the arts in the mid-1970s. Jules is the outsider who is thrilled to be involved in this in-group, and we see how their friendship changes over the years and how we are never really as interesting to the rest of the world as we are to ourselves.
There were many terrific nonfiction books this year, and Robert Hilburn’s “Johnny Cash: The Life” tops the list. Cash is a true American story, from his poverty-stricken days picking cotton on his family’s small farm to his rise as a country music superstar, through drugs and alcohol and infidelity and his strong faith that sustained him through good times and bad.
Sheri Fink’s meticulously researched “Five Days at Memorial” shows us all sides of what happened at a hospital in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. A doctor and two nurses were accused of fatally injecting patients with morphine and other drugs in mercy killings, and Fink writes the book in a way that reads like a fast-paced mystery.
The bodies of five young women, all of whom worked as prostitutes, were found buried on Gilgo Beach on Long Island, and Robert Kolker tells their stories in “Lost Girls.” Kolker interviewed the families and friends of the women, as well as the people who live on Gilgo Beach, to discover what happened to them, but no one has been arrested. We see how poverty, sexual abuse and lack of education can create an almost inescapable downward spiral.
Darlene Barnes was looking for an empty nest job and she found one cooking at a fraternity house. In “Hungry,” she shares how she worked to use more organic, locally sourced food to create a healthier way of eating for her customers. I loved her prickly personality, and her relationship with the young men.
I hope you have read some great books in 2013, and I look forward to more in 2014.