Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Best Books of 2013 (So Far): Liz's Picks

(Gianna) Liz and I thought it would be fun to ask our friends in Book Land what their favorite book of the year is so far. After all, we are halfway through 2013 and July is an excellent time to reflect on all the choices you've made to arrive at this point. Everyone hated the idea. How can you pick just one book? It’s not fair! It’s not right! Well those are the rules, just one book. End of discussion.

Now having said that, Liz and I think it’s crazy to even attempt to pick a favorite book so we will list our top ten favorite books of the year.

(Liz) Please note that this project was Gianna's idea, and then she volunteered me to go first. Fine. I always allow her to pick first and I end up with her leftovers. Good luck tomorrow, Gianna. 

I'm not going to actually rank these picks, as the MLB All Star Game is on momentarily and I have some Yankees to boo. Quick and dirty, here we go:

Americanah: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a brilliant writer and I'll read anything she writes. If you liked Cutting for Stone, you'll like Americanah, the story of two Nigerian friends who leave Africa, and then return as adults to find each other again. Adichie's observations on race and class are astute but not heavy-handed.

Between Man and Beast: Normally I avoid the monkeys, but I can't resist good exploration history. In this case Monte Reel brings to life the world of Paul Du Chaillu, a Victorian era explorer who was the first to bring back proof of gorillas to the western world. From the African jungles to Broadway to the Royal Geographical Society, Between Man and Beast brings to live this story that ultimately inspired the King Kong tales.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel: The literary world lost a gem when David Rakoff, hilarious essayist and frequent contributor to NPR's This American Life, succumbed to cancer. Knowing he was dying, though, and with the help of close friends, Rakoff left us with one last book. Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is a novel in verse, warm and comedic and tragic and an extraordinary accomplishment. Think of it as Rakoff's love song to America.

One Thousand and One Nights: I'm a sucker for a beautiful book, and I was already a fan of Hanan Al-Shaykh. In her retelling of One Thousand and One Nights, Lebanese writer Al-Shaykh brings to woman's perspective to the magic carpets and thieves and genies of the Arabian Nights. Mary Gaitskill writes the intro and the book itself should win design awards for the stunning package.

Instructions for a Heatwave: Instructions for a Heatwave was a huge discovery for me. I'd heard of but never read Maggie O'Farrell, and now I regret that I missed her earlier novels. I'm working to remedy that mistake. O'Farrell is every bit as skilled a writer as Jonathan Franzen, and like Franzen her subject is family interactions. In Heatwave she proves you can't go home again when three adult children rendezvous at their mother's house to search for their missing father. They have their own lives, regrets, secrets, and joys, but they are also adults who were once the bickering siblings growing up together. You know how you turn into your bratty 12 year old self when you're around your brother and sister? You'll get this book.

The Woman Upstairs: Damn. Claire Messud. She's got to be one of the ten or so best writers in the country. The Woman Upstairs tells the story of Nora, a quietly seething teacher who gave up her dreams of being an artist. When a family moves to Cambridge and into her life, though, she discovers new dimensions in her life and rediscovers her dreams. The son is the compassionate new kid in her third grade class. The mother is an artist on the brink of wild success, with whom Nora shares a studio. The father is a brilliant visiting professor at Harvard who awakens Nora's intellectual and physical passion. Claire Messud reveals through Nora a woman on the brink. I love this book.

The Antagonist: As far as I'm concerned, Lynn Coady's The Antagonist should be required reading. It's surprising, funny, angry, wise, and simply incredible. Here's a novel written as a series of drunken emails from a man wronged by an old college friend. Gordon Rankin Jr is a former hockey prodigy plagued by a hilariously awful father, and when his friend uses Rank's life as the basis for his bestselling novel, Rank takes to email to set the story straight. Have you read it? You need to read it. I'm looking at you.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: We have already heaped praise upon Karen Russell and her short story collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove. I love KR, I love these sometimes creepy, sometimes funny, all terrific stories. 

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A major literary debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is the book that the Random House sales force buzzed about for many months before it went on sale. It's set in Chechnya, Anthony Marra creates a multifaceted story of a village terrorized by war and a hospital desperately trying to keep going in the worst circumstances. Don't think of it as a war book, though (or just a war book). This is a character driven novel about betrayed friendships, an orphan hunted by an army, and two doctors just trying to survive.

Benediction: Allow me to conclude my list with Benediction. Few books have meant as much to me as this novel from Kent Haruf, the author of Plainsong. Benediction is set in a small town on the Colorado plain. The owner of the local hardware store is slowly dying of cancer, but summoning his adult son is fraught with problems. They are estranged and they have no address for him. Even as they wait, and hope, the town people gather and swirl around this man. Having grown up in a small town, and having a dad who runs the local hardware store, and having lost my mother to cancer, I related personally to Benediction. Having said that, though, I think this is a novel for everyone. It's full of humanity and the communities we hope will sustain us throughout our lives. 

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