What to say about the state of the literary world in 2013? Well, for one, it was good—very, very good. So good I couldn’t possibly make it through all the thick piles currently sitting on my bedside table. And desk. And floor. Even the Kindle has 10 books I haven’t gotten to.
Yet it feels like all I’ve done this year is read—maybe because so many of the year’s top books were sprawling sagas. Still, whether it’s because of the number of books I’ve read or the number I still haven’t gotten to, I’ve struggled with creating a list demarcating the best novel or the best memoir or the best anything.
So I’m just not going to do it. Presented below, in alphabetical order (but none other), are my favorite reads of the year—the ones I’ve recommended to friends and strangers, the ones I’ve pushed on my family, the ones I’d be happy to have paid full price for had I not gotten a review copy from the publisher. These are the books you should add to your reading list.
The Signature of All Things (Viking)
Sometimes you just want to read a juicy Victorian page-turner about a really odd botanist. Sometimes the book is slightly bogged down by philosophical inquiry, but so what? It’s a lot of fun crisscrossing the globe with first Henry and then Alma Whittaker. This is absolutely the book with which you want to curl up with in front of the fireplace this winter. (Not the least so you can start a moss garden this spring!)
When I read a book in one page-turning sitting, it’s incredibly rare for me to remember anything about it months later. But that’s not the case with Pilgrim’s Wilderness, a gripping account of family, religious fanaticism, and property rights in rural Alaska. Kizzia’s book is most of all an exemplary piece of journalism—he depicts everyone even-handedly, despite the horrors he eventually describes, and he doesn’t rely on overwrought description to tell the story because the facts do just fine on their own.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking (Crown)
I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve told to read this book. They’ve all loved it. And I still stand behind what I wrote in my review this summer: “[H]onestly, I don’t know how anyone could read this book and not find it enthralling.” The tale of two would-be hijackers entwined with a history of hijacking and aviation in the 1960s and ’70s, The Skies Belong to Us is funny, surprising, informative, and well-written—everything and anything you could wish for in a work of non-fiction.
Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery (Harper)
In a culture filled with television shows and movies and novels about serial killers, Lost Girls is an important read precisely because it’s the opposite—a true story of an unknown killer’s victims. In my review, I wrote, “Lost Girls walks a fine line between pathos and horror, and it’s an important depiction of lives all too often left unseen.” And Kolker’s portrayal of five young prostitutes who end up murdered on Long Island reminds us that every life does matter—that there are always families and friends and even children left behind when people die, however they lived their lives.
The Flamethrowers (Scribner)
Mix the New York art scene of the early 1970s with motorcycle racing in Nevada and radicals in Italy and you have a novel unlike anything else this year. The Flamethrowers is complex and inventive, but it’s also a tightly constructed read, unlike so many sprawling epics that sprawl too far and fast. This may the book that pops up on the most best-of lists this year, and with good reason.
The Woman Upstairs (Knopf)
Like The Flamethrowers, The Woman Upstairs is “an examination of what it means to be both a woman and an artist,” as I wrote last spring. But Messud’s novel is the opposite of sprawling—it’s a sliver of a life, the tale of just a few months. Yet the story of the lonely schoolteacher Nora and her obsession with the glamorous Shahid family packs an emotional wallop missing from so much contemporary fiction. “Messud’s sentences reel you in and cast a spell,” I said in my review. Would that more novels were this entrancing.
I Want to Show You More (Grove)
This book may have been the biggest surprise of my year. I only requested a review copy of Quatro’s stories because she lives in my hometown of Lookout Mountain, Ga. What arrived in the mail was a stunning collection of fiction about desire, love, death, and God. I wrote at the time, “Death, sex, Jesus—they’re all intertwined, Quatro seems to be saying. Her characters’ emotions are raw and on display. … Quatro doesn’t just dissect the modern marriage and the modern family, but the modern evangelical church. It’s a book to both devour and chew over.”