Here, from last Sunday’s New York Times, is the list of their selection of “The 10 bet books of 2013”: 5 fiction and 5 nonfiction. Clicking the title link will take you to the NYT review of that book.
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Alfred A. Knopf, $26.95.
By turns tender and trenchant, Adichie’s third novel takes on the comedy and tragedy of American race relations from the perspective of a young Nigerian immigrant. From the office politics of a hair-braiding salon to the burden of memory, there’s nothing too humble or daunting for this fearless writer, who is so attuned to the various worlds and shifting selves we inhabit — in life and online, in love, as agents and victims of history and the heroes of our own stories.
By Rachel Kushner.
Radical politics, avant-garde art and motorcycle racing all spring to life in Kushner’s radiant novel of the 1970s, in which a young woman moves to New York to become an artist, only to wind up involved in the revolutionary protest movement that shook Italy in those years. The novel, Kushner’s second, deploys mordant observations and chiseled sentences to explore how individuals are swept along by implacable social forces.
By Donna Tartt.
Little, Brown & Company, $30.
Tartt’s intoxicating third novel, after “The Secret History” and “The Little Friend,” follows the travails of Theo Decker, who emerges from a terrorist bombing motherless but in possession of a prized Dutch painting. Like the best of Dickens, the novel is packed with incident and populated with vivid characters. At its heart is the unwavering belief that come what may, art can save us by lifting us above ourselves.
LIFE AFTER LIFE
By Kate Atkinson.
A Reagan Arthur Book/Little, Brown & Company, $27.99.
Demonstrating the agile style and theatrical bravado of her much-admired Jackson Brodie mystery novels, Atkinson takes on nothing less than the evils of mid-20th-century history and the nature of death as she moves back and forth in time, fitting together versions of a life story for a heroine who keeps dying, then being resurrected — and sent off in different, but entirely plausible, directions.
TENTH OF DECEMBER
By George Saunders.
Random House, $26.
Saunders’s wickedly entertaining stories veer from the deadpan to the flat-out demented: Prisoners are force-fed mood-altering drugs; ordinary saps cling to delusions of grandeur; third-world women, held aloft on surgical wire, become the latest in bourgeois lawn ornaments. Beneath the comedy, though, Saunders writes with profound empathy, and this impressive collection advances his abiding interest in questions of class, power and justice.
AFTER THE MUSIC STOPPED
The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead
By Alan S. Blinder.
The Penguin Press, $29.95.
Blinder’s terrific book on the financial meltdown of 2008 argues that it happened because of a “perfect storm,” in which many unfortunate events occurred simultaneously, producing a far worse outcome than would have resulted from just a single cause. Blinder criticizes both the Bush and Obama administrations, especially for letting Lehman Brothers fail, but he also praises them for taking steps to save the country from falling into a serious depression. Their response to the near disaster, Blinder says, was far better than the public realizes.
DAYS OF FIRE
Bush and Cheney in the White House
By Peter Baker.
Baker succeeds in telling the story of the several crises of the Bush administration with fairness and balance, which is to say that he is sympathetic to his subjects, acknowledging their accomplishments but excusing none of their errors. Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The Times, is fascinated by the mystery of the Bush-Cheney relationship, and even more so by the mystery of George W. Bush himself. Did Bush lead, or was he led by others? In the end, Baker concludes, the “decider” really did decide.
FIVE DAYS AT MEMORIAL
Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
By Sheri Fink.
In harrowing detail, Fink describes the hellish days at a hospital during and after Hurricane Katrina, when desperate medical professionals were suspected of administering lethal injections to critically ill patients. Masterfully and compassionately reported and as gripping as a thriller, the book poses reverberating questions about end-of-life care, race discrimination in medicine and how individuals and institutions break down during disasters.
How Europe Went to War in 1914
By Christopher Clark.
Clark manages in a single volume to provide a comprehensive, highly readable survey of the events leading up to World War I. He avoids singling out any one nation or leader as the guilty party. “The outbreak of war,” he writes, “is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse.” The participants were, in his term, “sleepwalkers,” not fanatics or murderers, and the war itself was a tragedy, not a crime.
By Sonali Deraniyagala.
Alfred A. Knopf, $24.
On the day after Christmas in 2004, Deraniyagala called her husband to the window of their hotel room in Sri Lanka. “I want to show you something odd,” she said. The ocean looked foamy and closer than usual. Within moments, it was upon them. Deraniyagala lost her husband, her parents and two young sons to the Indian Ocean tsunami. Her survival was miraculous, and so too is this memoir — unsentimental, raggedly intimate, full of fury.
For some reason I don’t have much desire to read any of these. There are so many other books that I haven’t yet read, and the older I get, the less appealing I find fiction.
But note the absence of science books from the list. What’s worse is the Times’s list of “100 notable books of 2013.” There is but a single science-related book, and that one’s about medicine (and written by a Times reporter!):
THE CANCER CHRONICLES: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery. By George Johnson. (Knopf, $27.95.) Johnson’s fascinating look at cancer reveals certain profound truths about life itself.
It’s a sad state of affairs when the only science that interests people much is medicine, and when lots of interesting science books have been published in 2013 (try here, here, and here, for instance).
Because I’ve spent almost all my spare time reading about religion and theology, I’ve had precious little time for pleasure reading this year. And I can’t think of a single work of fiction on my 2013 list. Thank Ceiling Cat, those days are largely over and I can go back to reading whatever I want.
I suppose my favorite book of the year remains Robert Caro’s latest volume in his biography of Lyndon Johnson, The Passage of Power. the meticulously researched and wonderfully told tale of how Lyndon Johnson, a figure of fun as Kennedy’s Vice President, took over after JFK was shot and, becoming once again the power broker he was as Senate majority leader, strong-armed the Congress into passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This multivolume set, which Caro continues to write, still strikes me as the best political biography ever produced save The Last Lion, William Manchester’s unfinished biography of Winston Churchill. (Manchester died before he finished it.)
As for “fun” books, my favorite was Fallen Giants, an unsung but absolutely wonderful history of Himalayan mountaineering by two university professors who are also mountaineers. Nothing I have read compares to it in comprehensiveness, and a bonus is that the book is superbly written. If you love mountains, this one’s a must. Trust me. Thanks to Andrew Berry for sending this as a Coynezaa gift. (Coynezaa by the way, is my personally invented holiday that comprises the six days between Christmas and my birthday. Like Chanukah, I’m supposed to get a present every day, but I never do. 😦 I think everyone should invent one holiday per year—aside from one’s birthday—that celebrates them.)
For “intellectual” books, Herman Philipse’s God in the Age of Science?: A Critique of Religious Reason would be hard to beat. It’s dense, but is the best dismantling of modern arguments for theism that I’ve seen. At its end, religion has been laid low, even the “sophisticated sort,” and one is left in awe of Philipse’s analytical abilities.
Now it’s your turn. (You didn’t think you’d just come over hear and passively absorb stuff, did you?) Name the best book you’ve read all year and explain why it was so good.