The State of the Art: Books 2013

Weird. I certainly don't feel like I had more free time this year than I did last year. And yet, not only did I manage to see more same-year-release movies, I've managed to read more books as well; 28 to last year's 24. And that doesn't even count the books I reread constantly, of which there are plenty. Quantity isn't the sole improvement, either. Quality has risen, too. In looking at last year's list, only three books were able to crack the A-range of grades. This year, I have to narrow down the A-range books in order to pick a top five. Good job, team!

As with any other entertainment platform, a lot of the grades are weighed against expectation. Authors whose second book disappointed me after a promising debut may get graded more harshly than some other book I approached warily and wound up pleasantly surprising me. Also, it looks like 2013 was the Year of the Short Story for me. I read lots of story collections, and none of them fell below a B grade. There's something to keep in mind for the to-read list. As before, my top five are drawn from all the books I read this year - restricting it to books published in 2013 is too limiting. Also, unlike the movies or television I consume, which I generally track down on my own, books are the one area where I really rely on recommendations. Got any good ones? Let me know! If you're looking for my recommendations, you need look no further than half an inch below this sentence.

#1: Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter

What I Said: The Cloud Atlas-style jumps in character, setting, and tone are masterfully interwoven. They all pull together to tell a beautiful, melancholy story of the people in our lives, and how our experiences are richer for having known them, no matter how large the heaps of disappointment we may lay at their feet are.

#2: The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories - Simon Rich

What I Said: You know you're in for a fun ride when the first story is told from the point of view of a condom a teenaged boy has stuffed in his wallet. And you know you're in for a good read when that same story manages to pull off a lot of emotional resonance.

#3: Seating Arrangements - Maggie Shipstead

What I Said: It would be extremely easy for a book that is related by characters with names like Winn, Biddy, and Dicky to become insufferable, but Shipstead never falls into the trap of making them overly snide or stuffy. None of the characters are wholly good or bad, but relatable people with understandable motivations.

#4: This is How You Die - Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !

What I Said: The stories vary wildly, from funny to heart-breaking. From fantastical to realistic. From science fiction to romance. Each story is titled with the card's description, but there's no way of telling what type of story you're about to get into.

#5: We, the Drowned - Carsten Jensen

What I Said: We often romanticize the lives of sailors, but this book certainly takes care of any lingering fantasies of the freedom and adventure that a life at sea entailed. From a protracted war, to revenge against a hated schoolteacher, to the precarious position of women both on the ships and on the coasts, this book doesn't sugar-coat how brutal life can be. But buried underneath the horrors of human nature are stories of bravery and love, too.

And now, for the full list, with books published in 2013 underlined:

Beautiful Ruins - Jess Walter (A)
The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories - Simon Rich (A)
Seating Arrangements - Maggie Shipstead (A)
This is How You Die - Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! (A-)
We, the Drowned - Carsten Jensen (A-)
My Life in France - Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme (A-)
Who Could That Be At This Hour? - Lemony Snicket (A-)

Tenth of December - George Saunders (B+)
Silver Sparrow - Tayari Jones (B+)
We Live in Water - Jess Walter (B+)
The Song of Achilles - Madeline Miller (B+)
The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail - But Some Don't - Nate Silver (B+)
This is How You Lose Her - Junot Diaz (B+)

What the Family Needed - Steven Amsterdam (B)
Machine of Death - Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki ! (B)
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children - Ransom Riggs (B)
American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics - Dan Savage (B)
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal - Mary Roach (B)
The Age of Miracles - Karen Thompson Walker (B)
What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures - Malcolm Gladwell (B)
The Chocolate War - Robert Cormier (B-)
House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski (B-)

Film Critic - Laremy Legel (C+)
The Red House - Mark Haddon (C+)
Jo's Boys - Louisa May Alcott (C)
Divergent - Veronica Roth (C-)
Man in the Empty Suit - Sean Ferrell (D+)
You - Austin Grossman (D)

It may seem a slap in the face to fall to that bottom section of grades, but those authors can take heart in the fact that I at least read their books from start to finish. Every year, there's a subset of books that get cast off before I can get through them. Sometimes, it's my fault. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood or didn't have time or couldn't devote the concentration necessary to fully engaging with the book. Sometimes, though, an author just puts out a book so terrible or boring that I refuse to waste my time with it:

A Fistful of Fig Newtons - Jean Shepherd: The one short story collection I couldn't connect with. I thought I'd like it because I'm such a fan of A Christmas Story, but it just never struck the right tone for me.

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time #1) - Robert Jordan: What possessed me to think I had time to dive into a massive fantasy series? Fortunately, the first chunk of this book was so boring that I happily discarded it with a sigh of relief that I didn't get obsessed with a property that would consume anything even approaching free time.

The Dog Stars - Peter Heller: This one's my fault, and I feel bad about it. It's an intensely deep, complex story, and I just didn't have time to give it the attention it deserved. Maybe I'll try again next year.

Tigers in Red Weather - Liza Klaussmann: After a few chapters of prose so purple it smelled like grapes, I was exhausted with it. I maybe would have continued to struggle through if Klaussmann didn't also embrace all of chicklit's worst characteristics.

On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta - Jen Lin-Liu: When I read a book about the Noodle Road, I want to read about pasta. Its history and different cultures' relationships with it would be a fascinating topic. Instead, this woman takes the opportunity to whine about her marriage for page after page. I should have burned it to spare anyone else from Lin-Liu's trap of using the lure of food to get people to read her insufferably boring memoir.

Still, it was a great reading year, overall. Let's hope 2014 is as welcoming to us bookworms!


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