Friday, January 17, 2014

Books of '13: recommendations

It's still January, so by law, I can still write a summary post about what I read in 2013.  Also, because I run this blog, I get to make up the categories.  It's pretty awesome when you think about it.  

It was a pretty good year for my reading taste, although I was pickier this year than in some prior years.  I would have said I'd really enjoyed what I read this year overall, but I actually rated the smallest percentage of books "Highly Recommended" (in my Access database of books I read, of course) since 2006.  I also rated the highest percentage of books "Not Recommended" since 2009.  Yawn.  Onto the good books.

Best New Novel

Where'd you Go, Bernadette, Maria Semple, 2012

My friend Catherine Christopher recommended this book on a visit back to Pittsburgh.  I
read it in essentially one sitting on our long return flights from Korea in the spring (what a marvelous way to read a novel!).  It's a unique and dark story, told through unique narrative devices like letters and emails.  The first part of the book especially feels like a clever copy of a Douglas Coupland novel because of those devices.  Not only is the book set in Seattle, but Seattle is essentially a character in the book; its natural environment and specific culture playing their own roles.  The Bernadette of the title is particularly well suited to talk about Seattle because she's an outsider.  It feels like anything I say about the plot would reveal too much, so I'll just call it a page turner of the first order and recommend that you read it.

Best Old Novel

So Big, Edna Ferber, 1924, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1925

So Big is a wonderful novel that transported me to Chicago and its hinterlands at the end of the 19th and dawn of the 20th centuries.  It was a good time to read a Chicago novel because we've visited there three times in the past year to see family and friends.  I feel like I "got Chicago" more from multiple exposures, and having read this novel, I feel like I "get Chicago" even more.  It's always hard as a reader to know how a book was received when it was first published, but it strikes me that this story would have felt very "of the moment" to those reading it in the '20s.  In a way, it's an interpretation of how people came to lead their lives then based on how much Chicago was changing in the previous 40 years.  New money transformed some people's lives and created vast gaps between the rich and the poor.  Cultures that had persisted through immigration because of geographic community boundaries in the new world were starting to morph and break down through new tools of transportation and connection.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  I fear that this review makes this novel sound like sociology, but it's really not.  It's just a good novel placed in its moment in history.

Best Non-Fiction

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain, 2012

This book got lots of press when it came out, and I finally managed to get to it on my reading list and pick up a copy from the library.  It's a very interesting read in the vain of good business bestsellers with a tinge of self help.  Starting with research about how introverts and extroverts differ (chief takeaway - introverts are more sensitive to stimuli), she eventually touches on what you should do as a manager, spouse or parent of an introvert if you're an extrovert.  She makes compelling arguments that the world is tilted in favor of extroverted traits and that "shy" is a bad word.  She argues for making space for individual processing of ideas.  Split the tables apart in classrooms.  Let people work alone to generate ideas and then submit them.  This form of crowdsourcing is kinder to the introvert's pace of processing, but more importantly, it empirically produces more good ideas than group brainstorming.

Best Memoir: Woman

Orange is the New Black; My Year in a Women's Prison, Piper Kerman, 2010

With the Netflix television show being discussed at every gathering of the late summer and NPR fawning over it, I heard that the book on which the show was based was really very good.  This memoir is flat out fantastic.  An unlikely prisoner, Kerman describes her experience over a year in primarily a minimum security prison with some additional time at different facilities.  She has no idea what to expect, living among women who are largely of a different class from her.  What she discovers horrifies and heartens her and her readers.  I don't want to give away too much more.  If I have a quibble, it's that she sometimes stops short of describing why certain aspects of prison life were terrible, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks.  A friend who has read the book said she turned off the TV show after five minutes because it's "too raw".   Perhaps Piper was saving her dear readers by being oblique.

Best Memoir: Man

Attempting Normal, Marc Maron, 2013

I enjoyed this memoir/collection of essays.  Having listened to virtually every episode of Maron's WTF podcast and having watched his special (Thinky Pain) while reading the book, I found that the material wasn't particularly new.  I enjoyed it anyway.  Maron has worked hard to overcome a lot of demons, and he's really honest about the ways that he still hasn't.  He's not for everyone, but I find myself at home in his audience.

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