It’s been a fantastic year in books—not least because at the end of the year, my co-founders Peggy Northrop and Rachel Greenfield and I launched Shebooks.net, an e-publishing platform for short e-books by and for women. We have an amazing collection of short memoirs, fiction, and journalism by some incredibly talented writers…in March, we will launch a full site with a subscription service.
But back to my traditional list of 10 best books I read this year. In honor of Shebooks, this year, they’re all by women. These books weren’t necessarily published in 2013; I just read them this year. But I’ll try to keep it fresh. (By the way, here’s my complete booklist that I’ve kept for the last 40 years. Yes, I know I’m obsessive).
- My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. This author, from Naples, writes under a pseudonym—partly because her depictions of live in Southern Italy are so raw and honest, she must need to protect herself in order to lead some semblance of normal life. This novel is the first in a trio about two smart, ambitious young women from a poor neighborhood in Naples, and the twists in their friendship as they confront jealousy, resentment, changes in circumstance and opportunities. This book was so good that I had to read:
- Il Nuovo Cognome, by Elena Ferrante. I couldn’t wait for Ann Goldstein of the New Yorker to translated Ferrante’s next book, so I read it in Italian. It’s finally out in English as The Story of a New Name. In this book, Lila and Elena reach young adulthood and the confusions that go with growing up as a lower-class woman in Southern Italy—personal, economic, cultural, educational. Goldstein is a terrific translator, never calling attention to the language, but it was worth it for some of the idiomatic expressions to read it in Italian, for the music and rawness of the dialogue. I also read Troubling Love and Days of Abandonment by Ferrante; both shorter and more intensely personal.
- The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan. This novel is about a young Scottish woman who has survived a series of foster homes and abuse to land in a facility for troubled adolescents, in the shame of the panopticon that Jeremy Benthem proposed as a model prison in the late 1700s, so that inmates would always be seen by an omnipresent eye. In his Discipline and Punish, French philosopher Michel Foucault used the panopticon as a metaphor for the increased social visibility under authoritarian rule…an idea that has me eager to read Dave Egger’s The Circle. Anyway, Fagan is a terrific writer, and I can’t wait to read more from her.
- The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. I couldn’t put down Tartt’s sprawling, if flawed, novel about a young boy who survives an explosion in an art gallery, though his mother dies; he takes a priceless painting with him out the door and makes his way into adulthood living with various memorable characters. Scenes on the outskirts of Las Vegas with his estranged father are amazing, as is her depiction of upper-crust Manhattanites. The end is unsatisfying, but altogether entertaining.
- The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. Set in the 1970s, this is the story of a young motorcyclist nicknamed Reno, because that’s where she’s from, who is briefly the fastest woman on earth. The book careens from the New York Art world to political turmoil in Italy. It’s concerned with art, love, sex, politics, class, speed—a heady read by a fresh, world-wary writer who is nevertheless full of heart.
- Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. The story of Ann Boleyn never gets old, whether watching The Tudors or any of the movies made about Henry VIII, but Mantel takes the story to an entirely new psychological depth, with vivid historic detail.
- The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer. This novel follows teenagers at art camp into middle age, as their connections are strained by changes in fortune, ambition, degrees of satisfaction, and the realization (or not) of their early talents. Definitely interesting. I had to read The Wife right afterwards, which I also enjoyed.
- The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud. I will read anything by Claire Messud, whose themes are ambitious and deeply psychological. This probably isn’t my favorite of her books—The Last Life and The Emperor’s Children are—but still engaging. The main character, Nora, is a hum-drum teacher who builds little dollhouses—a direct nod to Ibsen’s The Dollhouse—and imagines a more interesting life of glamour, travel and intrigue. She is the opposite of the “woman upstairs,” the madwoman in the attic, but as this novel proceeds, her equilibrium and creativity are challenged, as is her sense of reality.
- Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Katy Butler. The only nonfiction on my list this year—a fabulously written and reported tale of Butler’s years caretaking her parents, and all the flaws in the American medical system and costly avoidance of death that it exposed. Poetically written, meticulously researched—an important read for anyone who will ever have to face dying. Oh. I guess that’s all of us.
- 10. The Round House, by Louise Erdrich. In the past, I’ve found Erdrich’s books to be sometimes heavy-handed, especially politically. This one, from the point of view of a 13-year-old boy whose mother was raped on a reservation, was much less so. It’s a coming-of-age story where the loss of innocence is layered with crime, dawning understanding of human evil, conflicts in reservation life and mores with Non-Native ones, and a wavering sense of justice.
Not to leave the best books I read by male authors this year (in the order I read them):
1.The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson
2. Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner
3. Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter (also his The Financial Lives of Poets)
4. Enduring Love, by Ian Mcewan
5. Benediction, by Kent Haruf
6. Blasphemy, by Sherman Alexie
7. Dirty Love, by Andre Dubus III
8. Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster
9. Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner
10. Stay Up With Me, by Tom Barbash
I can’t wait to read:
Life After Life, Kate Atkinson
The Circle, by Dave Eggers
The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Andrew Sean Greer
At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcon
A Permanent Member of the Family, Russell Banks
The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon
This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett
Enon, Paul Harding