The Ten Best Books I Read in 2013

Last year around this time I joined a friend's FB reading group- nothing organized, just a place for people who like books to hang o ut, shoot the breeze and  post book related links.   Someone started keeping track of what they read and a few of us joined in.  My time sense being as jacked up as it is I usually have no idea what I've read beyond the last few weeks- a book I recall reading "recently" could actually have been read five years ago.  But given an accurate list, I can build a list.

By the time New Year's rolls around I'll have read 50 titles in 365 days (not counting innumerable children's books), a relatively pathetic total.  But my days of settling in and consuming an entire book in one famished sitting are long gone- now, it's a signal triumph to scavenge 15 uninterrupted minutes for a book- I've gone from literary glutton to picky snacker, pinching hors d'oeuvres from passing trays when the opportunity presents.

Having such limited time to read has changed the way I see books.
For most of my life I've been a devotee of the Huge Fantasy Novel, the huger the better...and bonus points for being part of a Long Fantasy Series, the longer the better.  Nowadays the sight of such an 800 page doorstop fills me with trepidation- rather than a thick layer of soothing balm for a day or two of life's irritations, it's a breadth of thick mud requiring a month of hard slogging to cross.  I've found myself eschewing the junk food calories of past favorites for the sort of books I've spent most of my life avoiding, denser, (much) shorter 'serious' works, the literary equivalent of a high protein diet.

Two rules:

New to me books only, no re-reads.

One title per author, or the entire list would be a two-writer dogfight between George Orwell & Joan Didion, with cameos by Nathaniel West & Joseph Conrad.

So in no particular order, here are my ten best books of 2013 with my comments to the group:

Slouching Toward Bethlehem - Joan Didion 
WOW.  An entirely terrifying book, like receiving a fatal diagnoses from which there is no reprieve, but expressed with such perfectly phrased, dispassionate precision that you're not certain how to react until it's sunk in, some substantial time later.  Clarity, exactness & distance are the foundations of Didion's writing, and the result here is devastating.

(I read half her bibliography this year, and while all of them were stone brilliant this was the one that struck closest to home- her essay on the 'Summer of Love' is the best description of the shitty 'hippy commune' portion of my childhood I've seen.)

No Country For Old Men - Cormac McCarthy  
Blasted through that one.  Saw the film first, thought it was excellent, but the book is a different animal.  A scathing indictment of capitalism & disembowelment of nostalgia, it reads casually & colloquially while being nothing of the sort, which is a neat trick.

Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad 
Don't remember reading another book that accomplished so much with so little. It, like Kurtz, is imbued with an ephemeral, indefinable but massive and terrifying power. Much is accomplished by implication, very little is stated outright. The writing proceeds to its inevitable dénouement as a river would, steadily, irresistibly & on its own terms. On the down side, this is the sort of book that will put me off my literary junk food diet of fantasy & SF for a good while. The writing was so flawlessly, effortlessly deep it's going to be a while before I can face dungeons deep & caverns old again.

Viriconium - M. John Harrison 
I can't say enough good things about this book, which is a collection of three shorter novels & a handful of stories.  I am currently stockpiling everything else he's ever written.  

Day of the Locust - Nathaniel West 
Read because everyone used it as the yardstick for measuring 'Play It As It Lays'.
It is also HARDCORE.  Whereas Play was a view through a glacier-clear porthole at an alien world, Day pitches the reader into a heated fever dream populated by compelling grotesques.  It builds to a frenzied climax and then stops cold, leaving you churning empty air about six feet beyond the edge of the cliff, Wile E. Coyote style.   Makes a perfect companion piece to Play, the male Yang to Play's Yin view of the alienation and monstrosity of Hollywood.
A phenomenal book, and quite short- recommended.

Fludd - Hilary Mantel 
Magical.  I've never read a book quite like it.  Highly recommended.
On to the rest of her works.

Mistborn - Brandon Sanderson 
Excellent high fantasy romp.  Manages the neat trick of contrasting the pomp & grandeur of high society with the suffering of 'the people' in a way that doesn't feel forced or preachy.  The system of magic is one of the best I've come across, but again the author doesn't let bragging on his cool idea bog down the story.  And, for the trifecta, it has a subplot of young love that didn't have me skipping ahead to the next chapter.
Looking forward to volume two.

The Untouched Key: Tracing Childhood Trauma in Creativity & Destructiveness - Alice Miller 
The one author I'd make everyone on earth read if I could.  A continuation of her reasoned examination of how childhood abuses shape the entire world & the dangers of suppression & unconsciousness.  The chapter on Nietzsche is particularly penetrating & illuminating.

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell
All the usual strengths of Orwell directed at producing one of the best first person accounts of war I've read.  While I wouldn't rank it above Herr's Dispatches, that's a conscious decision by Orwell, who spends several chapters delving deep into the labyrinthine political struggle between the numerous anarchist & communist factions opposing Franco's fascists.  The political intrigue is optional- he warns you ahead of time it will be rough sledding- and the rest of it reads like the bullet that passes through Orwell's neck near the end.

Nabokov's Dozen - Vladimir Nabokov 
The kind of writing that makes you feel bad for other authors. People always bandy about terms like "perfect" and "jewel" for short stories, but these really ARE perfect jewels.

And special mention for a photography book, the distillation of my favorite thing on the internet.

Humans of New York - Brandon Stanton
Minor cheat, as it's a book of photographs, but each photo has a story to go with it.
HONY has reliably been my favorite thing on the internet since I discovered him back when he only had like 300k followers on facebook, now he's around 1.5 million.  Well deserved success.  I pre-ordered the book months ago and devoured it the moment it showed up.  There really is something hugely different & better about looking at photos in a book as opposed to on a monitor, however high quality.

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