By Mahnaz Dar, Bette-Lee Fox, Liz French, Margaret Heilbrun, Barbara Hoffert, Stephanie Klose, Annalisa Pesek, Henrietta Thornton-Verma, & Wilda Williams
THE TITLES CHOSEN BY LJ’s REVIEWS EDITORS AS THE Top Ten of 2013 together form a picture of humanity’s struggle against injustices great and small but also kept us up late turning the pages.
In Edwidge Danticat’s dreamy Claire of the Sea Light, the male protagonist spends his days trying to find an adoptive parent for his motherless daughter, while the new mother he has in mind, in turn, struggles with the death of her only child. “Different” is a mild way of describing the life of the figure at the center of Wendy Moore’s How To Create the Perfect Wife. Perhaps the oddest title on our list, this true story won me over completely, despite my misgivings. In it, a decidedly creepy 19th-century “gentleman” fails to find a wife who meets his exacting moral standards. His solution? He will adopt a child and mold her into the perfect companion. No spoilers here, but the tale of how his plan unfolds reveals heartbreaking details of child rearing and treatment of the poor in a Britain that is thankfully bygone. Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, meanwhile, takes readers on a wild and scary ride to what can only be called Santaland with a twist, while addressing a vexing issue: What if you get what you always wanted, and it’s terrifying?
As usual, there are the ones that got away. Our deliberations always leave editors with books they love that don’t make the top ten, simply because others grabbed us with more intensity. Among our “More of the Best” are titles addressing subjects as various as living with a chimp as a “sibling” (Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves); reexperiencing the joys, sorrows, and horrors of war over and over as your life keeps hitting rewind (Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, also nominated as one of the year’s best works of historical fiction); and a scholarly examination of a stubbornly persistent lingua franca (Jürgen Leonhardt’s Latin: Story of a World Language).
LJ’s columnists have their favorites of the year, too, and starting on page 28 you’ll find dozens of bests from them. Some of the books they chose got a lot of buzz this year, such as Cheryl Sandberg’s Lean In (wasn’t it everywhere?), but there are nods to less-ubiquitous works, too, such as Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel duo Boxers and Saints and Malala Yousafzai’s compelling and infuriating I Am Malala.
I learned a lot about human nature from our best books—some of which is hard to accept—but the marathon reading sessions involved also taught another valuable lesson: I do have time to read. And the genres I don’t normally try yield some fantastic surprises. The biggest? The astonishment that is Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon. (Just read it!)—Henrietta Thornton-Verma
Danticat, Edwidge. Claire of the Sea Light. Knopf. ISBN 9780307271792. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385349680. F
Claire Limyè Lanmè (“Claire of the Sea Light”) goes missing on her seventh birthday, soon after her destitute fisherman father makes the wrenching decision to give her away so that she can have a better life. As townsfolk search for her, we learn the story of the town itself, told in language that’s lyrical, affecting, and beautifully understated. (LJ 9/1/13)
Fagan, Jenni. The Panopticon. Hogarth. ISBN 9780385347860. $22; ebk. ISBN 978038534787. F
When police dump 15-year-old Anais Hendricks in a youth home for chronic offenders that feels like the prison it once was, readers might expect cliché. Instead, they get a fresh, energized account of a tough and imaginative young woman’s finally triumphant coming of age, told in Scottish-flecked language and involving a mystery that keeps the pages turning. (LJ 6/15/13)
Fink, Sheri. Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. Crown. ISBN 9780307718969. $27. MED
Fans of nonfiction that’s backed by extensive, meticulous research—think The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—will savor this examination of events at a New Orleans hospital before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Fink’s work mainly concerns a doctor accused of euthanizing patients at the hospital during the disaster, but the journalist’s portrayal includes many other staffers, too, and their activities and backstories form a compelling picture of the city and social injustices that persist. (LJ 9/1/13)
Frankel, Glenn. The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. Bloomsbury USA. ISBN 9781608191055. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781620400647. HIST/FILM
Frankel’s four-part nonfiction work begins with Cynthia Ann Parker, abducted by Comanches in 1830s Texas and forcibly returned to her white family decades later. Her half-Comanche son Quanah Parker uses his mother’s story to buttress his role as peacemaker between Indians and whites. Next to shape the myth is novelist Alan LeMay, followed by mercurial director John Ford, whose 1956 Western The Searchers is based on LeMay’s 1954 title. Each part of Frankel’s book is fascinating, as readers witness the origin, creation, and reworking of an American myth. (LJ 2/1/13)
Hill, Joe. NOS4A2. Morrow. ISBN 9780062200570. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062200594. F
Hill, son of horror master Stephen King, comes into his own as a full-fledged literary star with this gripping epic of good vs. evil. Once a year, Charlie Manx selects “special” children for a ride in his vintage Rolls Royce to Christmasland. Vic McQueen, the only one to escape Charlie’s clutches, is determined to stop him, especially after her son is kidnapped. Fasten your seat belts: you’re in for a scary but thrilling ride. (LJ 2/15/13)
Marra, Anthony. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Hogarth. ISBN 9780770436407. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780770436414. F
“On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones.” With this ravishing opening sentence, debut novelist Marra plunges us into a world of brutal violence and heartbreaking beauty. Over the course of five days in an abandoned hospital in the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya, the bereaved Havaa, her neighbor and protector Akhmed, and Sonja, a Russian doctor, discover the “seemingly random threads binding us together.” (LJ 4/1/13)
Moore, Wendy. How To Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and His Enlightened Quest To Train the Ideal Mate. Basic: Perseus. ISBN 9780465065745. $27.99. HIST
Go back before the Regency and the romances it still inspires. Enter the Enlightenment, but don’t assume its adherents were all enlightened as we’d understand the term. Meet Thomas Day, an 18th-century aristocrat free to study and practice Enlightenment philosophies. Watch him go to an orphanage and adopt a girl for long-term training to be his wife. Twice.
Pollan, Michael. Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. Penguin. ISBN 9781594204210. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101605462. COOKING
Pollan’s latest details his adventures exploring the four elements of food preparation: fire (barbecuing), water (braising and stewing), air (bread making), and earth (fermenting pickles, cheese, and alcoholic brews). Though the market is all but saturated with both cookbooks and food-related memoirs, Pollan still breaks new ground here. It’s hard to imagine the reader who will not find something over which to marvel in this well-researched, engagingly written volume. (LJ 3/15/13)
Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. Penguin Pr. ISBN 9781594204234. $28.95. F
A friend’s request sends fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow deep into the world of techno-angst and -greed just before the Twin Towers fall. This is not a 9/11 novel, however, but the evocation of a time, a place, and authentic, deeply connected characters, all heightened by Pynchon’s darkly hilarious language and located on the “bleeding edge” just before the world changed. (LJ 9/1/13)
Shacochis, Bob. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. Atlantic Monthly. ISBN 9780802119827. $28. F
Opening with photojournalist Jackie Scott’s death in Haiti, moving to events in post–World War II Croatia that confirm Stjepan Kovacevic’s hatred of anything that’s not the glorious Christian West, and finally showing U.S. diplomat Steve Chambers training his daughter to serve her country, this richly detailed, magnificently flowing novel deeply ponders the forces that have shaped the contemporary world. (LJ 8/13)