Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) ranks as one of the nation’s best and busiest public library systems. And it’s no wonder—the staff at CCPL strives to create an atmosphere where readers can enjoy fantastic collections and services. In keeping with this column’s tradition of asking librarians to discuss the books that meant the most to them each year, and in celebration of CCPL’s 90th anniversary, I invited this dedicated group to share their favorite titles of 2013.
Kate Atkinson makes a radical departure from her Jackson Brodie novels in her most recent work, Life After Life (Little Brown. 2013. ISBN 9780316176484. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780316230803). This original, inventive cycle of stories revolves around the many lives of Ursula Todd, a woman born in 1910, amid the horrors of two world wars. Like a master musician playing variations on a theme, Atkinson gives readers subtly different accounts of Ursula’s various lives and deaths. The result is a novel that brilliantly illuminates how even the smallest decisions can change a person’s destiny.
A wryly trenchant first-person narrator tells the story of a Midwest scientist’s inseparable twin girls—one human, one chimp—in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Penguin. 2013. ISBN 9780399162091. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101595688). When the girls become fatefully separated, a family drama plays out that juxtaposes the tamed and untamed, silence and expression, captivity and freedom. With masterly skill, Fowler reveals the truths behind the family secrets at the heart of her imaginative novel.
In her gorgeously written novel, Americanah (Knopf. 2013. ISBN 9780307271082. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307962126), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gives readers the story of Ifemelu, a native of Nigeria and an Ivy League graduate, who finds fame and fortune as the writer of a popular blog about race in America. Ifemelu struggles to find solace in a country that both rhapsodizes and rejects her dark skin. Despite her success, she longs for home and her soul mate Obinze, the teenage love she left behind. With confident, poetic prose, Adichie shines a light on the beauty and brutality of the human experience.
Rilla Askew’s morally complex novel Kind of Kin (Ecco. 2013. ISBN 9780062198792. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062198815) should be required reading. When an Oklahoma state law that forbids harboring undocumented immigrants tears apart a family, the entire town is caught in a moral dilemma—should they do what’s right or what’s legal? Askew’s portrayal of small-town folk struggling to decide what their humanity demands of them is a riveting exploration of faith with touches of humor and joy. A thoroughly engaging read.
The murder of a photojournalist in post-occupation Haiti sets a labyrinthine narrative in motion in Bob Shacochis’s novel The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Atlantic Monthly Press. 2013. ISBN 9780802119827. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780802193094). The action centers on human-rights lawyer Tom Harrington, who is brought in to help solve the crime only to realize the victim is his former lover. Subsequent stories in this Russian nesting doll of a novel take the reader to Croatia, Turkey, Sarajevo, and Montana while spanning the second half of the 20th century. Told in lush, evocative prose, this intricate plot defies categorization.
Philipp Meyer focuses on three members of a family whose generations span Texas history in The Son (Ecco. 2013. ISBN 9780062120397. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062120410): Eli, the patron, who was captured by Comanches as a teenager and then rejoins white society; his son, Peter, who is witness to the brutal extermination of rich Mexican families at the hands of Texas Rangers; and Jeanne, the granddaughter who fights to hold on to the family’s wealth as oil replaces cowboys and ranches. This brilliant rendering of U.S., Native American, and Texan history is timeless, stark, and altogether unforgettable.
Daniel Woodrell, who held readers spellbound with Winter’s Bone, is back with a slim yet unforgettable new novel, The Maid’s Version (Little Brown. 2013. ISBN 9780316205856. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316205863). Set in 1929 in a small, hardscrabble Missouri town, the book centers on the local dance hall, the one place where locals mingle, young love blossoms, and classes and cultures mix. But when an explosion destroys the dance hall, the heart of the town is lost. Who’s responsible? The maid knows, as do several other townsfolk, but it will take a generation or two for the whispered truth to be revealed.
In Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth. 2013. ISBN 9780770436407. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780770436414), Sonja is an intelligent, talented doctor running a crowded hospital in a rural village in Chechnya that treats rebels and refugees. With her resources stretched thin, Sonja is forced to obtain much-needed supplies on the black market. When Akhmed, a villager who studied medicine, brings a child to the hospital to shelter her from rebels, Sonja’s fortunes begin to change. Brimming with heart and vibrant prose, this story of survival in a war-torn land teems with fortitude and humor.
This column was contributed by staff at Cuyahoga County Public Library, Parma, OH. Selections and annotations are in the order given: Sari Feldman, Laurie Kincer, Pam DeFino, Bill Kelly, Wendy Bartlett, and Elayne Jackson.
Neal Wyatt compiles LJ‘s online feature Wyatt’s World and is the author of The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Nonfiction (ALA Editions, 2007). She is a collection development and readers’ advisory librarian from Virginia. Those interested in contributing to The Reader’s Shelf should contact her directly at Readers_Shelf@comcast.net