Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL), OH, ranks as one of the nation’s best and busiest public library systems. And it’s no wonder—the staff at CCPL strive 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 the library’s 90th anniversary, this dedicated group here share their favorite titles of 2013.
Kate Atkinson radically departs from her Jackson Brodie novels in 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 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 are 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 beautifully written novel Americanah (Knopf. 2013. ISBN 9780307271082. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780307962126), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie offers up 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: HarperCollins. 2013. ISBN 9780062198792. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062198815) should be required reading. When an Oklahoma state law that forbids harboring undocumented immigrants tears a family apart, an 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.
The murder of a photojournalist in post-occupation Haiti sets a labyrinthine narrative in motion in Bob Shacochis’s The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Atlantic Monthly. 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.
Philipp Meyer focuses on three members of a family whose generations span Texas history in The Son (Ecco: HarperCollins. 2013. ISBN 9780062120397. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062120410): Eli, the patron, who was captured by Comanches as a teenager; 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 history is timeless, stark, and altogether unforgettable.
Daniel Woodrell, who held readers spellbound with Winter’s Bone, returns with the slim yet haunting The Maid’s Version (Little, Brown. 2013. ISBN 9780316205856. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316205863). Set in 1929 in a small Missouri town, the action centers on the local dance hall where locals mingle, young love blossoms, and classes and cultures mix. But when an explosion destroys the dance hall, the town’s heart is lost. Who’s responsible? The maid knows, 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. Then Akhmed, a villager who studied medicine, brings a child to the hospital to shelter her from the Russians who seized her father, and 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, & Elayne Jackson