Posted by: Matt Compton | December 17, 2013

My Favorite Books of 2013

LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson is the story of Ursula Todd, who dies on the night that she’s born in 1910. Two pages later, on that same cold night in February, her life begins again– this time, the doctor whose car had been stuck in the snow arrives on the back of a farmer’s horse. As her lives unfolds, she drowns as a toddler, she dies of the Spanish Flu, she’s killed during the Blitz — but each time, in a different continuity, a different set of choices propels her forward. This is a plot as intricate as the workings of a clock, but atop all the clever machinery, Atkinson has written an old-fashioned story focused on revealing a bit of truth about the consequences of the decisions we all weigh. It’s wonderful.

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, like all the best of Neil Gaiman’s work, begins with death and ends in wonder. Our middle-aged narrator returns to his childhood home in Sussex, England to attend a funeral and finds himself confronting the memory of an adventure long forgotten. Forty years before, when a drifter commits suicide in the family car, the death opens a rift in the world, and in that moment, something very old and dark slips through. Soon, his family has fallen under the influence of a creature who calls herself Ursula Monkton, and our narrator turns to the girl from down the lane, Lettie Hempstock, for help. Lettie is older and wiser than she appears — but her assistance doesn’t come without sacrifice.

THE SON by Philipp Meyer is about six generations of one family and 200 years of Texas history. The plot unfolds in alternating chapters with three distinct voices. The first belongs to Colonel Eli McCullough, captured by a WPA recording on the date of his 100th birthday. He’s just thirteen when a band of Comanche slaughters his family and takes him as a slave. Eli’s story is filled with buffalo hunts, cattle drives, and fights with Texas Rangers — the stuff that becomes the mythology by which his family defines itself. The second thread belongs to Eli’s son, Peter, who has the misfortune of coming of age just as Texas begins to make the transition from a cattle economy to a petrostate. In the name of decency, he tries to stand in the way of his family’s broader ambitions — and fails. The final voice belongs to the novel’s most original character — Eli’s great granddaughter, Jeanne Anne McCullough. She takes the family from the Second World War to the present day, from local heavyweights to global titans. This is a book that attempts to define the cost of progress and what it takes to succeed in America, a story about a group of conquerors that remains focused on telling the truth about the fate of the vanquished.

On January 3, a week before THE TENTH OF DECEMBER was released, the New York Times published a profile of its author under the headline, “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year.” They weren’t necessarily wrong. In this new collection of stories, the first he’s published in seven years, Saunders focuses on characters who are lost or strange or stuck in situations that are as often sad as they are terrifying. And yet this book is hilarious, and ultimately we connect with these people on a real, emotional level. The title story, in particular, is worth the cover price by itself.

THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt starts with an explosion and the theft of a priceless piece of art from the Met. Through the course of 800 pages, we watch as our protagonist, Theo Decker, smuggles a Dutch masterwork from adolescence into a damaged and complicated adulthood. It’s a story about growing up, friendship, grief, and the underground world of forgery and smuggling. It jumps from New York City to Las Vegas to Amsterdam — each setting simultaneously grounded and a little bit druggy. It plays with the idea of what is art — both fake and real. This is the rare kind of book that forces you to stop and savor individual sentences and turns of phrase, even as you fight the urge to race through the 700 pages of hard-to-put-down plot.

In some ways, when trying to describe THE UNWINDING by George Packer, it’s easier to begin with what the book is not. It is not a collection of essays. It is not a work of history. It’s not a study of economic forces or cultural change. Yet it somehow manages to combine all those elements, propelling itself forward. Even without an overarching narrative, you never lose the central thread — that our basic social contract has unraveled and that we as a people have downsized our dreams. That the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States is a threat to the American identity. This is a book as angry as it is sad.

COOKED by Michael Pollan is an argument for making food from scratch — for whole-hog barbecue, for fresh-baked bread, for home-brewed beer. It’s from a writer whose books have helped to launch a national conversation about the choices we make when it comes to what we eat. Thus there’s some obvious irony in the fact that Pollan needed this project to inspire his own efforts in the kitchen. But once ensconced, he’s pretty damn compelling. He believes that cooking inspires deeper connections not just with the animals and ecosystems that make up our food — but with each other. He argues that taking the time to produce our own meals is as good for our souls as it is for our physical well being. To prove the point, he learns how to make crackling at the hip of a pitmaster from North Carolina, how to prepare a sofritto from a chef trained at Chez Panisse, how to cultivate cheese from a nun with a PhD in microbiology.

GULP by Mary Roach is a wide-ranging exploration of the human digestive system, from consumption to elimination. It’s a helluva tour. You meet college professors who’ve spent their entire careers studying intestinal gas. You learn why human teeth are sensitive enough to recognize the presence of a single grain of sand in a bite of food. You investigate the viability of survival after being swallowed alive. You discover the stain-fighting secret of laundry detergent. It’s fascinating but also, regularly, very funny — more so than a book about the alimentary canal has any right to be.

THE LOVE AFFAIRS OF NATHANIEL P. by Adelle Waldman is a biting analysis of a particular man (Nate Piven) who represent a general type (the urban American heterosexual male). Nate is rising star in the New York literary scene, whose outward success and confidence makes him something of a catch among the women of his acquaintance. But Waldman writes with a scalpel, and chapter by chapter, she peels back his layers to reveal a writhing mess of insecurities and superficial judgments. The trick that puts Waldman’s talent on display is the fact that for all the sharp elbows she throws, her writing is filled with empathy. We quickly come to hate Nate Piven, but we never lose our sympathy for him — or doubt that he’s grounded in contemporary reality.

THE GOLEM AND THE JINNI by Helene Wecker is as much an thoughtful, detailed piece of historical fiction as it is a fresh and provocative piece of fantasy. Chava is a golem, carved from living clay in Poland in 1899. Ahmad is a jinni, released from centuries of imprisonment in a copper flask by a Syrian tinsmith. Their folkloric abilities might keep them apart from the humans around them, but they experience turn-of-the-century New York City as immigrants — Old World creatures making their way on New World streets. The combination is as charming as it is magical.



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