2013 was an interesting year for books. I read some really incredible books but also had long spells where nothing I read pleased me. Despite the fact that I’m in a speculative fiction book group, the majority of the books I loved this year were books that did realism particularly well. Below are some obvious notable exceptions to this, but it seems that the books that most spoke to me were powerfully rooted in real and relatable human experiences. I reread two books that I’d read a long time ago (something I rarely do) and remembered again why I loved them. They even made this list.
All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
Few writers I’ve read are capable of the luminosity that McCarthy is capable of. All the Pretty Horses is almost unbearably beautiful, even when it’s angry or violent or sad. It’s the story of John Grady, a sixteen year old from Texas, who, because he doesn’t want to give up a ranch way of life, saddles up his horse, Redbo, and rides with his best friend to Mexico to discover their fates. Grady is, deep down, good, and All the Pretty Horses is, like much of McCarthy’s other work, an exploration of what goodness is worth in a world that sometimes swallows up goodness whole. Near the end, McCarthy writes of Grady, “[H]e felt wholly alien to the world although he loved it still. He thought that in the beauty of the world were hid a secret. He thought the world’s heart beat at some terrible cost and that the world’s pain and its beauty moved in a relationship of diverging equity and that in this headlong deficit the blood of multitudes might ultimately be exacted for the vision of a single flower.”
Sarah Canary, Karen Joy Fowler
Sarah Canary tells the story of a stranger, a mostly mute woman who can nonetheless sing like a Canary, who appears in the woods near a camp set up by the Chinese migrant laborers who are building a railroad along the Pacific Coast. Fowler uses this historical context to engage with bigger ideas about otherness and feminism. This is also a science fiction—a first contact—story. If you’re not a fan of science-fiction, don’t be scared off by this: the book’s fantastical elements are incredibly subtle and even open to interpretation.
Canada, Richard Ford
Canada is successful because of Ford’s intense realism. He takes the seemingly improbable—two crimes, one more improbable than the other—and makes them and the narrator’s reactions to them utterly realistic. The novel is told by the grown Dell Parsons looking back on his life and what came out of these two crimes. Despite that adult hindsight, Ford does well at capturing the young man’s naivety and confusion.
American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell
This collection of short stories, set in and around my hometown in Southwest Michigan, is mostly about folks who have run out of luck. The characters face poverty, drug addiction, and other trauma, and yet Campbell can’t help evoking a sense of hope and joy.
White Noise, Don Delillo
White Noise best captures Delillo’s wry, satirical humor. When a black cloud of chemicals appears over the Midwestern college town where Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies, he becomes obsessed with death, an obsession that seemed to have been there all along. Delillo is a master of satire: the novel questions our current consumer culture and challenges the notion that we can buy our way out of unhappiness.
The Shining, Stephen King
I first read The Shining in college and loved it. I still think the book is far better than the movie, which is quite a feat given the classic terror-filled joy of watching it. But King does such a good job taking us inside the heads of all his characters, particularly Danny, who is far wiser than he appears in the Kubrick version, as Jack is far more complicated than the sinister, sneering Jack Nicholson.
The 25th Hour, David Benioff
Here’s another book that I first saw as a movie years ago when Spike Lee adapted it. Benioff’s story is a mediation on the nature of crime and how possible it is to live as a good person in the world despite making choices that society deems criminal. It’s also a story about facing ends. Benioff’s writing is lucid, and he does an amazing job taking us into the inner world of three friends on the edge of a major change in their world.
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book since I’d had friends tell me it is peopled by unlikeable characters. And this is true to a certain extent, but perhaps they’re only unlikeable in that Franzen shows us this family in an epic sweep of years by focusing on the moments when they are most falling apart or in personal crisis. This could have been a hard book to love for this, but his characters are so believable and human throughout it all. The story covers a lot of ground and is conscious of its historical context, from the early days of punk through Clinton-era environmental politics, it, in some ways, captures a large part of the American story.
Orange is the New Black, Piper Kerman
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
Another book that covers an epic sweep of years, this one also spans two continents. It begins in 1960s India with two brothers who are powerfully close yet different enough that the trajectories of their lives become radically different. One brother gets involved with the communist revolutionary movement of the time, and the other brother leaves for the United States to pursue his studies. This book is as much a story of these two brothers as it is a story about motherhood and fatherhood and the powerful effects of grief. Lahiri is unsentimental and takes risks at times with characters who she must have known would be unlikeable, but the power of the story she’s crafted makes it possible to empathize and relate to everyone, even those characters you resist as a reader.