Sunday Salon: Books of the Year, 2013

I started 2014 with a couple of vacation days from work so I could do some other “work”–my blog version of the “year-end close.” (It will take much longer to do that at my day job, which is the other reason I took some time off now!) I’ll be reporting on it all this week, but I wanted to kick it off with the good stuff.

Books of the Year 3rsBlog 2013

Books of the Year, 2013

FICTION (print): Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon

“I appreciated the way that Chabon’s explorations into genre during the last decade or so colored this return to more literary fiction…
I’m not sure that Telegraph Avenue is as ambitious a novel as Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winner The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and I don’t think it fully achieves the ambitions it does have. That said, I generally applaud that kind of ambition, and feel a little let down when it doesn’t quite stick the landing. But when someone writes the way Chabon does, the letdown isn’t quite as rough. At the same time, I think this may be his most down-to-earth novel since the admittedly less ambitious (and my personal favorite) Wonder Boys, and I applaud that as well. There were times I totally loved Telegraph Avenue, times it frustrated me, and a very few times when it bored me…and so I offer one more round of applause to Michael Chabon for thoroughly engaging me in this little Northern California world.”

FICTION (audio): Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins is a novel of mid-20th-century Italy and old (and new) Hollywood, conveying its characters back to the final days of World War II and forward through the decades into the present, with detours into the Pacific Northwest and a stop at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival…I was very impressed by Walter’s weaving of these story threads, balancing and connecting them into a fascinating whole. That said, the characters that inhabit Beautiful Ruins are what make all those plot threads so absorbing. They are complex and convincingly human; I loved several of them, and even the least likable ones have characteristics that won me over to some degree. I genuinely enjoyed discovering how characters connected to one another across the novel’s expanse of time and place; I’d try to guess, and I was right more often than I wasn’t, but I was usually satisfied by the outcome either way. The descriptive passages in the novel are vivid, and so are the emotions it portrays.”

NONFICTION, topical: Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink

“What happened at Memorial Medical Center between August 27 and September 1, 2005 is a story of heroism and tragedy. The five-day process of evacuating staff, patients, and visitors from the flooded, blacked-out hospital is a chronicle of difficult decisions made under terrible conditions; while some had fortunate outcomes, they were overshadowed by the choices that turned out spectacularly badly…The medical/legal drama inherent in this story make Five Days at Memorial compelling reading, but what elevates the book to Important is the way that the incidents it relates provide an intense, concentrated perspective on larger issues; it presents potential case studies on medical ethics, disaster management, socioeconomic class and community relations. The focus it gives to questions relevant to the current national health-care debate is particularly notable. Sheri Fink originally reported on what happened at Memorial, and the legal and medical fallout from those events, in 2009, and builds from there in this book. There are many sides to this complex story, as this much-expanded account makes clear.”

NONFICTION, personal: Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart

“…(M)emoir done right–experience and truth, shaped by insight into art–is Beth Kephart’s passion, and this book makes that abundantly clear to both those who want to write memoir and those who just want to read it. Instructive but never pedantic, it’s meant to make you better at both. And Kephart leaves no doubt that writers of memoir must be readers of memoir. Handling the Truth abounds with excerpts and examples, and features a generous (50-page!), well-curated list of recommended further reading in both the art and craft of memoir writing…Handling the Truth is a practical guide. It breaks down the various elements of the form, and offers illustrations and exercises drawn from the classroom. At the same time, it’s a memoir of Beth Kephart’s own experience with the writing, reading, and teaching of memoir…and the book accomplishes both missions without being overly self-referential or meta. It’s a celebration, examination, and defense of the form. It’s honest and direct about where and how it can go wrong, and why that makes it so important to get it right.”

BOOK PAIRING ONE-TWO PUNCH (fiction/nonfiction):
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver and Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Still to come in the Year in Review: I’ll be answering some of the questions from Jamie’s End-of-Year Book Survey on Tuesday, posting 2013 stats info-graphic style–inspired by Melissa at Feminist Texican Reads–on Wednesday, and thinking about 2014 reading by borrowing Bellezza’s New Year’s Reading Goals meme on Thursday.

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