The best books of 2013, as chosen by Berkeleyside editors

Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A collection of new books available at the new West Branch Library. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

We love books at Berkeleyside, whether in traditional format or as e-books. At the end of 2013, and as a possible spur to your holiday book buying, here are our favorite books of the year (not all were published in 2013, but they were our best reads).

Lance Knobel

chinaairbornSometimes focusing on one strand of a society can raise wider issues. In his China Airborne (which came out in 2012), James Fallows looks at the aviation industry in China. But through this lens, he provides a fascinating picture of contemporary China and deals with major issues of economic growth and industrial policy.

lastpoliceman13330370I came a little late to Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman, but as a result I was able to plow straight on with the second in his trilogy, Countdown City, which came out in July (and I’m panting for the 2014 release of the conclusion, World of Trouble). The series is about detective Hank Palace, who has the misfortune to be a conscientious cop in a pre-apocalyptic society — asteroid 2011GV1 is going to destroy life on Earth in six months. Absolutely gripping.

22BOOK-articleInlineMy favorite novel of the year was Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Written entirely in the second person, loosely in the style of a self-help book, How to Get Filthy Rich is a love story, a portrait of the tensions of an emerging economy (Pakistan and probably the city of Lahore, although neither is named), and a deeply involving life of the artist — where the artist is a small-scale entrepreneur.

09bOswald.jpgThe most powerful work I read this year was Alice Oswald’s poem Memorial, subtitled in the U.S. “A Version of Homer’s Iliad”, but more accurately “An Excavation of the Iliad” in the original U.K. edition. Almost everything is stripped out in this “excavation,” except for the many deaths chronicled by Homer. Oswald memorializes each death, sometimes in a handful of lines, sometimes in a longer passage. The cumulative effect of so much death is shattering and immensely moving. It’s a memorial to all war dead. Memorial deserves to stand on the shelf with Christopher Logue’s great War Music. And it will make me turn again to the incomparable Homer.

Frances Dinkelspiel

There were many books I enjoyed this year that have already received ample recognition from places like the New York Times, such Katy Butler’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door, about dying a dignified death, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life, and Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. They were all terrific and lingered in my mind long after I shut the back covers (I do not read books on a Kindle or iPad). Here are a few others that I thoroughly enjoyed:

longbournLongbourn by Jo Baker – This is Pride and Prejudice meets Downton Abbey told from the servants’ point of view. My back ached just reading it. I never realized how much laundry Jane, Lizzie, their sisters, and Mr. and Mrs. Bennet produced each week – and the chilblains one could get by prolonged exposure of fingers to icy water. The plot revolves around Sarah, an orphaned housemaid, who finds herself drawn to mysterious stranger whom the Bennets have employed as a footman. Longbourn is very well written, informative about life in the 19th century life, and a guilty pleasure.

gravityofbirdsThe Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzman – I had just finished The Art Forger, a good novel about the black market for stolen art, when I picked up this much better-written book about two sisters and their relationship with a painter. The trio meets one summer at their families’ vacation houses, but the impact they have on one another’s lives continues for decades. Thomas Bayber becomes an internationally acclaimed painter who is struck by painter’s block as he ages. The art world thinks it has catalogued and reviewed all of Bayber’s art, until the artist shows the art historian who made him famous (and who has been paying his rent) a picture titled “The Kessler Sisters.’ Bayber wants to sell it, but not until the historian and an art authenticator track down the young women. The result is a journey across America, a meditation on art and love and memory and beauty, and gorgeous descriptive writing.

myheartisanidiitMy Heart is An Idiot – essays by Davy Rothbart. This is the kind of book you either love or hate. I loved it. Rothbart, who started Found magazine, writes about his quest for love and connection in such a quirky way. He gets himself in ridiculous situations, but somehow finds the soul of the people he is tossed in with. My favorite essay revolved around a Greyhound bus ride Rothbart took on Valentine’s Day from Detroit to Buffalo. Rothbart is in search of a girl with whom he went to high school. He is hoping to convince her to be his girlfriend. On the bus he meets a man who claims to be 110 years old, and that unlikely pair start off on their own adventure. The writing is excellent and the ride is rollicking.

aftervistingfriendsAfter Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story by Michael Hainey – I was probably predisposed to like this story since it features a journalist trying to track down the details of his father’s early death. (Some details match my life story.) The writing is beautiful, and the detective story is even better. Hainey’s father was a 35-year old well-regarded editor at the Chicago Tribune with a wife and two sons. Why then, was his body found in the middle of the night by his car miles away from the family home?  Why did the obituary say he died “after visiting friends.” Who were those friends and why did they never visit? And why didn’t Hainey’s mother ever talk about what happened? When Hainey is older, and a journalist as well, he decides to figure out what happened to his father. The resulting journey breaks open calcified family secrets and shows Hainey the father he barely knew and reveals a side of his mother he never saw.

583299Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers 1769-1913 by Richard Steven Street. This book is 936 pages long, with 300 of those pages devoted to footnotes and other reference material. Street spent many decades burrowing in archives and libraries and county historical societies in Mexico and the U.S. to create this masterpiece, which describes the laborers who built California. Their story isn’t pretty. Beginning in the Mission era when Franciscan fathers basically enslaved Indians and forced them to plow the mission fields, harvest their grapes, and round up their cattle, the book continues through the time when the Chinese were the state’s workers to present day, when Mexicans do the brunt of the agricultural work. It’s a revealing work that shows how California was built by exploiting those less powerful. Street is a clear and concise writer and he weaves many tales in this masterpiece, which was published in 2004. This is an astonishing work of scholarship.

 Tracey Taylor

goldfinchimagesThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Like many Tartt fans I was looking forward to her new book — her third, and one that took 10 years to materialize. I hoped that it would rise to the literary heights of her first work, The Secret History. The reviews for The Goldfinch were almost universally positive, some bordering on ecstatic. “Dazzling” and “Dickensian” panted The New York Times. And the opening chapters of the 771-page tome did not disappoint. I was immediately gripped by the wrought tale of the young Theo Decker whose adored mother is killed in a terrorist attack while the pair are visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At its best, Tartt’s writing is gorgeous and the slow unfolding of the drama, the beautifully crafted portraits of the main characters, and the descriptions of contemporary New York, all conspire to make this one of those books you wish you could put your life on hold for — feet up, with sustenance to hand — and lose oneself in its pages. Not everyone loved this book, however. In her review for The Observer, Julie Myerson described it as “overlong” and a “tediously Potteresque adventure.” While Decker’s antics did not, to me, recall those of Harry Potter, I agree with Myerson that the book has its longueurs. In particular the long stretch of the story set in Las Vegas became tedious and I was glad when the protagonist was on a cross-country bus headed back to the Big Apple. Overall, though, this is a first-rate read, written with great aplomb, and its message, that art can transcend life’s misfortunes and bring happiness, is a not a bad one to ponder.

9780316176484_custom-471ca800e5fe1258f2d4059059b24d8c1d95a7ba-s6-c30Life after Life by Kate Atkinson By far my favorite book of the year, and by one of my all-time favorite writers (although one or two of the Atkinson’s early books were easily forgettable). When I bought this book at Mrs Dalloway’s in Berkeley Frayda Simon summed it up with one word, “astonishing.” How right she is. The conceit of having a book’s protagonist die and be reincarnated, not once, but many times, requires the greatest of literary skill to pull off. Atkinson is an excellent writer with a dry sense of humor, but it is the beyond-grim passages of the book that deal with the Blitz in London that are likely to stay with you, when the heroine, Ursula, is working as a warden on a rescue team. Atkinson spares no detail of the horrors these brave, but wholly unprepared, volunteers had to witness and deal with. The ambitious structure of the narrative may have you stumbling occasionally, but that’s all the more reason to go back and reread it one day. I’m looking forward to it already.

oneshotOne Shot by Lee Child This was the year I discovered Jack Reacher. Where’s he been all my life? Not one to usually head for the crime thriller shelves in the bookshop or library, I loved this hardboiled, fast-paced and tightly written book whose protagonist, the aforementioned Reacher, is a nomadic former American military policeman who — guess what? — solves all the crimes nobody else can crack. The great news? Lee Child (pen name for British author Jim Grant) writes at least one Jack Reacher novel a year — and even before his next one is out, I have 17 more to catch up on first.

Mal Warwick

Mal Warwick reviews books for Berkeleyside and has his own website, Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books, devoted to the books he reads each year. Here is his take on his favorite books for 2013:

This was a tough one. Of the 50 or so books I’ve read so far in 2013, the easy route would have been to turn to familiar writers whose work I nearly always love. I could have picked Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behavior), Malcolm Gladwell (David and Goliath), Khaled Hosseini (And the Mountains Echoed), John le Carré (A Delicate Truth), and Isabel Allende (Maya’s Notebook). I loved them all. But that would be too easy. These writers all have plenty of readers. So, I decided to select books whose authors are less well known and whose work is all too easily lost amid the hundreds of thousands of new titles published every year in the US alone. Here are my five candidates, then:

Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine by Diarmuid Jeffreys

41HG-IH60jL._AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-47,22_AA300_SH20_OU15_As memories of World War II grow dim and its active participants pass away, it becomes too easy to assign blame for the war to a few highly familiar names (Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, and so forth) and overlook others whose roles in the conflict may have been equally significant. This compelling and deeply researched account of the intimate links between the Nazi regime and German’s largest company is a shocking reminder of how so many genteel and well-educated Germans made Hitler’s war possible. It is difficult to imagine a more dramatic example than IG Farben of business unmoored from any moral purpose — not just supplying the products that literally fueled the Nazi war machine and sponsoring the gruesome research of Dr. Josef Mengele (the notorious “Angel of Death”), but going so far as to build its own concentration camp for Jewish slave laborers at Auschwitz.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

sistersbrothersHere’s a Western set in California during the Gold Rush that’s more Deadwood than Gunsmoke, a novel imbued with the spirit and the cadences of speech of the real Old West. It had to be: The Sisters Brothers was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and the panjandrums who manage that process aren’t known to show favor to run-of-the-mill genre writing. The Sisters brothers of the title are notorious hired killers in the employ of a mysterious and powerful man known only as the Commodore. They emerge from the page fully fleshed and displaying their own all too believable quirks and idiosyncrasies. I rarely read Westerns, but this one bowled me over.

The Night Ranger by Alex Berenson

15815367It’s hard to find a thriller writer who is more diligent or more ingenious at research than Alex Berenson, a former New York Times correspondent. In The Night Ranger, the seventh novel in his excellent series featuring John Wells (ex-Army, ex-CIA), Berenson casts a spotlight on one of the greatest tragedies on Earth, the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the recurring drought and unending civil war in Somalia. The action is virtually non-stop, and tension builds steadily toward a shattering climax, making the book progressively more difficult to set aside.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

9780307700667_custom-651ebcadd1a8c06ca006fbcc3c4fa4c4edfcf933-s6-c30Why is Scientology such an object of fascination when their followers (estimated at 25,000 in the US) are less than half as numerous as those who identify themselves as Rastafarians? Lawrence Wright provides the definitive answer to this question. Just seven years ago Wright’s masterful book about Al Qaeda, The Looming Tower, won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. If anything, Going Clear represents an even greater accomplishment, putting to shame previous efforts to tell the story of the notoriously secretive and litigious cult called Scientology. In the pages of this brilliant book, the cast of far-fetched characters who populate the Church come to life, their pretensions, insecurities, contradictions, and (often) mental illnesses on display for all to see — despite Wright’s intensive effort to be fair at every turn.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

billylunnBilly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction — is, hands down, the most successful anti-war novel to come out of the Iraq War. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face to face with insurgents. Ben Fountain finds nearly everyone in sight — Hollywood, Texas billionaires, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, for starters — to be fair game for satire, and he’s very, very good at it.

Here is a list of titles recommended by Berkeleyside:

Fiction

The Last Policeman, Ben Winters
Countdown City, Ben Winters
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid
Memorial, Alice Oswald
Longbourn, Jo Baker
The Gravity of Birds, Tracy Guzman
Life after Life, Kate Atkinson
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
The Night Ranger, Alex Berenson
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain

Nonfiction

China Airborne, James Fallows
My Heart is An Idiot, Davy Rothbart
After Visiting Friends: A Son’s Story, Michael Hainey
Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, Richard Steven Street
Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler’s War Machine
, Diarmuid Jeffreys
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief
, Lawrence Wright

Related:
The Best Books of 2012, as chosen by Berkelyside editors (12.21.12)
Best Books of 2010: A Berkeley perspective (12.16.10)

What are your favorite books of 2013? Please share them with us in the comments section. And be sure to buy your holiday books at one of Berkeley’s many wonderful bookstores (note: we purposely don’t provide links to online booksellers):

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  • Doug

    Just finished the outstanding and very readable “Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly & the making of the Modern Middle East” by Scott Anderson. He expertly relates the full story of the complex situation surround the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, and serves as an excellent reminder of the unconscionable insanity of World War I.

    Fans of Bill Bryson will love his latest as I did, “One Summer, America: 1927″. Entertaining and witty as always, with his eye for peculiar details and eccentrics.

    Movie buffs will love Henry Jaglom’s accounts of “My Lunches With Orson”–like sitting in on some very dishy exchanges between these two interesting minds.

    Finally, Solomon Northup’s original “12 Years a Slave” is a gripping slave narrative and I highly recommend reading it before seeing the equally excellent film.

  • Chris J

    All good choices I assume. I would recommend the Jack Reacher novels, as well, though in doses–take a couple of weeks between as there is a strong similarity to each book in terms of style and substance.

    I have recently read Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, a fantasy taking place in the early 19th century depicting the war between Bonaparte and the British…except that dragons exist, are quite intelligent, and comprise the aerial squadrons in battle with each other. A series of 8 or 9 novels no longer than the Game of Thrones series, it chronicles the dragon Temeraire and his captain, Laurence late of the British Royal Navy, in adventures ranging across Europe to Africa and beyond. Delightful reading, optioned for film by the guy who did Lord of the Rings.

  • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

    If you want the Napoleonic wars minus the dragons, I can heartily recommend Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series. He does for the Wellingtonian army what Patrick O’Brien did for the Nelsonian (and post-Nelsonian) navy.

  • Chris J

    I’m mildly familiar with the Sharpe series by name, and have read at least the first several of the O’Brien books. I never quite finished the books…they were quite engaging and I should return to them…though like any good serial entertainment, I don’t want to read out of order and as I don’t quite recall where I stopped (maybe I can figure it out), I a disinclined to dive in again, but thanks for the Sharpe reminder.

  • http://www.berkeleyside.com/ lknobel

    O’Brien gets better as he goes along. The first, Master and Commander, is one of the weaker books, I think. It does have the great virtue, however, of introducing Jack and Stephen.