Better late than never, I suppose.
2013 was easily the worst year I’ve had on 50 Books since it started. I managed to make 50, barely, and most of them were good--but I’ve been MIA on my own blog, failing to review almost 2/3rds of the books I read this year. This is my chance to speak a little about the good stuff I read that I didn’t mention on here. So it goes, in no particular order.
Best Book by a Monk
Thoughts on Isolation - Thomas Merton
I picked this up on a whim, not expecting much, and got a wonderfully spare work of devotional literature, orthodox in theology but ecumenical in practice. Merton’s interest in Eastern religions produces a book that manages to exhibit the minimalism and quietness it teaches.
Best Book with a Best Man
The Member of the Wedding - Carson McCullers
I can’t believe I hadn’t read Carson McCullers before now. I read this and Ballad of the Sad Cafe this year, and both were amazing. Easier to read than Faulkner, less grotesque than O’Conner, she’s the most approachable author in the Southern Gothic tradition, and one of the best.
Best Book That the Author Doesn’t Seem to Have Read
Speaker for the Dead - Orson Scott Card
Please don’t pay too much attention to the snotty categorization on this one--Speaker for the Dead is unbelievable good. Picking up Ender’s story one thousand years after Ender’s Game could’ve been a disaster or a rehash. Instead, it’s a beautiful, moving treatise on acceptance and what that really means, put into a sci-fi context it couldn’t work without. One of the relatively few books that has permanently impacted my life--I find myself saying, “Once you understand someone, you can’t hate them” about once a week.
Best Book for People Who Are Always Switching Books In the Middle
If on a winter's night a traveler - Italo Calvino
Although traveler is solidly within the pomo metafictional traditional, Calvino’s extremely rare second-person perspective novel follows you as you begin to read a book and it abruptly changes into another book. Such a concept could have been silly and weightless--instead, it’s only silly, with brief flashes of pathos and weight that make it something more than a gimmick.
Best Book I Actually Reviewed But Didn’t Post About
Deliverance - James Dickey
One of the books I read this year that unearthed ugly things inside myself, Deliverance was actually so intimately impactful that I wrote a review I didn’t have the guts to post. Sexual violence, the meaning of masculinity, and a ripping/terrifying adventure story all in a slim 250 pages. Highly recommended.
Best Book I Got for Free
The Panopticon - Jenny Fagan
I received this book from TLC Book Tours and the premise--a messed up teen is taken to an asylum where she has adventures--did not do the book justice. A searing and very raw coming of age story, it has more empathy for the down and out than anything else I read this year.
Best Non-Fiction Book That Wasn’t a Novel
The Rest Is Noise - Alex Ross
If you’re interested in modern classical music but find the prospect of actually listening to it daunting, this is your book. Well-researched, tightly written, and endlessly interesting, Ross’ book opened up worlds of complex, abstract music and revealed the beauty and craft hidden there. It’s also a history of Western civilization in the 20th century from the perspective of a music lover. Highly recommended.
Best Non-Fiction Novel
The Executioner's Song - Norman Mailer
I understand that this book isn’t typical Mailer, but it’s a stunner. A doorstop of a novel, it doesn’t look like the laser-focused series of character studies it is. Mailer’s ability to tell such a long, fraught story without taking sides is a show of virtuosity no one else really matched this year.
Best Book That Made Me an Internet Star
The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
Reading Plath, along with Austen, changed my feelings about female authors. I wrote about at some length on the most popular blog post I’ve ever written, but I don’t want to give the novel itself the short shrift. The Catcher in the Rye is a great point of comparison, but The Bell Jar may hold even more weight given what we now know of Plath’s life. Highly recommended.
Best Book Chris Couldn’t Believe I Hadn’t Read
The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
An audacious reimagining of religious history and Christianity, M&M is actually most notable for its insane cast of characters: Satan, Jesus, a talking cat, and a witch who actually flies on a broomstick all make appearances. It’s a really wonderful feat of imagination, told in a uniquely Russian way.
Worst Book Full of Incest and Stuff
The Cement Garden - Ian McEwan
Apparently McEwan wasn’t always so highbrow. This book, one of his earliest novels, starts off with an uncomfortably explicit scene of borderline underage incest and only gets weirder and creepier from there. Kinda wish I hadn’t finished.
Worst. Classic. Ever.
The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole
Somehow, this flimsy, dull, short book has become a classic. The critical asides were considerably more interesting than the novel itself, although it was the only book I read this year that opened with someone being crushed by a giant helmet. Not worth it unless you really, really love giant helmets.
Worst Book That Should Have Been Titled, “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If There Was, Like, a Perfect Drug?”
The Doors of Perception - Aldous Huxley
Have you ever wanted to read 100 pages about how hallucinogens are the coolest things ever, and also you see a bunch of sweet colors and touch God? Then maybe read Brave New World instead.
And that’s a wrap! Here’s to a new year of books and reviews. Excelsior!