Outpost lists best books of 2013

  • Posted: Sunday, December 29, 2013 12:01 a.m.
'Mary Coin' by Marisa Silver.
'Mary Coin' by Marisa Silver.

This article is always the most difficult for me to write every year as Sheila and I look back over 365 days of reading and try to decide which of the books published during the year, and that we had an opportunity to read, were the best. Try as we sometimes believe we do, there is no possible way for us to read all the new books we want to, including many that we know would make our end-of-year list if we had had the chance to read them. One thing we as a couple do not do, and never will, is include a book that neither of us has read.

So how was 2013 from our book-reading perspective? Unlike some years, in fiction there was no single book that stood out well above an otherwise average to slightly above average group. The world of nonfiction was pretty slim, and we had a difficult time even picking out a couple each that stood out from the rest. That’s the way it is some years, and with that being said, let’s look at our slightly expanded list of fiction titles and then the few nonfiction works that made the cut.


“Life after Life” by Kate Atkinson tops Sheila’s list without question in 2013. It’s not a whodunit, but rather a “what if?” packaged in a sophisticated manner with a terrific story. One woman’s life trajectory and any number of possible alternatives are explored as if she, Ursula, had been killed or died at various times (at birth, as a child, during an attempted assassination of Hitler). The best part is that after each described departure, the next chapter begins with what happened if she didn’t die, moving the story along across time and continents. You’ll come to marvel about not only life’s slim threads and the luck of staying alive, but also Atkinson’s ability as an author.

My No. 1 was the relatively little noticed “Mary Coin” by Marisa Silver, a fictionalized account of the famous Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange and the, until recently, unknown subject of her most famous photograph, Migrant Mother. Silver writes a period novel full of historical detail combined with a ream of imagination and a backstory that creates an absolutely fascinating story about a dark and dusty period in American history.

Picks two through four for me were maybe the most difficult. After No. 2 for Sheila, she refused to rank beyond. So we do diverge at this point; Sheila picked “Jewelweed” by David Rhodes as No. 2 where I placed the book at No. 4. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Rhodes, he had a promising career as a writer with a number of books out before a horrific motorcycle accident silenced his hand for almost 30 years; “Jewelweed,” set in the Driftless area of Wisconsin, is his second, outstanding book since he has begun writing again.

My No. 2, however, goes to a debut novel by Minnesota author P.S. Duffy, “The Cartographer of No Man’s Land,” a haunting historical novel that moves between Nova Scotia and the trenches of World War I France. The story is both a family saga and a war story with enough appeal for a historian yet all anyone could want in a good novel.

Chris Bohjalian’s “The Light in the Ruins” makes my No. 3. Bohjalian makes the “best” list almost annually and I do wonder if I have become prejudiced toward him, but he does invariably tell excellent, well-researched stories. The current book, set in Italy during and after World War II, leaves no room for disappointment.

North Carolina flavor

Sheila’s next two are North Carolinian Lee Smith’s “Guests on Earth” and Lauren Grodstein’s “The Explanation of Everything.” Smith’s book is a well-researched, carefully-crafted novel of the inhabitants — both fictional and real — of the Highlands Hospital in Asheville in the 20th century. The hospital was known for its innovative treatments of mental illnesses including early versions of shock. Its most notable resident was Zelda Fitzgerald. Smith traces the journey of the young Evalina Toussaint as she enters, leaves and re-enters the hospital, weaving in a deft and lyrical story of her musical education, sexual awakening, and famous friends met. The book concludes with the mysterious fire at Highlands that killed several patients, among them Fitzgerald.

Grodstein’s book is an entirely different bird. Andy is an academic with no need for faith, God or explanations that come from outside his discipline of biology. His lack of faith is to some inexplicable, given his personal circumstances: He’s raising two children himself after losing his young wife in a traffic accident. His world view is severely challenged when he agrees to guide a paper on creative design by a lovely young student. It’s not the paper that challenges Andy and his world; it’s the author.

“The Obituary Writer” by Ann Hood is a book that I, early on, thought would end up higher than No. 5 for me, but as the year wanes it still lives in the respectable mid-list. Once again, in a novel that begins with the San Francisco earthquake and ends close to the present, alternately looking at a woman from more than one perspective and at different periods in her life, Hood demonstrates how she is a master of both fiction and nonfiction.

“Transatlantic” by former Brady Author’s Symposium author Colum McCann (as were Hood and Bohjalian) uses McCann’s standard format of moving through generations with connected sequences of events, beginning with the first flight across the Atlantic Ocean. An excellent book, “Transatlantic” may challenge “Let the Great World Spin” as his best and takes my No. 6 spot.

Sheila’s next two are “Dirty Love” by Andre Dubus and “Someone” by Alice McDermott. “Dirty Love” is four stories, each connected by a slender thread in time and place, about the disappointments of love. There isn’t a glimmer of hope or goodness to be found in any of the stories, all of which focus on people being done-in by their tawdry wants and desires (for love, sex, food, control, respect …). And, yet, while not for the timid of heart, this work is a gritty and determined look at the difficulties of love with all-too-frail humans whose own needs and wants lead them to devastating results.

“Someone” is a short and bittersweet narrative of one woman’s life, starting in her Brooklyn childhood and carrying far into her old age. You may not think that an ordinary life that includes a first love (and love lost), siblings, neighbors, parents, family, a war, would be worth a novella-length treatment, but McDermott’s insights touch the chord of universals among us all.

To end Sheila’s list, and again I must remind you that beyond the first two books she did not place rankings on her choices, is “The Lowland” by Jhumpa Lahiri. Subhash and Udayan are brothers who grow up in a close, loving family in Calcutta. The younger, Udayan, is charismatic and political; the older dutiful and obedient. When Udayan becomes enmeshed in the political turmoil of the Naxalite Movement, committed to exposing the misery and injustice in India, Subhash is forced to either stand with his brother or to leave the fight and seek another path in America. Subhash’s journey away, journey back, and inability to escape his family’s destiny or heal its wounds all propel the novel.

Another ‘Life’

Finishing out my picks in spots seven through nine are “And the Mountains Echoed” by Khaled Hosseini, which means all three novels of Hosseini have made my annual lists, Jill McCorkle’s “Life after Life” (not to be confused with the Atkinson book of the same title), and “The Tilted World” by Mississippi author Tom Franklin and his wife Beth Ann Fennelly. Each of these novels was special and exceptional in their own ways, and the Franklin-Fennelly collaboration with its setting during the great 1927 Mississippi flood made the book singularly significant.

Looking at nonfiction, both Sheila and I would begin the list with the outstanding narrative by Pulitzer-winner Sheri Fink, “Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.” Beginning on the Saturday before Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the book moves through the next five days at the stranded and helpless Memorial Hospital and the alleged horrors that they held, and continues virtually to the present following those from all sides who were involved. Fink’s accounting, though a slow reading book, does read like a novel, a mystery or drama of the highest magnitude, and is difficult to set aside for a break.

Even though the previous book heads our joint list, Sheila and I diverge when it comes to saying a single book is really No. 1. Sheila gives that place to Alan Weisman’s “Countdown,” which zeroes in on population growth, with visits around the globe to describe how population may be reduced, generally from grassroots efforts and often in defiance of political or religious mandates. “Countdown” is a fascinating look at how it may — just may — be possible to reduce the carrying capacity of a planet that will simply not be sustainable for any of us at the current rate of population growth.

I have to vote for “Detroit: An American Autopsy” by the journalist Charlie LeDuff. Born in 1966 in Virginia, LeDuff moved to Detroit later and after years in various occupations but mostly as a journalist around the country and the world, including many years at the New York Times, he returned to Detroit to work for the Detroit News. LeDuff is controversial in some quarters, but his book is pure grit and not for the faint of heart — gritty memoir, gritty accounting and gritty journalism that is a must-read for any observer of our country. As the author says in the prologue, “It is about the future of America and our desperate efforts to save ourselves from it.”

The only other nonfiction works that I feel compelled to mention are “Deluge: Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont’s Flash Floods, and How One Small State Saved Itself” by Peggy Shinn, published by University Press of New England, which will make you feel somewhat more confident in our future if you have previously read “Detroit.” Bill Bryson’s “One Summer, America, 1927,” is a small slice of American history told in the typical yet enticing Bryson way.

Now, while you are digesting this list, and all of the others that come out this time of year, Sheila and I will get to reading and see what we can put on the list for next year. Remember, all the books I mention, and many of those noted by Sheila, have full reviews on our blog, www.theliteraryoutpost.com.

Book editor Deirdre Parker Smith will list her top 2013 books on Jan. 5.

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