Best Books of 2013

2013 isn’t over yet, and if I’m lucky, I’ll have one more excellent read before the year closes. At the time of this post, I’ve read a total of 95 books which amounts to 36,913 pages this year. I’ll likely add a bit to that, but for now I’m ready to proclaim my completely objective picks for the Best Books I’ve Read in 2013.

16068905Best Book About A Fictional Harry Potteresque Fan Community: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl (4 stars) is a giddy-making book, plain and simple. You will not be able to read about Cath, a fanfiction writer for the Simon Snow books (very obviously parodying the Harry Potter series), and her first year college adventures without becoming very very excited. Even though Rainbow Rowell touches serious topics like social anxiety, loneliness, academic cheating, and divorce, Fangirl is easily the most joyful book I read this year. Rowell’s Eleanor & Park (4 stars) was another favorite, though less happy and more wistful.

89717Best Book Published A Long Time Ago That I Just Read This Year: The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Does the name Shirley Jackson ring a bell? She’s famous for her New Yorker short story The Lottery. Like The Lottery, The Haunting of Hill House (5 stars) packs a wallop of an ending. This is not a horror novel but a terror novel. The fear lies in what we don’t see and what we don’t know. And for any obsessive book theorizers out there, those readers that love to form hypotheses about what really happened or what it all really means, this is the perfect book for you. Bonus? It’s exquisitely written (and inspired my blog title!).

2815590Best Book About A Savage Female Lumber Baron: Serena by Ron Rash

After reading the blurb for Serena (5 stars), I had the distinct impression that I was about to read the type of book where everyone dies at the end. In the least spoilery way possible, let me say that I was not disappointed. I love books that continuously shock me, where every new page promises an unexpected turn. That’s Serena. It doesn’t hurt that the titular character is one of the most tremendous female characters I’ve ever read about. I guess that’s what you get when you base a character on Lady Macbeth.

24Best Book That Made Me Want To Book A Flight on Qantas Airways ASAP: In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson

In a Sunburned Country (4 stars) introduces readers to the enigma that is Australia. Before reading it, I knew practically nothing about this vast continent/island/country landmass isolated in the Pacific. I learned a lot but what elevates this book above a typical travelogue is Bryson’s writing. He’s absolutely hilarious, with a keen eye for good trivia and bullshit. Honorable mention for the Best Book That Made Me Want To Hike A 2179 Mile Trail: Bryson’s A Walk In the Woods.
(4 stars)

 

15815364Best ‘Self-Help’ Book That Is Actually An Incredibly Moving Novel: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

Beautifully written and painfully realistic, How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (5 stars) killed me. In a good way. This slim novel can be read in only a few hours. There’s so much to discuss here—the Westernization of Asia, the impact of post-colonialism, the role of women in traditional cultures—but I was more enthralled by the story. You meet the protagonist at birth and follow him to his grave. It’s impossible not to get attached.

3483Best Book With A Final Exam At The End: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Really 2013 was the year of Marisha Pessl. Though she’s only published two books, Marisha is now a favorite author of mine. Special Topics (5 stars) was actually published years ago, but I read it in preparation for Night Film (5 stars), Pessl’s 2013 release. Both are spectacular with vividly quirky characters who somewhat mask the dark perturbations moving behind the scenes. Pessl is responsible for the most shocking plot twists I’ve seen this year. As a great connoisseur of the plot twist, I cannot be more happy to have found her books.

Honorable Mentions:

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (4 stars), Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (4 stars), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5 stars–but never reviewed!), Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois (4 stars), The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (4 stars), and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (5 stars)

What are the best books you read in 2013?

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Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

15815364Blurb:

From the internationally bestselling author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the boldly imagined tale of a poor boy’s quest for wealth and love.

His first two novels established Mohsin Hamid as a radically inventive storyteller with his finger on the world’s pulse. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia meets that reputation—and exceeds it. The astonishing and riveting tale of a man’s journey from impoverished rural boy to corporate tycoon, it steals its shape from the business self-help books devoured by ambitious youths all over “rising Asia.” It follows its nameless hero to the sprawling metropolis where he begins to amass an empire built on that most fluid, and increasingly scarce, of goods: water. Yet his heart remains set on something else, on the pretty girl whose star rises along with his, their paths crossing and recrossing, a lifelong affair sparked and snuffed and sparked again by the forces that careen their fates along.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a striking slice of contemporary life at a time of crushing upheaval. Romantic without being sentimental, political without being didactic, and spiritual without being religious, it brings an unflinching gaze to the violence and hope it depicts. And it creates two unforgettable characters who find moments of transcendent intimacy in the midst of shattering change.

Review:

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is the best book I’ve read this year because it made me think and then it made me tear up. For a book with such a coarsely straightforward title, it’s remarkably beautiful; a love story (in a book whose third chapter title instructs: “Don’t Fall in Love”) about the power of connections between people.

That sounds rather trite, non? Yet this book made it seem like the most novel idea in the world. Mohsin Hamid chooses to write his simple story under the guise of a self-help book. We readers are addressed as “you” but “you” is also the main character, an Asian male we follow from birth to death as he becomes filthy rich. It’s an inventive method of narration that will likely fail for many people, but I found it inspired in the way it both separates and unites the reader and protagonist. As both the protagonist and an outsider, we can observe the protagonist’s failures with the detachment of someone who knows better, all the while suffering, and occasionally rejoicing, alongside him. We are complicit in his choices and thus, after reading, we feel compelled to reevaluate our own choices.

In tone, it reminded me of Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece The Remains of the Day. Both novels feature men who devote their lives to an occupation and realize, too late, the unworthiness of their chosen lives. Hamid’s writing is less formal though no less moving. It’s clever—

Is getting filthy rich still your goal above all goals, your be-all and end-all, the mist-shrouded high-altitude spawning pond to your inner salmon?

And beautiful—

He whispers a benediction and breathes it into the air, spreading his hopes for you with a contraction of the lungs.

He uses lots of appositives to pack complex asides into otherwise short and simple sentences. It’s masterful, simply some of the best writing I’ve ever read.

Hamid also has the most fascinating things to say about the relationship between a writer and a reader and the importance of writing and reading to our lives. Do you read this and nod so deeply your skull grazes the nape of your neck?

…When you read a book, what you see are black squiggles on pulped wood or, increasingly, dark pixels on a pale screen. To transform these icons into characters and events, you must imagine. And when you imagine, you create. It’s in being read that a book becomes a book, and in each of a million different readings a book becomes one of a million different books, just as an egg becomes one of potentially a million different people when it’s approached by a hard-swimming and frisky school of sperm.

I do. He just gets it. He profoundly understands the importance of stories to our every day lives:

We are all refugees from our childhoods. And so we turn, among other things, to stories. To write a story, to read a story, is to be a refugee from the state of refugees. Writers and readers seek a solution to the problem that time passes, that those who have gone are gone and those who will go, which is to say every one of us, will go. For there was a moment when anything was possible. And there will be a moment when nothing is possible. But in between we can create.

He accomplishes so much in so few pages, poking the most thoughtful parts of my brain and pushing me to change the way I approach life. Before reading How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia I would see all the people around me and feel crushed that their stories will never be told, that upon death their stories will dissipate into the air like the morning dew rising from their graves. Mohsin Hamid reminded me that everyone has a story that should be remembered. He made me want to travel the world with a butterfly net collecting stories so that peoples’ lives—peoples’ immense and tragic and brilliant lives—do not die with them. He made me realize that empathy is not only the fruitful consequence of good literature but also the motor of the human spirit.

5 out of 5 stars