PW Staff: Our Favorite Books We Read in 2013

PWStaff -- December 6th, 2013

If you’ve already read all of PW‘s 101 Best Books of 2013, don’t worry–we have a few more suggestions, this time the personal picks from our staffers. The books below are not necessarily published in 2013, just ones we read in 2013 and wanted to share.

Daniel Berchenko, copy chief:

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Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938). I’m not sure why it took me so long to read Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s memoir about the Spanish Civil War—countless friends have earnestly recommended it to me over the years. For me, the Spanish Civil War calls to mind the macho heroics of Hemingway, or the pathos of Picasso’s Guernica. What else is there to say about it? Earlier this year, after recommendation number 500, I finally broke down and read Homage to Catalonia, and I’ve been earnestly recommending the book to people ever since.

Orwell went to Spain in late 1936 with a single goal: “I had promised myself to kill one Fascist” (“after all,” he reasons, “if each of us killed one they would soon be extinct”). But Orwell spent most of his brief time at the front trying to stay warm and looking for tobacco. He did eventually participate in a terrifying night raid on an enemy position, and was later badly wounded by a sniper’s bullet. But he failed to fulfill his stated purpose. (“I used to think of the recruiting poster in Barcelona which demanded accusingly of passers-by: ‘What have you done for democracy?’ and feel that I could only answer: ‘I have drawn my rations.’ ”)

What stands out about Orwell’s account is his utter humility as a British journalist who knew nothing about guns or war, but who was determined to fight fascism, in a conflict on foreign soil whose battle lines were increasingly muddled by factional infighting on the left. Orwell vividly recounts the horrors and absurdities of the war (in tone, Homage to Catalonia is closer to MASH than For Whom the Bell Tolls), as well as the revolutionary euphoria of living in anarchist-controlled Barcelona in early 1937. Even more gripping than Orwell’s account of his experiences at the front is his lucid analysis of the political situation in Spain, which describes the veritable alphabet soup of communist and anarchist parties that he fought with (and, occasionally, against). Mostly by chance, upon arriving in the country, he fell in with the POUM, a communist party opposed to the pro-Stalin official Communist Party of Spain (PCE). As the Soviet Union poured more money and weapons into the conflict, the PCE’s ranks swelled, and it eventually turned its sights on the POUM and some of the other leftist parties that had been governing Republican Spain as a coalition. By the summer of 1937, the POUM and the PCE were fighting openly in the streets of Barcelona, and Orwell was forced to flee the country, narrowly escaping arrest (many of his comrades were not so fortunate).

Matia Burnett, assistant editor, children’s books:

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In her memoir Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight M.E. Thomas (a pseudonym) writes about living and often thriving with a psychological condition that is perhaps one of the most maligned and misunderstood. She is a diagnosed sociopath, but while her inability to experience empathy in the way others do has set her apart, Thomas is not a criminal, and does not dwell on the fringes of society—quite the contrary. Thomas’s book is not truly a confessional, but rather an exploration of the illusion of human normality that is philosophical, edifying, and profound.

Peter Cannon, reviews editor:

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I had never heard of Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, when I picked up his Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. The blurb on the back from Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy, prompted me to read it. The first chapter, a meditation in the graveyard of the Anglican religious order where Holloway studied for the priesthood, didn’t particularly engage me, though I was immediately taken with the author’s reflective, moody voice. Here, I soon discovered, was a deeply humane man who rose high within the hierarchy of the Anglican Church, despite ever-increasing doubts about the orthodoxies of his faith. In the end, he paid a professional price for his honesty—in particular by supporting the admission of women to the priesthood and gay marriage. Like Pullman, I can recommend this inspiring autobiography to “believers, non-believers and ex-believers alike.”

Jessamine Chan, reviews editor:

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I still have 200 pages to go in Anna Karenina, which I mention so that it can appear in this annual blog post in three consecutive years. Other loves: Where Europe Begins by Yoko Tawada and Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun. My favorite is a buzzy book from 2012: Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? I wasn’t planning to read it, and felt that I’d already too much about it, but the paperback cover was so enchanting, so I took it home, then took it with me to L.A., and it proved the perfect companion for a trip spent looking at contemporary art. I love that Heti’s protagonist (also named Sheila) takes herself and her concerns so seriously – her desires, ambitions,  friendships. I talked about the book with some female friends later, and one said it was too narcissistic. The other said she threw the book across the room when she finished. I actually loved the character’s intense navel gazing. Why must a narcissistic male character be regarded as normal, whereas a narcissistic female character is unlikeable? Why must female characters be likeable in the first place? I love that Heti decided that this woman’s yearnings and insecurities and fairly quotidian struggles were worthwhile subjects for A Novel, and hopefully, there will be more readers who discover this strange, funny, beautiful, very modern book in paperback.

Michael Coffey, co-editorial director:

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I confess: Of all the books I read and enjoyed this year, there’s only one I read twice—J.F. Powers’s 1963 novel Morte D’Urban. I’d long known the book by its rep (William Gass praised it in his 1970 collection Fiction and the Figures of Life), but it was FSG’s publication of the Powers letters this year that set me to reading all of Powers (one other novel and about 60 stories). And D’Urban is a gem—a supremely funny tale about Father Urban, a Midwestern priest who believes in golf, baseball, scotch, and the Roman Catholic Church, perhaps in that order. Fr. Urban’s struggles with the management of a parish are rendered with a comic’s timing, and Powers’s prose and dialogue are as sharp as anything in Flannery O’Connor. Is anyone as funny today? Maybe David Gates; maybe Tom Drury.

Annie Coreno, reviews editor:

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A brilliant editor once asked, “what the heck makes a book ‘best’-worthy?” For now, I’m going to go with the pleasure factor. To that end, my pick is Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. You may have heard of it, I know.

I was late to the boat. I only first encountered it in February or March of this year.  I was living in Toronto, finishing up my LIS degree, existing in a little grad school bubble (or as I liked to call it at the a time, “ a finals hell hole”)–knee deep in theory and most likely behind on one of many 20-page assignments. During times like these I tended to gravitate home to NYC, longing to be pampered by mother and for the familiarity of those who know me best. But to my surprise when I arrived my usually overbearing mother barely said hello. She was enamored with some book (which isn’t necessarily unusual). Starving for attention, I made fun of the cover—a book about blonde dreadlocks, really mom? No response. So I headed out to meet my friends for dinner. When I arrived despite my excitement to see her, my friend Allegra seemed a little distracted. Hannah and I were reading the menu while she was reading her kindle. What do you know? She was reading Gone Girl. So I bought a copy on my way back to Toronto despite the work piles of work awaiting my return. I quickly fell into the Flynn fever. Two days and a couple of missed classes later, I was done. I soon passed it along to my landlord whose mother-in-law happened to be reading it as well. Over the summer, I made the mistake of recommending it to my Irish friend who was visiting NY for a month. I didn’t see her for three days.

So what’s so great about this book? Many of you already know. The dual structure? The anti-heroes? The layers of deceit that unfolds throughout. Maybe a combination. Whatever the addictive equation, it came at the perfect time for me. I was stressed from school and my brain hurt from reading Heidegger, Foucault, Eviatar Zerubavel, and I needed to get away, even against my better judgment. Gone Girl offered me that exit and in doing so I derived the most pleasure of any book this year.

Alex Crowley, reviews editor:

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Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds. I spent most of this year tearing through new nonfiction and poetry titles, and I read a good number of books that I loved, but the work that most knocked me for a loop was Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. A modernist “classic” and one of the great examples of metafiction, it seems to break every rule of fiction writing while flaunting that it does so. As an unnamed, layabout college student writes stories in bed instead of going to class, the characters within each (there are three) begin interacting with those of the others, independent of the will of the author and teaming up in various alliances to disrupt the work of another author (Dermot Trellis, a writer of Westerns) who himself exists as a creation in one of the tales. Sound confusing? You bet it is! And it’s also fun and funny as hell. Sometimes literally, since one character, the Pooka MacPhellimey, is ostensibly a devil. If you like your fiction fairly straightforward then there’s a good chance you’ll hate this. However, if you’re into formally inventive, non-linear satires that combine Irish legends, pulp Westerns, and fragments of found text (among other elements), then you’ve probably already read this. I like my literature at least a little weird, and if any book is good enough for Joyce, Borges, and Burgess, it’s more than good enough for me.

Paige Crutcher, Southern correspondent:

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OCD, The Dude, and Me by Lauren Roedy Vaughn. It’s the story of Danielle Levine – an outcast with OCD, unruly bright red hair, and a chip on her shoulder the size of a bowling ball. I love the journey of seventeen-year-old Danielle, and how she struggles to accept herself as she seeks her place in the world through unconventional methods like being forced to attend a social-skills class to make friends, and choosing an 80-year-old British tour guide as a pen pal. Her story is told through high school English essays, letters, e-mails, and private journal entries, and it is her vulnerability and wit, coupled with Vaughn’s ability to effortlessly break and heal the reader’s heart with grace and humor, that left me unable to put this book down. OCD, The Dude, and Me might appear a quiet book from the outside, but inside the pages I found the kind of story magic that left me reading until two in the morning, then carrying the book in my purse for a week after just to reread my favorite passages.

Louisa Ermelino, reviews director:

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The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber. New Arabic literature retains the fantastical of the tradition but adds history and the experience of daily living in a state of uncertainty. In his English language debut, the Lebanese writer  who’s won the “Arabic Booker” and at 42, has published 15 novels, sets his story in Beruit. The former prime minister has been killed in a bomb blast and the U.N. orders a report on the incident. The protagonist wanders the city streets, obsessed with the anticipated report while his sister, kidnapped years before, narrates from a netherworld under the city, where the dead write their memoirs. A ghost appears. Jaber lays out a world: real, imagined, fascinating.

Rose Fox, SF/fantasy/horror and romance/erotica reviews editor:

Code Name Verity

I know I’m behind the curve here, but I’ve finally started reading Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and it’s just as extraordinary as everyone has been telling me. It’s the story of a young British spy captured by the Nazis in 1943, framed as a confession extracted under torture in an occupied French hotel. I have a really hard time reading anything to do with WWII because it’s so personal for me: my father’s father, an English engineer, designed tanks for Vauxhall, and my mother’s family is Jewish by way of Germany and Poland. As a critic and longtime diarist, I also often struggle to believe in epistolary framing devices. But Wein’s writing is so strong and vivid that it’s impossible to look away, and the voice is marvelously on point. Instead of doubting the veracity of Verity’s confession, I find myself wanting to skip to the end of the book to see if I’ve correctly guessed her motivation for writing it the way she is. Wein is greatly daring, too, in making a self-described Judas (whose very first words are “I am a coward”) her protagonist–and a very sympathetic one, despite Verity’s own talent for self-deprecation. There are layers and layers and layers. It’s painful and wonderful. And I won’t skip to the end; I’ll honor Verity, who feels so very real, by reading her story just as she writes it down.

Gabe Habash, deputy reviews editor:

Airships

I’ve already written about it, but it’s Airships by Barry Hannah, who could be the best American writer you’ve never read. In this collection, heavy tombstones bring about the ends of stories and you get lines like “That was in the days of cheese” and “But she knows a lot about things and I think I’ll be in love with her.” No book is funnier, or more fun to read out loud, or more surprising on a sentence level.

Everett Jones, assistant reviews editor:

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They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross. Among the books I read in 2013, my favorite was published over 70 years ago and was unknown to me until this year. They Don’t Dance Much is the only novel by short story author and small town reporter James Ross, not exactly a household name anyway, and only made its way onto my desk thanks for a reissue from Mysterious Press and Open Road Media. Set in rural North Carolina, the book evokes classic American crime writers like Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain. Here, however, the expected murder, theft and adultery is just the stuff that happens in between the book’s real subject, which is the endless talk–aimless, cruel, hilarious, wise, absurd, and glorious-with which Ross’s characters pass the endless hours at the River Bend Roadhouse. The narrator, who over the course of the story comes increasingly under the sway of the roadhouse’s charismatic sociopath of an owner, isn’t just hard-boiled, but practically without affect, equally unperturbed whether he’s tending bar or burying bodies in beer stills.

Claire Kirch, midwest correspondent:

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Reading is a mother-daughter activity in my house, with my teenage daughter and me reading and recommending books to one another at a constant clip. Due to Rachel, my 16-year-old daughter’s age and reading preferences, I read more YA fiction than any other genre. And it’s not just because I like a good story, with nonstop action and epic drama practically on every page: I find discussing real-life issues through the lens of fiction a useful parenting tool. Of all the books I read this past year, The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey, was the most memorable and stimulated the most provocative discussions with Rachel, although the first two novels in Gennifer Albin’s Crewel trilogy came close. Cassie Sullivan is a teenager who lives an ordinary life – high school, boys, crushes, too much homework – until an alien invasion takes from her everyone she loves and thrusts her into survival mode. It’s kill-or-be-killed. Nobody and nothing are as they seem in this brave new world, and Cassie has to learn to trust her gut instincts if she wants to live and to rescue her little brother, Sammy, from the aliens. There’s so much to take away from this roller coaster of a novel, including the importance of family, staying strong in the face of incredible obstacles, and paying close attention to what others do, not just what they say. I don’t know who’s more eager for the sequel, The Infinite Sea (2014): Rachel or me.

Jim Milliot, co-editorial director:

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The Everything Store. Having covered Amazon since it launched, the book was as much a trip down memory lane as a fascinating look at the inner workings of a company that at one-time got in a spat with Barnes & Noble over who had the world’s biggest selection of books. While Mrs. Bezos may not have liked it, for my money (and to a number of people I’ve spoken with in publishing), the book rings very true in its description of how Bezos turned a upstart online bookseller into the world’s largest online retailer.

Marcia Z. Nelson, associate religion editor/reviews:

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I do a lot of things late (almost missed this deadline) so I caught up this year with John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars from 2012. I was feeling a need to understand better the YA market. I also had a close relative with cancer entering hospice. I read this the way I read books when I was a young adult: completely and utterly entering into the world of these two young characters. I was transported, and this empathetic imaginative journey also helped me live more tranquilly with my own powerful sadness. That books should help us make our way in the world is why I started reading them, and continue to read.

Sonia Jaffe Robbins, contributing editor:

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Kindred by Octavia Butler. I’m a sucker for time travel stories, and Butler does emotionally compelling twists on this genre. Dana, a young African-American woman in 1976 Los Angeles, is yanked back into early 19th-century slave-holding Maryland whenever a white boy, then man, named Rufus is in danger of death—and Dana can only return to her present when she herself faces death. At first she doesn’t even know where she is, but as she realizes where, and when, she’s landed, she has to learn how to survive without losing her 20th-century sanity. In 1976, Dana is married to a white man, who is dragged back to the 1810s with her, complicating both their relationships in the present as well as the past. Why Dana has to save this particular man is the heart of the story, reflecting a mix of sex, racism, love, and violence that permeates American history.

Judith Rosen, senior bookselling editor:

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The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. I have a friend whom I frequently walk with who told me that I had to read this book. So of course I put it off. It’s long, and I wasn’t sure I really wanted to read another book about the Nazi era. But when I was cleaning out my mother’s apartment after her death, I found a copy and became entranced. De Waal writes carefully, as if he were making one of the pots for which he is best known. Before I knew it, I, too, had to know more about his family, including Charles Ephrussi, the model for Proust’s Swann, and why the netsuke collection that de Waal inherited was all that remained of the Ephrussis’s vast wealth, which once rivaled the Rothschilds.

Seth Satterlee, digital production assistant:

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Everything and More. Known for his wit and staggering intellect, David Foster Wallace normally applied these talents in the service of his fiction–and personal essays. A lesser known side of him was his mathematical and philosophical mind. Attempting to trace the history of infinity, Wallace begins with logical problems introduced by the Ancient philosophers and considers them in light of the history of mathematics. Discussions in the agora find their solutions thousands of years later in 19th century Europe and the proofs of Georg Cantor. It’s not a long read–the page count I mean–but its certainly not meant for everyone. Unless you’ve taken high-level college math, you’ll inevitably reach a point where you have to skip sections. But listening to Wallace opine about the philosophy and history of infinity is more than worth the trouble. After all, Cantor’s Set Theory paved the way for many recent achievements, from computers to modern economic theory. This a great detective story about the history of how we count the world.

Jonathan Segura, senior editor, digital media:

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I spent much of my reading time chipping away at a list of things I’d long meant to read but of course never did, because, well, I am far from the only person who makes lists of things to catch up on and then, feeling satisfied at having made the list itself, never quite finding the time to start checking the boxes. This year, that changed (somewhat), and so it is that the favorite book I read this year is The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins. It’s a fantastic crime novel that’s deservedly on most “top crime novels of all time” lists. Very fast and probably 90% dialogue — dudes talking, dudes plotting, dudes being bad and often dumb dudes. It’s also short. Read it.

Clare Swanson, news editor:

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I’m a sucker for books set against family vacation homes. It’s a literary preference that, I think, sounds more specific and niche than it actually is. I tore through J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine in 2011, and one of my favorites of 2012 was Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements – both books whose narrative centers are summer homes on the Eastern Seaboard.  But in 2013, Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point took setting to another level, and in the process, revamped, for me, the “dysfunctional family” novel. The Porter summer home in the fictional town of Ashaunt, on the craggy Massachusetts coastline, looms large over multiple generations. Graver transforms this place into character, one that weathers true storms as the family girds itself against emotional torrent, and, like the Porters, is at once nurturing and stifling.  It’s an easy read in the sense that Graver settles you comfortably into the idea of the house, of its wind-beaten clapboard and sandy floors, but the book is by no means simple.  Its scope is big — moving from World War II, to Vietnam, to present day, through three distinct, convincing voices. But, because she anchors the story in a spot so rife with history and nostalgia, Graver’s real achievement is found in her dexterous articulation of the tiny moments and nuanced relationships that make up a life, and a family. It’s a beach read for all seasons.

Wendy Werris, West Coast correspondent:

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Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. This beautiful imagining of Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph, “Migrant Mother,” brings to life not only the woman in the picture but Lange herself. Although these two characters are fictional, Silver’s writing is so powerful that readers will finish the book feeling that they, too, were looking through the camera lens on that hot, dry California day in 1936.

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