Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bob's Best Books of 2013


**The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt has been widely praised as one of the best books of 2013. I agree but, at 784 pages, I think it could have been even better with a bit more disciplined editing. It starts with a bang—an explosion at the Met that kills Theo’s mother and casts him adrift to become his own person.  With long passages of grief, dissolution, and criminality, it is engaging throughout and filled with much wisdom, insight and  beautiful prose  (and some that tries too hard) as Theo moves from Park Avenue to Las Vegas  to Greenwich Village to Amsterdam  and back to NYC in search of himself and eventually finds a deeply flawed person he can accept.

**The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is a screen-ready blend of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night” and “Big Bang Theory.”   Don Tillman is a brilliant but socially challenged professor of genetics, who’s decided it’s time to choose  a wife—since married people tend to live longer. In the evidence-based manner with which Don approaches everything, he designs the Wife Project to find a perfect partner: via a sixteen-page, scientifically valid survey that ‘proves’ Rosie would be a terrible choice.  Still he finds her fun and exciting. Already available in 35 languages, Rosie is “funny, touching, and hard to put down.”

**The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess Cooke is reminiscent of “The Sixth Sense” with psychotherapist Dr. Anya Molokova who has personal reasons for specializing in childhood schizophrenia. Her patient is 10-year-old Alex Connolly who sees demons. His demon’s name is Ruen, and Alex has been seeing him since he was 5. Ruen tells Alex things that the boy couldn’t possibly know on his own. Ruen insists he’s Alex’s friend but, as we soon learn, he wants Alex to kill someone. Anya’s growing attachment worries her colleagues at a child and adolescent treatment center in Belfast. None of them realizes how much she is troubled by the anniversary of her daughter’s suicide and her mother’s long battle with mental illness.

**The Universe vs. Alex Woods by Gavis Extence is the tale of the son of a fortune teller, who was struck by a meteorite when he was ten years old, befriends a grumpy old widower and proves his friendship by getting stopped by border customs with a large bag of marijuana and an urn full of ashes. It is beautifully written, wise and funny—a blend of Mark Hadden (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night) and Kurt Vonnegut (the deity  of a church/reading group started by Mark).

**The Dinner by Herman Koch is a dark, suspenseful novel of love and hate and how they often overlap. At a fashionable, pretentious Amsterdam restaurant, two couples move from small talk to the wrenching shared challenge of their teenage sons' senseless act of violence that has triggered a police investigation and will force the parents to make the most difficult decision of their lives. During the course of a single meal we see the extent to which each family will go to protect their children. “Tautly written, incredibly gripping, and told by an unforgettable narrator,” The Dinner has doubtless been the topic of countless dinner party debates in 26 countries.

**Golden Boy  by Abigal Tarttelin is “a harrowing coming of age with a deeply compassionate portrait of a family in crisis.” Max is an almost perfect sixteen year old. He is handsome, smart,  athletic and kind.  He is also an “intersex” adolescent trying to figure out how to navigate a world that doesn’t understand (or know about) his situation.  “Golden Boy hits all the deepest, biggest novelistic notes—family, identity, tragedy and hope…Tarttelin has  proven herself to be a writer of extraordinary empathy and incredible wisdom.”

**Kind of Kin by Arilla Askey is totally deserving of an enthusiastic NYT review ( When Oklahoma passes a tough "illegals" law,  Robert John Brown is sent to prison for hiding migrant workers.  Brown's daughter Sweet Georgia is left to manage a family (including a troublesome son and an orphaned nephew) that is coming apart at the seams as her marriage collapses under the stress. Askey’s treatment of poverty, politics religion, immigration and family (dis)functionality is masterful, heart-breaking and laugh-out-loud funny at the same time.

**The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison  was described by the NYTimes as “a story that offers a profound look into what it takes to truly care for another person.” After losing virtually everything meaningful in his life, Benjamin trains to be a caregiver, but his first client, a fiercely independent teen with muscular dystrophy, gives him more than he bargained for and soon the two embark on a road trip to visit the boy's ailing father.

**Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver is “is a brilliant and suspenseful novel set in present day Appalachia; a breathtaking parable of catastrophe and denial.” The story introduces a young wife and mother on a failing farm in rural Tennessee who experiences something she cannot explain and how that discovery energizes diverse factions—religious leaders, climate scientists, environmentalists, politicians to address issues of poverty, consumerism, illusion and fear. “Flight Behavior is arguably Kingsolver's must thrilling and accessible novel to date” and the first great fiction I read in 2013.


*This Town : Two Parties And A Funeral--Plus, Plenty Of Valet Parking--in America's Gilded Capital  by     Mark Leibovich, New York Times political feature correspondent,  examines the power wars and exploitative practices of Washington, D.C.  With scathing insight and humor, Leibovich reveals how political and journalistic careers are made and broken while news events, scandals, and even funerals are used as networking opportunities.  Leibovich manages to skewer both parties, all branches of government, lobbyists and modern journalism.

*Wilson by A. Scott Berg’s new 800-page biography spares no detail, but is probably the definitive story of the 28th president, both as an icon and a talented but flawed human being. Berg captures his southern childhood, his rise through academe and his brief tenure as governor of New Jersey before defeating the incumbent  President Taft and past president Teddy Roosevelt. The Allied success in WWI prompted Wilson to travel to Europe for the peace conference; the first sitting president to leave the country. He was the first president to be welcomed as a rock star, and was determined negotiate  a charter for a League of Nations. But when the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, Wilson suffered a stroke and spent the last months of his presidency in seclusion, with his wife, Edith, effectively running the executive office.

*The Killer Angels by Pulitzer prize winner, Michael  Shaara, has been described as the “best novel ever written about the Civil War.” Incisive portraits of Lee, Longstreet, Meade, and other Civil War leaders are interwoven with rich historical detail to provide a fictional recreation of the pivotal battle at Gettysburg--four of the most bloody and courageous days of our nation's history. General Robert E. Lee believes this daring and massive move with seventy thousand men can mortally wound the Union Army, but James Longstreet, his most brilliant and loyal General stubbornly argues against his plan as two armies prepare for and fight the most important battle of the War.

*The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change by Al Gore is an important, impressive jumble of a book. Gore surveys our planet’s clouded horizon and offers a sober, learned, and moderately hopeful forecast “in the visionary tradition of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.”  The book reflects great breath of knowledge and research with genuine passion and commitment, but like the former VP himself, it tends to go on a bit and needed a firmer editorial hand.

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