As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2013. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.
1. Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney
I was saddened to learn of Heaney's death this week at what seems to me now the young age of 74. In his honor I salvaged this 2010 collection of his poetry from the depths of my to-be-read pile. In these poems he brings together and shares tesserae from all of his ages—climbing with Jim Hawkins into the ship's rigging, buying a used copy of the Aeneid, being carried on a stretcher, hearing funeral bells toll. Heaney fashions the final mosaics, examining the questions that absorb us at the end: what is the use of a life, my father's life, my own?
2. Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov
Rereading this remarkable memoir has been even more delightful than the first time. And more awe-inspiring. From the poetic beauty of his sentences to the intricate structure of the book, Nabokov's consummate writing skills are on display.
3. Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg
Stumbling across Eisenberg's short story “Another, Better Otto” resulted in one of the most satisfying reading experiences I've ever had. Immediately I hustled to the library and laid my hands on this collection, which includes that story along with five others, and sat down to savor them. Eisenberg's tales stretch out to give us a complex world with characters who tantalise the reader with their many facets.
4. Prospero's Daughter, by Elizabeth Nunez
As the title declares, this novel retells the story of The Tempest. Set in 1961 on Trinidad and the small island of Chacachacare off its coast, Prospero's Daughter portrays the intersection of a handful of lives as England's empire withdraws. This story is enthralling, keeping me up nights to finish it. Nunez's descriptions are gorgeous. Like its precursor, this is a story about power, the power of knowledge, the power of love, the power of courage, the power of integrity. It brilliantly brings out the relationship of power to class and race buried in Shakespeare's play.
5. Authenticity, by Deirdre Madden
Finding a new favorite author is a lovely bit of serendipity. Set in Dublin, this story revolves around two artists and is about art: the joys and costs of pursuing your gift and the consequences of ignoring it. It is simply a good story well-told, a rare and remarkable accomplishment. This Irish author has published several novels, and I will be trying to get my hands on every one of them.
6. Nothing Gold Can Stay, by Ron Rash
I thoroughly enjoyed this collection of stories set in North Carolina. The various accents of the readers enhanced the verisimilitude of the characters and their environment. What makes these stories so powerful is the way he goes deeply into the characters. While the plots often take surprising turns, you won't find slick tricks here, just good, strong story-telling. The folks who populate them are so thoroughly imagined and so carefully presented that I feel I know each and every one of them.
7. The Crime of Julian Wells, by Thomas H. Cook
Philip Anders, a middle-aged literary critic, is shocked by the death of his best friend, the successful writer Julian Wells, at the home Julian shared with his sister in Montauk on Long Island. Though the two have known each other since childhood, Philip cannot imagine why Julian would commit suicide. To answer that question, Philip begins retracing Julian's footsteps, trying to learn where things went sideways. The writing is masterly; the pacing magnificent. I love an intelligent read like this, one that challenges my preconceptions and delivers a satisfying conclusion.
8. The Cat's Table, by Michael Ondaatje
A young boy—only eleven—is sent alone by ship from Colombo to London where he will join the mother he hasn't seen in four or five years. For his meals he is seated at the Cat's Table, the one farthest away from the Captain's Table and clearly reserved for the least important passengers. This is a story that you can read lightly, chuckling over the boys' adventures and mourning their frayed innocence, or you can pay closer attention. The book is dense, as one person in my book club said, with motifs and themes that all tie together. Ondaatje's books always reward close attention. This one, too, is a masterpiece worth reading and rereading. It is a Boy's Own adventure of knives and dogs and mischief, and at the same time a coming-of-age story. Memories are dismantled and reused; the mysterious motives and knotted hearts of adults are unwound; and the secret scars of childhood laid bare.
9. House of Breath, by William Goyen
Published in 1949, this first novel explores the hold memory has on us, those earliest memories, of childhood's dark cellars and magical woods, of the family that looms like a race of giants. Snippets of memory repeat and repeat, creating our own personal mythology. These are the memories of Boy Ganchion, called up on a dark night in strange city. I had to adjust to reading this memory-packed stream-of-consciousness style, so the first few chapters went slowly. I felt that, like Boy, I was struggling to sort out and make sense of the overwhelming rush of memory. However, a semblance of structure emerged, and the power of the prose grew on me. The last few chapters are simply magnificent, culminating in a celebration of what it means to be alive in the world, carrying our own particular past.
10. Collected Poems, by Hope Mirrlees
Born in 1887, Mirrlees was a poet, novelist, and translator who is best known for her fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist (1926), and an influential modernist poem, “Paris” (1920). “Paris” chronicles a day's trek through that city, starting in the underground, wandering the streets, and finishing up at dawn in her room on the hotel's top floor. Her fragmentary, stream of consciousness style was new to British poetry when Hogarth Press published “Paris”. She acknowledged the influence of Jean Cocteau's poem _Le Cap de Bonne-Espérance”, and her poem became a bridge between French experimental poets and British writers. Her erudite references and use of footnotes are believed to have influenced her close friend, T.S. Eliot, in “The Wasteland” which he began the following year. I recommend this rediscovered masterpiece. Take your time with it.
What were the best books you read in 2013?