It’s Another Best of 2013 List: A Year of Reading Favorites

This is so unlike me. I’m almost too late. I nearly missed my deadline, since who’s going to want to read a best of the year list after the new year has started?

2013 was not a typical year for me for a few reasons. First, I wrote and defended a dissertation. That pesky document took up a lot of my precious reading and writing time. Second, my toddler son’s unpredictable sleep patterns continued throughout the year, causing me to be way too tired to consider reading anything more complex than Entertainment Weekly many days. And third, I started this blog.

At first, I was somewhat obsessed with becoming a master blogger. I was on Facebook and Twitter long into the night, as well as responding to comments and checking my stats when I would have normally been relaxing during the evenings with a book, a TV show, or a movie. Then I chilled out, but I still spend substantially more time reading articles, posts, and Twitter feeds than I would have ever expected.

In short, I was not as engaged in entertainment as I normally am. So my list is not quite as extensive as it would have been five years ago or even two. But here it goes….

Best Fiction

This the area in which I was truly a slacker. Normally I devour novels all the time. This year I missed so many that I desperately wanted to read.

1. The Silent Wife: A Novel by A.S.A. Harrison. It had me from the moment that I read the description on Amazon which described it as this year’s Gone Girl. I actually liked it better. It’s of course a thriller, a deeply suspenseful and riveting story of murder and betrayal. But it’s more than that: like Gone Girl, it’s a strange and surprising examination of marriage.

 2. Reconstructing Amelia: A Novel by Kimberly McCreight. I wrote about this novel earlier in the year. I’m normally not a huge fan of young adult literature. But this novel — like The Silent Wife — similarly grabbed me with its unusually plotting and alternate points of views. In the first pages, you learn that one of the main characters — Amelia, a teenage student at an exclusive prep school — has jumped from a building to her death. It’s the story of both Amelia and her mother trying to understand the friendships, networks of privilege, and fractured relationships that led to her death.

3. The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. Messud’s previous novel, The Emperor’s Children (Vintage), is one of my favorite novels of the past decade, one of the most incisive post-9/11 novels. So I eagerly anticipated this one. It tells the story of a lonely, middle-aged elementary school teacher in Cambridge, Mass. whose life becomes dangerously intertwined with one of her students and his family, particularly his mother, an Italian artist. It’s really about artistic fulfillment and about what happens when you think too deeply about all the compromises and sacrifices that we make in our lives. As a longtime resident of Cambridge before I moved to Buffalo, I loved how she immerses the reader into this particular world of Cambridge landmarks and sensibilities.

4. Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy by Lacy Crawford. I also reviewed this novel previously and described how much I loved its portrayal of the insanity of the college admissions world. The novel follows five students, as well as their college essay counselor, over the course of an admissions season. As I discussed in my review, I loved this book as a former private school teacher, as a scholar of educational access, and as a child who did not grow up in privilege but who had to learn to navigate this world successfully. I concluded my review:

I recommend this book as pure entertainment and comedy, but I further recommend it as education if you’re not familiar with this frightening alternate reality of Common Applications and the present admissions “frenzy.” It’s also a vivid examination of today’s parenting practices that digs deeper than the cliches of “helicopter parent” and “Tiger Mother” and will cause you to look more closely at your own motivations and behavior surrounding your child’s future.

5. Night Film: A Novel by Marisha Pessl. It’s strange that I have so many “suspense/thriller” books on my list because I don’t normally think of myself as reading primarily from that genre. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching so much “Breaking Bad” and “The Walking Dead” that I’m wanting an extra thrill from my reading as well. I didn’t love this author’s first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, no matter how times it was recommended to me and I tried to read it. But this one — unraveling the mystery surrounding the death of a cultish director’s daughter — had me hooked. It’s a bizarre and unsettling novel in a lot of ways, but purely unique and inventive in form and style.

Best Nonfiction

I’m going to include the three novels that we wrote about as part of The Brilliant Book Club For Parents — because I truly enjoyed them and learned so much from each of them. If you haven’t already, check out what all four of us had to say about these books!

1. Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us by Christine Gross-Loh

2. Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture by Hilary Levey Friedman

3. Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink by Katrina Alcorn

And two more that I loved:

4. Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker. It’s an astounding piece of investigative journalism about the search for a serial killer on Long Island. But it’s so much more. It’s a deep look into these victims’ lives, about how and why they turned to internet prostitution, and it’s about social class, the failure of the American educational system, race, and the impact of technology on our lives.

5. Ready for Air: A Journey through Premature Motherhood by Kate Hopper. I reviewed this previously as well, a memoir of a family’s and a mother’s coping with a daughter’s premature birth. I didn’t expect to enjoy it, but it has stayed with me for months.

Best Magazine Writing

I love magazine journalism. My favorite magazines are The Atlantic, Entertainment Weekly, the New Yorker, and New York Magazine. (I knew I was getting old when I let my In Style subscription lapse…)

1. “One Town’s War on Gay Teens” by Sabrina Erderly in Rolling Stone. I was shaking with rage after I read this. “In Michele Bachmann’s home district, evangelicals have created an extreme anti-gay climate. After a rash of suicides, the kids are fighting back.”

2. “Why You Never Truly Leave High School” by Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine. I LOVED this article. If you ever wanted to know why high school is so indelibly imprinted on your brain, read this.

3. “A Life Worth Ending” by Michael Wolff in New York Magazine. Heart-breaking but important to think about. A son’s investigation about how a “good death” is so hard to achieve for his mother and for most Americans.

4. “Girl in the Shadows” by Andrea Elliott in The New York Times. A story of one homeless girl, one of the 22,000 homeless children in New York City.

5. “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” by Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic. A teacher herself, Jessica is one of my favorite education journalists. This article went viral, and Jessica now has a book on the topic coming out in the summer, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents  Learn to Let Go So Their Kids Can Succeed (Harper, August 2014).

Did you read any articles that you’re still thinking about? What are you looking forward to reading this year?

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9 thoughts on “It’s Another Best of 2013 List: A Year of Reading Favorites”

  1. I absolutely loved Early Decision, and this post gives me lots of books to add to my reading list. It has been an absolute pleasure “meeting” you this year too. Wishing you and your family happiness, love and only the best in the new year.

  2. I just bookmarked this post, Jessica – you’ve given me some great books and articles to read in 2014! Btw, I like your new design, particularly how wide your main column is. Makes it easy to read!

  3. I tried so hard to like Silent Wife. I think I just hate murder stories. My list doesn’t come out until January b/c I am still finishing my 30th book. Congrats on your dissertation and can we please put a team of scientists on the vexing problem of toddlers who eschew sleep!!! SO SICK OF IT!

  4. I loved Silent Wife and Night Film. Am going to add Reconstructing Amelia and The Woman Upstairs to my must reads. I read Lost Girls and while I was fascinated by the story, the writing didn’t impress me. Thanks for sharing your faves!

  5. Ok I read a LOT but I haven’t read any of your Fiction picks! Must add them to my goodreads. Just finished (FINALLY) Playing to Win & will do a post on it some time. Lots of thoughts from my side (as usual). Thx for this list!

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