Thursday, January 23, 2014

Already Missing 2013: Susan's Top 10

At Alyssa’s urging, I am spending some time today to order my list of favorite books from the reading I did last year. Back at the beginning of December, Alyssa and I were both playing around with our favorite books lists, and I had a slight advantage going in because I had been assiduously keeping track of my least favorite books of the year (and out of a sense of guilt for the immeasurable fun of rating my ARGH reads, I had started a list of favorite books as well). But it turned out that my guilt was disproportionate! I had 11 books on my Worst-Reads list (and one of them was a little exaggerated to make it there), and a full 18 on my Best-Reads list. Eighteen!! To choose only ten seemed unfair to the other eight that had been scrawled on my scrap of paper. As I looked at the paper, I realized I hadn’t even remembered to put some other well-enjoyed books I’d read this year on it. It really was a better year for my reading than the existence of a “Worst Books of 2013 Reading” list suggests.

Yet, Alyssa and a seeming majority of the book blogosphere seem to have been able to accomplish this feat of winnowing books down to a top-ten list, so it is obviously not impossible. And with that spirit, I shall set about making my list. Because I am having particular trouble deciding on the top-top spots, I am going to deviate from Alyssa’s formatting and do my list count-down style.

S’s Best Books of 2013

10. Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Kicking it off at #10 is Alyssa’s recommended Ready Player One. I, having some distrust of fiction audiobooks, picked up a paperback in February after hearing something that sounded like The Westing Game. So, recommended by Alyssa and bearing at least casual similarity to a beloved work of children’s literature? It was an easy choice to read, but had a lot to live up to based on that. AND IT DID!! I loved it! I like only a handful of things about 80s pop culture, and because I truly despise 80s fashion, I don’t even bother to watch classic Brat Pack movies. Yet the book completely worked for me, and based on the number of times it stops to explain every 80s reference it makes, it should work for anyone.

This is one of those books that is so secure in what it’s doing that it takes a little time afterwards to figure out why it worked so well. The narrative voice of Wade, a teen competing in a virtual reality scavenger hunt of 80s pop culture, is completely compelling, combining authority about his videogame skills and insecurity about his personal relationships. To an extent the book is dystopian, but in a much more realistic way than the popular depictions of overreaching government programs. Here, poverty in the United States has caused an increase in crime, spurring many to retreat to a cyber-reality so they don’t need to go outside, and discouraging them from believing that political elections provide any means of breaking the cycle of poverty and crime. So solid main character, solid setting . . . AND the scavenger hunt, mental puzzle cleverness promised by Westing Game comparison.

And this is only the beginning of my year’s top-ten.

9. Paper Towns, by John Green

Paper Towns is similar to Ready Player One in that it is also narrated by a smart teenage boy. But while Wade was focused on solving the steps of a game (albeit a game with immense monetary value), Paper Towns’ Quentin is navigating the much more complicated world of teenage identity, and trying to solve the mystery of his dream girl neighbor, who has taken him on a crazy night’s adventure before running away from home in the last weeks before high school graduation.

The book is a suspenseful page-turner, but John Green does a clever job layering the book by interpreting Whitman poetry and having characters respond to key symbols differently. What makes it truly deserving of a spot here is that our book club conversation had a LOT to talk about after finishing the book.

8. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage

I read “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in my Survey of Early English Literature, and I liked it well enough at the time. But after reading Alyssa’s review of the audiobook of Simon Armitage’s translation, I decided to visit it again. I am so glad I did!

If you missed it last spring, now is actually the BEST time to pick up a copy because the small epic poem takes place in winter. The cold landscape evoked in Gawain’s travels, contrasted with the warmth of sitting in a castle resting during the holidays, feels particularly close to me after a day spent shoveling and then nestled with a book. Thematically the poem is also close to us right now because it is about realizing your shortcomings and strengths, and resolving to be a better person as the new year begins.

And, as Alyssa has said, the language (particularly when listened to on the audiobook) is beautiful.

7. Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Another wonderful read that our book club had this year. Code Name Verity does so many things exceptionally well that I could spend a lot of space repeating what Alyssa and I already said about it in October. I think what I love the most about it in retrospect is how much Elizabeth Wein successfully manipulates my sense of hope throughout the story. There are some stories that you assume will not end happily: Shakespeare warns us right away that Romeo and Juliet are going to kill themselves, Jodi Piccoult and Nicholas Sparks have built publishing empires on tissue boxes emptied on their books. There are some stories that you know will end happily: genre romances, anything by P.G. Wodehouse. And then there is Code Name Verity, which opens in medias res with the announcement that one main character is dead and the other is being held prisoner. But did you SEE THE DEATH HAPPEN? it tempts you to ask. Where is the rescue mission? It’s very disorienting not to know whether the plotline is heading towards a happy or tragic resolution, and it takes a ton of skill for Wein to make parts of the book very funny even while the tension is high.

6. The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

I read The Summer Prince back in April, and my first impression was that the concept was brilliant and the writing artful. In the months since then, my admiration for this book has not waned, and instead has become stronger. I think it’s so well done that it vied for my top spots on this list. The only thing holding me back is that when I went to write just why it was so worthy of the second place spot, most of what I was saying wasn’t about my emotional response. Nevertheless this is my pick for the 2014 Printz Award.

5. The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt

Ecce! Coming in at #5 is my only nonfiction work on the final list. It’s the fascinating story of the transmission of Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura from ancient days to the early modern age. I listened to this one in March while snowshoeing behind my old university buildings, so part of my reaction could be nostalgia for college learning and friends, but just thinking about the story of the book is enough to make me quiver a little now.

Lucretius is arguably the only genius of Latin literature, and his lengthy poem about the nature of things is one of the only remaining texts we have of Epicurean philosophy, which (among other things) proposes that living wisely for the absence of pain is the greatest end. Even though I know I should have read this poem (nay, translated it) by now, I never have because philosophy tends to confuse or bore me. Or when I wake up after a quick nap from being bored, I am confused about where I am in the text.

But Greenblatt’s premise is spine-tingling: he claims that the rediscovery of Lucretius’s writing is what sparked the humanism of the Renaissance, and that the event of the rediscovery was far from assured. Unlike the works of Homer, which existed in many Medieval libraries across Europe, De Rerum Natura was found in only one manuscript. Greenblatt tells the story of its Renaissance discoverer, as well as the story of the disappearance of Epicurean philosophy in the late Roman Empire, in such a way that I caught my breath a few times, and felt tears at others.

Read it. Listen to it. Tromp through some snowy woods on a sunny day, taste something delicious, and brush your finger along some dusty old books on your bookshelf as you contemplate what life means, and how your idea of that is related to the survival of one manuscript copied and recopied by monks for a thousand years.

4. Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

The way that Alyssa cried over Code Name Verity, I blubbered over Fangirl. It seems a little weird to write them both in the same sentence (and to compare the tears that flowed over each) because they are very different books. But I LOVE Cath as a character, and I adore Rainbow Rowell for validating the world of fanfiction even as Cath’s struggles are mostly to find that the world outside of her fandom is a good place to live. Whereas Eleanor & Park focuses on a romance in the 80s terminally complicated by Eleanor’s danger in her home, Fangirl is about the very modern world of Internet fandoms, and its romance is endangered by Cath’s anxieties. I think that Cath’s story may have the broader appeal, and that Rowell’s writing style fits Cath better, so I am hoping that everyone tries this one in the coming year. Particularly if you have trouble with transitions in life.

3. The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

Three entries on my general loved-it list this year are Maggie Stiefvater books. After not particularly loving the Shiver trilogy (maybe because I’m not a big fan of wolves in snow?), I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the new Raven Cycle. Then I read a few pages, which turned into the whole book, which then turned into quick consumption of The Scorpio Races, and a hunt for The Dream Thieves at the BEA. Suffice to say, I loved EACH of these Stiefvater books, but out of a sense of diversity I am only picking one of them for this list. The Scorpio Races takes far less plot explanation than the Raven Cycle, so it is my choice. Also, it is tightly written as a stand-alone novel. Puck and Sean are sensitive and brave. The Stiefvateran conflict between rich and poor is handled well. And the idea of racing by the sea on carnivorous giant horses is breathtaking.

2. A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

If you follow us on Twitter you may remember my angst in reading this in bed back at the October/November cusp, summed up by a quote from the book: “their monstrous barbarity shines a new light on my own small suffering.” Based on my horrified tweeting you’d think that this Booker finalist was a book to be avoided, but I think my immeasurable pain for Nao, a young Japanese teenager, and her long-dead young uncle is an indication that Ruth Ozeki crafted a very strong book. My stomach turned, my palms got sweaty, and I read pages of philosophy with total interest. The ending surprised me and provoked more caps-lock on Twitter. Do yourself and me a favor by reading this and letting yourself get carried away by Nao’s confident and intimate diary of coming to peace with being uprooted to lower-middle class life in Japan from upper-middle class life in California. And then thank Ozeki for breaking up Nao’s story with the rest of the book’s focus on adults who give you some space to calm down before entering the sadistic world of secondary school, office culture, or barracks again.

1. The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

As everyone is probably sick of hearing by now, I loved this book. It’s already appeared as my favorite book of the summer, and its depiction of the gods is still in my head. Unlike Homer's Thetis, whom I picture shrouded and hunched with grief, Miller's Thetis is a frightening force of nature and destruction. "Her mouth was a gash of red, like the torn-open stomach of a sacrifice, bloody and oracular. Behind it her teeth shone sharp and white as bone." "[Her] voice hissed like water poured coals." And then I keep thinking about the book, and I remember that a message of the book is that the force of the gods is not as terrifying as the emptiness of death and being forgotten. Ahhhhhh I love this book!


Feliza said...

I wholeheartedly agree about the fantastic-ness of FANGIRL, and I'm pretty interested in picking up READY PLAYER ONE. Actually, basically everything on this list looks awesome.

Susan said...

I never truly appreciated how hard a top-10 list could be until I looked at how many books I loved reading in the last year. They are all awesome, and I can't wait to see what you think of them when you read them! :-D

Susan said...

YES!! Which ones have you already read?

Alyssa L. said...

Definitely, DEFINITELY check out READY PLAYER ONE! So much fun. I am constantly foisting it upon people.

Alyssa L. said...

I really need to get on the SONG OF ACHILLES boat, and you made THE SWERVE sound really awesome, too. More for the never-ending pile! :D

LadySol said...

Hey, if you guys haven't checked out the comic by the cover artist from "Fangirl" you should. It is pretty cool. Or alternatively, wait about a year then read it, if you want it in its entirety. I think it is approaching the its end.

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