Favorite Reads from 2013 (part 1)

I was so eager to make my own favorite books list but then got sidetracked with the holidays and work deadlines. I’m pretty much done now, and can finally start blogging again. Below are the books that I really enjoyed in 2013 (I hope you’re not already sick and tired of these lists!). Most are not new books, just books that I read in 2013. I read many others that I also loved or liked (you can see the whole list here) but ultimately decided to highlight these seven.

A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar

A Fort of Nine Towers is a deeply personal and tender coming-of-age memoir of a young Afghan man. The story starts when Omar is 9 and concludes when he is a young adult. He chronicles his life and that of his close-knit family amidst the turbulence of all that went on in Afghanistan over the last 30 years. What I found remarkable is that Omar was able to write about such ugliness and fear with incredible beauty and hope. At least once I had to put the book down and cry and yet all I can remember are the beauty and honesty of his writing and his voice. I finished Omar’s memoir so grateful to have entered his world and so grateful that he had the courage to share it.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of advice “columns” that Cheryl Strayed had written for Rumpus under the pen name Sugar, before she became a household name among readers. I put “columns” in quotation marks because they are really more than that – they’re more like essays. Readers write in with personal stories of pain and grief, from loss to relationship problems to drug addictions to suicide. Sugar’s responses and insights are razor sharp, and she hones in on the real issues in a way that rivals any $200/hour therapist. You don’t need to have gone through the same problems as her readers to come away with important life lessons; I was able to gain something from every letter and I found myself underlining over half the book.

  Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

I’d read Lahiri’s novels but not her short stories, for which she is best known. When I finally read this Pulitzer Prize-winning collection I was blown away. She writes about the immigrant experience of Indians but even more universally, she writes about marriage, connection, and loss. Reading her stories made me see how much power a gifted writer can pack into 12 pages and it made me eager to read more short stories in 2014.

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East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden was the first classic that I’d read in several years, and it gave me confidence and incentive to read more. It’s a sweeping saga of two generations and two families in California near the turn of the 20th century. The story centers around two young brothers and is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. It is also a story about family, free will, and redemption. There is something about the narrator’s voice and the wisdom of some of the characters that made this a total reading experience for me. The book is a page-turner but the words also made me think long after I put it down.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This book has been huge since it came out a few years ago, and so I was going into this in 2013 with high expectations. To my pleasant surprise, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks lived up to everything I have heard. I loved it and was blown away by the story, the research, and the intimacy of the writing. I was never a “science person” which is why I never picked this up until I found it for $1 at a local used book sale. However, this journalistic-written-like-a-novel account of a poor, black woman in the 1950s who had her cells cultured without permission for the world’s most important medical research is riveting as well as accessible. The week after I finished the book I visited our science museum and went through the biology exhibit with a new eye and new interest.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills is Ishiguro’s first book, a quiet and subtly chilling story about a woman reflecting on her past in Nagasaki, Japan after the suicide of her grown daughter. She talks about a mysterious woman named Sachiko and her daughter Mariko whom she became friends with years ago before she immigrated to England. It is only in the final 20 or so pages of the book that we see the connection between her story and Sachiko’s, and the ending can be open to interpretation (the conclusion can be confirmed in an interview that I found on-line with Ishiguro). I loved this book because of Ishiguro’s understated writing, which says as much if not more through what his characters don’t voice. I also loved it because it appears to open as a meditation on life and yet progresses into a quiet psychological thriller. I finished the book with so many emotions that continually shifted, and few books have made me feel that way. This is a book that you have to talk to someone about once you’ve finished so I will probably be writing a full-length post on it some time in the coming weeks.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

As you can see my reading tastes tend to weigh on the heavier side. But one of my favorites last year was Where’d You Go, Bernadette, which was a very fun, funny, smart and layered read. It tells the story of Bernadette, a former star architect battling crazy parent politics at her daughter’s private school, and how on the verge of a nervous breakdown she goes missing one day. It’s a satire of middle class or upper-middle class suburban life, something that I guess a number of us can relate to. I really enjoyed this one and would love to read more books like it. (If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears!)

Later this week I will post Favorite Reads from 2013 (part 2), a list of favorite books by different readers.

What were some of your favorites from last year?

32 thoughts on “Favorite Reads from 2013 (part 1)

  1. Great List Cecilia! One I’ve never heard of (A Pale View of Hills), a couple I have read (I loved East of Eden), and a few that I have heard good things about before that I will add to my to-read list. Fort Of Nine Towers looks especially good!

    • A Fort of Nine Towers is lovely and heart-warming, despite some very awful stories in there. I know that readers either love or get frustrated by A Pale View of Hills, because the conclusion can be open to interpretation and is not wrapped up neatly. Nonetheless, I liked that it made me think!

  2. Excellent list! The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks sounds pretty interesting; must be the science-person in me! I Interpreter of Maladies was on my list too. I’m looking forward to part 2 of your post. 🙂

    • Oh, if you like science please do read Henrietta Lacks. It’s about biology and also medical ethics. It really opened my eyes to a part of history I never knew about.

  3. What a fantastic list! I just put the Bernadette book on hold at my library. It seems like I keep seeing this everywhere with positive reviews. And yes on Lahiri, Steinbeck, and Skloot. Those are three of my favorite books of all time.

  4. East of Eden made my list too! The book Kazuo Ishiguro sounds so gentle — though the topic doesn’t sound gentle. I’ve not read his work yet, but I plan to.

  5. I seem to never tire of such lists, especially from fellow readers with whom I feel I resonate when it comes to reading choices and reactions. You are one of those… I have added Akbar’s autobiography, Strayed’s collection, and Steinbeck’s East of Eden to my to-read list. (I think I never thought of reading East of Eden because I felt the TV mini-series was so depressing.) I have moved Semple’s and Skloot’s books up on my list, and added Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. And Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my absolute favorite authors ever! Loved all of her books, and though I own her newest release, The Lowland, have yet to read it. Thanks so much for your recommendations! And I realize, I really need to complete by favorite 2013 book blog entry before later this week!! 🙂 Happy New Year to you!!

    • Happy new year, Lynn! Loved your response here, and I am flattered that you have added all these books to your list! I do hope you will enjoy them! I’ll check your blog to see if you have posted your 2013 list 🙂

  6. Oh I have been meaning to read “Interpreter of Maladies” and “East of Eden!” I didn’t read that many books last year, but my two favorites were “The Casual Vacancy” and “Norwegian Wood.”

    • I read Norwegian Wood several years ago and liked it too. Glad it’s one of your favorites! I have yet to check out any of JK Rowling’s adult books but I should do that some time!

  7. Have to Check Out the one by Cheryl Strayed – loved her book called Wild. I loved The Daughters of Mars and enjoyed Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand – delved into WWI and WWII. Thanks so much for sharing – love expanding my reading:) Happy Monday!

    • I have Wild and will need to get to that! I’ve heard amazing things about Unbroken but I am afraid I can’t get through the torture scenes (they are pretty difficult?). I just read the other day that Angelina Jolie is going to direct the film version this year…And I saw The Daughters of Mars profiled on another site as well. Will check it out!

    • Thanks, Jessica! I know – The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was completely eye-opening and unbelievable. I am so glad I read it. Five books from the library! Wow! I hope you’re enjoying them!

  8. Great list! I’ve been meaning to read Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks forever, and Where’d You Go Bernadette was one of the first books I read (and blogged about) last year — a fun read.

  9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are on my shelf now! This is a great selection of books; I’m looking forward to Part II!

  10. Cecilia,

    I love the range of books you highlighted in this post. Some I’ve read, others were new to me. Off to put on some of those books on my list now. Looking forward to Part II of your post.

  11. On the basis of your comments, seems like I need to move Jhumpa Lahiri up my reading list. I’ve read two Steinbeck’s in the last few months and unexpectedly enjoyed both – I was planning Grapes of Wrath at some point but I might now switch to East of Eden

    • The Grapes of Wrath is supposed to be his masterpiece but I picked up East of Eden first because it seemed more personal. I’m hoping to get to Grapes of Wrath later this year. I hope you enjoy Lahiri. Her book was sitting on my shelf for 2 years until 3 different readers/friends raved about it. I read it immediately and did not regret it!

  12. Pingback: Favorite Reads in 2013 (part 2) « Only You

    • I was in Japan for a number of years and felt the same way (about books and films)! I was years behind everything and didn’t know what was popular. Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂

      • In a way, it’s kind of nice – like pop culture detox – but at the same time, we only get the cheesy blockbuster movies here. Please no more Spiderman movies!! It’d be nice to see some of the smaller, indie or art house films.

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