Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Bob's Best Books of 2013 - The Top Ten, and Then Some

This is a purely personal list of books that I've read, finished (mostly), and enjoyed during 2013, regardless of publication date.  A more complete catalog of books I've read, along with 1-star to 5-star ratings and occasional capsule reviews, is on my Goodreads.com page.

Now, without further ado...the best of 2013!

1. Fisherman's Beach by George Vukelich (1962)A moving, well-written story of a patriarchal family and way of life in crisis and transition. The Upper Great Lakes setting is visceral and pervasive; the writing is crisp, colorful, and powerful in its simplicity.  Comparable in quality and tone to the German novella, Der Schimmelreiter (The Rider on the White Horse).  I'm astounded that this regional work from the late Wisconsin writer didn't receive wider attention, although an excellent Madison Magazine profile of the author's life and a new edition of his novel may help to rectify that.

2. The Unlikely Secret Agent by Ronnie Kasrils (2012).  In a year that ended with Nelson Mandela's passing, this suspensefully plotted memoir of a young woman's small-scale, clandestine operations against the South African apartheid regime in the 1960s, in concert with the ANC and other revolutionary elements, serves as a testimony to her pluck, persistence, and resourcefulness under the constant threat of capture and harsh treatment.  Written by her admiring husband following her death, the book also serves as an internal snapshot of the organizational and personal alliances the two of them formed in pursuit of their activities.

3. Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey by Karen Wilkin (2009).  I became aware of cartoonist Edward Gorey, the comically morbid heir to Chas. Addams and progenitor to goth-graphic filmmaker Tim Burton, in the 1970s.  The Loathsome Couple (1977), Gorey's illustrated tale of two macabre anti-heros for whom a mundane life gets worse and worse, was a staple of my personal wry humor collection for years.  Elegant Enigmas is a comprehensive, curated survey of Gorey's masterful career -- although I agree with one commenter who suggested that those wholly unfamiliar with his work check out some of his original storybooks first.

4. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) by John le Carré.  I'm still catching up on the George Smiley series by British espionage master le Carré.  This pair of iconic, acclaimed, literary spy thrillers elevated le Carré from his erstwhile status as part-time mystery writer, whose "detective" happens to be a middle-aged ex-spy, to a recipient of worldwide acclaim as a deep explorer of immorality, deceit, and duplicity by agencies and assassins on an international scale.  His characters' harsh actions are justified, at first, by a sense of patriotic duty.  The further one reads in the Smiley series, however, the harder it is to tell the good guys from the bad.

5. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens (2012).  This short book serves a profound, dual purpose: it is a frank, autobiographical documentary of the grinding, mundane realities of the author's diminishing quality of life as his terminal disease (esophageal cancer) overtakes him; and it is a stark defense of his strident, lifelong atheism.  As a mathematics student, I was once taught the value of testing general propositions under extreme conditions.  By examining his own debunking of faith during episodes of his failing health, an extreme condition that leads some to bargain with one or more deities with whom they haven't previously communicated, Hitchens provides the generous gift of transparency to his readers not presently in such dire straits.  He reaffirms his godless philosophy -- to his own satisfaction, at least.

6. A Hall of Mirrors by Robert Stone (1964).  Must confess, I haven't finished A Hall of Mirrors just yet.  However, any literary debut that uses colorful description, well-drawn characters, and brilliant dialogue to send up both sleazy, fly-by-night rescue mission preachers and rightist media polemicists in its first 120 pages gives me great hope for the remaining 280.  Set in New Orleans, the book is comparable to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces (completed 1964; published 1981).  One wonders if Stone and Toole had made each other's acquaintance.

7. Hoot (2002) and Chomp (2012) by Carl Hiaasen.  I've accumulated almost a whole shelf of Carl Hiaasen's comedic, ecologically moralistic novels, now stacked on my overburdened books-to-read bookcase and waiting for a scrap of my attention.  So naturally, rather than start on those, I've been reading his books for kids instead.  Same wackiness, same eco-morals, same sticky come-uppances for the defilers of nature; just a bit quicker to read.  Or, in the case of Chomp, to listen to as an audiobook on an overnight Amtrak trip to Schenectady.  Even Hiaasen himself might not have calculated the comically disruptive effect of the repeatedly spoken character name of "Wahoo" on a railroad passenger and his seatmates.

8. The Third Man by Graham Greene (1948).  Conceived originally as the mere outline for the classic suspense movie of the same name, The Third Man is a detective novella with cinematic detail and more literary exposition than one would expect from a text that the author did not imagine the public would see.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (2013).  Touting a book by the ever-popular pop-goth fantacist Neil Gaiman feels a bit like following the herd, but in this case it's a genuine recommendation.  Just as portrait artists who work in oils create self-portraits in their own style, Gaiman has created an artful, fictional self-portrait using nonfictional events and settings from his childhood.  The latest output from the groundbreaking graphic novelist known for the Sandman series, Ocean can also be taken as Gaiman's own, personal superhero origins story -- or, more simply, as a narrative answer to the one question that plagues all successful authors: "Where do you get your ideas?"

10. Humor in Craft by Brigitte Martin (2012).  Ever since I saw a talented friend throw and carve a cartoonish firehouse mug on a potter's wheel, with a firehose for a handle, I've been intrigued by the ability of artists to create humorous works of high wit.  Humor in Craft is a collection of such works in multiple media from a cross-cultural perspective.  Only two complaints: I wish some of the photographed exhibits were larger, and I wish certain craft techniques were at least introduced so that readers who take inspiration from the collection might be able to follow in the artists' funny footsteps.

Honorable mention:

Six Days of the Condor by James Grady (1974).  One Man Against the Machine Award.

The Odessa File by Frederick Forsythe (1972).  Suspense with Horrifying Historical Elements Award.

Knots and Crosses (1987), Hide and Seek (1990), Tooth and Nail (1992), A Good Hanging (1992), and Strip Jack (1992) by Ian Rankin.  Bob's Found a New Mystery Series Award.

Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith (1992).  Bob's Other Favorite Mystery Series Award. 

Free Country: A Penniless Adventure the Length of Britain by George Mahood (2013).  Light-Hearted Travel E-Book for Settling Down and Trying to Go to Sleep Award.

The Babe and I by Mrs. Babe Ruth (1959).  You May Be Beloved But They Still Won't Make You a Manager Award.

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (1971).  And You Thought Your Job Was Unfulfilling Award.

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