Top 13 Books Read in 2013

Tenth of December - George Saunders Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories - Karen Russell Zazen - Vanessa Veselka The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel - Neil Gaiman, Neil Gaiman The Complete Fiction - H.P. Lovecraft, S.T. Joshi Before the Lights Go Out: Conquering the Energy Crisis Before It Conquers Us - Maggie Koerth-Baker My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays - Davy Rothbart The Moth - Adam Gopnick, Catherine Burns, George Dawes Green The Voyeurs - Gabrielle Bell, Aaron Cometbus Beta Testing the Apocalypse - Tom Kaczynski

Well, it's the first day of February, 2014. January is over already. That didn't seem to take long, I'm still getting accustomed to this whole "new year" thing. I seem to recall a similar period of transition for me every year. I've been reflecting and pondering how tings went last year and how things might go for the rest of the year. Here in Minnesota, we are in the middle of the longest, coldest part of winter, which adds to this feeling of introspection as the land is buried under feet of snow and things are so still, so quiet. This year has been especially conductive to this. Another thing it's good for is sitting inside, drinking tea, and reading books. 


On Goodreads, last year, I read the most books ever in my recorded history of reading books and keeping track of them- this dates back a few years before reading social media websites, but has been made a lot more convenient. I have been doing the Reading Challenges for a few years now, beginning at a hundred in 2011 and upping the ante every year by 25 or so; last year, I aimed for 125 and managed 150, so this year I’m going for 150 right off the bat. I have so many books on my shelves, currently unread, that it should have plenty of choices, though the library always provides so much temptations. Following my experience last year, this goal should be even easier if I throw in some audiobooks too and various graphic novels round things out nicely. I am looking forward to another wonderful year of reading, but, in the meantime, I have been reflecting on last year's challenge.


Inspired by a friend on Twitter a month or so ago, here are some recommendations of the best, or at least, most interesting of 2013. Of the 150 or so I read last year, I have to recognize a few of my favorites, the ones that really stood out and stuck with me over the year, so here they are (in no particular order).




1. Tenth of December- George Saunders

My sister has been a big fan of George Saunders since being introduced to his short stories in college, but I regret to say I never got around to reading much of his work until last year. Tenth of December was Saunders' most recent collection of short stories and I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Saunders himself. His deadpan delivery added even more the hilarity, tragedy, and everyday feelings of his work; stories of real people on the edge of disaster and just this side of weirdness. After seeing him as part of Hennepin County Library's Pen Pals program in October, and being totally enthralled with his writing philosophy, I am going to be reading more of his work.


2. Vampires in the Lemon Grove- Karen Russell

I am inspired by Karen Russell. Her short stories in this collection are just what I crave in fiction, seriously imaginative, intricate, and deep tales drawing from the oddities of human existence and exploration to the intrusion of the surreal. By turns hilarious and effecting, horrifying and playful, Russell grants her stories with a wonderful sense of human feeling to juxtapose the very strange situations that her characters find themselves in. It is amazing how much each entry offers something totally different, and the imagination behind these innovative, enigmatic tales is very impressive.


3. Zazen- Vanessa Veselka

This was not my favorite work I read last year, but it has definitely stuck with me. This is one that I find myself pondering, thinking about, even a year after I finished. Not quite a satire, not quite post-apocalyptic, set in a gritty, crumbling city, the story radiates loneliness, futility, and disconnect. The country is in the throws of economic upset, two threatening wars, and the feeling that things are all going down hill from here. On bad days, it feels a lot like now, and the novel's protagonist, Della, finds herself trapped between apathy and rage while her world and life crumble around her. I read it last year in the midst of an ice storm, temps hovering just above freezing, heavy gray skies dumping rain onto the frozen ground, covering it with sheer ice and reducing the patchy snow to a gritty mush, Zazen is an unsettling read. Like losing your footing on a hidden patch on the sidewalk, Veselka's prose catches you unprepared for the crash to come.


4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane- Neil Gaiman

When inspiration strikes Neil Gaiman, everybody wins; this was definitely my favorite fantasy novel this year. I particularly enjoyed the fact that it is a self-contained, compelling story told in less than 300 pages, a nice treat in a genre a tad overstuffed with doorstoppers that continue on for thousands of pages. Sometimes, it is nice to have a stirring, cosmic fantasy story told in a easily digestible weekend read, and Gaiman certainly accomplished this. 


5. Complete H.P. Lovecraft

Basically, the complete published works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, 1892-1937, some of which I had never read. Published by Barnes and Noble, this collection is just cool, with faux leather binding and silver page edges. I don't know what it is, but I still find myself chilled by Lovecraft's horror/sci-fi short stories in spite of his heinous racism and verbosity. Maybe it's those fictional books of knowledge about the truth of the cosmos and our insignificant place in it that really draw me in. While the stories in the collection can be a bit of a mixed bag, all of my favorites are here and I still enjoy Lovecraft's writing ability, if not his personal philosophies. 


6. Five Children and It by E. Nesbit

I am not sure why I never read this novel as a child, or what I would have made of it if I had, but I was surprised how much I enjoyed this Edwardian fantasy fable by Edith Nesbit. Told with the very epitome of English wit, I read this out loud with my sister and parents on a family road trip and we often broke out in laughter. While there is some rather awkward depiction of race, so common in vintage literature, Nesbit writes great sibling relationships with strong characters of both gender so I feel her exciting stories of magic would be great for adults and children alike.  


Non Fiction


7. Before the Lights Go Out- Maggie Koerth-Baker

I first became aware of this book when I saw author Maggie Koerth-Baker speak about the looming issues of our complicated, bloated, and inefficient power grid as part of the hilarious Theater of Public Policy improv at Huge Theater in Minneapolis. Koerth-Baker was an engaging speaker and really raised my awareness about energy issues.  A fascinating read, Koerth-Baker crosses the country interviewing people from the “grid controllers” in Texas to biofuel experimenters in Madelia, Minnesota. While not going into too much depth, her writing is engaging and fun, never dragging these occasionally dry technical topics into dullness. In addition to sketching out our current power grid and power sources with all of its inefficiencies, weaknesses, and issues, she discusses some of the interesting alternatives that are being developed. Refreshingly, Koerth-Baker maintains an optimism throughout that, in spite of a lot of challenges, it is likely that we could face these challenges in energy demand and engineer solutions to some of them.


8. My Heart is an Idiot- Davy Rothbart

I have been a fan of Davy Rothbart's Found Magazine for a long time, and Rothbart himself has always come across as a really introspective, funny, and compassionate guy. This impression was continued in his collection of fiction, "The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas," but it is in this collection of personal essays and memoir by Rothbart that shows him to be a keen observer of the human condition, his own personal joys and foibles and the strange, tragic, exciting tapestry of American life.


9. The Moth

I've been listening to the Moth Radio Hour on MPR for a few years now, and this anthology of awesome stories really capture the best that spoken word storytelling can do. While it is missing the aspect of listening to the voice intonations and expression of the storytellers, the Moth anthology offers a place to study and reflect on these tales which explore the human condition and all its complexities. 


Graphic Novels


10. The Voyeurs- Gabrielle Bell

A series of memoir and semi-autobiographical comic stories by Gabrielle Bell spanning 2007-2010, may be my favorite collection of her work I have read so far. Bell’s understated brand of melancholic, self-deprecating, and extremely humane humor is wonderful, and her art and writing is so adept at capturing expressions and feeling. As a fellow introvert who simultaneously wants to meet people while staying in my apartment all weekend, I found much to ponder and to empathize with. I feel the title is very appropriate for semi-autobiographical memoir comics like Bell’s, as the readers get such an intimate, thoughtful look into the thought processes and life of another person, I find it very insightful.


11. Beta Testing the Apocalypse- Tom Kaczynski

A collection of stand alone stories by Tom Kaczynski that are linked by common threads and themes of modern human existence in the urban world and elements of the sciences, history, architecture, and cosmic dread. From paleolithic microsocieties to the megacities of the 21st century to Martian colonies, the human quest for understanding of the universe is examined with a wit, style, and pure invention that I loved. Kaczynski’s spare character drawings and sharp architectural landscapes has left me with much food for thought, each story exploring another aspect of existence, the cyclopean power of grain silos, the dichotomies of noise and silence, I really enjoyed these comics.


12. A Matter of Life- Jeffrey Brown

I have always enjoyed Jeffrey Brown's comics, but this one really spoke to me. Stepping away from hopeless romantic relationship comics, here Brown explores his parent-child relationships, and, even more interestingly, his shift from belief to non-belief, one I really identified with. 


13. Relish- Lucy Knisley

This was a really fun, thoughtful memoir comic that explored Lucy Knisley's relationship to food, another thing that I hold close to my heart. From her childhood to adulthood, Lucy spent time with her parents and their friends, learning about from, from the farm to the gourmet table and the recipes she included were great as well. I'll need to try a few of them out, myself as I too have been expanding my cooking knowledge since living on my own the last few years.


It is interesting that, with so many unread books upon my shelves at the current moment, with more residing on top of my shelves or in piles around my apartment, that all of my favorite choices for 2013, except for two, I checked out from the library.