Best Reads of 2013

A few of my favorite books read in 2013Happy New Year! In celebration of the new year (and this new blog), I’ve decided to make this first post about my favorite reads from 2013, and an annual book-lover’s tradition. For the past couple years, I’ve been using the new year as an excuse for a “New Year Book Exchange” with friends and family. I share a list of the best books I read in 2013, and then ask for contributions from others. The idea is to reflect back on what you’ve read over the past year, and start the new year off with a solid list of personally-recommended books to read.

Here’s how it works: anyone who wants in can pick between 1 -10 of their favorite reads from the past year and write very brief descriptions of why they liked each book. These reviews can be as short and simple as you want (they definitely do not have to be as long as mine!). Found a review of the book that sums up your thoughts? Just provide the link to the review. Think the Amazon book page provides a fine content summary?  Just include the link.

After I get a few responses, I compile everything into a google doc and share it with the group. Voila! A personalized, eclectic, and often very relevant list of good reads to start off a new year.

Anyone who reads this is welcome to post their best reads of 2013 in the comment section, or just steal the idea and start you own exchange.

And with that, here are my favorites from my 2013 reading list.

Teresa’s Best Reads from 2013

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

This book will make you a better person. Technically, this book is a collection of letters from a popular advice columnist (called Sugar, and only recently revealed to be Cheryl Strayed) on The Rumpus. But Strayed is not really an advice columnist in the way you expect; she doesn’t dole out lessons in etiquette or give clear directions to complex situations as if they are black and white. She responds with stories, often incredibly personal ones, filled with heartbreak and resilience and frankness. Despite her name, she doesn’t sugarcoat anything, and you’ll often find yourself pleasantly shocked by the bluntness of her responses. At the same time, she refers to correspondents as “Sweet Pea,” and writes with an eloquence and sense of empathy that will have you desperate to call her up and ask her to be your best friend. If you don’t read anything else on my list, read this.

See Brainpickings for the original review that got me onto this book.

TLDR: Read this if you want to be a better person.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Recognize the author? That’s probably because she’s the writer I just finished raving about in my last review. That’s right – Cheryl Strayed earns two spots on my list for this year.  Just in case you were skeptical of her credentials as omniscient advisor on the best way to live your life, Cheryl Strayed wrote this inspiring memoir recounting her harrowing hike up the Pacific Crest Trail — alone.  At the tender age of 26, recovering from her recent divorce and her mother’s death, Strayed decided that she needed to do something for herself.  But instead of taking a vacation to the Caribbean with her girlfriends, she quit her job, spent every penny in her bank account on backpacking gear, and set-off on a solo backpacking trip up the 1000+ mile PCT, without ever having been camping before.  Along the way, she meets plenty of fellow hikers, gets caught in an epic snowstorm, and affectionately names her backpack “Monster.”  But mostly, she reflects on her life, in stories. Even though most of the book is a journey through Strayed’s thoughts, it’s an incredibly action-filled and moving story.

TLDR: Read if you like memoirs, inspiring tales of crazy human feats, or her other book. Or, if you want to learn how to become a really stellar advice columnist.

 The Fault in Our Stars by John Green 

A New York Times bestseller book from the brilliant YA fiction author, John GreenThe Fault in Our Stars has earned its cult following with heartfelt authenticity and a dry existential wit that somehow avoids being caustic. The book is a love story between Hazel and Augustus, two unusually well-read and articulate teens who both suffer from cancer. This book reminded me a bit of the movie 50/50 because of the way it deftly examines death, illness, and isolation with characters who are realistic, but not maudlin. Both Hazel and Augustus are immediately lovable, sympathetic, quirky, and hilarious and you’ll find yourselves thinking about them long after you finish the book.

TLDR: Read if you like a bit of black comedy mixed with sensitive and thoughtful characters who confront profound human situations. Or if you just want a candid love story, unlike the usual saccharine rom coms.  

 The Smartest Kids in the World by Amanda Ripley

This book sets out to understand why American kids are falling so far behind in math and science and what the countries with the top-scoring kids are doing right. Following the lives and study abroad experiences of 3 American teens who choose to spend a year of high school in Korea, Poland, or Finland, Ripley records the educational culture shock these teens confronted and examines how their education experiences back home set them up to fail or succeed. These three countries were intentionally picked: Korea and Finland consistently score at the very top of international education tests, and Poland has shown a recent rapid increase in scores despite a child poverty rate that’s as high as in the U.S.

Written by journalist Amanda Ripley, the first thing that struck me about this book was its incredibly clear and engaging writing style.  For a book on an issue as complex as public education and the factors that affect its success, it’s very easy to digest.  While it certainly doesn’t have the authoritative heft of something like Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System (also highly recommended if you’re interesting in Education issues), it has a much clearer message: when everyone in a society values rigorous education, the result is higher quality teachers and children who understand the importance of learning.

TLDR: Read if you want to learn more about problems with the U.S. education system, how to parent your children to encourage enthusiasm for learning, or if you’re just curious why the U.S. is slowly slipping intellectually behind other developed countries.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente

A heartwarming tale about an ordinary, but adventure-loving girl named September who is one day whisked off to a new fantastical world called Fairyland, where an all-powerful, spoiled brat of a Marquess rules as a malevolent dictator. Setting out on a kind of accidental quest to save Fairyland from the Marquess, September meets all sorts of strange and lovable characters, including a very modest, overeager Wyvern who only knows about things starting with letters A-L.  The book is full of very clever reimaginings of fantasy archetypes and the sort of teachable moments that are full of genuine heart  and not the least bit sermonizing. The language is beautiful and often dizzyingly playful —Valente’s writing style alone provides a compelling incentive to read this book. This is one of my new fantasy favorites, and was justifiably named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Children’s Fiction titles for 2011.

TLDR: Read if you love cheering bildungsroman (especially fantasy) stories, or just watching a very clever author play with words. If you have a heart, this story will warm it.

 Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

I don’t often read short story collections, and even more rarely read fantasy short stories (they don’t seem to be quite as common to me).  But this collection of short stories by Kelly Link provides a fascinating range of ideas for where contemporary fantasy could go.  Sometimes called “slipstream,” a type of writing that denies one genre and slips between all realms of speculative fiction, Link’s stories are most united by their absurdity. In “The Hortlak,” zombies regularly come into a 24-hour convenience shop and trade pajamas made of peoples’ dreams. In “Stone Animals,” a broken family moves into a new house guarded by hundreds of rabbits that pass hauntings like a sickness; first the phone becomes haunted, then the stove, then the little brother. In “The Faery Handbag,” the delightfully unreliable narrator’s grandmother has a hairy and fantastical purse, the depths of which rival Mary Poppin’s bag. Inside is an entire village of faerys living and aging in a world parallel to our own, but at a much slower pace.

You get the point.  Everything is imaginative and irrefutably original, which is sometimes hard to find in a genre that is heavy in archetypes.  You’ll find yourself haunted by the absurdities in these stories.

TLDR: Read if you love absurd stories or have been yearning for some speculative fiction that feels new and unique.

 Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling

Are you a fan of The Mindy Project? Did you like Tiny Fey’s Bossy Pants? Or, have you been choking down too much Faulkner or Dostovevsky lately, and want something that will help you laugh your way out of an existential crisis? Read this book.  Similar to Tina Fey’s Bossypants, this book is mostly a compendium of random musings about the quirky happenings of life by Mindy Kaling, self-labeled curvy brown goddess and comedienne extraordinaire. Think of her as a much more likable and girl-next-door version of Carrie Bradshaw. I rarely actually laugh out loud while I’m reading, but there was at least one moment in each chapter of this book that made me audibly cackle.

TLDR: Read for laughs, especially if you love The Mindy Project.



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