Monthly Archives: December 2013

My Favorite Books of 2013

Somehow, 2013 is almost over and everywhere I look best-of lists abound. I can’t resist offering one of my own.

And here’s another list, this one of the books published in 2013 that I wanted to read but didn’t. I have to be in precisely the right mood for a particular book, and sometimes I end up waiting years to read a book that I ultimately love. Here’s to the books I fully expect to love–when I finally get around to reading them:


And now that I’ve finished making my lists, I need to go read some books! I think I can still squeeze in Michael Connelly’s The Gods of Guilt before New Year’s Eve…

Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

The Goldfinch is without question one of the best books I have read in a very long time. A bare bones description of the plot could evoke a Victorian-era novel or a modern day thriller; the suspense and dramatic tension of the story never falter. Yet this novel succeeds in expressing something profound about art, life, love, connection.

Fabritius-GoldfinchWhen the novel opens, Theo Decker is sick and miserable in an Amsterdam hotel room, remembering the day his mother died. At thirteen, tragedy derails his life and takes away the only person who truly loved him. It would be almost impossible to describe what happens without giving away the novel’s breathtaking twists, but one thread remains constant: his love for the Carel Fabritius painting The Goldfinch, which plays a pivotal role in his life.

And the ending is exactly right. Not every author can enthrall the reader for over 700 pages and still stick a perfect landing, but this is Donna Tartt’s masterpiece. The Secret History was fantastic, The Little Friend troubling and unsettling; The Goldfinch is perfect. Yes, I said it: perfect. I ordered it without any particular expectations, without reading any reviews, because I’ve enjoyed Tartt’s previous novels, but in my opinion The Goldfinch is in a completely different league.

And can I say a quick word about the paper? In the hardcover edition, The Goldfinch has pages with a smooth, luxurious finish. It was a tactile delight to turn each page. Fitting when one considers how much the book contemplates the pleasure of handling beautiful, well-made objects, of appreciating what lasts in the face of everything that fades and dies.

Genre: Literary fiction / masterpiece

Read it if: You love those chunky old 19th century British novels like George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, you love art, you love a perfectly calibrated plot, you love books that refuse to stop speaking to you long after you’ve turned the last page, books that leave an ache in your chest.

Skip it if: You prefer protagonists who make good choices, characters who are either clearly good or clearly bad, endings that are unambiguously happy.

Movie-worthy: Only in the absolute best hands could this be a movie worthy of the book. I would love to see it; I bet it would be beautiful–those desert scenes, the art, the antiques.




Review: Dr. Sleep by Stephen King

Dr. SleepFirst, a confession: I never actually read The Shining. I saw the movie. My 12-year-old son, who is not yet allowed to watch the movie, was genuinely horrified that I would read the sequel to a book I had not read. He has a point.

That being said, you could probably read Dr. Sleep without any previous exposure to The Shining, although it certainly helped to have those darkly terrifying images in my head. Knowing that grown-up Dan Torrance was once the little boy pedaling his big wheel down those ominous hotel corridors explained a lot about what he becomes as an adult.

What he becomes is an alcoholic, just like his father. Alcohol dulls the shining, takes the edge off Dan’s unbearable knowledge and foresight, shuts out the unwelcome ghosts and visions that haunt him. He wonders if maybe he inherited more from his father than just a predisposition to alcoholism and a tendency toward drunken violence; did Jack Torrance struggle with a shining of his own?

Everything changes for Dan when he finds friendship and an AA sponsor in a small town. At the hospice where he works, Dan becomes known as Dr. Sleep for the comfort he brings the elderly as they leave the mortal world behind. For once, his shining truly seems to be a gift and things are finally going well for him. When he receives a message from Abra, a little girl in a neighboring town with a powerful and unique shining of her own, Dan finds a new purpose in life: acting as her teacher and mentor.

But Abra’s shining makes her irresistible to a group of evil beings known as the True Knot. Although they appear to be harmless RV-dwelling older folks, the members of the True Knot have traded their humanity for endless life, feeding on the essence of children with the shining in order to fuel their twisted existence. Their leader, Rose the Hat, is a formidable enemy with no conscience and a growing obsession with Abra.

Dr. Sleep was a fast-paced and deeply creepy book. I loved the reference to Charles Manx from Joe Hill’s N0S4A2, suggesting that these books were not alternate universes but all part of the same fictional landscape. The shout-out to authors Anne LaMott (Bird by Bird) and Phil Caputo (The Longest Road) also made me laugh; only Stephen King could name murderous RV carny folk after you and make it seem like an honor.

What struck me most about this book was the description of Dan’s struggle with alcohol and the ways that Alcoholics Anonymous provided the structure and support he needed to stay sober. The desperation and guilt he felt, the constant temptation to let his life collapse back into a state of ruin–it was at least as frightening as anything the True Knot had to offer, mainly because it was real.

Genre: Paranormal horror

Read it if: You always wondered how messed up that kid from The Shining would be when he grew up; you are deeply suspicious of old people in RVs.

Skip it if: You can’t handle reading about violence against children.

Movie-worthy: Sure, but Stanley Kubrick would be a hard act to follow…


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