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What I’ve Been Reading: 2013

Wednesday, December 18, 2013 by Marianne Elliott

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Best of 2013 BooksOver the past couple of years I’ve been sharing what I’ve read in my monthly newsletter and, as a nice bonus, that means at the end of each year I have a record of all the books I read during the year.

2013 was a bumper year for reading for me—largely thanks to having done so much travel. Long distance train and plane journeys are perfect for reading, as are buses, departure lounges and hotel rooms.

So here they are—the books I read in 2013—compiled into one list. I’ve separated out my 3 ‘best picks’ in each category at the top, but you really can’t go too far wrong with any of these books. I’ve left in my short review of each to help you choose which might be right for you.

Top Picks: Memoir

Why Be Happy, When You Could Be Normal – Jeanette Winterson

Described as ‘the story of a life’s work to find belonging, love, identity, home, and a mother’ this is ultimately a book about our longing to belong, our need to be true to ourselves, and our desire to be happy – and how they come together, and sometimes pull us apart at the seams. Highly recommended.

Chasing Chaos – Jessica Alexander

Not only is Jessica Alexander a wonderful writer—her clear, evocative prose transported me into refugee camps in Darfur, war-trials in Sierra Leone and post-earthquake Haiti—but she is honest about the complexity of ‘doing good,’ without being defeatist. Funny, touching and impossible to put down, this book should be required reading for anyone contemplating a career in aid, and for all of us who wonder how we can make a useful contribution to a better world, wherever we are.

Sea Fever – Angela Meyer

A funny, honest, brave memoir about dating, love, motherhood, the transformative power of 1980’s dance moves and the highs and lows of sailing across the Pacific ocean with a two-year old. I know Ange Meyer and when this book came out I wrote to her to say: ‘I wish I could write like you.’ By which I meant—with as much good grace and humour. Highly recommended.

Top Picks: Other Nonfiction

Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace – DT Max

I’m a DFW geek. I was obsessed with Infinite Jest when it came out, and read it twice (including all the footnotes). What moved me most about this powerful biography was realising, for the first time really, how committed DFW was to sincerity over cynicism in storytelling.

Still Writing – Dani Shapiro

One of the most wise, kind and soulful guides to the writing life I’ve ever read (and I’ve read many). It’s the kind of book which I will plan to always have to hand from this day forth. To be read over and again, for strength, courage and company on dark and lonely days of writing or, worse, of not writing. Highly recommended.

Wired for Story – Lisa Cron

I really can’t overstate how much I enjoy this book. It’s about story, and it weaves together neuroscience, sociology and psychology to make sense of how and why stories are so profoundly central to human life. Pretty much my favorite topic ever. Unsurprisingly, given her area of expertise, Cron is a great storyteller and I found myself tearing through this book, and having to force myself to slow down and take note of the gems on almost every page.

Top Picks: NZ Fiction

Wake – Elizabeth Knox

From one of New Zealand’s finest writers, Wake is mesmerizing. In her words, “[t]his book has a catastrophe, but it’s also about the struggle to stay useful and good, and what’s encouraging in that. … A book about being trapped with mystery and malevolence, and trying to get by, and get on. A story with the pleasure of problem solving, about ingenuity and work, about morale and social cohesion, and about loss and futility.” Spectacular. Highly recommended. Leave a light on.

The Fall of Light – Sarah Laing

Sarah Laing has a particular skill for observing the small details of characters and settings that make them both complex, believable and unforgettable. I felt as though Rudy, the architect at the centre of this wonderful novel, might be someone I once knew—rather than a character I met in the pages of a book. I also loved the dream-like illustrations. Highly recommended.

The Girl Below – Bianca Zander

I loved The Girl Below. A haunting debut novel in which a young woman slips back in time to solve the mysteries of her childhood, including an incident in an air raid shelter that had the hairs up on the back of my neck. The deliciously creepy (and yet strangely familiar) mystery at the core of this beautifully crafted novel was so compelling I abandoned everything else on my To Do list today and stayed in bed until I finished it.

Top Picks: Other Fiction

The Roundhouse – Louise Erdrich

A story of a boy on the cusp of manhood who seeks justice and understanding in the wake of a crime that upends and transforms his family.

Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann

A beautiful and intricate portrait of New York city and its people: “a dazzlingly rich vision of pain, loveliness, mystery, and promise of New York City in the 1970s.”

Flight Behaviour – Barbara Kingsolver

From one of my favorite writers, ‘a parable of catastrophe and denial that explores how the complexities we inevitably encounter in life lead us to believe in our particular chosen truths.’

And here are the rest—many of which are so good I struggled to choose only three for my top picks. Read. Enjoy. And tell me what you think.


Brain on Fire – Susannah Cahalan

This was a strong contender for my top memoir of the year, and I highly recommend it. It is an extraordinary story of a bright, ambitious young journalist whose life is interrupted violently by a mysterious medical condition which is variously misdiagnosed as alcoholism, bipolar disorder and burnout. The pace of her transformation and the obvious danger of her condition make for compelling reading, while the love and faith of her family and her own dogged determination to make sense of her experience have stayed with me.

The Guardians: An Elegy – Sarah Manguso

Shortly after returning home from a year in Rome, writer Sarah Manguso learned that her friend Harris had fled a psychiatric hospital and jumped in front of a train. One of the most nuanced and intimate chronicles of grief I’ve read. “Manguso captures with great delicacy the spinning compass of her grief, and its accompanying jumble of anger, disappointments, corrupted memories and love.” – Megan O’Grady, Vogue

I Feel Bad About My Neck – Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron is the writer and filmmaker who created Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. In this series of essays on ‘being a woman today’, I would have liked less about beauty care and more on being a powerful women in an industry dominated by men. But Ephron’s writing is so wonderful, and her sense of humour so irresistible, that I enjoyed these essays all the same.

Then Again – Diane Keaton  

I adored this memoir. Diane Keaton is endearingly vulnerable, sharing—for the first time—her experience with bulimia. She writes about her lovers as though they were just men she loved and lost, not three of the most influential men in film in recent history. Above all, this is a memoir about family—specifically about Keaton’s mother. This is a very well told, intimate, complex and loving story.

Country Girl: A Memoir – Edna O’Brien

Irish writer O’Brien’s life story moves from convent school to elopement and divorce, single-motherhood to the wild parties of the ’60s in London. She’s an extraordinary writer, which kept me enthralled even in the sections where the subject was less compelling (maybe I’m less interested than most people in tales of rockstars & Hollywood legends).

She Matters: A Life in Friendships – Susanna Sonnenberg

A great premise: telling one’s life story through the lense of female friendships. In practice, the book is polarising. People love it, praising Sonnenberg’s honesty and writing, or they hate it, finding Sonnenberg and her stories self-absorbed and ‘whiney’ (a criticism reserved almost exclusively for female writers of memoir). I loved it—and admire Sonnenberg for her willingness to describe the dark corners and disappointments, even heartbreaks, of female friendships as well as their tender, sustaining beauty.

Mennonite Meets Mr. Right – Rhoda Janzen

The religious themes and lessons were laid on a little too thick for me, but Janzen is a funny and charming writer and at their heart, most of her religious lessons were simply lessons in humanity—told with humility, humour and grace.

Beyond Good Intentions – Tori Hogan

Tori Hogan has spent the past decade working as an aid critic—asking why aid isn’t working and how it could be made to work better. But she didn’t set out to critique international development. Young and idealistic, she went to Kenya as an intern for Save the Children, hoping to do her bit to improve the lives of refugees. Like so many before her, what she found was not what she had expected.

Other Nonfiction

Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit & be a Whole Lot Happier – Salzberg & Thurman

I have to confess that I found Sharon’s section of this book easier to read, and from time to time skipped over Professor Thurman’s more academic prose. But Sharon’s sections were more than enough to shine a light on exactly what I’ve been missing in my practice with anger. Powerful and potentially transformative. Now I just have to put it into practice!

Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy

This book explores the Amish view of forgiveness, which surprised America in the wake of a tragic schoolhouse shooting. I’ve been experimenting with the core idea—which is that we can choose to act with forgiveness before we feel ready to, that forgiveness can be a commitment and a process.

To Sell Is Human – Daniel Pink

This book has helped me see one very reassuring thread that links my life as a self-employed person and business-owner to the many years I spent working primarily as an advocate for human rights. Pink argues that selling has become central to almost everyone’s work and that selling is the art of moving people which is and—in many ways—has been my core work throughout my entire career.

Lean In – Sheryl Sandberg

The first thing to strike me about Lean In is that Sandberg knew exactly what her book was and was not. She pre-empted many of the criticisms that have been leveled at her by being very clear about the scope of what she was addressing in the book. Having said that, I agree with concerns that this book tells women how to succeed in a system which is inherently sexist, rather than challenging the system itself.

The Female Brain – Louann Brizendine

Written by a neuropsychiatrist the book sets out to show how the unique structure of the female brain determines how women think, what they value, how they communicate, and who they love. I’m fascinated and a bit conflicted—nervous, as always, that new information about how women’s brains are different from men will be used to diminish, rather than to better appreciate, women.


The Family Fang – Kevin Wilson

An innovative, funny, touching and emotionally insightful novel about art, love, family, loyalty and change. Camille and Caleb Fang are celebrated performance artists, who in defiance of their mentor’s declaration that ‘children kill art’ build their children (Child A and Child B) into their art.

Theft – B K Loren

“How often do we come across a novel that is an achievement in both narrative suspense and in poetry, that wrestles with politics while never giving story short shrift? Theft is part environmental novel, part elegy to place, part family tragedy and part murder mystery. Capturing heart-raw subjects in incandescent prose, Loren gracefully and unforgettably unites the seen and the unseen worlds, the dark and the light.” – Ann Pancake said it so well, I simply repeat her review of this gorgeous book.

Breakdown – Sara Paretzky

Sara Paretzky, one of my all-time favorite authors, writes detective fiction starring one of my most beloved fictional characters: VI Warshawski. Born and bred in South Chicago, VI has a nose for injustice and is unrelenting in her efforts to uncover corruption and greed, and seek justice for the downtrodden. This is detective fiction with a strong focus on social justice.

A Gesture Life – Chang-rae Lee

A beautifully written novel exploring identity and exile. A Japanese immigrant to the US has assimilated so well that he has come to represent all that his small town stands for, but at what cost? His daughter accuses ‘You make a whole life out of gestures and politeness.’ Beautiful and insightful though, in some places, brutal. Recommended for anyone who can cope with a little violence (none of it gratuitous).

Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi

In this captivating, confident and playful novel, Oyeyemi riffs off the English folk tale about Bluebeard—a man who murders and dismembers women freely until his wife-to-be, the clever Lady Mary, turns the tables and exposes him. The ‘Mr Fox’ of the title writes ‘slasher’ novels in which woman after woman are violently killed. Mary, here, is a mysterious figure—part muse, part task-master—who makes it clear to Mr. Fox that she’s had enough of the violent deaths and challenges him to find another way to resolve the conflicts in his novels.

A Possible Life – Sebastian Faulks

I couldn’t stop reading. Faulks is a master-storyteller and this novel is made up of five extraordinary short stories. I really don’t want to give anything away about the stories, but I highly recommend you read them for yourself.

The Female of the Species – Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’ novels are amongst my very favorite books, so I was delighted to discover this collection of subversively sinister stories in a second-hand bookstore in Oakland a few months ago. I read the entire collection during one weekend and was—as usual with Oates—equal parts in awe of the writing and in thrall of the tale. Recommended for people who like things a little bit twisted.

The Rehearsal – Eleanor Catton

I started reading this book when it came out a few years ago—but I think it was when the restaurant was opening and somehow I never finished it. This year I came back to it and I’m glad I did; the themes are right on point with what’s been on my mind lately and Catton is a dazzlingly talented writer.



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One Response to "What I’ve Been Reading: 2013"

  1. […] Books: I enjoyed Ellen and Marianne‘s reading lists (& added a bunch of stuff to my own ‘to read’ […]

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