We get it: A “best books of 2013” list makes no sense. Who can read everything good that comes out in a given year? Even if you want to, and we do, little things — jobs, kids, laundry, new seasons of Game of Thrones — often get in the way.
Instead, we offer a list of some of our favorites from 2013. We know there are other good books out there, and we intend to get to them just as soon as we finish this story.
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert (Viking): Forget, if you will, the storm of adoration and inevitable backlash that swirled around Gilbert’s famous memoir Eat, Pray Love. Her latest novel depicts an entirely different world. It’s a lush, rich historical story that ushers us into the fascinating life of bright, blunt Alma Whittaker, a 19th century amateur botanist who discovers a passion for scientific discovery on her wealthy father’s estate in Philadelphia — and then travels to Tahiti to follow her heart. There aren’t many writers who can thrill you with descriptions of moss, but Gilbert can and does in this wise, heartbreaking novel.
The Good Lord Bird, James McBride (Riverhead): McBride won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel about the brash, observant and skilled young liar Onion, who disguises himself as a girl and falls in with fiery religious fanatic and abolitionist John Brown. Through Onion’s unforgettable voice, McBride gets as close as anyone ever has to channeling Mark Twain, and he’s surely the only author bold enough to write a comedy about slavery and the abolition movement. We know how the story ends at Harper’s Ferry, but in McBride’s hands it’s something entirely new, funny and mesmerizing.
The Son, Phillip Meyer (Ecco): Meyer ( American Rust) brings to mind Cormac McCarthy in his brutal, unflinching second novel about three generations of a Texas family. This world of blood, ethnic conflict and oil, seen through the eyes of a boy kidnapped by Comanches, and eventually his guilt-ridden son and business-minded granddaughter, becomes a “sprawling Texas version of Herman Melville” with “a stunning array of details about the nomadic Indians and frontier life and the oil patch,” wrote Herald reviewer Fred Grimm.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler (Marian Wood Book/Putnam): Family dysfunction is a staple of fiction, and finding a fresh twist isn’t easy. But Fowler ( The Jane Austen Book Club, Wit’s End) has written a completely original (and emotionally devastating) novel about the Cooke family, whose long-kept secrets are tearing them apart. Narrated by daughter Rosemary, who is reeling after the disappearance of her brother Lowell and sister Fern, the novel takes on heavy questions of responsibility, communication and simply what it means to be human in the best and worst senses of the word.
Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Danticat (Knopf): The disappearance of a young girl from her father’s fishing shack is the foundation for Danticat to examine “what we overlook and undervalue in life,” Herald reviewer Amy Driscoll wrote of the Miami author’s latest novel. Set over the course of a single day as various characters are drawn into the search for the girl, Claire of the Sea Light is part mystery, part insightful social commentary that illuminates life in Haiti.
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead): Hamid earned accolades for his second novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but his latest book is even better. Presented in the form of a self-help book and narrated in the second person — a conceit that doesn’t always work but is marvelous here — How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia explores love, capitalism and one young man’s ambitious climb from a tiny village to the big city. It could be Lahore, Pakistan, where Hamid was born — or any other South Asian metropolis.
Longbourn, Jo Baker (Knopf): The most surprising thing about Baker’s reinvention of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, wrote Herald reviewer Gigi Lehman, is that nothing about it feels derivative. This wonderfully written novel offers a lively examination of the lives of the servants working for Austen’s Bennet family. “Baker’s characters,” Lehman wrote, “do not depend on the Bennets for worth or meaning,” just as Baker stakes her own ground without borrowing too much from Austen. Fittingly, the book was published in time for the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice.
The Guns at Last Light, Rick Atkinson (Holt): The final piece of Atkinson’s masterful World War II trilogy (after An Army at Dawn and The Day of Battle) covers the final 11 months of the war, starting with the D-Day invasion of France. It’s “the bloodiest, sweatiest and most tearful book yet,” wrote Herald reviewer Glenn Garvin of Guns, which reports on a war full of brutal atrocity and astounding heroism while boldly debunking the more palatable myths of the battle.
Wilson, A. Scott Berg (Putnam): After writing biographies of Charles Lindbergh, Samuel Goldwyn and Max Perkins, Berg turned his attention to the ex-academic who served two terms as president, and the results are exhaustive and remarkable. Berg traces Woodrow Wilson’s progressive agenda — one that still makes conservatives wince — while underlining a central fact: His faith was a major part of his public life.
Blue Plate Special, Kate Christensen (Doubleday): Christensen’s memoir comes with recipes, but the best ingredients are honesty and skillful writing. Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Great Man, she examines her troubled past “with brio, humor and a lack of self-pity,” wrote Herald reviewer Ariel Gonzalez, from a childhood rocked by an abusive father and an abusive teacher to an adulthood marked by an unhappy stint at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a drinking problem. Food and writing — not necessarily in that order — saved the day.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.