My Notable Reads of 2013

All the recent stories about Kim Jong Un feeding his uncle to 120 hungry dogs made me think of The Orphan Master’s Son, one of my favorite books I read in 2013. It sounds like a hard sell – a story about a guy growing up in North Korea and the Orwellian nature of his life. It’s funny and strange, and you won’t think of dogs the same way again.

Last year, I finally read the Wool series by Hugh Howey. The books are short – the first story is about 50 pages, with the first five books together forming a full length novel. They’re fast reads that pull you in. You find yourself learning about life in the silo even as various characters uncover facts about how their civilization came to be living underground. What I really like about Wool is that it’s a modern day self-publishing success story, where readers “discovered” the books and enabled Howey to continue writing the series. Supposedly there’s a movie in the making. Hope for aspiring writers everywhere.

I went through a Civil War reading binge over the summer. Living in Washington, I enjoyed the portrayals of the city more than 100 years ago. I loved Seward: Lincoln’s Indispensable Man, about Secretary of State William Seward, best known for Seward’s folly, the purchase of Alaska. It was a great portrayal of a prominent statesman who had been governor, senator, a national political figure, before losing the Republican Presidential nomination to Lincoln and then serving in his cabinet. He was a great progressive – he believed in public education and citizenship for all those who came to America (imagine someone saying that today!), he was a believer in American exceptionalism, and at a time when people really didn’t travel, he saw much of the world.

As a follow up to Seward, I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which was a good read as well. There I was struck by the egos – McClellan and Chase in particular – that Lincoln had to manage. You’d think that when the survival of the country is at stake that people would put personal ambition aside for the common good, but alas, no.

Another focus this year was Russian-themed books, which I read in preparation for our trip. I liked Catherine the Great, Robert Massie’s recent biography, which did a great job providing context on the various issues she confronted. As the Sochi Olympics approach, Catherine’s expansion of Russia to the South, where so much of the separatist activity is happening, may be one of her most long-lasting legacies.

With the increased focus on economic inequality in this country and the growing resentment toward the so-called elites, Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy, takes on new meaning.  It wasn’t just aristocrats, but professionals, teachers, officers, government administrators, anyone who was educated really, who were designated enemies of the state and destroyed. 

My favorite thrillers this year were The Good Son, by Michael Gruber and The Art Forger by BA Shapiro. I’ve read other Gruber novels and enjoyed The Forgery of Venus and The Book of Air and Shadows in particular. His characters are complex and disturbed. The stories shed light on different topics, in this case, Afghanistan, one of my favorite obsessions.

The recent discovery of a stash of Nazi-looted art made me wonder if some smart art forgers were laundering their works back into the market? Or maybe I’d just remembered the line from The Art Forger that the best forgeries are hanging on museum walls.

If you have a long trip ahead of you and you like Shakespeare’s histories, then try The Wheel of Fortune. The story of Edward III and his family is transported to Wales, where his grown sons and grandsons work to keep up their family manor. It’s a clever telling.

Rounding out my top ten? Let’s go with Alif the Unseen, a novel about a hacker in a Gulf state who falls in love with an upper class woman and tries to stay a step ahead of the state censors. Timely, given the upheaval of Arab Spring and its aftermath.

What were your notable reads of 2013?


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