Earlier this year I sent out an S.O.S. to my friends who read since I was in desperate need of book suggestions. I had been stuck (for an embarrassingly long time, I admit) on reading non-fiction books only, mostly out of pleasure but partly out of necessity. My humanities courses were filled with lessons on the Yellowstone Supervolcano, evolution, and Stephen Hawking’s black hole theory, and then there is my endless fascination with plague, pox, cholera, and the yellow fever. I’ve got some heavy reading lined up for 2014 that involves the start of AIDS and the recent outbreaks of Ebola. Paying attention to pockets of infectious disease around the world is a favorite pastime of mine – do YOU know what’s happening in Madagascar this week?
There I go again, rambling on about only one of the hardships of life. That’s why I know I need to stay familiar with fiction, since I am sometimes apparently missing out on exercising that part of my imagination where Snow Honkies roam the Antarctic landscape and little girls forfeit their shadows in order to save other little girls from a life of misery.
I compiled a list on Facebook yesterday of the best books I had read in 2013. These are not necessarily books that were released this year, only books that I read, or in some cases re-read. Today I offer up my favorite fiction books that I read this year:
1. Pym by Mat Johnson – Here is where you’ll learn about the Antarctic Snow Honkies and what happened to Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe’s “fictional” character in his only novel. Issues of race are addressed (I mean, Antarctica is as white as you can get) and it was kind of interesting to walk away from the story knowing all fiction comes from truth. We all need new perspectives.
2. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey- I read this around the same time I read Pym, when I started wanting to learn more about winter (something only a Floridian would say). This is a somewhat modern take on a beloved Russian folktale, Alaskana-style, and a perfect story for winter.
3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – This has been my favorite book since I was a teenager. Recently I proclaimed I wanted to adopt a family of cats and name them all after the March sisters. I’m not joking. It seems I may have to settle for a school of fish. I’m actually okay with this.
4. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy- I can’t sing too many praises for this book. As much as I love my plague books and stories of infectious disease, I’m also a huge fan of Holocaust literature. I hate that there’s a genre called that, but there you have it. It exists. This story ties in the horrors of the Nazi regime and a family in hiding with all the details you’re familiar with from the fairy tale. It’s horrifying and beautiful. Even Magda’s hair becomes its own character.
5. The Fairyland Series by Catherynne M. Valente – I don’t remember what book I’d read just before this series, but it was heavy and heartbreaking and I needed a serious YA fix from Fairyland. A young girl named September befriends a Wyvern whose father is a library and she meets another boy named Saturday who is half-mermaid, but not really. Book Two is about their shadows. It’s fun reading.
6. Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt – Very often I find myself to be drawn toward stories when they involve a disease (Is this also a niche? Does it make me weird?). This one focuses on a young girl who prefers to live in the past (like Medieval past) because her present life has been interrupted by AIDS. Her family has no idea how to deal with it, or her.
7. The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – This one was magical! And a little scary. The Earth’s spin is slowing and it affects the days, the nights, the growing season, etc. Gravity is also affected which gives way to new illnesses and shines a light on how unprepared we are to deal with a global crisis. I had to recover for a few days from this story before I could begin another.
8. Company of Liars by Karen Maitland – Again, PLAGUE FICTION! A band of strangers unite (mostly) as they try to run from the disease that is killing off whole villages. As the story goes on, though, they begin to lose some of their own and in very strange ways. I was entirely disappointed in the ending – in fact, I thought it was total crap – but everything up until the last few pages was pretty fantastic. A mystery of sorts, with magic and disease and hunger and birdmen.
9. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein – A story about the bond between man and man’s best friend, written from the perspective of…get this, the dog. You’ll never look at your dog (or any pet) the same way again. Enzo. Oh, Enzo. You made me cry more than once.
10. The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant – For some reason, I couldn’t read this book without imagining Alessandra as a nicer version of Lucrezia Borgia. Is there such a thing? Perhaps history has given Lucrezia a really bad, and possibly undeserved, reputation. Alessandra is pretty badass, for a Renaissance girl, and left me wishing I was a little bit more like her. Also, plague! It makes a splendid appearance.
Later I will post a list of my favorite nonfiction books that I read this year. There are sooooo many…