Today’s post is written by StyleBlueprint friend, Jennifer Puryear, who is our eternal source for good reads! As an added bonus, all selections on today’s list are available at Parnassus Books for 20% off if you mention StyleBlueprint, through the end of January!
(Click on images for purchase information.)
Why do we read novels? Let me count the ways. We read to be entertained and enlightened, sometimes in the same book (State of Wonder or anything else by Ann Patchett). We read to learn important things (Fifty Shades of Grey). We read to remember what it was like to be young and in love with a vampire (Twilight). We read about times and people long ago in order to have a better understanding of those times and our own (Bring Up the Bodies). We read in order to have something interesting, provocative, and possibly scandalous to talk about at dinner parties (The Last Werewolf). We read so we can know what everyone else is talking about (Gone Girl).
Underlying all of these smaller reasons are two really big reasons we read novels:
- Reason one: We read to escape the prison of our own minds. Don’t you just get tired of your own self? I do. Reading is an exhilarating escape. As an additional benefit it is low fat and relatively safe.
- Reason two: We read in order to make sense of the great big beautiful messy world around us and inside us. Every single book is one author’s answer to the questions – What is the meaning of life? And how is a good life to be lived? Every single novel can affect the way you live your life. When you aren’t tired of thinking about your own self.
Some novels ask and answer the big questions in more profound and entertaining ways than others. Here are the 12 books I would give to my best friend for a year of reading in 2013. All were published in 2012 or 2013, except for the 1937 outlier:
The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
I’d like to throw a pie at some of the smug reviewers who have panned this book. The Casual Vacancy is a big book with a big heart, and it has everything in it that made the Harry Potter books so wonderful (except the wands). Rowling knows how to nail a character. She knows how to dramatize social injustice in a way that makes you want to stand up and shout. She knows how to tell a good story. This book is especially for lovers of the Potter series and Rowling’s themes.
The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
The Dog Stars is especially for anyone with a pulse. If you choose just one book from the list, read this! In the early part of the 18th century, the age of geographic exploration, great adventure tales such as Robinson Crusoe were the bestsellers of the day. We live, instead, in anxious times, and some of the best and bestselling current fiction reflects our fears about the future of humanity and our planet. The Dog Stars imagines a world in which a flu pandemic has decimated the population. What do you do if you are a man who has managed to survive along with one misanthropic ally and a beloved dog who is about to die? If you feel that your soul will perish when the dog does? You take a chance on finding other humans. This book ranges from funny to brutal to lyrical and never hits a wrong note. It is ultimately a book about what it is to be human and what it is to take chances, to hope, and to love.
The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
It’s not a virus that undoes humanity in The Age of Miracles, but the inexplicable slowing of the earth’s rotation. Days grow longer, in minutes and hours, and a gradual apocalypse unfolds. Nothing slows down in the life of an 11-year-old girl who is growing up as children always do—in jagged leaps and bounds. This book is perfectly in sync with our worried times and painfully in touch with the excruciating process of growing up.
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
Another novel about growing up, The Round House is set on a reservation in 1980’s North Dakota. A mother and wife is viciously attacked, and her 13-year-old son takes justice into his own hands when the legal system fails her. Few books combine the suspense of a page-turner and the meditative quality of a rich family drama. This one does! Erdrich also shows us some of the complexities of life on a reservation – the communal ties based on intricate webs of intermarriage; the competing belief systems of the Catholic church and the native American traditional culture; the middle class aspirations of some and grinding poverty of others. A National Book Award winner, this book is a five course meal.
They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell
They Came Like Swallows is a palate cleanser. It was published in 1937 and is set in 1918, when the Spanish flu swept the nation. The book is narrated first by an 8-year-old boy, then his older brother, and then their father, as his wife (their mother) sickens. Life is precarious, it reminds us, and even more so back then. It is a slim book that speaks volumes about life and familial love. (Thank you, Parnassus, for this great staff pick, and thank you to my friend Karlen for finding it there and passing it along!)
Hikikomori and The Rental Sister, by Jeff Backhaus
For a different angle on familial love, try this author’s debut novel. “Hikikomori” is apparently an accepted Japanese tradition in which a person devastated by grief withdraws from the outside world. In this book, set in New York, a wife hires a “rental sister” (another cultural tradition) to help bring her husband out of his isolation. The Amazon reviewer writes, “Hikikomori and the Rental Sister is a taut novel that packs a big philosophical punch… What are the risks of intimacy? Can another woman ever lead a husband back to his wife? And what must we surrender for love?” Heavy. It’s on my list to read…
Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell
This collection of stories is set to be released February 12th. Elle describes it as “[a]n… adrenaline delivery system packed with long-married, problem-beset monsters, abandoned children whose lives are in dire peril, teens with creepy sixth senses, and masseuses with inexplicable healing powers… Darkly inventive, demonically driven narratives set in the author’s inimitable imaginative disturbia.” Vampires in the Lemon Grove is on my list because Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia! was the most memorable book I read that year.
This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
While I’m excited, let me recommend This Is How You Lose Her. Junot Diaz is definitely a hot commodity right now, and this is both a bittersweet and sexually charged romp through a young Dominican’s misadventures in life and love. Don’t leave this laying around your house for adolescents to find.
The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
Some books should be left lying around the house for your teenager to find or catch you reading. The Fault in Our Stars is the love story of Hazel and Augustus, both of whom are teenagers dying of cancer. In the teens-with-cancer-in-love genre, this is apparently the best, by far. Young Adult crossover is all the rage right now (think The Hunger Games). If you jump on this trend, you might have something new to talk about with your teen. Or, if you’re in my house, to avoid talking about.
Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel, by Alice Randall
Here is a book to talk about with your friends! You may want to read Ada’s Rules even if weight loss is not in your New Year’s resolutions and even if you don’t think you are in the target demographic. I was surprised by how much it had to say to me. It speaks to every woman, I think, about self-discipline, failures of self-discipline, loving relationships, failures within those relationships, and the courage and hope to live a good – and better – life. It ingeniously incorporates one important weight loss/self-care rule into each chapter, while telling a compelling story about Ada, her husband, and a former flame of Ada’s who comes back into the picture.
The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan
If Ada’s Rules gives us guidance and encouragement, The Lifeboat gives us only ambiguity and questions. Young and beautiful Grace Winter survives a harrowing month at sea in 1914 after a luxury ocean liner sinks. Her lifeboat originally holds 40 souls, but far fewer have lived to tell their stories when they are finally rescued. At the book’s opening, Grace is on trial for her role in a murder on board the lifeboat. Is she an innocent or a sociopath? Can her version of events be trusted? I can just hear the heated discussion at book club! Don’t expect to put this book down once you’ve started it.
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, by Anne Lamott
And finally, I must end with an improbable non-fiction dessert. Anne Lamott is a cranky and sometimes contrarian Christian. She is also funny and wise and brilliant. There is no better way to start or end 2013 than by reading her book, which is a kick in the pants and a laugh with your funniest friend and a good long cry by yourself and the deeply mysterious feeling of grace and possibility. As Lamott says, “We and life are spectacularly flawed and complex.” But there is still every reason for hope.
Thanks so much Jennifer! And, remember, Parnassus Books has generously agreed to 20% off books on this list, but you have to go in before the end of January!
- The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
- The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller
- The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker
- The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
- They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell
- Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, by Jeff Backhaus
- This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
- Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell (release date 2-12-13)
- The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
- Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel, by Alice Randall
- The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan
- Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, by Anne Lamott