What I read in 2013

Not that much, apparently.

Nine books? Nine? Surely I’ve read at least 12 – one a month? Huh, guess not. Clearly I’ve not spent enough time sat in Starbucks (nothing to do with a tv addiction, you understand). Oh well, something to improve on this year. My bookshelves are laden fresh pages to be devoured. But without further ado…

1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Tells the story of a poor black woman in the 1950s who inadvertently shaped modern medicine as we know it through the diagnosis and (mis)treatment of her cervical cancer. Her cancer cells, the first to be cultivated in a lab, became a commodity on which a multi-million dollar virology and biotech industry is based. Rebecca Skloot tells Henrietta’s story from birth to her premature death aged 31, and that of her children who only learned of their mother’s unwilling contribution to society 20 years after her death. Part biographic, part scientific, part historical, totally interesting.

2. I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb

An epic novel (1098 pages) about identical twins Dominic and Thomas Birdsey. Thomas, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, cuts off his hand in a public library as an act of sacrifice to God. Dominic must fight for his brother’s release from a harsh, maximum-security mental institution and in the process discovers that despite being the ‘normal’ twin, he has his own demons to battle including divorce, a questionable rebound relationship and an abusive stepfather. Told with so much emotion, rich language and a good number of plot twists, this is by far my favourite book I’ve read in a long time – probably ever.

3. The Lighthouse by Alice Munro

The Lighthouse is a slim novel – slim in words and on first read slim in plot. A middle-aged Englishman called Futh sets off on a walking holiday in Germany to ponder his recently failed marriage. His first stop is the Hellhaus B&B (meaning lighthouse – thought not a direct translation) where he meets Esther, a busty barmaid who seeks her husband’s attention by becoming overly friendly with male patrons. While on his walk, we learn of Futh’s troubled childhood – raised by his father after his mother abandoned them – and the fact that he has never really developed into a fully functioning adult. He returns to Hellhaus one week later blistered and sunburned, one of many uses of circular repetition throughout the book. The writing is extremely measured and intriguing, full of calculated  motifs that are in ways subtle and yet so obvious that Munro’s voice takes on a Hemingway quality. It’s definitely one of those books that underwhelms at first and then slowly creeps up on you, haunting and lingering for much longer than its 192 pages might suggest.

4. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Is there anyone who didn’t read Gone Girl this year? I’ll readily admit that I was reluctant at first – thrillers are not my thing. This book however is light on the gory details and heavy on the character development – verging into the realm of intelligent chic lit. Nick comes home from work to discover that his beautiful wife Amy has disappeared…there are signs of a struggle, traces of blood on the floor and before he knows it, Nick is the prime – the only – suspect. The first half of the book is told through Nick’s perspective after the disappearance. The second half is told from Amy’s perspective over the weeks, months and years prior to her disappearance. Gillian Flynn takes an interesting delve into the psychology of the characters and paints a realistic portrait of a marriage in crisis – sufficient that you’re left to wonder could Nick really have been driven to kill his perfect wife?

5. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Again, not my first choice in reading material but that of the book club I belong to. Having said that, it was definitely the dark horse that snuck up from behind and almost took the title of favourite book of the year. Jon Krakauer, a journalist, was approached by Outsider magazine to write a piece on Everest base camp. He persuaded the editors to delay the article so that he could train for a full Everest summit a year later, which subsequently saw Krakauer on the mountain during the fateful 1996 Everest disaster when 7 people lost their lives. Despite the controversy (many of the survivors attest that Krakauer’s story is not 100% accurate), it remains the most well read of several attempts to capture what happened on that terrible day and unfortunately what continues to happen on an all too regular basis. I already had a bit of a morbid fascination with Everest, only heightened by this book. It is un-put-downable.

6. Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kinsolver’s novel The Prodigal Summer is the sole reason I had to add a ‘probably’ to the statement that book number 2 is my favourite ever. I haven’t read anything by Kingsolver since, but this one caught my attention as it’s a story of the impact of climate change both on the natural world and its biggest threat – people. Kingsolver doesn’t shy away from science – nature often features abundantly in her novels and in great detail. Flight Behaviour is no different, except that it is a fictional story – well researched and with plenty of input from climate scientists and entomologists to construct a plausible scenario. Dellarobia is married to a sheep farmer in Tennessee and has reached the end of her tether – with boredom, poverty and her controlling mother-in-law Hester. Everything changes when she discovers that the woodland behind their run-down cabin is laden, literally pregnant with hundreds of thousands of monarch butterflies. The butterflies normally winter in Mexico but something peculiar is going on… after an unprecedented mild, wet autumn they’ve lost their way and have settled instead in the Appalachian mountains. In walks Ovid Byron, an entomologist who has dedicated his life to the study of Monarchs. Ovid happens to be eloquent, handsome, and also black. He sets up in a camper van on Dellarobia’s driveway to study the butterflies in their (un)natural environment, much to the horror of Dellarobia’s neighbours not to mention her family. The book explores the relationship between religion and education, poverty and climate change. Interesting and enjoyable, but ultimately lacking the same degree of breathtaking imagery that made me fall so in love with Prodigal Summer.

7. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This is another long book with a short plot. It’s about a family really – Patty and Walter Berglund, their son Joey, their daughter Jessica (who doesn’t feature much), and their mutual friend Richard Katz – a musician and minor celebrity. Patty was a college basketball star, now she’s a paranoid housewife who dotes on her overly spoilt son. Joey is arrogant, unrelenting and worst of all a Republican. Walter is a wishy-washy lawyer with strong environmentalist leanings, constantly in the shadow of his friend and rival Richard Katz. What happens? Joey moves in with his high school girlfriend and her redneck family before accepting a place at the University of Virginia where he gets involved in less than copacetic ways of making a quick buck. Patty and Walter move to Washington D.C. after Walter gets a job with an environmental organisation and acquires an exotic assistant Lalitha. Richard constantly struggles with the desire to be more successful without becoming more famous (that and a mild drug addiction). It has all the makings of the quintessential modern American novel – politics, infidelity, environmental ideology (and hypocrisy), mental scars caused by intergenerational conflict, and plenty of sex. I liked, rather than loved it.

8. 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman

Billed as a self-help book, 59 Seconds offers simple behavioural techniques (all of which supposedly take less than a minute) to transform your life. There are ten topics covered, with a chapter devoted to each: happiness, persuasion, motivation, creativity, attraction, stress, relationships, decision-making, parenting and personality. Wiseman attempts to debunk a number of popular myths by uncovering flaws in the original research studies (or in some cases revealing that the self-help trick was never based on any scientific research). For example – angry? Don’t punch a pillow as this just intensifies anger. Instead, sit and reflect quietly on the experience and how you benefited or learned something from it. Wiseman’s writing is accessible but lacking any flair – which is to say it’s boring. Most of the ‘tricks’ I either already knew or seemed to me to be common sense, or worse were totally impractical. Needless to say, it has not transformed my life.

9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

Another book that seemed to pop up everywhere this year.  I was immediately drawn in by the amusing email exchanges between Bernadette and her virtual assistant Manjula in India. Maria Semple is a former TV writer and her comedic talent is evident throughout.  I don’t laugh out loud over books and this one was no exception but it drew many an unwitting smile. Bernadette is an eccentric architect who designed one (wildly successful) building before retreating to the wilds of Seattle. The word that keeps coming to mind to describe this book is modern, which I suppose also implies that it feels new and fresh. The story is told solely through email exchanges, letters, magazine articles and the occasional narrative from Bernadette’s daughter Bea (short for Balakrishna – told you Bernadette is eccentric). The relationship between Bernadette and her husband Elgie – himself a Microsoft wunderkind – feels modern in that they both exhibit masculine and feminine traits and are at various points in their careers successful and unsuccessful. The language and technology references also felt very modern – to the extent that I felt out of the loop. Is that how people talk these days? Then again, maybe it’s just Seattle, of which Semple paints a rather disparaging picture.

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