The best books I read in 2013

  • The Best American Essays 2012, edited by David Brooks. I read a lot of these kind of collections of shorter nonfiction pieces, but this one really stood out in terms of consistency and quality. I often find Brooks’ columns annoying but he did a great job selecting interesting and well written essays (the 2011 edition by contrast was awful).
  • Essays in Biography, by Joseph Epstein. More than just an essay collection, almost a potted history of mid-twentieth century intellectual life. Epstein is always a great writer and his personal takes on various figures, while not exactly biographies, are unsparing and insightful.
  • A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Possibly the best travel writing ever, and I generally despise travel writing. Spectacular prose and a fascinating window onto prewar Europe.
  • Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, by Paul Kennedy. A fascinating analytical history of the second world war that takes the focus away from generals and presidents treats it as a series of problems to be solved, and details just how they were solved. A great read.
  • Freedom From Fear: the American People in Depression and War 1929-1945, by David M. Kennedy. A prize-winning history of the 1930s and 1940s that is always lively, interesting and keeps you turning the pages. The standout for me, having read a lot of more economic histories of the Great Depression, is the discussion of politics and social change in the 1930s.
  • The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century, by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Classic historical essays that are still lively and fresh a half-century after their first appearance The first few especially are amazing pieces that read like whodunits as TR sorts through competing explanations for sweeping historical events before finally arriving, inevitably, at the solution.
  • Any Day Now, by Terry Bisson. A young man coming of age is caught up in the social turmoil of the 1960s; a familiar premise and you think you know where it is going, but trust me, you don’t.
  • Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends, by Jane Gardam. A trilogy of sorts about a bunch of old English coots. Old Filth itself is a perfect novel, funny and wry and moving, and the subsequent books extend the story by considering it from different points of view.
  • Tinkers, by Paul Harding. A short and beautifully written book recounting an old man’s vivid memories at the end of his life.
  • The Expendable Man, by Dorothy B. Hughes. I thought I had read all the midcentury good noir out there but had missed this one — will not describe further for fear of spoiling the fantastic twist about a third of the way through that makes this much more than a mystery.
  • The Summer Isles, by Ian R. MacLeod. An unexpectedly moving and personal story set in a Britain that lost the first world war and became a fascist state.
  • Stoner, by John Williams. A perfect novel, hard to describe but wonderful in every way. The story of one ordinary man’s life and its disappointments. I realize that this is the second book on this list I called perfect, and in both cases it is fully warranted and not hyperbole.

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