Having only been a contributing part of the CCLaP collective since October presents a rather unique challenge in assembling a year's-best sort of list. The upshot of focusing on only a quarter of what I've read this year is that I'm not subjecting a whole new audience to my drunken ravings about how the likes of Infinite Jest and Mrs. Dalloway have forever changed how I look at people (because I apparently gush about whatever I've most recently read when I get a few too many glasses of wine in me), or how mad I am that I denied my childhood self the rapturous thrill of being introduced to A Wrinkle in Time by waiting to ravenously tear through it as an adult. Oh, and the other benefit of a limited selection is that I have to get creative. Which is a challenge I'll accept with gusto. And possibly with a little fudging of the guidelines.
Book That Would Have Depressed the Hell out of Me Had it Not Been So Good: The Book of My Lives, by Aleksandar Hemon. Aleksandar Hemon's life runs the gamut of surviving some truly harrowing obstacles, like helplessly facing the death of his baby daughter and escaping Sarajevo before all hell broke loose, to proving that those who live with the threat of tragedy dogging their every step know how to wring every single drop of life from every moment they can, even if it means risking a brief tenure as a national threat. The ups are straight-up celebrations and affirmations of all the things that make life worth living; the downs are the stuff no one ever wants to imagine facing (and any decent person will have trouble accepting that some of these things actually did happen). But Hemon accepts them all with a grace, honesty and willingness to see each segment of his life as a part of something greater, as his narrative paints a picture of a man who has every reason to play fortune's whipping child but is more resilient and meant for better things than that. The Book of My Lives is buoyed by a sly sense of humor and a magnetic honesty that make it one of the best books I've read all year and make me wish I could devote a couple-three days to curling up with Hemon's oeuvre.
Book That Surpassed its Source Material in Craftsmanship While Also Proving That a Strange Phenomenon Often Comes with an Even Stranger Origin Tale: The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, by Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell. I have a tendency to rate books on a cumulative scale rather than an individual basis, which is why this behind-the-scenes look at the batshit insanity that rather unsurprisingly comprises the back story of box-office bomb The Room deserves a second look. The movie's costar Greg Sestero tells the story but it is its mastermind, the enigmatic manchild Tommy Wiseau, who emerges as its main character as Sestero tries to figure out his strange friend with the kind of sympathetic understanding one usually reserves for a bumbling younger sibling. Or a three-legged animal unaware of its limitations. Anyone who's seen the modern-day cult classic that is The Room knows just how deeply, impressively flawed the flick is but Wiseau's never-say-die commitment to seeing his vision come to life exactly as he intended turns into something almost awe-inspiring once it becomes clear that he refuses to let pesky realities like an unfortunate dearth of talent and the necessity of at least a few cinematic conventions stand in his way. An underdog story for the ages, The Disaster Artist is a must-read for fans of The Room and just a wonder to behold for anyone who needs some reassurance that the lofty, unencumbered-by-reality aspirations of a five-year-old aren't always unattainable.
The Book That Started out as Required Reading and Ended as a Sheer Delight: Harper Lee and Peppermint Candy, by Paula Hennessy. While not actually published in 2013, I was the lucky one who nabbed this from CCLaP's to-review stash of submissions a few months ago. It wasn't long before this tale of family, self-discovery, illness (ranging from terminal, mental and self-perpetuated), and bravely facing unwelcome truths had me loading its digital pages on my phone so I could sneak in a surreptitious chapter or two when I should have been doing other things. Like working. Or spending time with people whose company I otherwise enjoy when it's not eating into my precious reading time. For someone who seems mighty reluctant to call herself a writer, Hennessy adeptly navigates the fine line between drawing on her own experience to create believable characters and falling into the easy trap of mawkish self-aggrandizement. The end result is proof that a book about dealing with late-stage cancer and toxic parents can make for some compulsively readable fare that has oodles of heart with none of the saccharine aftertaste.
Book I Fangirled so Hard Through That I Can't Wait to Go Back and Read it Again When I'm Not Also Mentally Jumping Up and Down While Clapping: Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon. There really is nothing quite like finding out that your favorite writer is poised to publish a new book, and there is no suffering like waiting for the release-day countdown to finally reach its end. I don't feel like I'm exaggerating at all by insisting that Thomas Pynchon is a national treasure and that Bleeding Edge is just one more vote in his favor. It's not another helping of Gravity's Rainbow but it's also completely unreasonable to keep expecting that kind of a novel to happen ever again. What this book is, among other things, is both a brilliantly paranoid romp through and clear-headed love letter to NYC immediately before and after 11 Sept. with a smattering of mechanical technobabble that only an engineer-poet could finesse into a warmly and humorously flesh-and-blood madcap saga. If you insist on reading it to find traces of Pynchon past, revel in the hallmarks of his writing: the arcane allusions, the masterful blend of comedy and tragedy to maximize the effects of the complementarily dueling forces, the brilliant interweaving of deceptively unrelated threads by the handfuls, and sentences scientifically crafted to be tiny little masterpieces stacked upon each other to comprise a work of art shaped with mathematical precision.
Sorry, But It's Going to Take a Full Year for Me to Stop Recommending This Book to Absolutely Everyone (Only I'm Not Really Sorry at All Because It is That. Freaking. Good): The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. Seriously, why haven't you read this yet? (But if you have, lemme know because I am dying to have an actual conversation about this beast of a novel.)
And I couldn't resist some bonus kudos for two books that were published earlier in 2013. I'd reviewed them purely for fun and didn't feel right recycling my own material for the CCLaP blog, but I also don't feel right not sending some shoutouts their ways.
I Waited Too Long and Now Someone Else Wrote My Book: Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice, by Katherine Preston. It is a strange role to play being a rarity among rarities--that is, a woman who stutters. Katherine Preston beautifully blends her own journey as a stutterer with her research into how the affliction affects others, exploring what little is known about the speech disorder, and examining what kind of treatments are available. Preston takes what could be just another memoir about one's cross to bear and turns it into a unifying, empowering experience by choosing to look at it as something that has helped make her who she is and has granted her the kind of empathy that feeling imprisoned inside oneself brings. She refuses to give into the trappings of self-pity and her own transformation from a self-tormented child to a confident young woman should be comfortingly familiar to anyone who faced a daunting hurdle in their past.
I Would Have Called This the Year's Best Guilty Pleasure if I Didn't Enjoy Reading it With Shameless Glee: Shatnerquest, by Jeff Burk. It starts with the apocalypse interrupting a ComicCon-esque gathering and only gets better from there. There's a helpful Dalek. There's a Klingon vs. Steampunk deathmatch. There's an entire chapter that reads like a Kevin Smith mini-flick (which, naturally, takes place inside a comic book store). There's a giant, rampaging William Shatner. Hell, there's even loads of heart amidst the violence and sheer insanity. It is the ultimate palate cleanser for nerds with a sense of humor and an acquired hankering for bizarro.
(Please come by again tomorrow for Travis Fortney's picks, or click here for the CCLaP staff's combined "Best of the Best" list for 2013.)