Printers Row Journal picks its top 10 books from 2013, plus 50 worth an honorable mention. This list was compiled by the editors of Printers Row from previous reviews.
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"The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream by Thomas Dyja" (Penguin, $29.95)
Thomas Dyja's Heartland Prize-winning history brings together casts of Chicagoans who are normally treated as though they existed in distinct worlds rather than a single city. Architects, writers, actors, politicians, media innovators, artists, photographers and politicians all shape and are shaped by that same divided city. In Dyja's comprehensive Chicago, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe rubs elbows with Gwendolyn Brooks, as Mies' Illinois Institute of Technology obliterated the Bronzeville that was Brooks' poetic neighborhood. While Dyja grapples with broad trends in American culture, he always bases his depiction and analysis on the smallest details of what's at stake, from Mahalia Jackson's recipe for catfish stew to Ray Kroc picking up discarded pickles in the parking lot of McDonald's No. 1 in Des Plaines. "The Third Coast" is deeply researched, thoroughly thought-out, exquisitely structured and beautifully written — an essential for any lover of Chicago and American history.
"Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright" (Knopf, $28.95)
Lawrence Wright's meticulously researched investigation into Scientology produced plenty of jaw-dropping revelations — allegations of kidnapping and slave labor among them — but they are all the more powerful because of Wright's approach: He is sincerely curious about religion. How do you define what religion is? Why are people drawn to Scientology, a belief system invented by L. Ron Hubbard and plagued by allegedly cultlike behavior? It's an exceedingly fair-handed and fascinating account, where celebrity involvement is almost incidental (and yet undeniably sensational).
"Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink" (Crown, $27)
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, of the 45 people who died at Memorial Medical Center, 23 were found to have had elevated levels of morphine in their bodies. Twenty were ruled homicides, yet no one was ever convicted. Sheri Fink's harrowing account of what led to these deaths and the reckoning that followed is a remarkable accomplishment of investigative journalism. This book, which had its origins in a 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times-ProPublica story, synthesizes great storytelling and penetrating ethical inquiry. There are no answers in disasters like these, but Fink's work reaffirms that we should never stop asking questions.
"Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward" (Bloomsbury, $26)
Jesmyn Ward writes a forceful narrative about five black young men she grew up with whose lives became their deaths. Ward's words are heavy, profound and honest. Each one of these men tried and failed to outpace inequality that pegged their lives to drugs, guns, alcohol and hopelessness. Ward gives voice to these men and to the women who mourn them, challenging the reader to consider: What is the value of black life?
"The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25)
This collection of short, autobiographical pieces constitutes an impressionistic overview of Aleksandar Hemon's lives in both his native Sarajevo and his adopted city of Chicago. It closes with the utterly devastating (and National Magazine Award-winning) story "The Aquarium," about the illness and eventual death of his daughter, Isabel, who was diagnosed at 9 months with a rare form of cancer. In "The Book of My Lives," Hemon seems perpetually to be ricocheting between disaster and redemption. He is torn between a muted guilt at his abandonment of friends and family in the besieged Old World and gratitude for his own escape to the new one, recapitulating the history of immigrants before him. Hemon invites readers to savor both his émigré triumphs and his émigré pain — an invitation worth seizing.
"Tenth of December" by George Saunders (Random House, $26)
George Saunders' latest short story collection debuted on Jan. 8, and it lingered in our minds throughout the year. It is, by far, his most realistic work to date — and even when it's not, it has the devastating ring of truth. In "Pastoralia," one of Saunders' earlier story collections, a recently deceased person keeps asking, "Some people get everything and I got nothing. Why? Why did that happen?" Saunders, like his characters, like everyone else who has ever lived, doesn't know the answer to that question, which haunts him. In "Tenth of December" he poses it with a new mastery.
"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown, $30)
Theo Decker's life is sent into a tailspin after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tartt's Dickensian novel travels from Amsterdam to New York to Las Vegas, spanning more than a decade and 771 pages, as it explores both the repercussions of the attack on Theo's life and the role of art in making life worth living. Toward the end of the book, in a rousing discourse about the value of art, Tartt describes "The Goldfinch," the Carel Fabritius painting that inspires the name of her novel: "Paint is paint and yet feather and bone." The same could be said of this book: The words are simply marks on a page, and yet the flesh and blood of Theo, a character who — along with his Artful Dodger-like pal, Boris Pavlikovsky — won't soon be forgotten.
"The Lowland" by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, $27.95)
"The Lowland" follows the trajectory of Udayan and Subhash, two Bengali brothers. As they grow into adulthood, Udayan joins the Naxalite movement, a communist splinter group advocating guerrilla warfare. Subhash leaves India to study marine chemistry in Rhode Island but eventually winds up spending the balance of his life trying to make up for the tragic consequences of Udayan's choice. Lahiri continues her career-long examination of the ties that bind people to one another through responsibility and dependency, love and guilt.
"The Son" by Philipp Meyer (Ecco, $27.99)
Philipp Meyer's epic about the settlement of West Texas is told through the narratives of four people, each from a different generation of the McCullough family. These constantly shifting voices give the book an uneasy, splintered feeling, highlighting the fragmented nature of history rather than its continuities, the jaggedness of each character's identity mirroring that of a state where whites, Native Americans and Mexicans robbed, cheated and slaughtered one another with astonishing regularity for hundreds of years. As each narrator lays down the story, it becomes increasingly clear that whether a person is victim or aggressor, hero or sociopath is a matter of context.
"Americanah" by Chimamandah Ngozi Adichie (Knopf, $26.95)
Both a star-crossed transcontinental love story and piercing social satire, "Americanah" follows Ifemelu, a young woman who has lived in America for 13 years and has decided to give up Princeton, her Yale professor boyfriend and her popular blog to return to Nigeria, where she was born and raised — and where she found her first love, Obinze. It speaks to the fault lines of race and exposes them with insight and imagination. In November, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel was awarded the Chicago Tribune's 2013 Heartland Prize for fiction.
— Printers Row Journal editors
Portions excerpted from previous reviews by Jennifer Day, Amy Gentry, Julia Klein, Michael Robbins, Bill Savage, Antwaun Sargent and Elizabeth Taylor.
- "White Girls" by Hilton Als
- "Lawrence in Arabia" by Scott Anderson
- "The Guns at Last Light" by Rick Atkinson
- "The Inventor and the Tycoon" by Edward Ball
- "To the End of June" by Cris Beam
- "One Summer" by Bill Bryson
- "Monsters" by Rich Cohen
- "Appetite" for Wonder by Richard Dawkins
- "Finding the Dragon Lady" by Monique Brinson Demery
- "Mr. Wrigley's Ball Club" by Roberts Ehrgott
- "Thank You for Your Service" by David Finkel
- "The Riddle of the Labyrinth" by Margalit Fox
- "Respect Yourself" by Robert Gordon
- "This Town" by Mark Leibovich
- "Forty-one False Starts" by Janet Malcolm
- "Nothin' But Blue Skies" by Edward McClelland
- "The Unwinding" by George Packer
- "High Rise Stories," edited by Audrey Petty
- "Roth Unbound" by Claudia Roth Pierpont
- Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch
- "Gulp" by Mary Roach
- "The Great War" by Joe Sacco
- "Command and Control" by Eric Schlosser
- "Fosse" by Sam Wasson
- "My Bright Abyss" by Christian Wiman
- "Every Boy Should Have a Man" by Preston L. Allen
- "Life After Life" by Kate Atkinson
- "The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert
- "Return to Oakpine" by Ron Carlson
- "We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves" by Karen Joy Fowler
- "How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia" by Mohsin Hamid
- "My Dirty Dumb Eyes" by Lisa Hanawalt
- "Enon" by Paul Harding
- "And the Mountains Echoed" by Khaled Hosseini
- "The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner
- "Dissident Gardens" by Jonathan Lethem
- "The Rest of Us" by Jessica Lott
- "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra
- "The Good Lord Bird" by James McBride
- "TransAtlantic" by Colum McCann
- "Life After Life" by Jill McCorkle
- "The Night Guest" by Fiona McFarlane
- "Someone" by Alice McDermott
- "The Woman Upstairs" by Claire Messud
- "Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge" by Peter Orner
- "Little Known Facts" by Christine Sneed
- "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine" by Teddy Wayne
- "The Interestings" by Meg Wolitzer
- "The Maid's Version" by Daniel Woodrell
- "People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara