Our Favorite Fiction and Non-Fiction Books from 2013

best books 2013

No offense Olivia Pope, but sometimes a lady just wants to turn off the TV, pull up a chair and settle into a satisfying book. Lucky for us, there were plenty of interesting and thought-provoking reads to choose from this year — from Khaled Hosseini’s “And the Mountains Echoed” to Debora L. Spar’s “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection."

We’ve asked some of the greatest minds we know (ahem, each other) to tell us about the books — fiction and non — that made us shed happy tears, laugh out loud or think to ourselves, “Oooh, I didn’t know that.” Here are our favorite books of 2013, and why we loved them.

What to Do When There's Nothing Good on TV

What to Do When There's Nothing Good on TV

No offense Olivia Pope, but sometimes a lady just wants to turn off the TV, pull up a chair and settle into a satisfying book. Lucky for us, there were plenty of interesting and thought-provoking reads to choose from this year — from Khaled Hosseini’s “And the Mountains Echoed” to Debora L. Spar’s “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection.”

We’ve asked some of the greatest minds we know (ahem, each other) to tell us about the books — fiction and non — that made us shed happy tears, laugh out loud or think to ourselves, “Oooh, I didn’t know that.” Here are our favorite books of 2013, and why we loved them.

Debora L. Spar’s “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection”

Debora L. Spar’s “Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection”

By Carol Kaufmann

President of Barnard College, former Harvard Business School professor and mother of three Deborah Spar has joined Sheryl Sandberg in the work-life balance conversation, though her approach is decidedly more humane. As opposed to Sandberg’s urging to lean in, Spar outlines how women have been nearly paralyzed by all the choices we earned from the 1960s feminists movement.

This book made me want to… take a nap! Knowing about the range of options we women have today — the range of jobs, the plethora of professions, the opportunities to be supermom — is overwhelming enough, but seeing them on the printed page is downright exhausting. Spar’s portrayal of women having all the opportunities in the world, all credit due the feminist movement, and the potential to achieve all that the world offers — made me bone tired, and thankful that I’m not the only one who feels the fatigue.

After I finished this book, I felt like… proselytizing to the world (and to my own hard head) that it’s normal to have a messy house, unorganized files and feel constantly behind because it all simply cannot be done. The images of a smokin’ gal bringing home the bacon, turning it into crumbles for a Roquefort salad for dinner and having enough energy for a meaningful conversation with the hubby (much less a hot romp in the bed) has been stirring in our collective Generation X heads without us realizing it.

This book stood out to me this year because… a highly credible academic, whose research and thesis is approachable and readable, nails why I feel like a failure though I’m constantly running on all cylinders.

I would recommend this book to… Anyone who’s wanted a great career, a loving family life and a fulfilling social schedule — and actually believed it was possible. Basically, all the women I see every day. Anyone who remembers the commercials for Enjoli and Charlie perfumes and thought that glamorous life was achievable. So, again, most every woman I know. Anyone who has a daughter, a daughter-in-law or a niece — or knows anyone with any of the above. Yes, every woman I know.

This book taught me… Mom was right. “Everything in moderation.” Sigh.

Louise Penny’s “How the Light Gets In”

Louise Penny’s “How the Light Gets In”

By Carol Kaufmann

For her ninth book featuring the honorable Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, Penny, a Canadian mystery writer, returns to Three Pines, a small village where cell phones and Internet connections fail. The quirky and memorable residents there are again ensconced in an awful lot of crime and downright evil. In “How the Light Gets In,” Gamache faces his own professional and personal downfall as he unravels the murder of a rather famous and reclusive elderly woman.

This book made me want to… gather fellow mystery lovers and make them read the entire Louise Penny collection, starting from Inspector Gamache’s first appearance in “Still Life.” Any mystery fan who loves artful prose, deeply human characters and pages that turn themselves will rip through Penny’s other eight books and be justly rewarded with “How the Light Gets In,” a work of literary fiction featuring a good vs. evil battle, as well as a mystery.

After I finished this book, I felt like… trying to write mysteries. Can a non-fiction storyteller convert to fiction and learn how to invent people and places that are as real as Penny’s?

This book stood out to me this year because… Rarely does a whodunit cause me to tense up and break out in a cold sweat, whether it’s on screen or on the page. The final 10 or so chapters of this book left me breathless. I couldn’t put it down.

I would recommend this book to… anyone who loves mysteries, has already read their way through the British canon and has immediate recall of the idyllic, quaint English villages down to the last tea cozy. Time to consider a new venue — Montreal! Three Pines! — and get familiar with Quebecois history and the details of this marvelously charming place. I enjoy reading about Gamache’s selections for dinner at the Three Pines café as much as I do the crime he must solve.

Sari Botton’s “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York”

Sari Botton’s “Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York”

By Elyse Beasley, DailyWorth’s Senior Editor

I first visited New York for my thirteenth birthday. I was mesmerized by the larger-than-life billboards, the beautifully illuminated theatres, the energy I felt on the streets, which were just as populated at midnight as they were at noon. I promised myself I’d come back someday, for good. Nine years later, almost to the date, I packed up everything I owned (or rather, everything that could fit into the 8×10 room I could barely afford) and set off to resume my love affair with this dizzying, wonderful city.

An homage to Joan Didion’s famous 1967 personal essay about leaving New York, “Goodbye to All That” is a collection of essays by 28 women for whom the bright city lights of New York have dimmed. Funny, heart-wrenching, inspiring — each of their stories touch on the complicated relationship New Yorkers, both transplants and natives, have with their home.

This book made me want to… fall in love with this city all over again. After four years, it’s become too easy to let the everyday frustrations — waiting too long on the subway platform, climbing five flights to my apartment each night — color the place I dreamt of for so long.

After I finished this book, I felt… a kinship with each of the authors. Despite extremely different circumstances, a few themes emerged that all city-dwellers can relate to. In her essay “View From the Penthouse” about fleeing to upstate N.Y. to escape her life of homelessness and drug addiction, Valerie Eagle notes that New York was so expensive, it nearly cost her her life — a sentiment echoed in Meghan Daum’s essay, “My Misspent Youth,” as she totaled thousands in debt and described how she simply stopped being able to afford New York any longer. Likewise, several authors described the intimacy they felt with the city — their city — calling it the lover who got away.

This book stood out to me this year because… as I prepare to move to New Jersey next year to live with my boyfriend, it described the emotions (the good, the bad, the confusing) that accompany breaking free from New York’s gravitational pull.

I would recommend this book to… anyone who’s ever had a New York dream — or of any other special city — in their heart.

This book taught me… I’m ready to start a new adventure, to fulfill other dreams in a new city.

Kimberly McCreight’s “Reconstructing Amelia”

Kimberly McCreight’s “Reconstructing Amelia”

By Elyse Beasley, DailyWorth's Senior Editor

Kate Baron is reeling from her only daughter’s suicide — an apparent reaction to cheating accusations and a pending suspension from Grace Hall, an exclusive private school in Brooklyn. Having always struggled with her working-mom complex, Kate sinks into a deep depression coupled with a brand new guilt — and wonders if she ever knew the real Amelia.

But when Kate receives an anonymous text message saying Amelia didn’t jump from her school’s roof, she vows to discover the truth about what happened to her daughter.

This book made me want to… take a break from memoirs and read more fiction thrillers.

After I finished this book, I felt… exhausted. I stayed up until after midnight three days after I began this book in order to finish it. Toward the end, my heart was racing as I furiously pieced together clues, tried to connect the dots in my mind before they were written on the page and forced myself not to skip down too far and spoil the ending.

This book stood out to me this year because… the storytelling was so compelling. The chapters alternate between Kate and Amelia’s narratives, with Amelia’s texts, Facebook messages and excerpts from Grace Hall’s gossip newsletter sprinkled in.

I would recommend this book to… someone looking for their next literary thriller. Online reviewers swear that if you were a fan of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” — the next book on my list — you’ll love Kimberly McCreight’s debut novel too.

Katherine Bouton’s “Shouting Won’t Help”

Katherine Bouton’s “Shouting Won’t Help”

By Erinn Bucklan

Part memoir, part medical guide, this book by New York Times editor Katherine Bouton takes you through her 22-year experience with hearing loss. Not only is her story raw and personal, she also uses her journalism chops to explore the impairment through the research of doctors, audiologists, neurologists and others who share their story.

This book made me want to… wear earplugs every time I go on the subway or to a concert from now on.

After I finished this book, I felt… thankful for the hearing I have, even though it isn’t perfect!

This book stood out to me this year because… the author, Katherine Bouton, suffered from hearing loss for over 20 years, yet it didn’t stop her from success as an editor at the New York Times. I’m always inspired by memoirs from women who lead impressive lives while grappling with physical impairments. If they can do it, so can I!

The next person to read this book should be… my mother. She always talks so loudly; now I’m wondering if she should get her hearing checked.

I was surprised to learn… over 50 million Americans suffer from some sort of deafness. And they won’t ever recover the hearing loss that happens from day-to-day wear and tear on our auditory canals. From now on, I’m turning down the music.

Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers: A Novel”

Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers: A Novel”

By Erinn Bucklan

It’s the 1970s in New York City when a young woman named Reno moves to town in hopes of making it big in the art world. Soon she gets involved with an older, well-known artist, named Sandro Valera, who comes from a very wealthy Italian family who made their fortunes in the tire and motorcycle manufacturing business. On a trip to meet Sandro’s family in Italy, Reno falls under the influence of a radical group that turns out to be very different than what she thought.

This book made me want to… jump on a Ducati motorcycle and race on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah one minute and date a man with a family that owned a luxurious palazzo in Italy the next.

After I finished this book, I felt like… I’d just been betrayed by some interesting people who I thought were my friends.

This book stood out to me this year because… the plot was so unique. How many books are set in the 1970s and feature a heroine who is a speed motorcycle racer and wannabe artist who gets involved in social riots in Italy when she goes with her boyfriend to visit his family in Italy? Phew! I can’t deny that the story left me a bit confused in the end and definitely wasn’t tied up nicely, but I think that was the author’s intent. I finished the last page and wanted more, and isn’t that the point of a good fiction book?

I would recommend this book to… my brother. He loves motorcycles, Rome and art. Definitely in his Christmas stocking this year.

M.E. Thomas’ “Confessions of a Sociopath”

M.E. Thomas’ “Confessions of a Sociopath”

By Molly Triffin

The author of this intriguing memoir is a young, successful trial lawyer and law professor. She teaches Sunday school and donates 10 percent of her income to charity. She has a big, bright smile and can charm the pants off anyone — from a top client to a hot date. Oh, and she’s a diagnosed sociopath.

This book made me want to… assess everyone I know to figure out who could be a sociopath — they account for one in 25 people.

After I finished this book, I felt… creeped out. The author wrote the book in order to correct the stigma against sociopaths — the vast majority, she claims, are not ruthless murderers, but successful, seemingly normal people with great careers and loving families. Yet anecdotes of her attempting to drown a baby opossum who had fallen into a pool, watching as it “struggled loudly, whimpering and squealing,” or following a metro worker whom she felt wronged her through the DC subway system, hoping to find him alone in a deserted hallway and envisioning “my hands wrapped around his neck, my thumbs digging deep into his throat, his life slipping away under my unrelenting grasp,” gave me chills.

This book stood out to me this year because… it was a rare and riveting peek into the thought process of someone whose brain is wired vastly differently from most.

I would recommend this book to… anyone interested in psychology or fans of twisty psychological thrillers.

I was surprised to learn… that sociopaths experience emotions differently than the rest of the population. Although they are unable to empathize, they do register “primitive” emotions like joy, love and anger. Also: There’s no difference between a psychopath and a sociopath (“sociopath” is just a more palatable term — who’s doing their PR anyway?).

Khaled Hosseini’s “And the Mountains Echoed”

Khaled Hosseini’s “And the Mountains Echoed”

By Molly Triffin

A poignant, expansive novel spanning three continents and three generations, at its root “And the Mountains Echoed” explores family: the stories (true and untrue) that families tell each other; the power of decisions made by our ancestors to deeply influence lives lived decades later; the way memories shift, fester and fade as they’re passed down over time.

This book made me want to… hug my grandmother. Several years ago I had a conversation with a friend about what our biggest regret was. I told him mine was not being closer to my Ami, the most brilliant, witty and wise woman I know. A sparkler who at 97 still travels between Connecticut and Belgium regularly on her own, I admire her immensely, but between my crazy lifestyle and her lack of hearing, it was always difficult to connect. Since reading this book, she and I have developed a profound email relationship.

After I finished this book, I felt… wistful, at home, cognizant of how fleeting even a lifetime ultimately is.

This book stood out to me this year because… I read it during the final weeks of my pregnancy and the first few weeks of my son’s life, as I passed from being the youngest generation of my family into my new place as a mother.

I would recommend this book to… anyone who loves literary fiction. It’s a beautiful, poetic read.

Mary Roach’s “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”

Mary Roach’s “Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal”

By Karell Roxas, DailyWorth’s Managing Editor

If you’d asked me if I wanted to read a book about the digestive tract, I would have politely raised an eyebrow and mumbled some excuse about being busy all year… but then along comes Mary Roach. Which is how I found myself reading all about the alimentary canal and everything it entails — from the first chew to the last, well, drop. Roach has a genius way of creating the fabric of stories from multiple strings of research, analysis and interviews — making you feel as if you’re the smart one. Bonus: you walk away knowing all sorts of random factoids to spout at dinner parties and family gatherings.

This book made me want to… stare into the bathroom mirror, open my mouth and say, “Ahhh.” I’ve never previously given a thought to what happens to that beef tartare after I’ve swallowed it (spoiler alert: It’s kinda gross and wildly fascinating), but after reading this book it was all I wanted to talk about. I found myself constantly saying things like, “Did you know that humans secrete two types of saliva? Stimulated and unstimulated.” Or “I can’t believe we have internal nostrils in the back of our mouths that help us taste. Weird.” And then would come the inevitable stink face from the lady sitting next to me on the subway. Some people are just so rude.

After I finished this book, I felt like… I knew everything there is to know about spit and stomach acid. So this must be what being a Jeopardy champion feels like.

This book stood out to me this year because… Mary Roach has a way of making any subject digestible (sorry for the bad pun) and because her book is hilarious — right down to her footnotes.

The next person to read this book should be… my mother because she’s a nurse and constantly intrigued by the mysteries of our bodies.

This book taught me… that Elvis could have possibly died from his megacolon. It’s not a pretty story, but she explains it all in chapter 16.

Karen Russell’s “Vampires in The Lemon Grove”

Karen Russell’s “Vampires in The Lemon Grove”

By Karell Roxas, DailyWorth’s Managing Editor

“Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is a collection of beautifully crafted short stories by the author who brought us “Swamplandia.” The mysticism and character types in the shadows she created in her first novel translates into each story here — whether it’s ancient vampires who really do live in a lemon grove, a group of girls trapped in a silkworm factory turning into silkworms themselves or a magical tattoo that has powers to both heal and hurt, each story will bring you into a new and different world so fully formed, you can’t help but think it actually exists.

This book made me want to… believe there are supernatural mysteries tucked away into pockets of our humble world.

After I finished this book, I felt like… I wanted to find a bench in a lemon grove where a vampire might be sitting, waiting for me to meet him. Also, to go tailgating in the Antarctic and cheer on Team Krill.

This book stood out to me this year because... Karen Russell has a way of making fantasy feel more whole than reality. She also does an amazing job shedding light on the dark aspects of our worlds (the fake and the real) that brings real chills to your bones.

The next person to read this book should be… my sister. Because both her feet are firmly planted on the ground, and sometimes it’s nice to just let gravity go and float into the air.

This book taught me to… look around with inquisitive eyes. Things may be happening all around us that we don’t see because we’re not looking for them.

Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch”

By Terri Trespicio

When 13-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he leaves the wreckage with three things: a ring, a name and “The Goldfinch,” the Fabritius painting he was looking at when his life changed forever. We bear up under the long, slow, nauseating turn his life takes, wherein Theo loses everything he’s known — his mother, his home, his friends, even the city he loves. Tartt’s Dickensian tale follows Theo’s fitful, restless journey from New York to Vegas and back again, as he drags with him the pain he can’t make sense of and the priceless work of art no one knows he has.

This book made me want to… put down everything else I was reading, while I was in the thick of it. Long lines, subway rides, hours in bed vanished into the life of Theo Decker.

After I finished this book, I felt… redeemed. And also optimistic, in the way that great literature makes you feel — not the bright-side, half-full way, but in a way that reminds you that life isn’t about preventing pain, but finding meaning and purpose within it.

This book stood out to me this year because… I’ve been waiting for another Donna Tartt book for 10 years.

I would recommend this book to… anyone who holds “The Secret History” up as one of the greatest reads of their adult lives, which I do. (If you don’t, read it! It was her first novel.) Read this if you want writing so delicious and visceral and poetic and real that you not only can sink your teeth into it, but are swallowed whole by it.

Jen Kirkman’s “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids”

Jen Kirkman’s “I Can Barely Take Care of Myself: Tales From a Happy Life Without Kids”

By Terri Trespicio

Jen Kirkman knows one thing for sure: She doesn’t want kids. Plain and simple. As many child-free adults (myself included) can attest, the decision not to be a parent is met with disbelief, distrust or straight-out disdain. In her very funny memoir, Kirkman, an actress, writer and stand-up comedian (you may know her from Chelsea Lately, or the more hilarious mockumentary, After Lately), takes aim at a culture who consistently marginalizes, judges and infantilizes adults who don’t share its all-consuming need to procreate.

This book made me want to… gather my child-free friends in a room with a few cocktails and take turns reading passages out loud and laughing our asses off.

After I finished this book, I felt… like writing my own.

This book stood out to me this year because… It’s always refreshing to read a strong female voice take on, challenge and dismantle (or just gleefully shrug off) the expectations our baby-obsessed culture has of women.

I would recommend this book to… anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of a nosy inquiry and a veiled assault on what is perhaps the most adult decision of all: to know what you want and don’t want.

This book taught me to… view others’ judgment of my own personal decisions through a humorous lens. And to recognize that I’m hardly alone. Kirkman voiced so many things I always thought myself!

You Might Also Like:
Get More From Your Downtime
The Best Returns You’ll Ever Get on Your Money
The Power of Stepping Away

Join the Discussion