It’s time for my 2013 book list! Here are my favorite books this year.
Just Kids, a memoir by Patti Smith
Just Kids is beautifully written. Consider:
“When I was a young girl, I fell into trouble. In 1966, at summer’s end, I slept with a boy even more callow than I, and we conceived instantaneously…Our union was so fleeting; so tender that I was not altogether certain we consummated our affection. But nature with all her force would have the final word.”
It is this tone of innocence that permeates Just Kids. At once lyrical and gritty, Smith lovingly chronicles New York City in the late 60s and early 70s, crisscrossing the downtown music & art scene. Bohemians, soul mates, lovers and struggling artists, Smith and Mapplethorpe collided with the likes of Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Sam Shepard, Allen Ginsberg. Their relationship together was both earnest and claustrophobic; Mapplethorpe chased fame, which eluded him for so long, and Smith struggled to find her voice in the shadow of such a big personality.
While the tone is one of child-like wonder, Smith’s story is candid. Robert Mapplethorpe is a difficult character to relate to. As written, his frank ambition and ego get in the way of both his art and the intimacy that he and Smith shared. Still, through the window of this relationship, Smith captures the end of an era: a time of whirling, blissful creativity that ended tragically for so many who succumbed to drug overdose or AIDS.
Open, autobiography by Andre Agassi
The New York Times review calls this book “one of the most passionately anti-sports books ever written by a superstar athlete.” In the opening pages, Agassi describes hobbling out of bed with his back in extreme pain and holding himself up in the shower on legs that refuse to obey him. He’s writing about his nearly broken body before a match during the last year of his career, and he’s only 36.
Agassi’s story is as much about being the son of a domineering immigrant father who is chasing the American dream through his children as it is about tennis. Agassi is surprisingly honest about his flaws, admitting that during his lowest period he was smoking crystal meth. I read this as much for the dish as for the tennis, and it doesn’t disappoint. From Brooke Shields to Barbra Streisand, Agassi loved the ladies. It wasn’t until he had matured and overcome the demons that pursued him all his life that he became open to the love of his life Steffi Graf.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
Painstakingly researched by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Wright, this long-form narrative journalism reads like an over-the-top work of fiction, and then you’re reminded by former church-member Paul Haggis that Scientology is a real thing and a lot of people practice it. The scope of the church’s influence includes 150 offices spread over 25 countries and membership by high-profile celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Born of the sci-fi mind of founder L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology began its life as a series of self-help teachings called Dianetics, which later expanded into dogma. It then devolved (if it ever held a loftier position) into paranoia leading to church-sanctioned family “disconnections,” physical abuse, and prison camps to hold dissenters and defectors.
In one of many examples of bizarre behavior, Hubbard’s fear of scented deodorants as a method of mind control parallels fictional character General Ripper’s notions of “purity of essence” in the movie Dr Strangelove. That the mental illness of its founder could become harmful doctrine is the truly terrifying center of this story. Wright details the deterioration of church member Lisa McPherson in 1995. Clearly suffering from a psychotic break, she refused psychiatric observation, as per Scientologist credo, and was taken to a church base in Florida where she was held for 17 days until she died under Scientologists’ care. The first autopsy determined that Lisa died of “negligent homicide.” However, before the Church of Scientology was indicted, the report was changed to “accidental death.” Why church leaders aren’t in jail is baffling. This is not just a Hollywood tell-all; it is a horror show.
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Before I finished this mystery/thriller (poolside in Calistoga – yes, I know how that sounds), strangers approached me on two separate occasions to rave about it. It’s no surprise that the book is being adapted for the screen with Ben Affleck attached. The structure of the storytelling is what makes this story successful. Flipping back and both between the characters’ POVs, the reader finds herself changing sides throughout the book while also beginning to think these narrators might not be reliable. Flynn takes on the ultimate challenge as a writer – none of her characters are truly likable, but the plot driven story with its twists and turns kept me guessing. This was a great summer novel. I liked the whole thing except the end.
As a fan of the HBO show, this year I finally picked up the first two books of the series A Song of Ice and Fire. Weighing in at over 700 pages each, these books were great fun. I had to restrain myself from reading all five since we’re only in Season 3 on TV, and one book roughly equals one season. Martin does such an amazing job of spinning this yarn of a historical high fantasy that it is easy to forget that this isn’t a work of actual historical fiction (except for the dragons).
This might sound controversial, but I think watching the HBO shows first made me a bigger fan of the books. At the very least it helped me to keep all the characters straight knowing that Jon Snow is one hot bastard and being able to picture Deanerys’ amazing metamorphosis from frail waif to queen of an empire. In an act of total nerdom, I might even re-watch the series now that I’ve read the books. My only issue after two books and three television seasons: more dragons please!
An Image of Us by Robert G. Edwards
I have to congratulate my cousin Rob Edwards who published his first book this year, which is no small feat when you are also raising twin toddlers. And though I haven’t read it yet, I’m told that if you’re a fan of love stories by Nicholas Sparks, then you’ll love this story.