Monday, December 23, 2013

My Ten Favorite Books from 2013

By James L. Thane

       It's that time of year again when everyone compiles their lists of favorite books, movies and music from the year just ending. So I thought I'd wade in and offer a quick look at my ten favorite books from 2013. Please note that these are not necessarily the "Best" books of the year, just the ones I enjoyed reading the most. Also note that most of these books were released prior to 2013--in some cases, years earlier--but I happened to read or re-read them this year, which is why they made it on the list. In no particular order, my favorite books of the year were:

1. Okay, so I lied right out of the box. William Kent Kruger's Ordinary Grace was easily my favorite book of the year. Set in a small Minnesota town in the summer of 1961, and populated with deftly-drawn characters, it's a brilliant meditation on the ties of family and community and on the nature of grace, whether granted (or withheld) by God or by frail and fallible human beings in times of crisis and terrible loss when any rational person might well doubt his faith in anyone or anything. This is a book that I'll be reading over again for years to come.


2. David Goldfield's America Aflame is an outstanding contemporary overview of the Civil War era, beginning in the 1830s and concluding with the nation's centennial celebration in 1876. What distinguishes Goldfield's treatment of the period from that of earlier historians, is his emphasis on the importance of evangelical Christianity in bringing on the crisis that produced the war. In essence, he argues that evangelical Christians, especially in the North, increasingly saw many of the important issues of the day, slavery in particular, as moral causes that could not be compromised. In consequence, American and their political leaders became increasingly inflexible and in the end, the nation was plunged into a disastrous civil war in which both northerners and southerners would be totally convinced that God was on their side. Goldfield eschews the notion of the war as a gallant, heroic effort and instead portrays in heart-rending and occasionally stomach-wrenching terms the brutal, ugly realities of this war that would cost 630,000 American lives--more than the lives lost in all of the nation's other wars combined.

3. Daniel Woodrell, The Maid's VersionIn 1928, the tiny town of West Table, Missouri, was shattered by the explosion of the Arbor Dance Hall. But although many explanations for the tragedy were put forward, the guilty party or parties were never identified and prosecuted. Alma Dunahew works as a domestic in the house of the town's leading banker. Alma's sister, Ruby, is a carefree young woman who uses and disposes of men as the spirit moves her, until the night she too becomes a victim of the dance hall tragedy. Alma has her own idea about what happened that night, and as the incident overwhelms her emotionally, she gradually loses touch with reality. She alienates members of her own family and many of the townspeople; she loses her job and has to cobble together a living as best she can. Years later, in 1965, her grandson Alek is sent to spend the summer with her and over the course of the summer, Alma slowly tells him the story of the events that led to the explosion of the dance hall. It's a riveting tale, told mostly in flashbacks and it grabs the reader from the brilliant opening line.

4. Joseph Hansen, A Country of Old Men.This is the twelfth and final entry in Joseph Hansen's excellent series featuring insurance investigator, Dave Brandstetter. Published over a period of twenty-one years, from Fadeout in 1970, to this book in 1991, the series was witty and very well-written, with cleverly-plotted stories and well-drawn characters. Set in southern California, the books also captured perfectly the geography and the social and economic currents of the place and time. What really set these books apart was the fact that Hansen created in Dave Brandstetter the first openly gay P.I. to inhabit a series like this, and neither Hansen, not his protagonist ever made a big deal out of it. Dave's sexual orientation was made clear from the opening pages of the first book, and it was simply a fact of life, just like the sexual orientation of any other detective. Dave had a love life and was active sexually throughout the series, but it never seemed intrusive or in any way out of the ordinary. In fact, Dave's romantic attachments were much more believable than those of many of his heterosexual fictional contemporaries. This was an engrossing and fitting conclusion to the series.

5. James Ross, They Don't Dance Much. This Depression-era novel was first published in 1940. The protagonist is a North Carolina farmer named Jack McDonald who is about as down on his luck as any man can get in the middle of the 1930s. The Boll weevils have destroyed his cotton; he can't pay the money he owes at the bank, and the county is about to seize his land for back taxes. Jack makes what seems to be the only logical decision at this point and decides to get drunk. He buys a jar of moonshine from a filling station operator named Smut Milligan. Smut is an ambitious man, and he tells Jack that he's planning to open a road house. He offers Jack a job as his cashier and, having no other viable prospects, Jack accepts the offer. Any reader will certainly understand that a character who signs on with a guy named Smut has probably got a lot of trouble in his immediate future. Milligan will gradually entangle Jack in a variety of evil schemes and in classic noir fashion, Jack slowly sinks before our very eyes, taking one ill-advised step after another until he's finally in the jam of a lifetime. A great read.

6. Don Winslow, The Kings of Cool. A prequel to Winslow's wonderful book, Savages, that shows how the three principal characters in that book, Ben, Chon and O came to know each other and how they grew into the people they would ultimately become. In this case, as in Savages, the profitable business that Ben and Chon have built as growers of prime weed is in jeopardy. The book bounces back and forth between the present day and the counter-culture SOCAL of the 1960s. As Ben, Chon
and O deal with their respective problems, we meet a group of surfer dudes, hippies and people involved in the early days of the dope business, which at that point, simply involved moving grass into Southern California and selling it. Over time, of course, the early days of the counter culture will evolve into something entirely different while back in the present day, the threats to Ben, Chon and O will grow increasingly complicated. Winslow weaves his way through these narratives brilliantly and you simply cannot put the book down as one surprise after another unfolds. The writing itself is inventive, as it was in Savages, and ultimately, the book ends way too soon.

7. John Sandford, Certain Prey. One of my favorite crime fiction series is Sandford's Lucas Davenport series. This is the tenth book in the series, first published in 1999. Sandford excels at creating excellent villains, and this book introduces my favorite of all his bad guys, hit woman Clara Rinker. She's a fantastic character and this is one of the best stories that Sandford has crafted. Anyone new to the series would certainly want to start with the first book, Rules of Prey, but this is a great one to look forward to down the road.

8. Robert Caro, Means of Ascent.  This is the second volume (of four thus far) in Robert Caro's magisterial biography of former president Lyndon B. Johnson. It treats the period from mid-1941, when Johnson lost a special election for the U.S. Senate, through 1948, when Johnson won election to the Senate in a hotly contested and heatedly disputed primary election. Johnson was crushed by his loss in 1941, and believed that the election had been stolen from him by an opponent who was more clever than he. He vowed it would never happen again and Caro describes here the steps that Johnson took to make sure it didn't. I think there are problems with the case that Caro attempts to make here, which I've detailed in my long review of the book. Still, there's no denying that this is a tremendous accomplishment.

9. Jamie Harrison, On the Edge of the Crazies. Beginning in 1995, Jamie Harrison, the daughter of novelist Jim Harrison, wrote four novels set in the fictional town of Blue Deer, Montana, located on the edge of the Crazy Mountains, very near where the real town of Livingston, Montana would be found. The main protagonist was a young archaeologist, Jules Clement, who returned home to Blue Deer and was elected to the office of County Sheriff, a position that had once been held by his father. Blue Deer is populated with a mix of eccentric characters, some of whom are long-time residents and others of whom are more recent arrivals, including a number of writers, artists and other celebrities who have found their way to Big Sky Country in the last few years. Among other things, Harrison cleverly explores the tensions that have developed between native Montanans and the new arrivals. This book opens when someone takes a couple of shots at a screenwriter named George Blackwater. George is wounded but survives, and the chaos that ensues is great fun to follow.

10. Robert Sims Reid, The Red Corvette. Leo Banks is recently retired from the police department in Rozette, Montana. He's living quietly and happily alone, fishing and doing some amateur geology. Then his old friends from college, Sarah and Gerry Heyman, show up in Montana on vacation. Their reunion is awkward, and it's clear that Gerry is a troubled man. He's now a successful doctor in a tiny river town in southern Illinois, and he's recently acquired a new elderly patient who's just been released from prison and moved into the nursing home in Mauvaisterre. The new patient, Mickey Cochran, is mildly retarded, and fifty years earlier, he pled guilty to the murder of the wife of one of the town's most prominent citizens. Now Cochran insists that he did not commit the crime and Gerry Heyman believes him. Gerry wants Leo to come to Illinois and investigate the old case. When Banks refuses, Gerry returns to Illinois and attempts to investigate the case himself and a few weeks later is found on a lonely road, beaten to death. Sarah believes that the local cops are not up the challenge of solving the crime and begs Leo, an experienced homicide detective, to come investigate it himself. Reluctantly Leo agrees, and before long, he finds himself knee deep in two homicide cases, one new and one old, in a town where there are lots of buried secrets. This is a great book with an excellent cast of characters; the plot is intriguing and moves along at just the right pace. I've insisted earlier that Robert Sims Reid is one of those writers who, sadly, did not enjoy nearly the reputation he deserved. It's hard to imagine anyone who might read this book and think otherwise.

11. Johnny Shaw, Big Maria. Okay, so I can't count, either. But after spending way too much time trying to whittle the list down to ten books, I just said the hell with it because I couldn't leave this one off. This is Shaw's second novel, and again he demonstrates his gift for weaving pathos with drop-dead humor and his ability to create memorable characters who are very sympathetic even though most of them are total losers. Big Maria basically amounts to Treasure of Sierra Madre meets a Chevy Chase vacation movie. Three down-on-their-luck characters go searching for a long-lost gold mine, the Big Maria. They press ahead in spite of impossible odds, determined to find the fortune that will set all of their lives on a brighter path. It's an incredible journey, often touching and hilariously funny within the same paragraph. And it speaks volumes to the dreams and to the bonds that drive and inspire all of us.

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