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Best Books of 2013 for Vicarious Experiences You'll Never Forget

Excellent. Reading her account proves almost as cathartic as writing it must have been.

WAVE

A devastating but ultimately redemptive memoir by a survivor of the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami, who must come to terms with the deaths of her husband, her young sons and her parents from the natural disaster that somehow spared her.

Deraniyagala is an economist, and her matter-of-fact account is all the more powerful for its lack of literary flourish, though the craft and control reflect an exceptional literary command. Every word in these short, declarative sentences appears to have been chosen with great care, as if to sentimentalize the experience or magnify the horror (as if that were possible) would be a betrayal of all she has lost. It’s no surprise when the first and strongest acknowledgment goes to her therapist: “This book would not exist without his guidance and persuasion. With him I was safe, to try and grasp the unfathomable, and to dare to remember.” “The water was pulling me along with a speed I did not recognize, propelling me forward with a power I could not resist,” she writes of what she later learned was “the biggest natural disaster ever,” one that would claim a quarter of a million casualties. “I had to surrender to this chaos…,” she continues. “My mind could not sort anything out.” Eventually, the numbness of her survival gives way to profound guilt (she should have done something, she should never have brought them there), rage, a refusal to sleep (lest she awake to the fantasy that her family was still alive), an attempt to avoid any experience or memories she shared with them and an obsessive pull toward suicide. And then, as miraculously as her rescue, she eventually reached the point where “I want to remember. I want to know.” The more she remembers about their life before the tsunami, and in greater depth and detail, she writes “I am stunned. I want to put a fist through these last six years and grab our life. Claim it back.”

Excellent. Reading her account proves almost as cathartic as writing it must have been.

Pub Date: March 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-96269-0

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

An eloquent attempt to grasp the Japanese experience of the “The Wave,” which was “center and fringe at once, a totality,...

FACING THE WAVE

A JOURNEY IN THE WAKE OF THE TSUNAMI

Lyrical, meandering dispatches and eyewitness accounts from the devastation of the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Deeply engaged in Japanese culture and history since her first trips to Japan in 1968, poet and nature writer Ehrlich (In the Empire of Ice: Encounters in a Changing Landscape, 2010, etc.) made several visits to Japan in the months after the shattering earthquake and tsunami. Moving along the coast in the company of her friend Masumi and her family, who live in Sendai, near the epicenter, Ehrlich tried simply to make sense of the unspeakable horror the Japanese experienced, recording accounts by traumatized survivors and her own poignant on-the-ground observations. The tsunami waves wrecked 400 miles of Japan’s northeastern coast and caused the lethal meltdown of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant, which had long needed repairs, resulting in a national scandal. Exploring the coast where Masumi spent her childhood, wearing protective clothing against radiation, Ehrlich viewed a “wild place of total devastation,” where the sea wall was useless in keeping back the towering waves and entire towns were wiped out. The author records eyewitness blogs, such as by the fisherman who rushed out to sea just after the last big earthquake struck (preceded by several smaller ones) and watched the tsunami devastate his home, before being stuck for days on his boat without food. Ehrlich visited shrines that became evacuation centers and crematoriums during the crisis, and she mixes some Buddhist ideas of perishability with haiku from Matsuo Basho and her own work. Ehrlich renders the enormity of loss in a fashion comprehensible to her American readers.

An eloquent attempt to grasp the Japanese experience of the “The Wave,” which was “center and fringe at once, a totality, both destructive and beautiful.”

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-90731-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Nov. 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2012

A surprisingly open, extremely timely examination of the sexual coming-of-age for Egyptian youth.

SEX AND THE CITADEL

INTIMATE LIFE IN A CHANGING ARAB WORLD

A daring new study finds the newly liberated Egyptians poised to demand more sexual freedom in the face of religious fundamentalism.

The Arab Spring has brought the Egyptians in particular to the brink of a sexual revolution not unlike the movement that struck the West 40 years ago, writes Economist and Al Jazeera English journalist El Feki, who is trained in molecular immunology and serves as vice chair of the U.N.’s Global Commission on HIV and Law. However, Egypt’s new order maintains a liberal minority and a conservative majority (e.g., the Muslim Brotherhood), and the push back against sexual liberation, especially as demanded by women, is daunting and unsure. El Feki, born in England and raised in Canada by an Egyptian father and Welsh mother, embarks on her subject with healthy doses of humor and irony, offering a selected look at erotic classical Arabic writings that flourished famously during the Abbasid period from the 8th to 10th centuries in Baghdad. Arab culture traditionally celebrated sexuality as compatible with elements of the Islamic faith, but what gradually occurred in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world was that sexuality was equated with the “licentiousness” of the imperialists. The response to colonial occupation meant returning to the basics, to Islamic fundamentalism and the Salafi movement, the latter allowed to emerge openly after the recent Arab Spring. With personal stories bolstered by facts and figures, El Feki looks at the tensions between what is halal (permitted under Islamic law) and haram (forbidden) or zina (downright debauchery). She also discusses sex education, abortion, pornography, homosexuality, and even lingerie and cross-dressing. As a daughter of the region, El Feki is also deeply engaged in and hopeful for greater democratization in personal relations.

A surprisingly open, extremely timely examination of the sexual coming-of-age for Egyptian youth.

Pub Date: March 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-37739-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2012

Amuses, informs and inspires—then, finally, rips open the heart.

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THE BOOK OF MY LIVES

An acclaimed novelist—winner of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant and finalist for the National Book Award (The Lazarus Project, 2008, etc.)—returns with an affecting memoir about his youth in Sarajevo and his escape and adjustment to the West.

Hemon begins with the birth of his baby sister. He evokes his boyhood jealousy and confusion with honesty and clarity, recalling how he once nearly murdered the infant. When war in the Balkans erupted (once again) in the 1990s, his family eventually fled. His father went to Canada with his wife and the author’s sister in 1993; Hemon had been eking out a living as a journalist in Sarajevo, a city he loved. He maintains an appealing, self-deprecating voice throughout these early chapters, readily recognizing his own delusions and youthful arrogance. He got a chance to visit Chicago for a month in 1992 and didn’t return. The second half of the memoir charts his early struggles in the city and his passions for soccer and chess, passions he was able to release once he found like-minded groups of others. Always a voracious reader (and aficionado of American popular culture), Hemon learned English, taught ESL for a while, then began writing in English, as well. He writes forthrightly about the failure of his first marriage: Something so right, he thought, quickly declined into something bad (shouting matches). But later he met and fell in love with his current wife, who, at the time, was editing a collection to which he was contributing. Hemon’s technique is not conventional—this is no linear boyhood-to-manhood narrative. The chapters, in fact, could in many ways stand alone. But their cumulative emotional power—accelerated by a wrenching final section about the grievous illness of his younger daughter—eventually all but overwhelms.

Amuses, informs and inspires—then, finally, rips open the heart.

Pub Date: March 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-0374115739

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 16, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2013

From a perspective little known to Americans, a masterful account of how and why World War II began.

JAPAN 1941

COUNTDOWN TO INFAMY

An Asian specialist examines the reasons behind the riskiest military venture in Japan’s history.

Why did Japan attack Pearl Harbor and begin a war it had virtually no chance of winning? In this focused, informed and persuasive book, Hotta (Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War, 1931-45, 2007) explains the cultural forces at work and the political, economic, diplomatic and military issues that occupied the government in the years, and especially the months, preceding December 7, 1941. Without in any way excusing or justifying the officials who made the momentous decision to begin an entirely “preventable and unwinnable” war, she sympathetically tells the story of leaders maneuvered into a strategic box, albeit one largely of their own making, from which war appeared the only escape. Among Hotta’s many sensitive portraits: the young Emperor Hirohito; Prime Minister Tojo (not the bloodthirsty dictator of American propaganda) and the fatally indecisive Prince Konoe who preceded him; Adm. Yamamoto, architect of the Pearl Harbor attack; Matsuoka, the longtime foreign minister; and Nomura, ambassador to the United States. Lending depth to her narrative, the author includes sketches of lesser figures like the novelist Kafu, author of an incisive diary about public events, and the brilliant and eccentric Kuroshima, Yamamoto’s premier strategist. Already weary from a long war with China, with rice rationed and the public kept largely clueless about the government’s machinations, the nation’s leaders paused. Nevertheless, with the cultural imperative of consensus masking intraservice rivalries and deep divisions among the military and political classes, with the racism and imperialism of Western powers painfully rankling, with the desire for national greatness fueling a reckless expansionism, Japan gambled on a war where success depended almost entirely on forces outside its control. The impressively credentialed Hotta effortlessly returns us to the moment just before the dice were so disastrously rolled.

From a perspective little known to Americans, a masterful account of how and why World War II began.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-307-59401-3

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

A unique voice with a provocative point of view.

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FRESH OFF THE BOAT

A MEMOIR

Up-and-coming celebrity chef Huang serves up a raw memoir recounting his life as an angry young man chafing under generations of stifling Chinese tradition and all-encompassing American "whiteness."

Three things inform the multitalented restaurateur's identity: food, basketball and hip-hop. Although not necessarily in that order, each is infused in virtually every sentence, many of which are laugh-out-loud funny. All three provided the socially conscious author with the succor he needed to make it as an Asian "OutKast" growing up in the Deep South. The son of a former Taiwanese gangster father and a money-obsessed mother, Huang spent his formative years posting up with his style-obsessed buddies and generally bucking authority and the status quo. The author renders his portraits of his many colorful friends and family as vividly and spectacularly as his recipe for beef noodle soup. Huang may have an opinion on everything from religion to RZA, but his deeply contemplative nature deflects any accusations of self-righteousness. His history of violence is more problematic, however. Physical violence both on the streets and inside the home punctuated the author's younger years, and while the latter is thoughtfully unpacked and explored, the former is too often glorified. It could have all easily gone quite differently for Huang. At one point, he was arrested after driving a car into a crowd of threatening rivals and was packed off to Taiwan in order to escape punishment. However, he used the opportunity to reconcile his Asian heritage and focus his unrelenting energy on the things he really wanted out of life. The inspiring result became his trendsetting East Village eatery, Baohaus.

A unique voice with a provocative point of view.

Pub Date: Feb. 5, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-679-64488-0

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: Jan. 14, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2013

A gorgeously rich tapestry of an amazing life and culture.

A FORT OF NINE TOWERS

AN AFGHAN CHILDHOOD

A carpet designer and businessman's profoundly moving account of a childhood and adolescence lived amid the Afghan civil war.

When Omar was growing up in the early 1990s, his native city of Kabul was “like a huge garden.” Life was full and happy, and his only concern was besting his cousin Wakeel at kite flying. But then rival Mujahedeen factions began fighting each other, transforming the once-Edenic city into a bloody wasteland that reminded Omar of “an American horror movie.” The family sought refuge in Qala-e-Noborja, a fort on the outskirts of Kabul that a friend of Omar’s father had transformed into a lush, green compound. As rockets and gunfire exploded around them, the family planned for their return home. Omar and his father attempted to go back to the family house, only to find it occupied by sadistic soldiers who imprisoned and tortured the pair before freeing them. As the ring of terror tightened around the fort, the family fled Kabul. Their dangerous journey took them through central and northern Afghanistan, where they camped in caves located inside a giant statue of the Buddha and joined nomad relatives on their overland treks. Along the way, Omar met, and fell in love with, an older deaf-mute Turkmen girl who taught him how to weave carpets. These skills would eventually help him support his starving, demoralized family and secretly provide work to young Kabuli women who suffered under the misogynist regime of the Taliban. As lyrical as it is haunting, this mesmerizing, not-to-be-missed debut memoir is also a loving evocation of a misunderstood land and people.

A gorgeously rich tapestry of an amazing life and culture.

Pub Date: April 16, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-374-15764-7

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2013

Enriched by Paterniti’s singular art of storytelling, this is a deeply satisfying voyage across a remarkable landscape into...

THE TELLING ROOM

A TALE OF LOVE, BETRAYAL, REVENGE, AND THE WORLD'S GREATEST PIECE OF CHEESE

A beguiling, multifaceted narrative larded with delightful culinary, historical, political, psychological and literary layers, set in the kingdom of Castile with a piece of cheese in the starring role.

Paterniti (Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein’s Brain, 2000) gracefully unravels how tradition, culture and a sense of place affect the human heart, while simultaneously wrestling with the joys and boundaries of storytelling and journalism. During a 1991 proofreading stint at a deli, following his graduation from the University of Michigan’s creative writing program, the author read a paragraph describing a “sublime” cheese from Castile. “There was something about all of it, not just the perfection of Ari’s prose,” writes Paterniti, “but the story he told—the rustic cheesemaker, the ancient family recipe, the old-fashioned process by which the cheese was born, even the idiosyncratic tin in which it was packaged—that I couldn’t stop thinking about.” Years later, the author, determined to find the storied cheesemaker and learn his tale, set off for Spain on what became a 10-year odyssey. Paterniti rapidly fell under the spell of the loquacious cheesemaker, Ambrosio, and the tiny village of Guzmán, situated in the “vast, empty highlands of the Central plateau of Spain.” At the center of the narrative is the saga of betrayal of Ambrosio and his artisanal cheese by his boyhood friend, Julian. Paterniti’s quest for the true story surrounding the creation and demise of Ambrosio’s cheese rambles in delightful directions. The author probes subjects as diverse as the first human encounter with cheese; an investigation into the origin of Pringles; geology; and Spanish “legends, farces and folktales.”

Enriched by Paterniti’s singular art of storytelling, this is a deeply satisfying voyage across a remarkable landscape into the mysteries and joys of the human heart.

Pub Date: July 30, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-385-33700-7

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Dial Press

Review Posted Online: April 27, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2013

Reading this enlightening book won’t only open a window into Theroux’s mind, it will also impart a deeper understanding of...

THE LAST TRAIN TO ZONA VERDE

MY ULTIMATE AFRICAN SAFARI

The acclaimed travel writer and novelist chronicles his journey through Africa as tourist, adventure-seeker, thinker and hopeful critic.

Theroux (The Lower River, 2012, etc.) is the purest kind of travel writer; he offers no tips, no hotels gems or restaurant recommendations, and very few grand, clichéd this-is-what-my-journey-taught-me-about-myself moments. Instead, the author dissects a place and its inhabitants, luxuriating in its history and confronting its present reality. In what he terms his “ultimate African safari,” Theroux manages to incorporate—rather than avoid—the general viewpoints of literature about the continent. He revels in the simple, historical life of the bush but acknowledges its basis in fantasy. He decries the chronic ailments of governments and citizens and still appreciates the vast expanses of beauty, but without the wide-eyed wonder of so many travelers. In this intensely personal book, Theroux honestly confronts racism, stigma, privilege and expectations. He describes both the privilege and the perversity of slum tours and points out Western complicity in what he calls the voyeurism of poverty, which turns poverty itself into a profitable endeavor. After years of travel writing Theroux willingly questions the very relevance of the endeavor. If the narrative occasionally feels repetitive, it is due to the fact that the author is stressing an important point—though his constant ranting about rap music does start to sound like an old man griping. Still, even his age is significant, and Theroux continually demonstrates the wonder and enthusiasm that has led him on so many adventures during his long career. “Show me something new, something different, something changed, something wonderful, something weird!” he writes. “There has to be revelation in spending long periods of time in travel, otherwise it is more waste.”

Reading this enlightening book won’t only open a window into Theroux’s mind, it will also impart a deeper understanding of Africa and travel in general.

Pub Date: May 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-618-83933-9

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2013

An extraordinarily frank cultural study/memoir that eschews platitudes of both tragedy and hope.

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FAREWELL, FRED VOODOO

A LETTER FROM HAITI

A veteran journalist captures the functioning chaos of Haiti.

New Yorker writer Wilentz has been covering shattering events in Haiti since the Duvalier dynasty fell in 1986, culminating in her book The Rainy Season. Now based in Los Angeles, the author again felt the fatal pull of the country after the recent natural-disaster devastation and returned repeatedly in order to record the uneven progress in reconstruction and humanitarian aid as well as interview many of the so-called (in politically incorrect parlance) Fred Voodoos, or Everymen on the street, for a reality check. Describing herself as “a naïve person, and a romantic,” she has grown enormously wary of the good intentions heaped on the country from one crisis to another and is frequently cynical after many years of her “Haitian education.” Since its very inception as the first (and last) slave revolution in history, Haiti has been victimized, plunged into poverty, denuded of resources and patronized by rich white neighbors bent on a “salvation fantasy” that has never lifted the country out of poverty. After the hurricane, suddenly whites appeared everywhere to help out. While Wilentz does chronicle some extremely good work being done—by the indefatigable infectious-disease specialist Dr. Megan Coffee and by actor Sean Penn in setting up a workable refugee camp—much of what the journalist witnessed remained a familiar profound malaise and dysfunction. Seeking out her old acquaintances and former protégés of President Aristide, the author found drugged-out zombies, many living in permanent refugee camps without proper sanitation and little or no literacy. She learned that nothing is as it seems in Haiti. Like voodoo ceremonies, society runs on “artifice and duplicity,” and its government (a kleptocracy) has been organized “to be porous and incompetent, to allow for corruption.”

An extraordinarily frank cultural study/memoir that eschews platitudes of both tragedy and hope.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4516-4397-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 25, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2012

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