It will be remembered as the year of Alice Munro, of course, but 2013 also brought a bounty of exceptional new books. Here, we present excerpts of the Top 10 of the year – the works that asked important questions, garnered prizes and nominations, surprised and inspired us and, most simply, were just plain excellent – as selected by Globe Books editor Jared Bland.
By Joseph Boyden (Hamish Hamilton Canada)
Boyden’s heartbreaking tale of early Canada connects three main story lines across the expanse of the war between the Huron and the Iroquois.
“The wampum we were to present him took our most talented artisans weeks of intense work, the weaving of our stories and of our hopes and wishes and especially of our promises, each single, hand-polished bead cut and shaped from foreign shells, drilled for the thread to pass through, each bead glittering and weighing almost nothing but immeasurable in price when it’s chosen and sewn next to the other so that our hopes and our history emerge into something that can be held, that can be weighed in the hands, to be passed around and explained.”
By Eleanor Catton (McClelland & Stewart)
Catton’s ambitious, Booker-winning novel of the 19th-century New Zealand gold rush is a sophisticated and surprising exercise in voice and vision.
“At midday on a Saturday Harald Nilssen could usually be found in his office, sitting before a stack of contracts, wills, and bills of lading, patting his breast every ten minutes or so to check again the silver pocket watch that would release him to his luncheon – which he took with medical regularity each day at the Nonpareil. Nilssen recommended this routine to any who would listen, believing very stoutly in the curative properties of dark gravy, pastry, and ale; he did much recommendation, in fact, and often made an example of his own customs for the profit of other, less visionary men.”
By Lynn Coady (Astoria)
Coady’s Giller-winning book of stories ranges wildly in style and content, but taken as a whole is an ideal introduction to one of Canada’s finest writers.
“I remember Mr. Hope from when he brought the boy with an eyeball falling out to be gawked at by our Grade One class. The two of them stood up there side by side, saying nothing for a good while as the life seeped out of us – our childish noise becoming less and less. I don’t know about the rest of Grade One but, personally, I had been riding high up until that moment. Earlier that same day, for example, I had discovered I could read inside my head. Everybody else in my class could only read out loud, and not even very well.”
By Philipp Meyer (Ecco)
Meyer’s brilliant, bloody book tracks generations of family history in Texas, and features, in patriarch Eli McCullough, one of recent literature’s most memorable characters.
“Thinking back, it is plain my mother knew what would happen. The human mind was open in those days, we felt every disturbance and ripple; even those like my brother were in tune with the natural laws. Man today lives in a coffin of flesh. Hearing and seeing nothing. The Land and Law are perverted. The Good Book says I will gather you to Jerusalem to the furnace of my wrath. It says thou art the land that is not cleansed. I concur. We need a great fire that will sweep from ocean to ocean and I offer my oath that I will soak myself in kerosene if promised the fire would be allowed to burn.”
By Donna Tartt (Little, Brown)
Tartt’s expansive (some say Dickensian) tale of a young man in love with a very famous painting is a piercing mediation on how we relate to the objects in our lives.
“The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a glancing sunstruck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s angle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature – fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”
By Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown)
Gladwell’s latest documents ways in which successful people turn their disadvantages into advantages, resulting in an inspiring, and surprisingly moral, call to arms.
“What happens next is a matter of legend. David puts one of his stones into the leather pouch of a sling, and he fires at Goliath’s exposed forehead. Goliath falls, stunned. David runs toward him, seizes the giant’s sword, and cuts off his head. ‘The Philistines saw that their warrior was dead,’ the biblical account reads, ‘and they fled.’
The battle is won miraculously by an underdog who, by all expectations, should not have won at all. This is the way we have told one another the story over the many centuries since. It is how the phrase ‘David and Goliath’ has come to be embedded in our language – as a metaphor for improbable victory. And the problem with that version of the events is that almost everything about it wrong.”
By Margaret MacMillan (Allen Lane)
MacMillan, one of the world’s leading historians, offers a fresh take on the First World War, arguing that it wasn’t inevitable, as we’ve been lead to believe.
“War, it was hoped, would become obsolete. It was an inefficient way of settling disputes. Moreover, war was becoming too costly, both in terms of the drain on the resources of the combatants and the scale of the damage that new weapons and technology could inflict. Bankers warned that even if a general war were to start, it would grind to a half after a few weeks simply because there would be no way of financing it.
Most of the copious literature on the events of 1914 understandably asks why the Great War broke out. Perhaps we need to ask another sort of question: why did the long peace not continue?”
By George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Packer, a New Yorker staff writer, offers an essential, character-driven look at contemporary America in its twin extremes of excess and decline.
“The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before – freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again. And with freedom the unwinding brings its illusions, for all these pursuits are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. Winning and losing are all – American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.”
By Sheryl Sandberg (Knopf)
Facebook COO Sandberg set in motion one of the year’s central debates by arguing that women must change the way they act in the workplace in order to succeed.
“I believe that if more women lean in, we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities. Shared experience forms the basis of empathy and, in turn, can spark the institutional changes we need. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women. We also need men to lean into their families more, especially since research has consistently found that children with involved and loving fathers have higher levels of psychological well-being and better cognitive abilities.
The hard work of generations before us means that equality is within our reach. We can close the leadership gap now. Each individual’s success can make success a little easier for the next. We can do this – for ourselves, for one another, for our daughters and for our sons. If we push hard now, this next wave can be the last wave. In the future there will be no female leaders. There will just be leaders.”
By Graeme Smith (Knopf Canada)
Smith, a former Globe correspondent, documents the horrors of the Afghanistan conflict, and critically examines the difficulty of war reporting as an endeavour.
“I was still new to war, but I’d later realize that this happens a lot in conflict zones: something appears, and disappears, and you rarely get a chance to go back and figure out what happened. Usually it’s not that storms obscure the view in any literal sense, it’s just that chaos makes the facts hazy. Even when returning to the scene of an incident, as I was about to discover in the coming hours, it’s often impossible to piece together any semblance of truth.”Report Typo/Error