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First, a word about this list: It's honestly just a fluke that my best books rundown for 2013 is so gender-biased. I didn't deliberately set out this year to read so many terrific books by women.
Let's start with Alice McDermott. Without ever hamming up the humility, McDermott's latest novel, Someone, tells the life story of an ordinary woman named Marie who comes of age in mid-20th-century Brooklyn and works for a time in a funeral parlor. McDermott reveals to readers what's distinct about people like Marie who don't have the ego or eloquence to make a case for themselves as being anything special.
Unlike McDermott's submissive Marie, the main character of The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud's latest novel, is like a dormant volcano getting ready to blow. Nora Eldridge is a single elementary school teacher in her 30s who's grimly disciplined herself to settling for less. When a glamorous family enters her life and reignites her artistic and erotic energies, Nora, like Jane Eyre, gets in touch with her anger and her hunger. Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland is another stark novel that charts the fate of two brothers in Calcutta in the 1960s: one a political activist, the other a stick-in-the-mud academic. The Lowland is an ambitious story about the rashness of youth, as well as the hesitation and regret that can make a long life not worth living.
Ambition is what makes Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch my novel of the year: Jumbo-sized, coincidence-laced, it's Dickensian in its cast of characters and range of emotions. In fact, there's a lot of David Copperfield in the main character, Theo Decker, who's 13 when the sudden death of his mother propels him on a cross-country odyssey that includes a season in hell in Las Vegas and brushes with the Russian mob. Always yearning for his lost mother, Theo is like the goldfinch in the 17th century Dutch painting that gives this extraordinary novel its name: an alert yellow bird "chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle."
My debut novel of the year is Adelle Waldman's brilliant comedy of manners and ideas, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Waldman thoroughly inhabits the head of a sensitive cad named Nate Piven, a writer living in Brooklyn. There are many throwaway moments of hilarity here, such as when Nate endures his weekly telephone chat with his father, who asks him the question every aspiring writer is asked nowadays: "Have you given any thought to self-publishing?"
A boy-girl pair ties for my best short-story collection nod: Karen Russell's Vampires in the Lemon Grove contains some genuine creepers, like "Proving Up," a tale of the American frontier that reads like a collaboration between Willa Cather and Emily Dickinson. The standout in George Saunders' collection, Tenth of December, is "The Semplica Girl Diaries" — a story whose power could single-handedly change immigration policy.
In biography, the winner for me this year was Jill Lepore's Book of Ages about Jane Franklin, Ben's little sister. To excavate the remains of Jane's hidden story, Lepore augments her own training as a historian with literary criticism, sociology, archaeology and even some of the techniques of fiction.
Patricia Volk's boisterous memoir, Shocked, also breaks traditional genre rules. Shocked explores the two titanic women who impressed their ideas of beauty and femaleness on Volk: her mother, Audrey, a famous beauty; and the designer Elsa Schiaparelli. In her writing and in her memoir's gorgeous illustrations, Volk has embraced something of Schiaparelli's surrealist approach to art. Roger Rosenblatt's evocative memoir, The Boy Detective, also challenges easy categorization. His book combines a walking tour around vanished Manhattan with a meditation, not only on the classic mystery fiction he loves, but also on those larger metaphysical mysteries that defy even the shrewdest detective's reasoning.
Speaking, at last, of mysteries, my best mystery of the year turns out to be yet another stunner from Scandinavia. The Dinosaur Feather is a debut novel by a Dane named S.J. Gazan, which takes us deep into the insular world of scientists investigating dinosaur evolution. I could be wrong (but I don't think I am) when I say that Gazan disposes of a murder victim here by an infernal means that no other mystery writer — not even the resourceful Dame Agatha — ever concocted. And, yes, in case you're wondering, S.J. Gazan is a woman. Everybody knows the female of the species is deadlier than the male. Happy reading to one and all.