Reading Life

Intriguing books to read this year

pkelley@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 4, 2014 

This story incorrectly described the novel "Someone" by Alice McDermott. The book was on the long list of finalists for the National Book Award but did not win.

Looking for a book to start the new year? Here are some of my 2013 favorites. You’ll notice they include an over-representation of New York-centered works. This was not planned. Maybe the Big Apple is just a good place to set a story.

A book that makes you feel weird about your smartphone: “Super Sad True Love Story” by Gary Shteyngart.

In this dark, comic novel set in near-future New York, America is run by mega-conglomerates with names like LandO’LakesGMFordCredit. Also, everyone carries smartphone-like devices called “apparats” that can rate a person’s hotness and credit-worthiness. Published in 2010, it’s fiction that’s predicting the future pretty accurately.

Another book that makes you feel weird about your smartphone: “Steve Jobs” by Walter Issacson.

Issacson captures Jobs’ quirks and complexity – bizarre eating habits, aversion to deodorant, selfishness – while illuminating his genius for making products that have transformed the way we live.

Worth all 1,300 pages: “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York,” by Robert Caro.

I knew zilch about Moses until I read this 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner. Now I know that he shaped 20th-century New York, for better and worse, without ever holding elected office. Caro’s tenacious reporting and research left me awed. You won’t find a finer study of power and its uses.

Tensest scene ever involving soda bread: “Someone” by Alice McDermott.

McDermott demonstrates how well-chosen details elevate this story of an ordinary Brooklyn girl named Marie. In the author’s skilled hands, small scenes of daily life – young Marie balking when her mom assigns her to make the family’s soda bread – pulse with drama and import.

Revisiting the 1970s: “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann.

This 2009 National Book Award winner for fiction weaves disparate characters – a Catholic priest, mother-daughter prostitutes, a Park Avenue housewife – into a rich, sprawling portrait of New York in the early 1970s.

Makes you thankful for airport security: “The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking” by Brendan Koerner.

In a five-year period starting in 1968, hijackers began seizing U.S. commercial jets at a rate of nearly once a week. Koerner tells the riveting tale of the longest-distance hijacking in American history, set in an era when airlines would rather have a plane hijacked than inconvenience passengers with pesky metal detectors.

Pam Kelley: 704-358-5271;

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