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Year in Review: The best books of 2013

Here's a fine nine

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Book critics routinely lament not having enough time to read all the acclaimed books of a given year. I'm no exception, so in addition to the following list of my nine favorite books of 2013, I'm adding books whose reviews made me want to read them, although I couldn't find the time. If you wish, feel free to consider those unread books as recommendations, too.

NONFICTION

The Unwinding by George Packer. This National Book Award winner was the most impressive work of the year. A vivid, courageous look at the effects of America's economic decline on our shrinking middle class, told through profiles of everyday Americans. Grassroots history-telling at its finest.

Co-Mix: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps by Art Spiegelman. Spiegelman's Maus legitimized the graphic novel format, but his influence on popular culture started in the late 1960s' surge of "underground comics." Those efforts and a cornucopia of equally daring works are in this compilation, based on a museum retrospective, and show Spiegelman at the creative center of the last few decades' literary graphics explosion.

Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel. Inspiring, heartbreaking and sorely needed, Finkel's true tales of Iraq War vets' post-war lives in the States is a clear-eyed look at the inevitable results of, as George McGovern once put it, "old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."

Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy by Peter Carlson. Utterly fascinating history of two Northern journalists who were captured during the Civil War, sent to prison in Statesville, N.C., and escaped over the Appalachians via an underground network of North Carolinians opposed to the Confederacy.

Johnny Cash: The Life by Robert Hilburn. In what will doubtlessly be the definitive biography of the legendary country singer, veteran music writer Hilburn paints a no-holds-barred picture of a tormented, sometimes reckless and thoughtless, but immensely talented and soulful icon of modern American culture.

Wish I'd Had Time: Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin; The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit; Going Clear by Lawrence Wright.

FICTION

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. The surprise National Book Award winner that shouldn't have been a surprise, McBride's farcical, irreverent novel about an enslaved boy who's mistaken for a girl and forcibly freed by John Brown is riveting, biting and hilarious — and blows the traditional reverent tones of historical fiction right out of the water.

Local Souls by Allan Gurganus. This novel, in the form of three stories about people in the author's literary haunt of Falls, N.C., plays off classic lit themes while presenting small-town life as a template for the universal. Gorgeous writing, humor and Gurganus' generous outlook make it a deep yet engrossingly readable work.

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat. A beautiful, delicate series of interconnected stories about life amid death in a charmed/cursed village in Haiti, written by the great chronicler of the Haitian diaspora. If you haven't sampled Danticat's eye-opening writing, do yourself a favor and check her out.

Tenth of December by George Saunders. MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner Saunders has plumbed the national soul in his quirky short stories, melding melancholy and sharp observation with a forgiving brand of cosmic humor. This collection, situated in today's America of the new poor, is his best yet.

Wish I'd Had Time: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez.

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