Monday: Slate staffers pick their favorite books of 2013.
Tuesday: The overlooked books of 2013.
Wednesday: The best lines of 2013, and the best poetry of 2013.
Thursday: Dan Kois’ 15 favorite books.
Friday: The Slate Book Review Top 10.
A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout and Sara Corbett
Recommended by Emily Bazelon, senior editor
The book that most riveted me this year is Amanda Lindhout’s story of being kidnapped for 460 days in Somalia, written with the fabulous Sara Corbett. Lindhout was a travel lover who was trying to transition from cocktail waitressing (she saved her tips for plane tickets) to journalism, on her way to report on health education for women outside of Mogadishu, when she was abducted by men determined to ransom her. Have you read Jaycee Dugard’s memoir of the years she spent in captivity, or Elizabeth Smart’s new best-seller? With no disrespect to either, this book goes much, much deeper. It includes a heart-pounding escape attempt, Lindhout’s insight into her captors, and the seeds of her recovery. Somehow, since coming home to her native Canada, she has launched a foundation to help Somali women. Here’s a Q&A I did with Lindhout. Her fortitude and honesty has stayed with me and taught me. Pick up this book and I promise you’ll understand why.
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Recommended by Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor
Rosemary, the narrator of this sweet, sad novel, had a decidedly unconventional childhood: For the first six years of her life, she was raised alongside Fern, a chimp, as part of a psychology experiment. Through Rosemary and Fern, Fowler explores how sibling relationships define us—and how foggy childhood memories and guilt can confuse our personal narratives.
The Circle, by Dave Eggers
Recommended (sort of) by Andy Bowers, executive producer, Slate podcasts
This cheerily dystopian tale, centered on the rise of an omnipotent corporate hybrid of Google, Facebook, and Amazon, drove me nuts. The characters are cartoonish and cringingly naïve, verging on idiotic. They routinely fail to see either their company’s megalomaniacal id or the plot’s heavily telegraphed twists. And yet, somehow even those narrative flaws left me with what I suspect is a roughly accurate portrait of Silicon Valley’s techno-utopianism. Eggers’ Kool-Aid–guzzling programmers, happily working 24/7 at their EPCOT-like campus, keep popping into my head every time I read about Google’s latest, no-doubt well-meaning effort to do our thinking for us. We’ll drive the car; you just sit back and shop …
War Reporter, by Dan O’Brien
Recommended by William J. Dobson, politics and foreign affairs editor
This book of poetry by American poet and playwright O’Brien is powerful, inventive, and utterly original in the way it plumbs the numbing horror of being a witness to war. A collaboration between O’Brien and Canadian war reporter Paul Watson, who won the Pulitzer prize for his photograph of a dead U.S. soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, War Reporter is visceral, disturbing, at times consoling, and always honest. O’Brien’s work is an incredible achievement. Anyone who cares about how we go to war—and how we return—must read it.
The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls, by Anton DiSclafani
Recommended by Katherine Goldstein, innovations editor
Don’t let the fact that this novel is set at a boarding school and features a 15-year-old protagonist fool you into thinking it’s for young adults—this alluring and engrossing tale is suspenseful, vivid, and erotic. I’m a sucker for historical fiction with strong female characters, and this is a standout in the genre. While the book was marketed as a romantic summer read, you’ll enjoy becoming wrapped up in Thea Atwell’s world any time of year.
The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election, by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck
Recommended by Richard L. Hasen, Jurisprudence contributor
It’s not quite the book that tells you everything you think you know about political campaigns is wrong, but it is a necessary corrective to the personality-driven and hyperventilating accounts of presidential campaigns driven by a news media out to sell half-baked narratives. An eminently readable book, despite the fact that it is written by political scientists and published by an academic press.
The Birds of America: The Bien Chromolithographic Edition, by John James Audubon with text by Joel Oppenheimer
Recommended by Laura Helmuth, science and health editor
If you love birds, nature, or wildlife art (or love somebody who does), this gorgeous book is the splurge of the season. It reproduces 150 of Audubon’s finest plates in exquisite detail and in a generous 21-by-14-inch edition, using plates commissioned in 1858 by Audubon’s family but whose publication was halted by the Civil War. The opening biography explains why he was one of the greatest adventurer/explorers of U.S. history.
Necessary Errors, by Caleb Crain
Recommended by David Haglund, Brow Beat editor
Necessary Errors is 472 pages long—good-sized pages, too, and the font is fairly small. The setup—several young Americans and Brits spend a few years after college in post-Communist Prague—is unoriginal, and not that much happens, really. Which goes to show that none of those things matter when the writer is someone on whom, as Henry James once said, nothing is lost. Caleb Crain is that sort of a writer, and this novel, which recounts the coming of age and gradual uncloseting of an authorial alter ego, reconstructs a time spent in one place with exquisite, unsentimental detail. On Page 8, Crain describes some cheap Czech croissants, which are “straight, like swollen fingers, because at some point, under socialism, the traditional curve had been eliminated as frivolous.” I knew then I would like this book, and 464 pages later, finishing it was a bittersweet thing.
The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer
Recommended by Fred Kaplan, War Stories columnist
The New Yorker writer George Packer strives for crazy heights—weaving a crisscross narrative of post-meltdown dreams and nightmares in the style of John dos Passos’ USA Trilogy—and, remarkably, he succeeds. His chronicles of the Iraq war, superb though they were, put on hold the literary ambitions unfurled in his 2001 family-memoir cum political history, Blood of the Liberals, but The Unwinding marks a return, plus some. His portraits of ordinary and extraordinary Americans in our own time of trouble exude a rhythmic flair, ranging from staccato to elegiac, that bring to mind an Ellington suite. It won this year’s National Book Award for non-fiction, and deservedly so.
Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, by Adam Minter
Recommended by Joshua Keating, World blogger
This Shanghai-based journalist’s globe-hopping exploration of the worldwide trade in garbage and scrap is both an illuminating tale of a lucrative industry most people are barely aware of and, more surprisingly, an affecting memoir. Minter intersperses on-the-ground reporting from sprawling Chinese scrap yards and scarily high-tech American trash-sorting facilities with childhood memories of growing up around the Minnesota junkyard run by his father and grandmother. It doesn’t sound like it should work, but in fact, it does exactly what books like this are supposed to: show how massive economic and environmental trends impact individual lives. You won’t think about the “paper or plastic” question in quite the same way again.
Cartwheel, by Jennifer DuBois
Recommended by Miriam Krule, copy editor
I don’t usually go for ripped-from-the-headlines novels, but Jennifer DuBois’ fictional account of an Amanda Knox–like character doesn’t just make for a riveting read; it makes you think about how you read. What starts out feeling like a Gone Girl–style thriller doesn’t dwell on what actually happened or even backstabbing plotting. There’s a lot we know, but like the Knox case, there’s a lot we’ll never know. The question is what we do with that information.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
Recommended by Rachael Larimore, managing editor
This chilling story looks like something you might pick for your youngster, befitting a work from the author of Coraline and the Sandman comics series. The protagonist is a precocious bookworm of 7 who befriends an older neighbor girl. But given that this page-turner lays bare all the terrors of childhood, I recommend you keep it from the kids unless you want them to stay up late reading—and then crawl into your bed, asking to sleep with the lights on and the door open.
Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival From the Bottom of the Pile, by Nate Jackson
Recommended by Josh Levin, executive editor
One of the few Slate contributors (along with longtime Oakland Raider Emily Yoffe) to play in the NFL, Jackson is a wise, funny, profane tour guide to the strange world of pro football. It’s a rare gift to have such a keen observer document America’s favorite game from the inside. After reading this book, you’ll want to thank the former Broncos tight end and—what with all the injuries and jerky coaches—maybe send him a sympathy card.
Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, by Yossi Klein Halevi
Recommended by Dahlia Lithwick, columnist
This beautifully researched and written book asks and answers more questions about modern Israel than any book I can ever recall reading. Halevi takes on conflicts that seem to have only one side, sensitively presents them through seven different sets of eyes, then reveals how each of the seven men he follows is himself riven and conflicted. His paratroopers and their dreams for what Israel has been and might become rise and descend like the angels in Jacob’s dream.
Provence, 1970: M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, by Luke Barr
Recommended by J. Bryan Lowder, Outward assistant editor and culture editorial assistant
It’s rare that a book can entice both the stomach and the brain. In his gorgeous novelistic travelogue, Barr succeeds not only in conveying the beauty of French food as experienced by its most famous American devotees, but also in arguing that over the course of a few dinner parties in the French countryside, those people would transform that venerable cuisine into something new—a fresh way of cooking and eating that we’re still enjoying 50 years later.
The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit
Recommended by Mark O’Connell, books columnist
The Faraway Nearby is categorized on its back cover as “memoir/anti-memoir.” The label is confusing in a helpful sort of way: Any attempt to taxonomize the book—or Solnit’s work as a whole—is going to be problematic and contradictory, because it doesn’t properly belong to any one form, but of all the forms it doesn’t belong to, memoir is probably the one in which it’s most comfortably not at home. It begins with Solnit’s mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, before departing on a meanderingly essayistic exploration of family, history, travel, memory, and storytelling. It refuses to be any one thing, or to stay in one place, for any length of time, yet it amounts to a coherent and moving narrative experience. It’s a beautiful performance of controlled waywardness and (pretty much hands down) the best new book I read all year.
Bough Down, by Karen Green
Recommended by Meghan O’Rourke, culture critic and Audio Book Club member
One of the most singular books I read this year—a book that left an indelible impression on me—is Karen Green’s Bough Down, a lyric elegy for a husband who took his own life. Comprising both visual collages and elliptical prose entries, Bough Down is a lament for a lost love, by turns yearning, acerbic, resigned, and alive with protest. Green’s husband was the writer David Foster Wallace, though he is never mentioned by name; the book is a triumph on its own terms.
Taipei, by Tao Lin
Recommended by Troy Patterson, writer at large
For years, I resisted this writer’s zero-degree reports on emotional weather, and for years his cultivated persona (a matter of glassy Warholian froideur, self-medicated stuntwork, and hipstocratic bushwa) greatly aided the endeavor. But this novel—about coming of age, about traveling to Taiwan, about going nowhere—is not to be denied, and I swallowed its atmospheric anomie Houellebecq, line, and sinker. The trick is in its timing—in the pixelated rhythms of the paragraphs and in its sense of how city life calibrates one’s own sense of time.
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield
Recommended by Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy blogger
Moustachioed Canadian space traveler Chris Hadfield’s book is an engaging read by someone who has achieved the near-unachievable, packed with stories and great advice for attaining your own less-than-cosmic goals. It’s a pretty good thing to have your feet on the ground when your head’s above the clouds.
You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures With Two of Music’s Most Maligned Tribes, by Nathan Rabin
Recommended by David Plotz, Slate editor
Phish and Insane Clown Posse are the two most reviled and ridiculed bands in America. Nathan Rabin spent two years immersed in the subcultures surrounding the bands: the vague and wobbly stoners who follow Phish, and the motley, lawless Juggalos who create primal havoc at ICP’s annual Gathering. You Don’t Know Me is awesomely funny, but what’s most remarkable is Rabin’s portrait of the poor, slovenly, excessively tattooed dropouts and weirdos who follow ICP. I’ve rarely read something that was so good at understanding and building empathy for such an unlikely group.
The Maid’s Version, by Daniel Woodrell
Recommended by Emma Roller, editorial assistant
This novel unspools the mystery of a horrific dance hall fire as witnessed by different townfolk in rural Missouri. Woodrell, who also wrote Winter’s Bone, has more than a little of Flannery O’Connor’s Southern spit and gothic wit. And at 164 pages, it’s blessedly short for the English major home on winter break trying to keep up her chops.
Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King
Recommended by Dan Skahen, digital marketing strategist
It’s rare enough to see a sequel in the same league as its predecessor, let alone when that sequel is to one of the most popular novels of all time, from one of the most popular authors in America, over 20 years after its release. But King has accomplished exactly that with this riveting follow-up to The Shining.
Ike and Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage, by Jeffrey Frank
Recommended by Mark Joseph Stern, contributor
A dual biography of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon—two of the most chronically overexposed figures of recent American history—might seem utterly superfluous. Yet in his sly “portrait,” Frank pulls off a neat narrative trick, turning the usually nefarious Nixon into a whimpering victim of the ostensibly high-minded Eisenhower’s cruel manipulations. In light of Frank’s account, Nixon’s infamous groveling seems less like righteous bluster than pathetic desperation. A highly satisfying read.
Inside the Dream Palace, by Sherill Tippins
Recommended by Dana Stevens, movie critic
The Chelsea Hotel has sheltered artists, bohemians, and weirdos ever since it was built in 1884 by a disciple of the French utopian philosopher Charles Fourier. Tippins traces the hotel’s history from its Gilded Age origins through its heyday as a center of postwar countercultures from Beat to punk, and into the real-estate development limbo in which it now resides. This smashingly entertaining book tells the story not just of a building, but of an idea.
City of Night, by John Rechy
Recommended by June Thomas, Outward editor
Although I’ve long been aware of Rechy’s autobiographical novel about a young gay hustler plying his trade around the United States, I didn’t pick it up until Grove Press issued a 50th anniversary edition this November. It was like discovering The Great Gatsby. City of Night isn’t just an unflinching portrait of a lost gay world; it’s also lush and lyrical, a wonderful evocation of a young man’s longing for something, someone, somewhere.
The Skies Belong to Us, by Brendan I. Koerner
Recommended by Julia Turner, deputy editor
When you are waiting in a long line for your flight this holiday season, what better to read than a book that will make you grateful for airport security? In a mesmerizing account of what his subtitle calls the “Golden Age of Hijacking,” Koerner (who used to write the Explainer column for Slate) offers a portrait of just how crazy American air travel got during the 1960s and early ’70s, when more than 150 flights were hijacked with varying degrees of ambition (and success). At the center of Koerner’s narrative is one of the most fantastical hijackings of all: the time U.S. veteran Roger Holder and his gal pal Cathy Kerkow hijacked a flight from the West coast all the way to Africa, with more than $500,000 in ransom. But the book also chronicles in fascinating detail how lax airport security was during this period and how hard airlines fought to keep it that way, even as the skyjacking epidemic escalated: Airlines thought passengers simply wouldn’t fly if we were subjected to metal detectors and other invasive procedures.
Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld
Recommended by Katy Waldman, assistant editor
It’s one of the sharpest and most nuanced portraits of twin-ness that I have encountered in years of seeking my (quadruple?) reflection in twin literature. Even onlys will appreciate the lucid, funny tone, the way Sittenfeld can turn any throwaway observation into a moment of truth. Amazingly, all her details land. I am not sure what the sports equivalent of that faculty might be—perfect spiral tosses every time?—but the effect is less of a world created and more of a suspicion that these characters have snuck into our world. (My sister liked it, too.)
The Big Truck That Went By, by Jonathan M. Katz
Recommended by David Weigel, political reporter
“Important” books rarely end up as grounded and thrilling as The Big Truck That Went By. Jonathan Katz, the Associated Press’ man in Haiti for years, was finishing up his stint there when he woke up to the Jan. 10, 2010, earthquake. Katz demystifies a “third world” tragedy with ease, taking us through the rigors of filing stories in Port-au-Prince, the doddering of President Rene Preval, the logistics of refugee camps, and the compound tragedy of a cholera epidemic brought to the country by those who were supposed to save it. Katz is a superb, perceptive writer, something that makes even encounters with well-covered celebrities (Bill Clinton, Sean Penn) more informative than the average #longread profile. He weaves in a love story, and he breaks real news, all on the way to capturing a horrific event you’ll no longer be free to forget.
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
Recommended by Jacob Weisberg, chairman of the Slate Group
For sheer forward propulsion, nothing I’ve read in a long time has matched this novel. It reminded me of what I loved about Underworld: the depiction of New York in the ’70s, the grasp of politics, the portrayal of a society of artists, the understanding of what it is that real artists do. Rachel Kushner is one for sure, and I can’t wait until she writes another novel.
The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri
Recommended by Megan Wiegand, copy editor
Whenever a favorite author or band releases a new work, I get nervous—will it live up to the greatness of its predecessors? Within the first few pages of The Lowland, Lahiri’s first novel since 2003’s The Namesake, I breathed a sigh of relief. Tracing the relationship between two brothers coming of age in 1960s India through the modern day, The Lowland delivers Lahiri’s trademark lyrical prose woven with a fast-paced narrative and indelible characters. The brothers’ vivid (and painstakingly researched) worlds, from political revolution in India to the coast of Rhode Island, take readers on an emotional journey of love, family, and identity. It’s a must-read for Lahiri fans and newcomers alike.
The Silent Wife, by A.S.A. Harrison
Recommended by Emily Yoffe, Dear Prudence columnist
An obscure writer in her 60s, whose previous attempts at novels have failed, writes a taut, propulsive story of infidelity. It generates international attention and acclaim, and upon the book’s publication, the author dies of cancer. This is not the plot of The Silent Wife, but sadly it’s the story of its author, A.S.A. Harrison. Her silenced voice hangs over her book and lends this story of betrayal and revenge an extra measure of tragedy. At the heart of this psychologically acute suspense story is a couple falling apart: Jodi, a therapist with a placid exterior who’s actually living a life of denial and quiet rage, and Todd, a compulsive philanderer who can’t deal honestly with any of the women in his life. Harrison has the skill to make both understandable, even sympathetic figures. It’s a loss that we will get no more from Harrison, whose debut shows she was a fully formed talent.