Favorite Books of 2013 From Bazelon, Plotz, Stevens, and the Rest of Slate

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 30 2013 11:55 PM

Best Books 2013: Slate Staff Picks

Slate’s columnists, editors, and bloggers pick their favorite books of the year.

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Illustration by Frederik Peeters

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

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

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
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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

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

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. 

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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 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

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 Girlstyle 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

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

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

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

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

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.

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