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The Best Books Of 2013

Plus the best books of 2013, “The Flamethrowers,” “White Girls,” “The Unwinding” and a whole lot more.

A selection of some of our guests' favorite books of the 2013 publishing year. (Courtesy The Publishers)

A selection of some of our guests’ favorite books of the 2013 publishing year. (Courtesy The Publishers)

It’s been a good year for books.  Cute kitties may dominate the web, but good writers are breaking out all over.  Critics are smiling.  Readers, too.  We’ve got a big John Dos Passos-style American deep dive in George Packer’s “The Unwinding.”  Motorcyles and avant-garde art in Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers.”  Men down, in Jesmyn Ward’s “The Men We Reaped.”  White girls in Hilton Als’ “White Girls.”  A freed slave and John Brown in James McBride’s “The Good Lord Bird.”  And a whole lot more. This hour On Point: the best books, great reads, of 2013.

– Tom Ashbrook


Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review. (@ParisReview)

Edan Lepucki, staff writer at The Millions. Author of the forthcoming, “California.” (@EdanL)

Richard Howorth, owner of Square Books in Oxford, MS. (@SquareBooks)

From Tom’s Reading List

Slate: The Overlooked 2013 — “The Slate Book Review runs just 15 pieces a month. But when 33 books are publishedevery hour, it’s hard to keep up. We asked SBR writers what 2013 titles they felt were criminally underappreciated. Check out the buried treasures they unearthed.”

Huffington Post: Best Books Of 2013 — “This year has introduced us to more engaging reading material than we could have thought to ask for. By fall, our bedside tables and workspaces began to resemble physical manifestations of W.H. Auden’s required reading syllabus, in the most wonderful and nightmarish way possible. Happily, and aided by plenty of coffee, we persevered, and this is what we discovered: innovative short story collections shaking up our notions of form and convention, much-awaited epic novels that absolutely live up to their hype, and illuminating reporting on everything from illegal foods to L. Ron Hubbard. ”

National Journal: The Best Political Books We Read In 2013 — “It’s not very creative to pick the National Book Award winner as your favorite read of the year, but whatever, it’s that good. In his book, Packer manages to tell countless stories about the country’s economic transformations from characters actually living through them.”

The On Point Staff’s Best Books Of 2013

Lorin Stein’s Best Books

“Pitch Dark” by Renata Adler

“All That Is” by James Salter

“Dark Lies The Island” by Kevin Barry

“Traveling Sprinkler” by Nicholson Baker 

“The Woman Upstairs” by Claire Messud 

“The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner 

“The Fun Parts”by Sam Lipsyte

“The Unwinding” by George Packer

“White Girls” by Hilton Als

“White Out: The Secret Life of Heroin” by Michael W. Clune


Edan Lepucki’s Best Books

“The Interestings” by Meg Wolitzer  

“American Dream Machine” by Matthew Specktor

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

“If I’d Known You Were Coming” by Kate Milliken

“Cartwheel” by Jennifer duBois

“A Questionable Shape” by Bennett Simms 

“White Girls” by Hilton Als

“The Faraway Nearby” by Rebecca Solnit

“Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward

“Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life” by Dani Shapiro


Richard Howorth’s Best Books

“Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward 

“The Tilted World” by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

“Collision Low Crossers” by Nicholas Dawidoff

“Flora” by Gail Godwin

“Respect Yourself” by Robert Gordon

“Want Not” by Jonathan Miles

“A Reader’s Book of Days” by Tom Nissley

“Sycamore Row” by John Grisham

“The Education of a Lifetime” by Robert Khayat 

“All That Is” by James Salter


Listener Favorites

“An Astronaut’s Guide to Life On Earth” by Chris Hadfield

“Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff

“The Metropolitan Revolution” By Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley

“Fear Itself” by Ira Katznelson 

“The Telling Room” by Michael Paterniti 

“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

“The Dinner” By Herman Koch

“The Brothers” by Stephen Kinzer

“The Manor” by Mac Griswold

“The Light Between Oceans” by M.L. Stedman

“One Summer: America 1927″ By Bill Bryson 

“The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us”  by Noson S. Yanofsky

“Until I Say Good-bye” by Susan Spencer-Wendel

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  • ToyYoda

    OT: Lists are fun to do!

    Might I recommend expanding the list-subjects? Discover Magazine has the top 100 science stories of the year. It would be nice to get the editor of Discover on, and do a segment on this list.


    • wolfmusic

      I agree one hundred percent. Good idea. These (including Scientific American) also have very good book recommendations in each issue.

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      I think this is a great idea.

  • Coastghost

    “Best books of 2013″: fine and dandy for writers whose work gets published and marketed in book form, perhaps, with all the year-in-review exposure from shows like this–but what about fiction only being published online? NPR celebration of the publishing industry is explicable, but then NPR celebrates all kinds of questionable accomplishments, fictional and otherwise.
    The immortal Thomas Campbell once notoriously commemorated Napoleon’s execution of a publisher: until discussion of the academic captivity of American letters catches up with eager industry attempts to salvage stocks of year-end remainders, writers for whom publication is not an option do well to labor against the publishing industry and its enablers.

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      Do you have any suggestions?

      • Coastghost

        Sam, thank you for asking. I hesitate to respond because I myself travel in rather narrow circles. Any number of e-zines live and die each year, but one handful you may care to consult would include sites like Metazen, or Fictionaut, or Gone Lawn Journal (based there in New England, Massachusetts or Connecticut, I think). storySouth seems to endure, ditto for Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. Any links you find at any of these sites could lead you to any collection of online publishers or writers you’d care to profile, for the several kinds of writing appearing only in online venues, typically flash fiction in its several capacities (fantasy, SF, realism, horror, absurdism, et cetera), but also essays, travel writing, et cetera. (If you have further queries, we might would need to talk, I have a 617 number for WBUR somewhere, and an 800 # for “On Point” . . .)

  • monicaroland

    Susan Spencer-Wendel wrote a powerful memoir about her battle with ALS — Lou Gehrig’s disease. “Until I Say Goodbye” is written in a punchy, journalistic style, quite befitting for a former news reporter. She does not take a “pity me” approach; rather, she writes simply and with humor. I couldn’t put it down.

  • Expanded_Consciousness

    The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us

    by Noson S. Yanofsky

    Publisher: The MIT Press (August 23, 2013)

    “Many books explain what is known about the universe. This book investigates what cannot be known. Rather than exploring the amazing facts that science, mathematics, and reason have revealed to us, this work studies what science, mathematics, and reason tell us cannot be revealed. In The Outer Limits of Reason, Noson Yanofsky considers what cannot be predicted, described, or known, and what will never be understood. He discusses the limitations of computers, physics, logic, and our own thought processes.

    Yanofsky describes simple tasks that would take computers trillions of centuries to complete and other problems that computers can never solve; perfectly formed English sentences that make no sense; different levels of infinity; the bizarre world of the quantum; the relevance of relativity theory; the causes of chaos theory; math problems that cannot be solved by normal means; and statements that are true but cannot be proven. He explains the limitations of our intuitions about the world — our ideas about space, time, and motion, and the complex relationship between the knower and the known.

    Moving from the concrete to the abstract, from problems of everyday language to straightforward philosophical questions to the formalities of physics and mathematics, Yanofsky demonstrates a myriad of unsolvable problems and paradoxes. Exploring the various limitations of our knowledge, he shows that many of these limitations have a similar pattern and that by investigating these patterns, we can better understand the structure and limitations of reason itself. Yanofsky even attempts to look beyond the borders of reason to see what, if anything, is out there.”


  • Guest

    The Outer Limits of Reason: What Science, Mathematics, and Logic Cannot Tell Us

    by Noson S. Yanofsky

  • Coastghost

    IF “the contemporary novel” is not dead: why not kill it?

  • Labropotes

    EO Wilson, Social Conquest of Earth (Actually 2012, sorry). All kinds of good stuff to support his thesis that humanity has been shaped by individual and group selection, giving rise to a nature of divided loyalty: to oneself and to one’s community. Were humanity perfectly virtuous, ie, perfectly loyal to its group(s), its social structure of humanity would be too rigid to be viable, it would be maladaptive. Sin is necessary for the most social animal, us.

  • Coastghost

    NEXT December, instead of a year-end celebration of unsold titles in 2014, let’s have a thoroughgoing discussion of the blight imposed upon American letters through the proliferation and profusion of MFA programs (frankly, why wait until December 2014 for such a discussion? the situation is already well past “dire”).
    MFA graduates have become as much an asset to American literature as MBA graduates have become to American business.

  • Ross

    During this morning broadcast, there was a poem read which ended with the line “We are savages.”. I cannot remember the author’s name. Can anyone help me out?

    • Molly

      Men We Reap by Jessmyn Ward

  • Ivan Gelfman

    Psst. Arguably Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro is North America’s best writer. In 2013, “Dear Life” capped her career.

  • eco-promos

    Here’s a link to a fresh list of Bill Gates favorites for 2013. http://www.thegatesnotes.com/Personal/Best-Books-2013 Thanks for having Richard Howorth on the show. I appreciate his regional perspective.

  • 228929292AABBB

    Well, alm-o-s-t relevant to today’s show…..2013 is the year of reading Proust. Tom, how about a show on In Search of Lost Time?

  • nkandersen

    You make a fair point, D. It’s something we’ll think about.
    - nick andersen | on point producer

  • marygrav

    The problem I have with contemporary American writers and writing is that they seem not about to create 3D characters. They seem only able at best to create “hollow males and females” concerned with their sex life. They seem to think of themselves as insular White beings.

    European writers, especially mystery writers, for me, create more well rounded characters that cut across class and racial lines so that the reader can invest their time and effort and empathy. This is especially true with writers like Jo Nesbo and the other Scandy writers. This can also go for the British writers as well.

    If I read a blurb about a town in small town Maine, I know it is about middle class White people whining about the problems that confront peoples of color on a daily basis that only appear new to them. I quickly go on to a European writer who understands the pettiness of “American and Americanized problems.

    Class and the White “race” is all that contemporary American fiction writers write about and this is tiresome and boring.

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Smoke and fire from the explosion of an Israeli strike rises over Gaza City, Tuesday, July 29, 2014. Israel escalated its military campaign against Hamas on Tuesday, striking symbols of the group's control in Gaza and firing tank shells that shut down the strip's only power plant in the heaviest bombardment in the fighting so far. (AP)

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Conservative firebrand Dinesh D’Souza says he wants an America without apologies. He’s also facing jail time. We’ll hear him out.

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