The Best Books of 2013

Tom Jackson
Dec 21, 2013

Here is my annual "best books of the year" blog post, in which I ask some of my favorite people, including authors and pundits, which books particularly impressed them in the past year. UPDATE: Largehearted Boy has the definitive compilation of "best books" lists, including this one. 

Tom Perrotta, novelist and screenwriter, Belmont, Mass., www.tomperrotta.net:

Three of the books I've enjoyed reading this year are:
 
"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo, an amazing feat of investigative reporting and journalistic empathy. It will open your eyes and break your heart.
 
Margaret Fuller: A New American Life,", by Megan Marshall, a beautifully written and revelatory biography of the least-known of the Transcendentalists, and one of the most influential intellectuals of her time.
 
"The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P," by Adelle Waldman, a funny and highly readable novel about a young male novelist who manages to charm and infuriate a series of women in literary Brooklyn.
 
James Taranto, Wall Street Journal "Best of the Web" Internet column, New York City, @jamestaranto on Twitter:
 
Looks like my theme for the year is evolution.
 
“The Paleo Manifesto” (2013) by John Durant sounds like a diet book. It is, but it is also a philosophical reflection on human history, both biological and civilizational. Especially insightful is the discussion of the scientific soundness of Mosaic law: how it enabled Jews to avoid infectious disease, thereby both enabling them to thrive and provoking suspicion from outside the community.
 
“Is There Anything Good About Men?” (2010) by Roy Baumeister is the best treatment I’ve read of the intrinsic differences between the sexes. Baumeister acknowledges that women are in some ways superior to men, maintains that men also are in some ways superior to women, and argues that the two sets of strengths must be complimentary, for strengths that are adaptive in both sexes would have evolved in both sexes.
 
“The Territorial Imperative” (1966) by Robert Ardrey is a classic. Ardrey surveys a variety of animal species, including Homo sapiens, and concludes that property rights are not a legal fiction but an animal instinct. A playwright who took up anthropology in middle age, Ardrey was an engaging writer with a deep insight into both animal and human psychology.
 
Alex  Tabarrok, author and George Mason University economics professor, Arlington, Va.,  @ATabarrok on Twitter
 
I read a lot of social science books, here are three that piqued my interest this year

In "The Undercover Economist Strikes Back," Tim Harford brings his genius for storytelling and the explanation of complex ideas to macroeconomics. Most of the popular economics books, like "The Armchair Economist," "Freakonomics," "Predictably Irrational" and Harford's earlier book "The Undercover Economist," focus on microeconomics; markets, incentives, consumer and firm choices and so forth. Strikes Back is that much rarer beast, a popular guide to understanding inflation, unemployment, growth and economic crises and it succeeds brilliantly. Mixing in wonderful stories of economists with exciting lives (yes, there have been a few!) with very clear explanations of theories and policies makes Strike Back both entertaining and enlightening.

Stuart Banner's "American Property" is a book about property law, which sounds like an awfully dull topic. In the hands of Banner, however, it is a fascinating history of what we can own, how we can own it and why we can own it. Answers to these questions have changed as judges and lawmakers have grappled with new technologies and ways of life. Who owns fame? Was there a right to own one's own image? Benjamin Franklin, whose face was used to hawk many products, would have scoffed at the idea but after the invention of photography and the onset of what would later be called the paparazzi thoughts began to change. In the early 1990s, Vanna White was awarded $403,000 because a robot pictured in a Samsung advertisement turning letters was reminiscent of her image on the Wheel of Fortune. "American Property" is a great read by a deep scholar who writes with flair and without jargon.

On June 3, 1980, shortly after Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. president's national security adviser was woken at 2:30 am and told that Soviet submarines had launched 220 missiles at the United States. Shortly thereafter he was called again and told that 2,200 land missiles had also been launched. Bomber crews ran to their planes and started their engines, missile crews opened their safes, the Pacific airborne command post took off to coordinate a counter-attack. Only when radar failed to reveal an imminent attack was it realized that this was a false alarm. Astoundingly, the message NORAD used to test their systems was a warning of a missile attack with only the numbers of missiles set to zero. A faulty computer chip had inserted 2's instead of zeroes. We were nearly brought to Armageddon by a glitch. If that were the only revelation in Eric Schlosser's frightening "Command and Control" it would be of vital importance but in fact that story of near disaster occupies just one page of this 632 page book. The truth is that there have been hundreds of near disasters and nuclear war glitches. Indeed, there have been so many covered-up accidents that it's clear that the US government has come much closer to detonating a nuclear weapon and killing US civilians than the Russians ever did. Thankfully, we have reduced our stockpile of nuclear weapons in recent years but, as in so many other areas, we are also more subject to computers and their vulnerabilities as we make decisions at a faster, sometimes superhuman, pace. Command and control, Schlosser warns us, is an illusion. We are one black swan from a great disaster and if this is true about the US handling of nuclear weapons how much more fearful should we be of the nuclear weapons held by North Korea, Pakistan or India?

 
Roman Tsivkin, writer and editor, New York City, @zenjew on Twitter:
 
"The Bald Trilogy" by Ken Campbell, the great British theater director and actor. Campbell, who directed the legendary stage adaptation of "Illuminatus!" and holds the Guinness World Record for staging the longest play ("Warp," 22+ straight hours), is very funny, anarchic and inventive in these three semi-autobiographical one-man plays. I laughed a lot, but I was also illuminated by his approach to life, which involves chucking drama/seriousness and embracing comedy/levity. Lots of great stuff about Philip K. Dick, Charles Fort, the absurdist humor inherent in everyday life, etc. Can't recommend this one highly enough.
 
"Flicker" by Theodore Roszak. A budding film scholar discovers conspiracies, secret societies and some very scary film techniques while studying a German director who came to Hollywood in the 1920s. Lots of extremely interesting speculations about the role of film in our society. I'll never watch a film the same way again after reading this book. Plus the Knights Templar, the Cathars, Gnosticism in general, Orson Welles (he has an entire chapter) and so on. A captivating read, though a bit overwritten (needed a good editor).
 
Honorable mentions:
~"Memories of the Future" by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
~"George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time" by Peter Dimock (Really moved me, this one. Probably the best fictional exploration of morality in America I've ever read.)
~"john cage uncaged is still cagey" by David Antin
~"Two Cheers for Anarchism" by James C. Scott
~"Stoner" by John Williams 
~"Crooked Little Vein" by Warren Ellis
~"The Audran Sequence" by George Alec Effinger
~"My Life in CIA" by Harry Mathews
 
Doug Phares, president, Sandusky Newspapers Inc., Perkins Twp., @dougphares on Twitter: 
 
Non-fiction 1:  "The Lost Empire of Atlantis,"  by Gavin Menzies. A great book if you like ancient history. As he did for the 1421 Chinese treasure fleets a few years ago, he strings together a stingingly clear picture of Minoan culture in the 2nd millennia BCE. This seagoing culture based on modern day Santorini likely traveled the world including mining copper on Lake Superior and establishing stone circle observatories across the Atlantic. They were lost to history in a massive volcanic eruption about 1,400 BCE. 
 
Non-fiction 2:  "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson. Incredible look at the genius of the man and how close to failure his perfectionism kept him until the last stint at Apple. 
 
Fiction:  The Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. I'm through the first five this year. These are just well done and fun books. A lot of detail, which makes them engaging for me.
 
Marcy Kaptur, U.S. representative, Toledo, @RepMarcyKaptur on Twitter: "Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin," Timothy Snyder.
"It is exceptionally well done. It is encyclopedic," she said. "He's from Dayton, Ohio. I called him up. I said this is a landmark work."

Ann Jackson, librarian, Berea, readitorweep.org:

MYSTERIES & SUSPENSE
 
"Learning to Swim" by Sara J. Henry  Wonderful first novel
 
"Void Moon" by Michael Connelly        Has you rooting for Cassie, the ex-con
 
"A Cold and Lonely Place" by Sara J. Henry   Almost as good as the first one
 
"A Dying Fall" by Elly Griffiths   Another featuring the very cool Ruth Galloway
 
"Suspect" by Robert Crais       A wounded war dog and wounded police officer save each other. I loved this one!
 
"The Draining Lake" by Arnaldur Indriðason   There’s a skeleton in a lake in Iceland
 
"The Darkest Evening of the Year" by Dean Koontz   Koontz honors his beloved golden retriever, Trixie in this novel that is a blend of horror, thriller, and the supernatural
 
NON-FICTION/BIOGRAPHICAL/ANIMALS
 
"Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail" by Cheryl Strayed  A thrilling true story
 
"Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology" by Caroline Paul   Clever with cool illustrations
 
"A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life" by James Bowen   Love that Bob!
 
CHILDREN’S BOOK
 
"Because of Winn Dixie" by Kate DiCamillo   Winn Dixie will steal your heart

Sara J. Henry, mystery novelist, southern Vermont, @SaraJHenry on Twitter: 

"Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend" by Matthew Dicks completely captivated me (I may or may not have cried). Other favorites were "The Art of Hearing Heartbeats," by Jan-Philipp Sendker, "The Realm of Last Chances" by Steve Yarbrough, and "The Movement of Stars" by Amy Brill. 

But I also loved "The Midnight Promise" by Zane Lovitt, one of the freshest crime fiction voices I’ve encountered, and "The Big Reap" by Chris F. Holm, what the author describe as fantastical noir.
 
Richard Jackson, English teacher, South Korea, @Rickymtj on Twitter: 
 
"An Atheist in the Foxhole by Joe Muto"--This was written by former O'Reilly Factor producer Joe Muto, who gives an insider's view of what goes on at Fox News. Mostly focuses on O'Reilly, but some behind the scenes anecdotes of Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Karl Rove and Sarah Palin. 
 
"A Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin--I really enjoy the show. I appreciate how much the show cuts down and combines characters. The first book was good and I'll probably read the others. 
 
"Three Cups of Deceit" by Jon Krakauer--I haven't read Three Cups of Tea, but I saw the 60 Minutes expose and decided to read the book Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air). It was very good and detailed in exposing the fraud Greg Mortenson perpetuated. 
 
"Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" by Reza Aslan--A good, secular look of the time in Judea during time of Jesus. A good history of the context in which many prophets were roaming around and the history of the Roman governors who dealt with them. 
 
"Christian Bale: The Inside Story of the Darkest Batman" by Harrison Cheung--Written by a former personal assistant is about what you would expect from these tell all books. Christian's father, David Bale, seems far more interesting. He married feminist Gloria Steinem. 

Scott Adams, "Dilbert" cartoonist and author, Pleasonton, Calif., @Dilbert_Daily on Twitter:

I only read one book this year. It was Billy Crystal's book with the title that is too long to recall. Something about lost keys.  ["Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys?"] It was fascinating and funny with not-too-much filler.

I tried to read a number of other books but never go past the first few boring chapters. I usually read non-fiction, and you can skim those in ten minutes in most cases.

Tom Jackson, Sandusky Register blogger and staff writer, Berea, @jacksontom on Twitter:

"Constellation Games," Leonard Richardson. My favorite new science fiction novel. Unusual and funny first contact novel. 

"The Man in the HIgh Castle," Philip K. Dick. My favorite old science novel, dark and brilliant, a classic.

"I Have America Surrounded," JMR Higgs, sympathetic but by no means uncritical biography of Timothy Leary.

"The United States of Paranoia," Jesse Walker. The role of conspiracy theories in American history, and what they say about Americans.

"Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010," Charles Murray. The decline of the working class.

"Average Is Over," Tyler Cowen. The decline of the middle class. 

"The View from Penthouse B," Elinor Lipman. Maybe her strongest novel.

"Nine Inches," Tom Perrotta. Fiction, but the people in these short stories seem real to me. 

 

Comments

Contango

Re: "near disasters and nuclear war glitches,"

@ Mr. Jackson:

Reminded me of "Fail Safe." I read the book in HS and have seen the movie a dozen or more times.

Have also read and seen "On the Beach."

With all its military bases, growing up in OK musta been 'interesting' for you. My spouse remembers 'duck and cover' drills.

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"'The Man in the HIgh Castle,' Philip K. Dick."

A favorite of a late friend. On my intended reading list.

A lot of PKD books have been made into movies. I've wondered why not this one?

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I intend to purchase and read:

"Map and the Territory" by Alan Greenspan