You love lists. We love lists. Everyone loves lists. And in the past five years, NPR has brought you more than 80 year-end book lists — the best book club books, the best cookbooks, the best gift books, the best guilty pleasures. We listed. You clicked. Everyone was happy.
But as the holidays loomed this year, we were all suffering from a little list fatigue, and we started imagining new ways to approach our year-end best books coverage. And though
Buzzfeed the Internet may be determined to prove otherwise, we wholeheartedly believe that human beings are capable of absorbing new information in formats that are 1) not sequentially ordered and 2) wait ... dammit! and 3) never mind.
Anyway. At NPR Books we're all about book discovery. Helping you find your next great read — the mystery you can't put down, the memoir you recommend to all your friends. And we started to think about a site that would be more Venn diagram-y than list-y — a site that could help you seek out the best biographies that were also love stories, or the best mysteries that were also set in the past. An opportunity for staffers to share their favorite titles of 2013. So we went to the NPR NewsApps team (you may remember them as the folks who charted every recurring joke in Arrested Development and the people who made a superhandy — read: lifesaving — tool for tracking forest fires) and asked if they could help. Turns out, they could.
So, in November we reached out to our book critics and staff to ask which books they absolutely loved in 2013. We got more than a total of 200 titles in response from trusted names such as NPR's go-to librarian Nancy Pearl, Fresh Air book critic Maureen Corrigan, Morning Edition host David Greene, and even Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! limericist Philipp Goedicke. Then the members of the NPR Books team locked ourselves in a small room for several hours to hash out how exactly to categorize titles ranging from Mr. Wuffles! and Unicorn Thinks He's Pretty Great to an 832-page biography of Woodrow Wilson.
After much wailing and gnashing of teeth we emerged with a taxonomy that allowed users to filter the list of our 200-plus favorite 2013 books in ways that felt both functional (i.e., Science Fiction & Fantasy or Kids' Books) and fun (i.e., It's All Geek To Me and Let's Talk About Sex). Meanwhile, the NewsApps team was busy figuring out how this whole thing should look and work. After a couple of weeks of designing and coding and testing and editing, our books concierge was born.
So, here it is. Stick around. Play awhile. We hope this feels like a more serendipitous approach to a year-end best books list. Want fiction that is also funny? Or nonfiction that would be a good fit for your book club? Or a YA novel that's a little on the dark side? Play with different combinations of tags and choose your own adventure. Browse. Discover. Make your own
damn list. (If you want to view these books as a list of titles rather than an array of covers, you are welcome to select the "List" option in the upper right-hand corner of the site.)
Oh, wait. The headline of this post promises you a list, and that's probably the only reason you clicked on it, right? Fine. Here are the top five reasons why we decided to not do another straight-up best book list this year:
1. In 2008 we published 13 year-end lists
2. In 2009 we published 15 year-end lists
3. In 2010 we published 18 year-end lists
4. In 2011 we published 19 year-end lists
5. In 2012 we published 20 year-end lists
... and for 2013 we decided it was time to try something new. We hope you enjoy!
— Beth Novey, Nicole Cohen, Camila Domonoske, Rose Friedman and Petra Mayer
The producers and editors at NPR Books
In 2009, Mike Bender was horrified to find that his mother had hung a particularly embarrassing family photo.
"It was a vacation photo. It was my dad's 50th birthday. I was 13," he says. "My dad had my brother and I do a Rockette's kick with our skis. We were on top of a mountain, right by the lift, and I just remember feeling, you know, stuck in that pose: This. Is. Awkward."
But as an adult he realized that the photo was not only awkward — it was hilarious.
And so began the Awkward Family Photos blog. The concept took off, and Bender and co-founder Doug Chernack were soon accepting hundreds of submissions.
"Everybody has an awkward family photo somewhere — somewhere hiding in a drawer or in their attic, somewhere in the house," Bender says.
And with all of the togetherness of the holidays comes a wealth of opportunities for extreme awkwardness — thus, Bender and Chernack's new book: Awkward Family Holiday Photos.
"There is a running theme ... of kids who have peed their pants while on Santa's lap," says Bender. "That, I didn't realize was a thing, but it is apparently a thing."
There are also "bad" Santas, kids dressed in homemade elf costumes, and lots of babies imitating turkeys in roasting pans.
If you and your family want to get in on the awkwardness, Bender has some tips. First, he says, positioning is key.
"Usually, you know, you line up by height, you pile on top of each other, you do the arm shelf, which is where you actually lean on your hand, and your arm is down and you kind of create a shelf for your head. That is a classic."
Poses are also important. "Any sort of pose is going to make a photo awkward," Bender says. And keep holiday attire in mind.
"Matching outfits. You know, Christmas, for whatever reason, really brings out the matchy-matchy in everybody," he says. "So that means matching sweaters, matching red turtlenecks ... matching long johns."
In the autumn of 1995, the editor of an academic journal (we'll call him Dave) recommended a book.
"It's set during the Napoleonic Wars — "
"No, listen. It's about the friendship of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy — "
"I hate Horatio Hornblower."
" — and Dr. Stephen Maturin, his ship's surgeon, who's also a naturalist and secret agent. It sounds unlikely, I know, but just trust me. You'll love it."
Napoleonic naval fiction, pah! The man was on crack. But he recommended it again a week or two later. And then again, this time dragging Ursula Le Guin into it: "She loves it, too!"
Fine. I surrendered. But I began Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander knowing I would hate it.
Instead, I was smitten — I read all 412 pages in one sitting.
I was living in the 19th-century navy, thinking like Stephen, or sometimes Jack; using their vocabulary, adopting their sense of humor, feeling their joys and disappointments. Their world became a part of me so hard, so fast, that when I reached the end I was bereft.
The next day I was so pitiful that my wife, Kelley — who, when she had seen me falling into the book, had sneaked out unnoticed and bought the next three in the sequence as Christmas presents — gave me the next one. I read it in a few hours and pleaded — it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say begged — for more. She gave in, one book at a time.
By mid-January I'd read all 15 paperbacks. And then I broke all my rules, and our budget, and bought the just-published 16th in hardcover. It's some of the best money I've ever spent.
In case I haven't been clear: I love these books, all 20 volumes. Each is a chapter in a single, flowing narrative. The first 13 are, in my opinion, without parallel: the same sense of lived experience as Hilary Mantel, the just-a-hair-off-center reality of a Michael Gruber adventure and the same rootedness in, and love for, the land- and seascape as Robert McFarlane or Annie Proulx.
Lots of reviewers have compared O'Brian to his fellow naval novelist C.S. Forester, but that's nonsense. This is Jane Austen on a ship of war, with the humanity, joy and pathos of Shakespeare — and brilliantly written. I have read them perhaps 20 times. I will read them many more.
The shining center of these books is the friendship between Jack and Stephen. They are opposites: extroverted, one-of-the-lads Jack and introverted, shrewish Stephen. Jack is a fool on land but brilliant at sea; Stephen is an idiot child at sea, while on land he is a subtle and dangerous spy, natural scientist and polyglot. But they both love music — and, at one point, the same woman, which comes very close to breaking their friendship.
I can't wait to introduce others to Patrick O'Brian's erudition, perfect balance of exuberance and restraint, and unerring eye for the exact word and the comic detail. I delight in the thought of you experiencing O'Brian's gifts for the first time — above all, his ability to delineate changes in the friendship between two men with the same authority with which he handles volatile politics in South America or a brutal cutlass fight.
In these books every reader who loves fiction both intellectually and viscerally will find something to treasure — and every writer something to envy. They will sweep you away and return you delighted, increased and stunned.
If the phrase "Napoleonic war fiction" fills you with anticipation, then you don't need me to convince you to read O'Brian. But for the rest of you, my fellow Horatio Hornblower-haters: Ignore the jacket copy on Master and Commander. Forget it. And please, just trust me.
Craig Morgan Teicher
Readers always seem to want to get closer to Emily Dickinson, the godmother of American poetry. Paging through her poems feels like burrowing nose-deep in her 19th century backyard — where "the grass divides as with a comb," as she writes in "A narrow Fellow in the Grass."
And yet the deeper one probes the poems, the more their meaning seems to recede, so that their minutiae suddenly speak for an almost inarticulable, often dark truth or wisdom at the core of things: "Zero at the Bone" is how she characterizes the more-than-fear she feels upon meeting the snake who is this poem's subject. Her images are so strange, and yet so startlingly accurate, that it's hard to believe one person could contain such contradictions. Who was this poet, really?
Until now, to fathom Dickinson, fans could make the pilgrimage to her Amherst, Mass., home, scrutinize the authenticated and contested daguerreotypes for clues and, of course, pore over her poems and letters. But now we have another way to approach the Emily who inspires and confounds us: this significant collection of facsimiles and transcriptions of late poems drafted — one might even say grafted — on leftover envelopes.
These 52 pieces were found, unbound, among Dickinson's papers, written on envelopes that had been used or addressed and unsent. They are as much works of visual as textual art, offering the chance to read into Dickinson's slanting handwriting. Her bubbly loops and long strokes suggest, to me at least, the odd confidence of one who knows the peculiar joy of refining and performing her own identity on a private stage, a bit like the names of boys or bands on the backs of middle-school notebooks.
And, if we agree with editor Marta Werner, Dickinson was playing not only with the arrangement of words in poetic lines, but the arrangement of different groups of words on different parts of these envelopes. On a folded-over lip of one envelope, she describes a "Drunken man" (who may also be dead, or almost dead), "Oblivion bending / over him," and, written slanted over the curled edge, "enfolding him / with tender / infamy." It's the medium making the metaphor here, something usually reserved for sculpture. This is poetry in 3-D.
These are late writings, probably composed after she'd sewn up the last of her famous "fascicles," the bound packets in which her poems were found after her death. So these are experiments, perhaps, begun after she'd set the bulk of her legacy in store for "immortality," one of her favorite words. Due, perhaps, to the limits these unusually shaped pages exerted on her writing, the best of these poems are among her most compressed and aphoristic. "A Pang," she writes, "is more / Conspicuous in Spring / In contrast with the / things that sing," blending colloquial and biblical speech in the kinds of enigmatic leaps that make her poems rush with wind.
The editors offer endless avenues of interpretation; the typed transcriptions of Dickinson's handwriting are superimposed atop the outlines of their corresponding envelopes, so the multidirectional layout of the text isn't lost. A series of esoteric indexes — by shape of the envelopes, by what direction they are turned, by whether or not they have "penciled divisions," for example — encourage the reader to speculate about the various relationships Dickinson may have conceived between paper and words.
It's a good season to chase after the ever-elusive Emily Dickinson. In addition to this book, there's a corresponding exhibit in Chicago; there's also a separate show in New York City, and all of the poet's online archives were recently organized into one accessible hub. This book is a rare gift for all poetry lovers. We are lucky to have more of Dickinson's ongoing "letter to the World / That never wrote to Me," an endlessly fascinating correspondence, addressed to any of us who find it — so long as we're willing to answer it with concentration and curiosity.
It worried me when my daughter didn't like Star Wars. Even though I told her there was a princess in it, she was wholly unimpressed and, from the start, a little bit creeped out by Darth Vader and all the stormtroopers. Granted, she was only 6 when I first tried to bring her into the fold of my obsession, but that was twice as old as I'd been when I'd first fallen hard for the original trilogy. It was ... disconcerting.
My son is easier. He likes anything with robots in it. Or giant monsters. Or spaceships. He has spent weeks now bothering friends and family about their possession of ladders, convinced that if he can borrow enough of them he can climb all the way to the moon.
But this is not enough for me. I believe with my whole heart in the inoculation of children against dullness and prosaic thought by early and repeated exposure to weirdness and brilliant imaginations. I believe in the transformative effects of science fiction on young brains, and so I've begun assembling a list of books made for blowing minds and sparking a love of the grand, the sideways and the strange. This is only my list. It is by no means complete, but it's a start. And as always, your mileage may vary.
Books To Be Read To (Or With) The Very Young
If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty and Steven Kellogg. Less science fiction than science fact, this children's book lays out everything necessary for a young boy going to the moon. There's advice on what to pack (including peanut butter and a spacesuit), a description of blastoff and, most importantly, instructions on how to get home again.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. This should be on everyone's bookshelf. It begins with drawings of boa constrictors and a plane crash in the desert, and then only gets odder as the pilot meets the Little Prince, who has fallen to Earth from a distant asteroid and begins to tell the story of his life in the confusing world of adults. There is something almost hallucinatory about the entire thing, from the first word to the last, and magic in almost every word.
Boy and Bot by Ame Dyckman and Dan Yaccarino. This one has everything that young nerds like: robots, adventures, a mad scientist and a happy ending. It's about a boy who finds a robot in the forest and what happens when it is accidentally switched off. Even now, it makes me want to have a robot as a best friend.
For The Young, Curious And Slightly Weird
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl. Dahl? He was bonkers, man. Totally. (He was also a British spy and fighter ace, but that's a story for another day.) If all you know of him is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, that's a good start, but the Glass Elevator is pure sci-fi — with spaceships, alien invasions, an orbital hotel full of Vermicious Knids and more. If your kid has a lid, this'll flip it.
The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem. I have two reasons for including this on my list. The first is that it's a beautiful, brilliant, funny and bizarre book of short stories, mostly revolving around the adventures of gifted robot engineers, Trurl and Klapaucius, who can make almost anything (for a price). It's perfect for young makers, or any child with a love for language and antic strangeness. And the second reason? Because Lem was a genius and everyone should be reading him all the time, so why not start young?
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. A science fiction book with a girl protagonist, two scientist parents, immortal weirdos, discussions of quantum physics and non-Euclidean geometry, and adventures that have never been matched in any kid's book? This one messed me up for years (particularly the billion-year-old Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit), and I am so happy it did. If the young mind you are trying to warp happens to reside in a girl's head, buy 10 copies of this right now. For a boy, buy only eight.
'Too Young' For This
In addition to believing strongly in the tonic powers of great sci-fi, I am also foursquare in favor of introducing kids to books that they are way too young for. Mostly because the idea of being "too young for" any book is nonsense, and sometimes a book's greatest impact comes when the brain it's impacting is right on the edge of comprehension. So with that in mind:
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller ought to be given immediately to any child who looks at any piece of the past (like a washboard, a VCR or a rotary phone) and wonders what it was used for. The story of monks who, in the wake of a devastating nuclear war, preserve a past that they do not understand and attempt to shepherd mankind through a second Dark Age (with mixed success), it is one of the masterpieces of post-apocalyptic sci-fi.
Logan's Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson should be the 12th birthday present for every child in America who shows even the slightest yen toward conformity. In Logan's world, everyone is executed on the day of their 21st birthday. Those who run are chased down and killed. The madness of rote obedience, police states and xenophobia has rarely been better handled — and the fact that the whole story plays out like one long chase scene doesn't hurt either.
You should also check out your kid's school syllabus and make sure that he or she gets a well-loved copy of Ray Bradbury's story of rebellion and book-burning firemen, Fahrenheit 451, before the day it becomes homework. Trust me — when the time comes, they'll get the irony.
And finally, leaven all this seriousness and dystopia with a little Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, please. Arthur Dent truly knows where his towel is at, and he's one of literature's great Everyman heroes. The sooner your kids get to know him, the better off they'll be.
Jason Sheehan is an ex-chef, a former restaurant critic and the current food editor of Philadelphia magazine. But when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about spaceships, aliens, giant robots and ray guns. A Private Little War is his newest book.