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The Best Books of 2013

Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Some new voices, some unexpected titles, and more than a couple tales of sadness and woe. We polled The New Republic's staffers to discover their favorite books of 2013 and learn why they made such an impact.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.  by Adelle Waldman

"I didn't read too many books published this year, but I did read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., because everybody kept talking about it. And then I kept talking about it, too: It was an uncomfortably familiar picture of the bubble occupied by New York's young writer-types. And it was an overdue reminder of why I need to be reading more novels in the first place: their unique ability to discomfit and delight their readers." — Ben Crair, Story Editor

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena  by Anthony Marra

"There's the engrossing, absurdly ambitious setting of the second Chechen War, and the white-knuckle plot that spans just five days but unfolds through chapters that jump back and forth across a decade, and the heartbreaking (but also frequently funny) stories of the six central characters. But maybe what's stuck with me most about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena are smaller moments that result from a conceit that Marra deploys. Throughout the book, the narrative pauses and the entire remaining life of a minor character—a soldier or father introduced only pages or paragraphs earlier—plays out in a burst of deftly rendered sentences. Such are the powers of their author that the vignettes nearly move you to laugh and/or cry all on their own." — James Burnett, Story Editor

The Blood Telegram  by Gary J. Bass

"The best book I read this year was Gary Bass's The Blood Telegram, which showed through superb reporting and excellent analysis that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger gleefully abetted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent Bengalis during Bangladesh's war for independence. (Srinath Raghavan's book, 1971, which brings a more global perspective to the same catastrophe, and was also released this year, is similarly excellent)." — Isaac Chotiner, Senior Editor

Zibaldone  by Giacomo Leopardi

"It's not the most portable book of the year, but for sheer intellectual excitement and historical importance, nothing I read in 2013 can match the Zibaldone of Giacomo Leopardi. This enormous volume reproduces the notebooks that the great Italian poet kept in his early twenties, in which he records his thoughts on a wide range of literary and philosophical questions—the origins of language, the nature of poetry, moral relativism, and the dark side of enlightenment. There's a lot of dross in the book, but the gold it contains is worth searching for." — Adam Kirsch, Senior Editor

Tenth of December  by George Saunders

"Saunders strikes a familiar dystopian cord in his latest collection, which includes stories of chemically induced whirlwind romances and mail-order human yard fixtures, but there is something "tonally different" (to use his words) about Tenth of December that makes it a lastingly memorable read. With cutting syntactical play, Saunders includes hints of joy, and sometimes hope, in even his darkest stories, connecting the reader to a cast of characters and an author who seem altogether eminently human." — Linda Kinstler, Reporter-Researcher

The Unwinding  by George Packer

"If you're reading this list you've heard of this book. But maybe you haven't read it. You actually should." — Marc Tracy, Staff Writer (Man of Few Words)
"Too often, those tracing our era of middle-class stagnation and soaring inequality err in either of two directions—bloodless abstraction or context-less close-up. George Packer's The Unwinding fills the gap, drilling down deeply in several lives—a snakebit Piedmont entrepreneur, a Youngstown woman rebuilding amid industrial decline, and a Washington lobbyist who sees the light—while keeping a grasp on the broader forces underlying their stories, how the 'norms that made the old institutions useful began to unwind, and the leaders abandoned their posts [and] the Roosevelt Republic that had reigned for almost half a century came undone.'" — Alec MacGillis, Senior Editor

The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians  by Thucydides (translated by Jeremy Mynott)

"This summer, a cab driver told me Thucydides contained the answer to all problems in American politics. He wasn’t overstating this book’s importance, especially this year. At the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg Address, revisit Pericles’ funeral oration, Lincoln’s great source. Looking abroad, remember Athens’ devastating Sicilian expedition. When crisis shakes contemporary political discourse, remember the Athenian plague of 430 B.C., when words lost their meaning. Mynott translates Thucydides’s history with an aim to strip from the text “anachronistic concepts derived from later developments and theories.” Thucydides knows more about us than we do; here he is unvarnished and clarion." — Julia Fisher, Reporter-Researcher

Levels of Life  by Julian Barnes

"On a Sunday afternoon this fall, I stopped in a bookstore and read Barnes's short essayistic sequel to his excellent mediation on mourning, The Sense of an Ending. It's an imperfect collection of connected essays—on ballooning, on Sarah Barnhardt—but it's the third piece on his grieving for his late wife that is shattering, unshakeable, and exceptionally wise." — Franklin Foer, Editor

Dallas 1963  by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

"OK, right-wingers: You did not kill JFK. Congratulations! But for all the self-pitying conservative griping it has prompted, Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis's portrait of early sixties Dallas is compelling for reasons that have nothing to do with apportioning blame for the assassination. Focusing on the constellation of figures who made the city the capital of far-right extremism—evangelical oil baron H.L. Hunt, loopy ex-general Edwin Walker, cranky newspaper titan Ted Dealey—the book introduces us to an America where charges of White House treason, secret socialism, and presidential foreignness abound. Modern-day Texas righty Ted Cruz, who may well owe royalties to ex-Rep. Bruce Alger, the pioneering and fairly creepy Texas Republican who is another main subject, would feel right at home. Dallas 1963 doesn't have the scope of Rick Perlstein's pre-history of movement conservatism, but the book's present-tense, jerky voice, and mood of chaotic panic feel eerily contemporary." — Michael Schaffer, Editorial Director

Prayer Journal   by Flannery O'Connor

"This previously unpublished journal, an artifact from O’Connor’s days as a student at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, demonstrates the power of unresolved contradictions. 'I do not mean to be clever although I do mean to be clever on 2nd thought and like to be clever & want to be considered so,' she writes in one passage. In these private entries, O’Connor allows herself to be tugged between many ideas and possible beliefs at once, leaving a book that feels youthful in the height of its questioning, but ageless in the perfection of its observations about spirituality and the creative mind." — Nora Caplan-Bricker, Staff Writer

The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra  by Pedro Mairal (translated by Nick Caistor)

"Narration and evocation perform a savory duet in the Argentine novelist Pedro Mairal’s story of an idiosyncratic artist’s immense autobiographical murals and a son’s quietly impassioned efforts to do justice to his late father and his work. This surefooted exploration of the painter as a quixotic dreamer gives a South American twist to Balzac’s Unknown Masterpiece, with the seventeenth-century Parisian genius of the Frenchman’s classic tale replaced by a twentieth-century Argentine provincial whose work has come to the attention of a major European museum. Mairal’s quickening prose moves from the ordinary to the opulent and back again without skipping a beat. The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierrea will surely leave some readers thinking of Henry James’s tragicomic accounts of the artist’s life." — Jed Perl, Art Editor

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon  by Brad Stone

"The best nonfiction book I've read this year is an obvious choice: Brad Stone's blockbuster report on Amazon, The Everything Store. Though Stone had minimal face-time with the sphinxlike Bezos, his book manages to be an immersive play-by-play of the company's ascent. There are so many good details: about the start-up's early years in Seattle, when a bell would ring every time a customer placed an order; about Bezos's managerial quirks; even about the estranged father he hasn't seen in decades. There are also several top-notch descriptions of the famous Bezos laugh, i.e. 'pulsing, mirthful bray.' It's hard to imagine a better retelling of the Amazon origin story." — Laura Bennett, Staff Writer

The Isle of Youth: Stories  by Laura Van Den Berg

"Women are unmoored in Laura Van Den Berg’s The Isle of Youth: The lines that secure them have always already been cut. No lofty morality guides their actions—they speak about objects and facts, not feelings. Van Den Berg is most comfortable when she traces this ennui across the wilted American backdrops where it belongs. But her book’s strongest moment is when its terrain grows detached and treacherous too. If it’s clichéd to connect women to the land then Van Den Berg takes that truism to its literal physical endpoint: Antarctica. She dares the reader, afterwards, to ask something so simple as who these women really are. — Mimi Dwyer, Reporter-Researcher

 The Virgins  by Pamela Erens

"With a cover like this, who could resist a peek? What lay inside was even more riveting than the titillating, slightly disturbing, Lolita-esque photo that first encouraged me to have a go. A prep-school saga about sex, rumors, young love, and adult regret, The Virgins encouraged its readers to feel as frenzied, and libidinous, and strung out as a 17-year-old in the throes of first lust. This small, smart masterpiece is a beautiful shot of adrenaline—with a terrifying come down." — Hillary Kelly, Digital Media Editor

Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air  by Richard Holmes

"It’s hard for me to pick a book of the year that’s not fiction—and there were some great ones this year: George Saunders’s tour de force, The Tenth of December; David Gilbert’s delicate, compelling &Sons; Andre Dubus’s gorgeous Dirty Love; and Lily Brett’s charming coming-of-age tale, Lola Bensky. But the book that gave me the most unadulterated delight this year was nonfiction, Richard Holmes’s Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air. The book is nominally a history of the hot air balloon, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a history of hope and fantasy—and the quixotic characters who disobeyed that most fundamental laws of physics and gave humans flight." — Chloe Schama, Story Editor

My Struggle  by Karl Ove Knausgaard

"How can a bestselling novel have no particular trouble, no central tension, yet still hold readers captive? Karl Ove van Knausgaard has managed to describe in minute detail much of his adolescence and the death of his father in the first volume of an addictive six-volume series called My Struggle. The English translation of this Norwegian bestseller offers an immersive look into a normal life full of despair, bouts of relief, and the occasional, passing euphoria. This is not the realism of Balzac or Flaubert, but a hypnotic chronicle of the everyday." — Chris Hughes, Editor-in-Chief

Bough Down  by Karen Green

"I'd never read anything like this and not just because the form is so unusual—a mixture of poems and visual art, including a cover that's a work of art in itself. It's impressive technically but never feels just technically impressive. Its taste is impeccable: a book about grief that's never at all self-indulgent or cruel, a book that draws its strengths from its chief formal obstacle, that of writing about the experience of grief over the death of someone far more famous than you without making the book about them or about yourself in a way that seems opportunistic. It isn't. The opportunity is ours." — Adam Plunkett, Assistant Literary Editor