2023 Books We Love: Staff Picks : Pop Culture Happy Hour NPR's Books We Love is a roundup of favorite books of the year, sorted and tagged to help you find exactly what you're looking for. Recommendations come in from critics and contributors and today, we're highlighting picks from NPR staff.

2023 Books We Love: Staff Picks

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

NPR's Books We Love is a roundup of favorite books of the year, sorted and tagged to help you find exactly what you're looking for. Recommendations come in from critics and contributors, and as we'll be talking about today, NPR staff, even me. I'm Linda Holmes, and today we're talking about Books We Love on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

Joining me today is Andrew Limbong. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a reporter for the culture desk. Hey, Andrew, welcome back.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Yo. Hey, Linda. What's up?

HOLMES: We are going to talk about some books, if that's OK with you, buddy. All right. You may well know what Books We Love is, but in case you don't, each year, NPR gathers recommendations from contributors and critics and staff in all kinds of genres - fiction and nonfiction, books for kids, cookbooks, memoirs. There's a little bit of just about everything. And this year, there are more picks than ever from NPR staff. That includes me, and it includes Andrew, so we're both going to share a couple of our picks. Andrew, what's your first one?

LIMBONG: Yeah, so one of the books I picked is a biography. It's by Abraham Josephine Riesman, and it's called "Ringmaster: Vince McMahon And The Unmaking Of America." I don't know, Linda, were you, like, a wrestling head? Are you a wrestling head?

HOLMES: Not at all. It's one of the things that I just never locked into, but I'm always fascinated by it.

LIMBONG: Yeah, same. I was never a wrestling kid either. I was mostly just, like, scared to get bullied by the other wrestling kids (laughter). But I did have this, like, fascination with the WWE. And I think this book - it's not only a biography of Vince McMahon, you know, head of the WWE and, like, kind of tracing the life of popular wrestling, but it's also a really interesting look at how American culture translates irony.

HOLMES: Oh, wow. Yeah.

LIMBONG: Like, idioms of wrestling, you know, like heels, kayfabe, all this pretending.

HOLMES: Right, right, right.

LIMBONG: You know, you think a lot about, like, the people who have proliferated online. And you just have to ask yourself, like, wait, are they doing a bit? Is this, like, a thing or is this real? Or is this not real? I keep thinking, you know, from reading the book - I was like, it doesn't matter. The question is the thing that they're doing.

HOLMES: Right.

LIMBONG: You know, you could obviously extrapolate that out into politics or, you know, other forms of culture, but it's a really interesting look at how - what attracts our attention economy these days.

HOLMES: Yeah. It's always been difficult for me to figure out. Like, it is not a sport in the traditional sense of having a competition that ends unpredictably. You know what I mean? It is a performance, but it's also a sport in the sense that it takes a great deal of skill and, you know, physical skills of all kinds. I think I've just never been sure of how to process it, so maybe this is the right book.

LIMBONG: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's a very American story. It's a very, like, Gatsby type of story where, you know, like, it follows him sort of, like, making this thing through whatever kind of, (laughter) like, infotainment BS, spectacle, you know, circus way that he does.

HOLMES: Right.

LIMBONG: It's a really, like, fascinating look at, like, American business tycoonery.

HOLMES: Right, right. So that is "Ringmaster: Vince McMahon And The Unmaking Of America," by Abraham Josephine Riesman. And my next pick is also kind of a little bit about heels, you could say. It is called Starter Villain, and it is by John Scalzi. So Scalzi is a sort of a speculative fiction writer of all different kinds, writes some kind of more grand fantasy, writes some, like, interesting, crunchy, science fiction-y things. He wrote this book, which - one of the first things that I said when I talked about this in Books We Love, on the cover of this book, there is a cat who is wearing a business suit. And it's, like, a very traditional - what you would see as, like, a picture of an executive in a business suit, except it's a cat. Now, is there a reason for this? Yes, there is a good reason for this.

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

HOLMES: There's a lot to say about this book. It begins with Charlie, who is not - has this uncle that he wasn't particularly close to. So he hears about the guy's death on TV. The uncle was, like, this rich - this very rich guy. Jake leaves him a business, which is a supervillain business. It turns out that Jake was part of this, like, supervillain secret society. They're all kind of in competition. It's sort of like - you could compare it to, like, the image we have of Mafia families, you know? He's in this, like, group of supervillains. And now the enemies that his uncle had are now his enemies, so now he's caught in this battle of supervillains. And he goes to Jake's supervillain lair...

LIMBONG: (Laughter).

HOLMES: And it turns out that there are, like, labor issues with the dolphins at the lair. It's so complicated, it's so funny, but it's also, like, weirdly prescient. I interviewed Scalzi at the National Book Festival.

LIMBONG: Oh.

HOLMES: And one of the things we talked about is that there's just thing after thing in this book that just makes you think, how did he know that this was what was about to be in the news at the time this book came out in 2023? It is really funny. It's genuinely compelling. It's so whimsical without being, like, cutesy, if you know what I mean.

LIMBONG: What brand of supervillains are we talking? Are we talking, like, James Bond supervillains? Or like...

HOLMES: Basically James Bond-type, like, industrialist rich person, like, supervillains. Not so much like the Superman supervillains. Like, not the - they're mostly just, like, extremely rich, you know, nefarious types.

LIMBONG: Similar themes in our picks, kind of.

HOLMES: Yeah, no, it's true. Well, when you were talking about the wrestling book, I was like, you know, in a way, this book also is about a parody of how we think about power and, like, powerful people and winning and losing and heels and...

LIMBONG: Heels and babyfaces, yeah.

HOLMES: Heels and - (laughter) exactly. I love it. So again, that is "Starter Villain," by John Scalzi. What is your second pick, Andrew?

LIMBONG: My next book is another nonfiction book. It is by a sociologist, Matthew Desmond, and it's called "Poverty, By America." I'm not going to lie, I'm not going to front, it's a kind of heavy book. It's a really - I hesitate to say, like, beautifully written, but, like, the writing is really spectacular in it. But it's a powerfully written argument about how poverty is something we do to other people.

HOLMES: Yeah.

LIMBONG: And I think what's important about the we there - I feel like a lot of times when we say we are responsible for, like, climate change or whatever, it's so broad and so vague that it lessens culpability. And you're just like, oh, we are all good about blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

HOLMES: Right. Right. Right. It's we in the sense of, like, humanity.

LIMBONG: Humanity. Yeah - everyone. And that, you know, by...

HOLMES: Irreducible humanity.

LIMBONG: Exactly. Yeah. What Desmond does in this book is it makes the we like, no, no, no. Me, you, everyone sort of above the poverty line has a role to play in keeping people beneath the poverty line. And it's disrupting a bunch of myths about people in poverty, you know, whether, you know, they're, like, lazy and they don't work hard enough. They're just not pulling their bootstraps - (vocalizing). And it does a little bit of that. But a lot of...

HOLMES: Right.

LIMBONG: ...The blame that it placed, a lot of - its audience is written for people above the poverty line who benefit from - you know, I was thinking about this a lot because, you know, I just had a kid. And I was setting up her, like, 529, like, college, like, account...

HOLMES: Yes.

LIMBONG: ...And, like, worrying about my own money.

HOLMES: Right.

LIMBONG: You know?

HOLMES: Right.

LIMBONG: But then I was thinking, oh, in order for this lump of money to do well, certain things have to happen, and certain people have to be exploited. And so, you know, I am directly benefiting from other things happening. It's not a really comfortable read. Like, it's not - it's super-stomach-churning in how - especially at this time of year and how, like, responsible we are. But I think it's worthy of confronting some of those feelings and being uncomfortable with it.

HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, it's one of those topics where - I think a lot of people feel like they've read a lot about poverty. And, you know, if they consider themselves educated or whatever, they feel like they have some understanding of poverty. But it sounds like what you're saying is that even if you - like, you work at NPR, man. Like...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HOLMES: And even if you, like, have spent a lot of time in the company of people who think and talk about poverty and causes for poverty, it sounds like it still had a lot to say to you that has stuck with you.

LIMBONG: Yeah, exactly because I think I've, you know, read a lot of pieces that low-key kind of feel like voyeurism into someone else's life, you know?

HOLMES: Sure, absolutely.

LIMBONG: And then it's like, this is - I understand what this piece is trying to accomplish. But, like - but, you know, like I said before, it's like - it's more written for, like, no, no, no. Here's what you're doing.

HOLMES: Right, exactly. It's not exclusively...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...About, like, here's...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...How difficult it is to be poor. Here's...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...You know, the stories of how people become poor. It's the stories of, like, how you personally are...

LIMBONG: Are making people poor.

HOLMES: Exactly - are making people poor. Well, it does...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Sound indeed like an uncomfortable read but probably a very useful one. Again, that is "Poverty, By America" by Matthew Desmond. My second pick is also uncomfortable but for different reasons. It is a novel called "Prom Mom" by Laura Lippman, who is a longtime kind of mystery and suspense writer.

LIMBONG: Shout-out Baltimore writer. Yeah.

HOLMES: Absolutely - very accomplished. You know, her books tend to be kind of twisty and delicious in this particular way, which is interesting when you think about the fact that this book - again, called "Prom Mom" - is about one of these teenagers who doesn't realize that she's pregnant until she goes into labor at the prom, which is kind of this tabloid-y (ph) scenario that - you know, similar things have occasionally happened in real life. And so Lippman kind of spins out one of these tales. And you really find this woman many years later who had this experience, and she has now kind of moved on from it. She's experienced the consequences of it. Her name is Amber. And Amber crosses paths with this guy, Joe, who was the kind of very indifferent, jerk father of her baby. So, you know, they have not had a lot of contact, but they come back into contact.

Joe is now married, and he has a very successful wife. And, you know, he's been, you know, a successful guy. And he's not obviously interested in really renewing this acquaintance with her for a variety of reasons, but they start to talk. And some of the book takes place in the early part of COVID isolation. And there's this very complicated unwinding of their conflict and their - in a weird way, their sympathy for each other. And they're kind of - this secret that kind of binds them and this past experience and terrible experience that binds them to each other forever in a way that they would probably not have chosen.

But it also turns out to be this really clever spin on kind of Joe's sense that he's a good guy, that even though this is part of his past and this happened and - you know, he's a good guy. So part of what Lippman is doing in this book is kind of wrestling with the idea of good guys, guys who think of themselves as good guys. And the thing that's amazing to me is that even though it is such a bleak premise, it's a really fun book. It is still very twisty and very - it's entertaining to read even though it has this difficult premise. And I think she manages to kind of take it seriously and manage it respectfully while still having the book be genuinely, like, a great read.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I read her book "Sunburn" this summer. I think she wrote that in 2018, and that's a book that deals kind of with, like, histories of abuse and stuff like that and, like, heavy themes. But she's really good at dialing in and out of being - does this book want to be, like, a sexy thriller? Does it want the book be, like, a kind of quiet, you know, meditation on parenthood or something (laughter)?

HOLMES: Right. This is exactly what this is. It's like...

LIMBONG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...It goes back and forth between, like, being a thriller and being this, like, book about this kind of traumatized woman.

LIMBONG: Yeah. You know, she's still on my, like, Baltimore sightings list. I haven't seen her. Like, I've seen John Waters around. I've seen David Simon around. I've seen a lot of, like, medium-famous Baltimore hardcore guys around. But I'm still trying to cross off my Laura Lippman sighting list. Yeah.

HOLMES: Yeah, absolutely. She's a fun follow and a really interesting writer, I think. All right. So, again, that is "Prom Mom" by Laura Lippman. If you want to discover even more books NPR loved this year, visit npr.org/bestbooks. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you for being here, Andrew, and thank you for everything that you did on Books We Love.

LIMBONG: Thanks so much, Linda.

HOLMES: This episode was produced by Hafsa Fathima and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. The Books We Love project is produced and edited by Rose Friedman, Beth Novey and Meghan Collins Sullivan. Thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. I'm Linda Holmes, and we'll see you all tomorrow.

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