“May you live in interesting times” is a quote commonly attributed to Confucius, probably erroneously, but Robert F. Kennedy did use it in a speech in 1966, adding a rueful twist: “Like it or not, we live in interesting times....” Regardless of your thinking on these current times, they are certainly anything but boring, and we feel the same about the books published this year.
Once again, we take the opportunity near year's end to review the year in books, highlighting the very best of what American publishing had to offer in fiction, poetry, nonfiction, comics, religion, lifestyle and children's. There were the authors we expected to deliver, and they did: Louise Erdrich with The Plague of Doves, Richard Price with Lush Life, Jhumpa Lahiri with Unaccustomed Earth, Lydia Millet with How the Dead Dream. A breakthrough surprise about cricket, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, delighted us, while Tim Winton's Breath took ours away. We listened to our elders in How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People; thought about our planet with The Soul of the Rhino; examined our history in The Hemingses of Monticello and Abraham Lincoln: A Life; and, thanks to Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw, we even considered Jesus for President.
- How To Live: A Search For Wisdom From Old People (while They Are Still On This Earth) By Henry Alford
"In this rich and humorous narrative, Alford focuses on the stories of the elderly as he sets off a prolonged meditation on the question: What is wisdom?"
- Nothing To Be Frightened Of By Julian Barnes
(literature and fiction, nonfiction)
"In this virtuosic memoir, Barnes makes little mention of his personal or professional life, but grants readers access to an unexpectedly large world, populated with Barnes's daily companions and his chosen ancestors (“most of them dead, and quite a few of them French”)"
- The Journal Of Hélène Berr By Hélène Berr
"Berr's searing record of the devastation of Paris's Jewish community during the Nazi occupation is also a moving self-portrait of a passionate young Jewish Frenchwoman who tried to aid her people and carry on her life with dignity before she perished in Bergen-Belsen. "
- The Solitary Vice: Against Reading By Mikita Brottman
(literature and fiction)
"Sharp, whimsical and impassioned, Brottman's look at the pleasures and perils of compulsive reading is itself compulsively readable and will connect with any book lover."
- Abraham Lincoln: A Life By Michael Burlingame
"Drawing on a vast amount of new research, Lincoln scholar Burlingame has written the best biography of the 16th president to appear in many decades. This two-volume boxed set will supplant Carl Sandburg's as the authoritative work on Lincoln's life."
- The Forever War By Dexter Filkins
"With wrenching immediacy, Filkins's kaleidoscope of vignettes depicts the violent theater of the absurd he encountered reporting on the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq since 1998."
- Outliers: The Story Of Success By Malcolm Gladwell
(business books, health, nonfiction)
"Gladwell tears down the myth of individual merit to explore how culture, circumstance, timing, birth and luck account for success—and how historical legacies can hold others back despite ample individual gifts."
- The Hemingses Of Monticello: An American Family By Annette Gordon-reed
"This extraordinary work of scholarship, an NBA finalist, brings to life not only Sally Hemings, slave and mistress to Thomas Jefferson, but the family's tangled blood links with slaveholding Virginia whites over an entire century."
- Standard Operating Procedure By Philip Gourevitch And Errol Morris
"Gourevitch and Morris's history of Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison is broad, deep and highly disturbing, arguably as important and powerful as Gourevitch's 1998 Rwanda investigation, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families."
- Champlain's Dream By David Hackett Fischer
"With his characteristically outstanding style, Fischer offers the definitive biography of an extraordinary and flawed man: Samuel de Champlain (1567–1635): spy, explorer, courtier, soldier and founder and governor of New France "
- The Ten-cent Plague: The Great Comic-book Scare And How It Changed America By David Hajdu
(history, literature and fiction)
"After writing about the folk scene of the early 1960s in Positively 4th Street, Hajdu goes back a decade to examine the censorship debate over comic books, casting the controversy as a prelude to the cultural battle over rock music."
- Pictures At A Revolution: Five Movies And The Birth Of The New Hollywood By Mark Harris
"In examining the five films nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar, Harris widens his scope to show Old Hollywood and New Hollywood clashing over changing cultural values, an outdated Production Code and the civil rights movement. "
- Maggots In My Sweet Potatoes: Women Doing Time By Susan Madden Lankford
"Photographs, interviews, statistics and exhaustive research combine in this moving, eye-opening account of California women caught in a cycle of prison and poverty. Looking at the situation from all angles, photographer and first-time author Lankford achieves a vital and very personal portrait of America's broken penal system."
- God's Crucible: Islam And The Making Of Europe, By David Levering Lewis
(history, religion and spirituality)
"Lewis gives a superb portrayal of the fraught half-millennium during which Islam and Christianity uneasily coexisted on the European continent, forging a sophisticated, socially diverse and economically dynamic culture."
- The Soloist: A Lost Dream, An Unlikely Friendship, And The Redemptive Power Of Music By Steve Lopez
"With self-effacing humor, fast-paced yet elegant prose and unsparing honesty, Lopez tells an inspiring story of heartbreak and hope as he tries to help an accomplished though homeless violinist find his path off the streets."
- The Dark Side By Jane Mayer
"This hard-hitting exposé, an NBA finalist, by New Yorker correspondent Mayer examines the war on terror with a meticulous reconstruction of the battle within the Bush administration over antiterrorism policies: harsh interrogations, indefinite detentions without due process, extraordinary renditions and secret CIA prisons. "
- An Exact Replica Of A Figment Of My Imagination: A Memoir By Elizabeth Mccracken
(literature and fiction)
"McCracken tells her own story in this touching and often unexpectedly funny memoir about her life before and after losing her first child in the ninth month of pregnancy."
- How Beautiful It Is And How Easily It Can Be Broken By Daniel Mendelsohn
(literature and fiction)
"Mendelsohn displays his intellectual breadth in these elegant, wide-ranging critical essays, drawing on his training as a classicist to look at contemporary culture, from The Glass Menagerie to Kill Bill."
- The Soul Of The Rhino: A Nepali Adventure With Kings And Elephant Drivers, Billionaires And Bureaucrats, Shamans And Scientists, And The Indian Rhinoceros By Hemanta Mishra With Jim Ottaway Jr.
"This mesmerizing account follows Mishra's 30 years as a leader of Nepal's conservation efforts, implementing programs to help eliminate rhino poaching and increase the animal's population. Mishra's political triumphs and setbacks are bolstered by fascinating scenes of Nepal's cultural life and the vivid, varied wildlife."
- Rogue Economics: Capitalism's New Reality By Loretta Napoleoni
(economics, business books, nonfiction)
"Examining the worldwide economy of illegal, criminal and terrorist activities, Napoleoni takes readers to the dark side of free trade, covering the sex industry, Internet fraud, piracy, human slavery, drug trafficking and even the subprime mortgage lending scandal. Fans of Freakonomics and Eric Schlosser's consumer exposés will find this grim read quite gratifying."
- Descent Into Chaos By Ahmed Rashid
"Long overshadowed by the Iraq War, the ongoing turmoil in Afghanistan and Central Asia finally receives a searching retrospective as Rashid surveys the region to reveal a thicket of ominous threats and lost opportunities."
- Epilogue: A Memoir By Anne Roiphe
(health, literature and fiction)
"In poignant flashes of everyday moments and memories, Roiphe tells an unflinching and unsentimental story of widowhood's stupefying disquiet, of surviving love and living on."
- The Snowball: Warren Buffett And The Business Of Life By Alice Schroeder
"Schroeder strips away the mystery that has long cloaked the world's richest man to reveal a life and fortune erected around a lucid and inspired business vision and unimaginable personal complexity."
- The Angel Of Grozny: Orphans Of A Forgotten War By Asne Seierstad
"In this searing journey through a traumatized Chechnya, Norwegian journalist Seierstad highlights children, women and other victims of the war in a gallery of portraits drawn from her reporting—sometimes undercover—from the region."
- Final Salute: A Story Of Unfinished Lives By Jim Sheeler
"Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Sheeler offers an unflinching look at the soldiers who have died in Iraq and their devastated families in this NBA finalist's eloquent tribute that should be required reading for all Americans."
- A Memoir By Barbara Walters
"This mammoth, compulsively readable memoir offers an entertaining panorama of a full life lived and recounted with humor, bracing honesty and unflagging energy."
- The Post-american World By Fareed Zakaria
"Newsweek editor and popular pundit Zakaria delivers a largely optimistic forecast of where the 21st century is heading, predicting that despite its record of recent blunders at home and abroad, America will stay strong, buoyed by a stellar educational system and the influx of young immigrants."