And so it ends. Another year of reading, another year of surprises, disappointments, delights, regrets, forays and retreats on the page. I’ll demur from offering a one line conclusion on the whole year, for like most things in life it’s more complicated. But somehow I found myself reading more previously published books than in past years. That’s probably not a good thing for a literary editor to admit, since I am, after all, meant to be on the forefront of all that’s new and fresh and to tell you, my gentle readers, all about it. Of course, I read, enjoyed, and admired the same books that everyone else did—Donna Tartt, George Packer and so on—but my list also reflects a few less applauded or less well-known books. Herewith for your enjoyment and frustration is my list, by category and in no particular order.
Best American History
I’ve always thought that truly great historians, like novelists, require imagination, not to make things up of course, but to imagine themselves into distant lives and other times. No book that I read did that more excitingly and successfully than Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages. It’s a deeply sympathetic attempt to tell the life of Jane Franklin, the unknown sister of one of the best known Americans, Benjamin Franklin.
Despite having the immense pleasure of working with Edna O’Brien on her biography of Lord Byron and of reading much of her fiction, I was unprepared for just how delightful, naughty, knowing, and devastatingly charming her memoir Country Girl would be.
Much has been written about Adelle Waldman’s scalpel-sharp look at the foibles of a certain type of 20- and 30-somethings who inhabit Brooklyn, flirt with Sebald, drink Sixpoint, and posture about sex. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is as good as everyone says, even if sometimes you get that feeling of looking in the mirror at dawn. Is that really us?
No one lived a life like Patrick Leigh Fermor, and every page of Artemis Cooper’s magnificent biography made me desperately wish that I had met him. His kind will not be seen again.
Bonus—read his A Time of Gifts about his walk across Europe in 1933-1934 before a whispering fire.
Best Global History
I’ve spent countless hours reading about trenches, tank battles, and dogfights, but no book had yet captured what came after all that as superbly as Ian Buruma does in Year Zero: A History of 1945. This book will change the way you think about the postwar era, i.e. ours.
A much lamented and observed fact is that the comic novel has been largely abandoned by contemporary writers. Fear not, thanks to the heroes at New York Review Books Classics we can laugh and squirm and grow uncomfortable all over again in the fierce wit of Kingsley Amis. Start with Lucky Jim, and then venture to The Old Devils and One Fat Englishman.
Best Book That Everyone Loved
I knew George Saunders’s stories for being by turns funny, strange, sad, disorienting, and a thousand other emotions, but what I didn’t expect was how his new collection, Tenth of December would take the temperature of America today better than any novel written this year.
A hopeless military venture, an angry native population, a blundering empire—I speak not of America in Afghanistan today but of Britain there in 1839. Return of the King was the most gripping story I read this year, thanks to the bewitching pen of William Dalrymple, who is as charming on the page as he is in person. Tally-ho.
I must admit I hadn’t ever properly read Renata Adler when I agreed, readily, to interview her, but nothing like a deadline to make a fan. Speedboat is indeed as unsettling, brilliant, and hard-edged now as when it was first published in the ‘70s.
Please Give Them Their Due
Three history books that I thoroughly enjoyed but that didn’t quite seem to catch on. Now is your chance. First, Allen Guelzo’s excellent, thorough, and engaging history of America’s baptismal battle, Gettysburg. Second, the incomparable Richard Holmes, who I would follow anywhere, took us into the air with his history of ballooning, Falling Upwards. Finally, we live in an age when we sorely need a Swift; instead we have Jon Stewart. Modest recompense is to be found in Leo Damrosch’s new Life of Swift.
Best Book By An Author Who Published Another Book This Year
OK, I admit that’s a tortured title, but I had to shout out my deep appreciation for James Salter, who finally got his due and more upon the publication of All That Is. But it was an earlier novel of his, The Hunters, about a group of America fighter pilots in the Korean War that really wowed me. It goes to the top of the heap of greatest novels about war.
There was a tremendous amount of excellent journalism published this year, but in book form, two stand out. First, the unfairly overlooked The Good Nurse, an account of a nurse who is perhaps the most successful serial killer in American history. Ten years of sweat by Charles Graeber lead to a masterly account of a man trusted to heal who instead killed with impunity. Second, I took a splendid trip to Indonesia earlier this year, and, as I try to do when I travel I sought out books about where I was headed—not for me Proust on the beach. I had no idea who Richard Lloyd Parry was when I picked up In the Time of Madness, but now I easily compare him to the great foreign correspondents for his bloody, brave, engrossing account of a country falling apart. (Seek out also his latest book, People Who Eat Darkness, for which the title alone should suffice to intrigue.)