2008 Books Wrap
The Daily Beast's columnists pick their favorites from what they read this year.
The Daily Beast's columnists pick their favorites from what they read this year. Plus: The Daily Beast celebrates the best (and worst) of the rest of the year.
We asked our columnists to share the best books they read this year. Below, recommendations from Tina Brown, Peter Beinart, Jessi Klein, Laura Bennett, Michael Korda, Stanley Crouch, Salameh Nematt, Mark McKinnon and Christopher Buckley.
Richard Price's novel Lush Life consumed me for three days of a South Beach vacation. It’s a riveting excavation of downtown Manhattan from the sardine-packed immigrant bolt holes to the backstage life of the tony restaurants where the fashionable young now cluster at the bars. Price writes the best cops since Chandler and the best low lifes since Jean Genet.
The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin. How the great Victorian writer managed effectively to disappear his mistress from all the records and memoirs and how after his death she re invented her romantic history makes for one of the best literary biographies I have ever read. Ternan was an actress from a theatrical family akin to the ones Dickens so brilliantly evoked in Nicholas Nickelby. The book is as much a portrait of the world of Victorian traveling theater as it is of the woman who obsessed Britain's most celebrated literary lion.
Apples and Oranges by Marie Brenner. Vanity Fair journalist Brenner raises her game to become a delicate memoirist of a complicated relationship with her late brother Carl. Brenner is the urban, career-driven sister always at odds with her maddeningly antagonistic brother who lives an inexplicably remote life as a fruit farmer. Only when Carl is diagnosed with cancer does Brenner set out to try and figure out how her brother ticks and what the origins are of their fraught relationship—and pulls off a gripping, haunting memoir.
The Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency by Barton Gellman. An amazing expose. Everything you feared, and more.
U.S. vs Them by J. Peter Scoblic. A very smart history of modern American conservative foreign policy thought, which shows that the George W. Bush disaster was decades in the making.
Between the Wars by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier. An excellent guide to American foreign policy from 1989 to 9/11. Shows that 9/11 didn't actually change everything—it just accelerated it.
Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey Of a Generation by Sheila Weller. This fascinating work weaves together the stories of three defining female musicians, brilliant women who wrote whatever they felt like singing and had sex with whoever they felt like screwing. I loved it so much that, in the parlance of Beyonce, I wanted to put a ring on it. Not that these ladies are looking for one.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a riveting and compelling tale that pairs a crusading Swedish journalist with an abused computer hacker, who is one of the most bizarre and interesting protagonists in recent literature. Written by Stieg Larsson, who died at 50, Tatoo and two others that follow in a trilogy posthumously became huge international best-sellers and now are making a mark here in the Continental 50.
David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest literary talents of his generation. Well, of any generation really. Drenched with talent, but haunted by the black dog demons of severe depression, DFW took his own life this year. He left behind an arsenal of fiction and non-fiction that all reflect humor, humility, insight, perspective and an appreciation for the everyday and the mundane. Upon his death, I ordered up everything he's ever written, rereading some and plowing into others untapped. Suggested appetizer, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham. How Jon Meacham manages to write a biography this good and this big while editing Newsweek escapes me. I hate him. For me, as well as for many Americans, perhaps, the period between the Revolution and the Civil War has always been a bit of a lacuna. Jackson comes alive in Meacham’s hands as perhaps the first truly American president.
The Way of the World: The Story of Truth And Hope In An Age of Extremism by Ron Suskind. Suskind is a brilliant reporter and his investigation into the post- 9/11, pre-Iraq war period makes you think you’re reading about it for the first time. He also nails a very depressing fact, namely that, as we were preparing to go into Iraq in order to neutralize Saddam’s WFB, British intelligence had absolutely established beyond doubt that there were no WMDs; what’s more, that MI-6 passed this critical information on to the White House—where it was ignored. It’s damning. Give this man another Pulitzer Prize.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris. Because he can make the most mundane situation hilarious and everyone needs to laugh at their lives. (Just read the first half of the book though.)
The blizzard of fluff in our pervasively electronic world makes it hard for many to maintain memory because of the constant distractions from substance. Substance never stops arriving, however. I will offer a short list of impressive books, old or new, and those who can use them will.
In A Dybbuk's Raincoat, Collected Poems by Bert Meyers. As fine a gathering as one will find by any major American poet of our time, especially one of whom few know. Now you do.
Living With Jazz by Dan Morgenstern and Moving To Higher Ground by Wynton Marsalis. An astonishingly good book about jazz and an equally astonishing memoir and meditation on the art. Those interested in American civilization should miss neither one.
Nixonland by Rick Perlstein and The Age of Reagan by Sean Wilentz. Essential to understanding how certain dirty political techniques and naive ideologies led to the making of the word "toxic" a huge net that could cover both politics and Wall Street. We should all be grateful for poets, critics, musicians, and historians of this quality. They didn't have to do what they did but they had too much integrity not to put a magnifying glass on what they knew we needed to experience and to know.
Happy New Year if you can make it happen. Always remember that happiness, like everything else, is overrated but remains better than the hard blues.
Our Man In Havana by Graham Greene
Strategy by B. H. Liddell Hart
Bernard Shaw by Michael Holroyd (four-volume biography)
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E. Lawrence
Paris 1919 by Margaret Macmillan
Her Privates We by Frederick Manning
Letters by Nancy Mitford
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh
A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin It is the best book to have been published in years to help us understand how the Middle East became a source of global instability. Ironically, it was published on September 1, 2001, a few days before the 9/11 attacks. Fouad Ajami, in his Wall Street Journal review, put it best : "Ambitious and splendid...An epic tale of ruin and disillusion...of great men, their large deeds and even larger follies."