I usually stay in the background and let others speak about books, but after I was asked to speak about my top picks of the year, I thought I’d share them with all of you. Caveat emptor, this list could go on for another dozen easily. I chose 10 because that’s just what’s done (though see my sneaky additions), and check out this list of books we missed but you shouldn’t. Finally, there are some books that I simply haven’t gotten to yet (Robert Caro’s new Johnson volume and David Nasaw’s Joe Kennedy bio both await a cold day) that I suspect would make this list, but such is it for all readers, always more to read, never enough time. To hear me discuss the list on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook, listen here.
The Yellow BirdsBy Kevin Powers
From the breathtaking opening paragraphs, you know you are in for a novel of exquisite and careful writing about the most horrible things. After 11 years of war, we finally have a fiction that dodges Heller’s shadow and goes right to the heart, our hearts.
The Orphan Master’s SonBy Adam Johnson
I like books that take risks on being topical (see above), and I was in awe of what Stanford English professor Adam Johnson is able to do in his funny, terrifying novel about an orphan’s picaresque life in North Korea (from fighting in tunnels to listening to Japanese broadcasts on a fishing boat to being remade as a heroic general). From one short visit Johnson creates a world where only fiction is true.
Dear LifeBy Alice Munro
She just gets better and better. Her leanest writing yet, so quiet and subtle you’ll miss lines that devastate her characters and then you. Her most autobiographical collection too, with a series of linked stories around a young girl finding her way in a rural, complicated world.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime WalkBy Ben Fountain
As I said, I like topical. If Powers dodged Heller’s shadow, then Ben Fountain has taken it on his shoulders and can justifiably claim the mantle of the great satirist of the Iraq War. But he keeps his eyes firmly on the home front as the boys of Bravo Company, minted war heroes by YouTube, return to ogle cheerleaders, get patted on the back by millionaires, and entertain the crowd at a Dallas Cowboys halftime show.
Bring Up the BodiesBy Hilary Mantel
Should really be called “Power and How to Use It.” The most compelling study of political power since The Prince. OK, that’s hyperbole, but Mantel’s brilliant portrayal of the dark master of Henry VIII’s as he moves inexorably toward Anne Boleyn’s execution is profound. Pair this with Caro’s latest LBJ volume, and you’re on your way to world domination.
Joseph AntonBy Salman Rushdie
So Rushdie’s memoir has gotten a bit (a lot) of flak this year, like most years for the author, and some of it was deserved. To start, it’s too long by half, but that first half, say those initial 270 pages, give one of the most compelling accounts of a life on the run I’ve read, and a deeply important testament to one of the great political and moral questions of our time: Can a man or woman speak without facing death?
The Barbarous YearsBy Bernard Bailyn
I didn’t think they wrote history like this anymore, but here comes Bernard Bailyn, at the age of 90, to wow us with a work so elegant, assured, and masterful that you need to read no other book to understand America between 1600 and 1675. To put it simply, life was nasty, brutish, and short, as great civilizations (the Dutch, the Powhatens, the Iroquis, the Swedes) crashed and burned, and what was left was what became this country.
Every Love Story is a Ghost StoryBy D.T. Max
I’m a little biased here, because I edited an excerpt from this book (and the author’s wife is a colleague), but the imposing writer of this generation, David Foster Wallace, was all legend until Max started peeling. What he reveals, at times devastating and wrenching, but always fascinating and judicious, is that heroic figures come from somewhere, and it doesn’t make them any less monumental to know where that is.
Behind the Beautiful ForeversBy Katherine Boo
So much has been written about this wondrous book that I have little to add, except that 10 months after reading it I still have no idea how she did it.
Far From the TreeBy Andrew Solomon
The biggest-hearted book of the year, and the book that every parent, wannabe parent, used-to-be parent should read. Solomon sets out to find out the love and tears and joy of what happens when your kids are deaf, autistic, prodigies, dwarves, and so on.
Read these too, please:
Ancient LightBy John Banville
More erotically charged than anything EL James writes, and then there’s the prose …
LondonersBy Craig Taylor
Oral biographies/histories usually leave me cold (sorry, Studs), but Taylor has a light touch and unerring ability to find London’s most engaging, eloquent inhabitants.
CapitalBy John Lanchester
Real estate, real estate, real estate. John Lanchester has written the great novel of how houses came to own us, and how they ruined our lives.