We asked Shelf Awareness people for their 10 (or so) favorite books of the past year. Most of them were published in 2008, but not all, since we wanted to know what gave them reading pleasure no matter the pub date.
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (Penguin Press). The author says it best: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." A potentially life-changing book.
The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown). Harry Bosch and Mickey Haller team up in gloriously dark Los Angeles; Connelly at his best.
The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber (Morrow). A mind-bending tale of art, forgery and identity from a consistently brilliant writer.
High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed by Michael Kodas (Hyperion). A chilling tale of mayhem atop the world's highest peak. Unputdownable.
Hurry Down Sunshine by Michael Greenberg (Other Press). A father's deeply affecting and poetically rendered account of his daughter's sudden descent into madness.
Songs for the Missing by Stewart O'Nan (Viking). The haunting story of a teenage girl's disappearance and how it affects her family and her entire town.
In the Dark by Mark Billingham (Harper). Dark British crime fiction by a master of the genre.
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken (Little, Brown). McCracken's beautifully written account of the death of her unborn child days before his birth is sad, angry, funny and ultimately uplifting.
John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman (Ecco). A thoughtful, thorough and highly compelling re-examination of the life of John Lennon, full of new information and insights.
The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing edited by Mark Smirnoff (University of Arkansas Press). Dozens of truly great writers offer their insights on everything musical from Bessie Smith to Southern Rock. A must-have for any music lover.
Splat the Cat by Rob Scotton (HarperCollins). Rob Scotton follows up his adorable "Russell the Sheep" series with an equally engaging new character, Splat. Too cute for words; not to be missed.
Concrete Reverie: Consciousness and the City by Mark Kingwell (Viking). For me, this book was bracing, fun and stimulated a million ideas even while discussing the limiting thought processes we inherit from Rene Descartes.
Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson by David Reynolds (Harper). Proof that history can be thrilling reading.
The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles edited by Jeff Martin (Soft Skull Press). I laughed so hard I almost lost a contact lens: what more can one say?
My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prudhomme (Knopf, 2006). I tend to buy books, stack them in a pile and finally get around to reading them. The joys this book brought me I could have used in 2006, but I'm glad I got to it as soon as I did.
All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946; Harvest, 2006). I've changed my vote for Great American Novel to this one. How could I never have read it before?
The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier (1949; FSG, 2006). A great (truly) Cuban writer in dazzling form. Talk about great political novels!
The Conformist by Alberto Moravia (1951; Steerforth Press, 2004). Bertolucci's film of this novel is one of my favorite movies, and I finally discovered that the book is equally wonderful.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947; New Directions, 2004). I read plays for pleasure, and this one remains one of the greatest for that purpose
White Chameleon by Christopher Hampton (Faber & Faber, 1991). A memory play set in Alexandria just as King Farouk was being ousted: complex, fierce, charming and beautiful.
Conversations after a Burial by Yasmina Reza (Faber & Faber, 2001). Great playwrights can establish a character in four words of dialogue. Reza can do it in two.
City of Thieves by David Benioff (Viking). David Benioff's second novel is a modern masterpiece, one worthy of occupying the same shelf as wartime classics like Catch-22 and Slaughterhouse-Five.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf). It's an emotionally astute, character-driven assortment of stories that carry forward and deepen the themes she's explored in her previous works.
Indignation by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin). Of how many writers can it be said that they're still producing some of their best work well into their 70s? Philip Roth proves beyond any dispute that he deserves to be counted in that select group.
The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III (Norton). Richly imagined and profoundly atmospheric, it carves out a slice from the netherworld of American life that's both stark and compassionate.
Home by Marilynne Robinson (FSG). Home is an estimable companion to Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. In gorgeous prose and with great wisdom, she examines the things that bring families together and drive them apart.
American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham (Random House). Thanks to this wise and nuanced portrait of Andrew Jackson, it's possible to see the historical link between Jackson's era and ours, no matter how improbable this may have appeared to Barack Obama's predecessor of nearly two centuries ago.
The Book of Calamities: Five Questions About Suffering and Its Meaning by Peter Trachtenberg (Little, Brown). Trachtenberg weaves compelling strands of reporting, memoir, philosophy and theology to offer a thoughtful, many-sided portrait of the problem of human suffering.
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz (Holt). Tony Horwitz's historical travelogue through the almost 150 years of exploration that predated the Pilgrims' arrival at Plymouth Rock is an intellectually stimulating and consistently entertaining book.
The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, His Own by David Carr (Simon & Schuster). This pungent, raw, searingly honest book grabs you by the throat and wrestles you to the ground with the force of its narrative and then lifts you up with its redemptive power.
The Delighted States: A Book of Novels, Romances, & Their Unknown Translators, Containing Ten Languages, Set on Four Continents, & Accompanied by Maps, Portraits, Squiggles, Illustrations & a Variety of Helpful Indexes by Adam Thirwell (FSG). The Delighted States is a charming, lucid work, guaranteed to ignite sparks of curiosity in the minds of readers willing to follow Adam Thirwell on a frequently circuitous, but always rewarding, path.
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (Pantheon). Some books continue to haunt me--in the best conceivable manner--for months, even years, after reading them, and this story of cricket, friendship and life in post-9/11 New York has already become one of those exquisite, unforgettable novels.
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (Spiegel & Grau). I love great narrative voices, and in this dazzling, ambitious novel we're blessed with two wry, irresistible and sometimes downright twisted perspectives in the functionally dysfunctional father-son combo of Martin and Jasper Dean.
Breath by Tim Winton (FSG). This brilliant Australian novelist once again dazzles with a work that blends hardscrabble working-class life with the alluring and treacherous sirens' song of big-water surfing.
The House of Widows by Askold Melnyczuk (Graywolf Press). I was absolutely on board for this intriguing journey, which moves not only from England to Austria to the Ukraine, but also through a perilous, mystifying landscape where family and history merge in compelling ways.
The Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (Random House). A master craftsman who once again melds precise--yet elegant--narrative style with exhaustive research and a keen sense of how deftly to place ordinary people in unnerving, suspenseful and extraordinary circumstances.
Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz (Ghost Road Press). In this poignant and compelling novel, Charlotte, an artist, escapes post-World War II Berlin and her past to become a farmer's wife in Iceland, but this intriguing new world cannot erase her memories of the intense life--and love--she had to leave behind in Germany.
What Makes a Child Lucky by Gioia Timpanelli (Norton). This beautifully written tale of childhood danger, survival and redemption in Sicily is eloquently tempered with an illuminating portrayal of the landscape.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Free Press). The Man Booker Prize winner is a big, important novel about India and class and ambition and hard-won perspective, all concentrated in a deceptively small package.
On Reading, photographs by Andre Kertesz (Norton reissue). Talented readers will fall in love big time with this gorgeous and evocative collection of black and white shots from the legendary photographer.
Inverted World by Christopher Priest (NYRB Classics). An amazing, deeply human speculative novel, set in a post-apocalyptic world that is both alien and yet unsettling in its familiarity.
Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris (Houghton Mifflin). A literary mystery set in Saudi Arabia that explains much about that country while charming you with the two protagonists, a conservative Muslim and a woman who works for the state coroner. Their sometimes-perilous, often fractious relationship gives this book its heart.
The Book of Matthew by Thomas White (McBooks Press). Thomas White has written a superb, adrenaline-laced thriller, filled with black humor, sharp dialogue and a roller coaster plot. He has nailed it with this book.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (The Dial Press). It seems like everyone knows about this book, but if you haven't yet read it, be good to yourself right now and do so, then give copies to friends and relatives.
The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick (FSG). A sweet, funny novel about a man's path back from heartbreak, starring a former high school teacher and the Philadelphia Eagles. In refusing to be defeated by pessimism, he learns about true silver linings, not pretty happy endings.
A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson (Houghton Mifflin). An enchanting book, with a deft political bite, about a Nairobi widower and his unspoken yet passionate love for a widow. It will beguile any reader who appreciates sharp wit and gentle charm.
Safe Passage by Ida Cook (Harlequin). A memoir of two sisters, Ida and Louise Cook, who followed their passion for opera into a harrowing time of rescuing refugees from Nazi Germany. It's charming, harrowing and witty, filled with courage and exuberance.
Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth Samet (Picador). Literature and the military life may seem like an odd juxtaposition, but Samet, after a decade of teaching at West Point, explains how they mesh; at the same time, she easily smashes stereotypes about West Point.
Heart in the Right Place by Carolyn Jourdan (Algonquin). Jourdan had a fulfilling, high-powered life in Washington, D.C., but moved to rural Tennessee to help at her father's clinic for what she thought would be a few days. As the days turn into weeks, her life changes profoundly. It's a warm, often hilarious, moving memoir.
Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos (Atlantic Monthly Press). Officially a 2009 pub, it's out now, so I can include it, most enthusiastically. This novel about three siblings and the loss of their mother in a tornado 25 years ago is a sublime exploration of family ties and secrets. Sing Them Home is a book you'll never want to finish.
The Perfect Scent by Chandler Burr (Holt). This fascinating story about the creation of two perfumes in France and New York is told with absolutely divine writing. Burr's prose is as heady as the scents he describes.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown, 2007). I have been an Alexie fan since The Business of Fancydancing in 1992, but this completely blew me away. Funny, bitter, ultimately redeeming--a flawless piece of writing.
Lucky Dog by Mark Barrowcliffe (Griffin, 2006). A poker player whose business and love life are going down for the count takes on a dog, a talking dog who only he hears. The dog is smart and sarcastic, and this book will make you laugh and warm your soul.