My friend's obsessive 10-year-old son begins writing his next year's list for Santa as soon as the last Christmas present of the current season has been torn open. Maybe he'll grow up to be a book critic! For, in the dreary light of early January while the natural world slumbers, I, too, open up a fresh computer file and begin the process of putting together my new list — my "Best Books of the Year" list.
Every week throughout the year, I receive roughly 100 new books delivered to my home; an additional 25 or more delivered to my office. I wade through those books (and the publisher's catalogues that precede them) and decide what to review. Some books I start to read and discard; others receive a much-deserved pan; still others I never get to for one reason or another. (Much to my mother-in-law's dismay, I haven't read The Help yet!) The happy news for book lovers is that every year, I read and review more good books than this list can hold. Some are even Great.
And, if you want to know how a book earns its place on my "Best of the Year" list, well, to paraphrase Emily Dickinson, you know a book is a winner when it takes the top of your head off.
By Patti Smith; Hardcover, 304 pages; Ecco, List price: $27
Sometimes there is justice in the world. That was my first thought when I heard that Patti Smith had won the National Book Award this fall for her glorious memoir, Just Kids — which has just come out in paperback. Smith wrote the book to honor Robert Mapplethorpe, her youthful partner in love, art, and ambition; but Just Kids is also a celebration of the frayed beauty of New York City in its so-called years of decline — the late 1960s into the 70s.
Franklin and Eleanor: An Extraordinary Marriage
By Hazel Rowley; Hardcover, 368 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $27
Hazel Rowley's revelatory biography of a marriage, Franklin and Eleanor, explores an even more famous couple who defied convention. Rowley charts the evolution of the Roosevelt union from a standard-issue high society alliance to something we don't even have a label for — maybe "semi-open marriage" comes closest.
Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election That Changed Everything For American Women
By Rebecca Traister; Hardcover, 336 pages; Free Press, List price: $26
Speaking of conformity and rebellion, Rebecca Traister's so-very-smart and lively book about the 2008 presidential campaign, called Big Girls Don't Cry, teases out how our reigning cultural narratives about femininity and "playing nice" came to wield so much power during the campaign and, finally, in the voting booth.
Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
By Yunte Huang; Hardcover, 354 pages; W.W. Norton & Co., List price: $26.95
For all its daring allure, early 20th century American detective fiction played by the rules when it came to the look of its detective heroes: Same Spade and company were white straight males who were quick to pull the trigger on any characters who were "different." It's still a mystery whether the exception to this standard profile — Charlie Chan — challenged or confirmed reigning cultural narratives about Asian Americans in mid-20th century America. Yunte Huang's fascinating mish-mosh of a book, also called Charlie Chan, explores the honorable detective's legacy in film and investigates the story of the real life Hawaiian police detective on whom Chan was based.
There is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America
By Philip Dray; Hardcover, 784 pages; Doubleday, List Price: $35
In the late 19th century, ordinary people — mill girls, railroad and garment workers and miners — embraced the revolutionary idea that by banding together they might better their lives. Philip Dray's spectacular narrative history of the American Labor Movement is called There Is Power In A Union. Dray's chronicle reads like a novel, filled with dramatic acts of barbarism and bravery.
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List Price: $27
Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken is a superb follow-up to her 2001 bestseller, Seabiscuit. Unbroken recovers the incredible and, yes, inspirational tale of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who joined the air corps during World War II, Zamperini was shot down; survived, with his pilot, for 47 days on a raft in the Pacific; and, subsequently became a prisoner of war of the Japanese, Zamperini puts to shame all of us these days who use the word "survivor" casually.
Searching for Tamsen Donner
By Gabrielle Burton; Hardcover, 328 pages; Univ of Nebraska Press, List price: $26.95
Gabrielle Burton, a writer now in her 70s, has nurtured a near-lifelong obsession with Tamsen Donner, the wife of the leader of the notorious Donner Party. A few years ago Burton wrote a fabulous feminist on-the-road memoir, called Searching for Tamsen Donner about piling her husband and five daughters in the family station wagon and retracing Tamsen's life. This year, Burton published an evocative recreation of Tamsen's lost journal; the novel, called Impatient With Desire, gets its title from a phrase in one of Tamsen's 17 extant letters.
Freedom: A Novel
By Jonathan Franzen; Hardcover, 576 pages; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, List price: $28
Certainly, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom — the decades-long saga of a long and fraught marriage — deserved all of its applause, despite the literary spitball fight over Franzen's demi-god status. There's not one throw-away scene in Freedom and, yet, for all that effort, nothing feels overwritten or false.
So Much for That
By Lionel Shriver; Hardcover, 448 pages; Harper, List price: $25.99
My personal favorite novel of the year was Lionel Shriver's So Much For That, a black comedy about the emotional and financial cost of health care in America. Shriver's satire tackles the twin questions about cutting-edge medical treatments of life-threatening illnesses: "At what cost?" and "To what end?"
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
By David Mitchell; Hardcover, 496 pages; Random House, List price: $26
I also admired David Mitchell's beautiful novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet which traces the life of its title character who starts working in 1799 on a small European outpost in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan.
Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shteyngart; Hardcover, 352 pages; Random House, List price: $26
Finally, Gary Shteyngart's novel, Super Sad True Love Story moves at warp speed rat-ta-tat telling a dystopian but comic story about a future where books are derided as objects that "smell like wet socks."
I want to end this list by doffing my hat not to a book, but to an independent bookseller and small press publisher. David Thompson was known throughout the mystery world; he died suddenly this year at 38. David introduced me to the wonders of noir writers like Reed Farrel Coleman, Daniel Woodrell and Martin Limon. His legacy is a reminder to all of us who love books that, as someone once said about the late critic Irving Howe, enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.