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The Adult Books editors have selected the following titles as representative of the year’s outstanding books for public-library collections. Our scope has been intentionally broad, and we have attempted to find books that combine literary, intellectual, and aesthetic excellence with popular appeal.
Arts & Literature
Finding Beauty in a Broken World. By Terry Tempest Williams. Pantheon, $25 (9780375420788).
Williams considers the complex beauty of brokenness and the redemptive art of creating wholeness from fragments as she tells the story of her brother’s death and reports on a triptych of subtly linked experiences: attending a mosaics workshop in Ravenna, Italy; conducting fieldwork in a beleaguered Utah prairie-dog town; and taking a life-changing journey to Rwanda to help create a genocide memorial.
The History of Gardens in Painting. By Nils Büttner. Tr. by Russell Stockman. Abbeville, $95 (9780789209931).
Art historian Büttner conducts a gorgeously illustrated and fluently interpretative survey of the many-faceted tradition of garden painting, beginning with the murals of ancient Rome and moving forward to Van Gogh, Monet, and beyond.
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. By Mark Harris. Penguin, $27.95 (9781594201523).
Bringing the storytelling abilities of the best narrative nonfiction writers to a subject, film history, often mired in stodgy prose, Harris uses Hollywood’s 1967 Best Picture nominees (including Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate) as the lens through which to view the cultural revolution of the 1960s. One of the finest film books ever written. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction.)
Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life, and Resistance under the Gun. By Bilal Wafaa and Kari Lydersen. City Lights, paper, $18.95 (9780872864917).
Iraqi artist Wafaa immigrated to the U.S. and channeled his haunting experiences into performance pieces, culminating in Domestic Tension: for an entire month Wafaa, on camera, invited online participants to “shoot an Iraqi” with a computer-controlled paintball gun. His memoir about his life and the profound impact of his bold installation is powerful and demanding.
A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-Day Iraq. By Fernando Báez. Atlas, $25 (9781934633014).
“Each destroyed book is a passport to hell.” In the outcry of a poet witnessing the firebombing of Sarajevo’s National Library, Báez finds a leitmotif for this fascinating psychological history of book burning. A powerful cautionary tale in which zealotry is exposed as the universal motive of those who would burn books.
White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. By Brenda Wineapple. Knopf, $27.95 (9781400044016).
In this revisionist assessment of Emily Dickinson’s relationship with her editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Wineapple captures the luminous warmth of a friendship that forever enriched American literature. Nuanced, insightful, and remarkably readable. William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs and Video, 1961–2008. By Elisabeth Sussman and Thomas Weski. Yale, $65 (9780300126211).
The photographs of the father of color photography, casual mid-twentieth-century division, typically resemble single frames from a movie and show nothing special, but with an intensity less of regard than transcendence that makes them indelible.
The Beautiful Soul of John Woolman, Apostle of Abolition. By Thomas P. Slaughter. Hill & Wang, $27 (9780809095148).
The most famous American Quaker, who, nearly single-handedly, persuaded his influential denomination to renounce and campaign against slavery, arises out of Slaughter’s pages as a figure from the Age of Faith alive in and admonitory to the Enlightenment.
First Darling of the Morning: Selected Memories of an Indian Childhood. By Thrity Umrigar. HarperCollins/Perennial, paper, $14.95 (9780061451614).
This bracingly honest, bittersweet memoir describes novelist Umrigar’s coming-of-age in Bombay, rebelling against her menacing and cruel mother, participating in anti-government demonstrations, and above all, feeling liberated when introduced to the wonders of art and literature.
In Search of Bill Clinton: A Psychological Biography. By John D. Gartner. St. Martin’s, $25.95 (9780312369767).
Gartner combines psychological biography and journalism in this probing look at one of our most fascinating presidents. Drawing on two years of research and interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, Gartner pronounces Clinton to be a man of uncommon intelligence, energy, drive, and weakness.
Le Corbusier. By Nicholas Fox Weber. Knopf, $45 (9780375410437).
Universally recognized for his radical theories and daring buildings, the architect and urban designer who called himself Le Corbusier had nonetheless remained an enigma until Weber gained access to his wildly expressive letters, the foundation for this superbly revealing and mesmerizing biography of a relentlessly ambitious and complicated visionary.
My Life: A SpokenAutobiography
. By Fidel Castro and Ignacio Ramonet. Scribner, $40 (1-4165-5328-2).
Spanish journalist Ramonet sat down with Castro over the course of many hours, engaging him in long, involved discussions about his revolutionary life (but little about his personal life). The detail here, filtered, of course, through Castro’s memory and consciousness, nevertheless proves enormously fascinating.
Painter in a Savage Land: The Strange Saga of the First European Artist in North America. By Miles Harvey. Random, $27 (9781400061204).
From a doomed French fort, to the bloody turmoil of sixteenth-century Paris and London, to today’s Sotheby’s auction rooms, the dramatic story of the long-forgotten artist Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues is a veritable tale of nine lives, entertainingly told in this unprecedented biography.
Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By H. W. Brands. Doubleday, $35 (9780385519588).
The theme around which Brands constructs this comprehensive, fluidly written new biography of FDR is that having been born into wealth, Roosevelt as president was accused of “apostasy” by his upscale social group for his championing of common people.
Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business. By Ethan Mordden. St. Martin’s, $29.95 (9780312375430).
Premier Broadway historian Mordden chronicles the great producer Florenz Ziegfeld’s rise from immigrant music-teacher’s son to the heights of Broadway by raising the bar for all live entertainment and helping found the American musical.
Bitterly Divided: The South’s Inner Civil War. By David Williams. New Press, $27.95 (9781595581082).
To the nonslaveholding majority of white Southerners, skeptical of slavery, the war with the North was “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” that the planter class failed to support and that impoverished Confederate soldiers deserted, often to turn and fight with the Union. Impressively documented, essential Civil War reading.
Champlain’s Dream. By David Hackett Fischer. Simon & Schuster, $35 (9781416593324).
Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Fischer has produced the definitive biography of Samuel de Champlain, founder of Quebec. Fischer excels in his analysis of Champlain’s leadership and diplomacy with the native peoples, resulting in a comprehensive, incisive portrayal and an enthralling reading experience.
Crossing the Continent, 1527–1540:The Story of the First African-American Explorer of the American South
. By Robert Goodwin. HarperCollins, $25.95 (9780061140440).
More than the history of the African slave who was an explorer of the American South, this extraordinary book is about the history of history; how and why it gets written. Historian Goodwin answers the question of how a man who figured as prominently as Esteban Dorantes did in the Spanish expeditions could go unrecognized for centuries.
The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. By Jonathan Riley-Smith. Columbia Univ., $24.50 (9780231146241).
Leading Crusades historian Riley-Smith parses two periods of crusading, one the famous late-medieval Crusades, the other during the nineteenth-century French imperialist invasion of the Middle East and Africa. Both were undertaken largely out of genuine religious fervor, and intramural Western reactions to both facilitated the rise of modern violent jihadism.
In Reckless Hands:Skinner v. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics
. By Victoria F. Nourse. Norton, $24.95 (9780393065299).
When the Supreme Court overturned Oklahoma’s convict-sterilization law in 1942, squelching the racist eugenics movement, it did so on the grounds that the law affected some kinds of people but never others. Nourse tells the engrossing six-year story of the landmark case and counsels recalling the court’s egalitarian reasoning now that rights-talk is losing ground in U.S. courts.
Massacre at Mountain Meadows: An American Tragedy. By Ronald W. Walker and others. Oxford, $29.95 (9780195160345).
Coauthors Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard provide the richest account yet of the darkest chapter in Mormon history: the massacre of a wagon train of California-bound immigrants passing through Utah in 1857. Essential for western-history collections.
Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War. By Robert Roper. Walker, $28 (9780802715531).
In this groundbreaking account, Roper reveals the degree to which a poet famous for his depictions of Civil War carnage viewed the war through the eyes of his younger brother. Behind the tangle of Whitman’s family affections and sexual passions, readers discern the imaginative genius that wove diverse experiences into panoramic literature.
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944–45. By Max Hastings. Knopf, $35 (0-307-26351-7).
In this masterful interpretive narrative, a companion to Hastings’ effusively praised Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944–45 (2004), the notable military historian wrestles with controversies about the last year of World War II in Asia and the Pacific.
The Soiling of Old Glory:The Story of a Photograph That Shocked America
. By Louis P. Masur. Bloomsbury, $24.95 (1-59691-364-9).
In this compelling biography of a photograph—Stanley Forman’s 1976 image of a white man attacking a black man with an American flag during riots in Boston’s Southie neighborhood—Masur captures a deeply troubled period in American history from a variety of revealing angles.
The Wordy Shipmates. By Sarah Vowell. Riverhead, $24.95 (9781594489990).
Focusing on the Puritans who settled in 1692 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Vowell laments their image as “boring killjoys” when in fact they were “fascinating killjoys.” A book dense with detail, insight, and humor.
Strong in the Rain. By Kenji Miyazawa. Tr. by Roger Pulvers. Bloodaxe, paper, $25.95 (9781852247812).
Translator Pulvers, a man of the theater, stresses the visual content of the work of Japan’s great poet of place, keenly vivifying Miyazawa’s almost Franciscan life of devotion to the poor farmers of his culturally backward home prefecture in northern Honshu, expressed in thoroughly modern verse.
Warhorses. By Yusef Komunyakaa. Farrar, $22 (9780374286439).
Pulitzer Prize winner Komunyakaa has been one of our greatest war poets ever since his service in Vietnam. In this piercing collection, he aligns the deep past with the surging present to take measure of humanity’s willingness to inflict and suffer the deep and abiding wounds of combat generation after generation.
The Last Superstition:A Refutation of the New Atheism
. By Edward Feser. St. Augustine’s, $27 (9781587314513).
Philosopher Feser gives Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, and Harris their comeuppance with contempt to match theirs for religious believers (though he is gleeful rather than, like them, condescending) and, much more important, by reestablishing the unassailability of Aristotle’s proof of a prime mover or pure being: God.
Beyond the Zonules of Zinn:A Fantastic Journey through Your Brain
. By David Bainbridge. Harvard, $25.95 (0-674-02610-1).
With great good humor, anatomist Bainbridge conducts a tour up the spinal cord to the cerebral cortex, en route covering, in succession, embryonic brain development, the structuring of the senses, and the workings of the mind. A tour de force of popular science writing.
The Big Necessity:The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters
. By Rose George. Holt/Metropolitan, $26 (9780805082715).
Trailblazing journalist George traveled the world to assess the rarely considered consequences of the “big necessity,” the sanitary disposal of human waste, and recounts her alarming findings in a witty, anecdotal, and sharply informative exposé.
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. By Mary Roach. Norton, $24.95 (9780393064643).
Through understanding the anatomy, physiology, and psychology of sexual response, scientists can help humanity achieve greater happiness. Roach shares such altruistic intentions, but she’s also “the funniest science writer in the country” (says the New Yorker), here matched with the perfect subject for her talent.
The Universe in a Mirror:The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It
. By Robert Zimmerman. Princeton, $29.95 (9780691132976).
In recounting how Lyman Spitzer’s outlandish idea of launching a telescope into space in the 1940s became the reality of the Hubble Telescope, Zimmerman illuminates a triumph of curiosity. Must reading for armchair astrophysicists.
For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb, and the Murder That Shocked Chicago. By Simon Baatz. HarperCollins, $25.95 (9780060781002).
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb have been the objects of derision and curiosity ever since the sensational murder they committed on Chicago’s South Side in 1924. These two privileged teenagers killed little Bobby Franks, a neighbor, also from a privileged family, just for the thrill of achieving the perfect crime. The author’s comprehensive account of the case identifies the peculiar personality traits that made them believe in their infallibility.
Hot, Flat, and Crowded:Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Renew America
. By Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, $27.95 (9780374166854).
Friedman mapped the unintended consequences of digital technology and global free-market capitalism in The World Is Flat (2005). Now, marshaling an amazing wealth of facts and observations, Friedman assesses the implications of climate change and the population explosion within a galvanizing analysis of the dire problems we face, reminds us of our capacity for change, and calls for a green revolution.
Our Daily Meds:How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs
. By Melody Petersen. Farrar/Sarah Crichton, $25 (0-374-22827-2).
Inventing diseases to market questionable new products, getting doctors to prescribe expensive rather than effective cheaper medicines, and making as many as one in five deaths plausibly attributable to drugs taken as directed are some of the practices investigative journalist Petersen uncovers, and then she drops the bomb: no law prevents a physician from accepting cash to prescribe a drug.
Party Crashing:How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence
. By Keli Goff. Basic, paper, $16.95 (0-465-00332-X).
Young black voters are growing up and going in a different—more independent—direction than their parents, according to political analyst Goff, who also examines what the shifting perspective of the post–civil rights generation will mean to the future of American politics.
Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America
. By Donna Foote. Knopf, $24.95 (9780307265715).
After a mere five weeks of training, four Teach for America recruits are “air-dropped” into one of the toughest schools in one of the worst public school districts in the nation, Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles, to do battle against illiteracy, racial and gang violence, low expectations, and teacher apathy. A candid and completely fascinating look at a daring enterprise and the individuals behind it.
The Way We Will Be 50 Years from Today:60 of the World’s Greatest Minds Share Their Visions of the Next Half-Century
. Ed. by Mike Wallace. Thomas Nelson, $24.99 (9780849903700).
Ranging from Vint Cerf, “father of the Internet,” to Francis S. Collins, the geneticist who led the Human Genome Project, the contributors in this collection of essays expound on a broad range of subjects, including food, health, natural resources, global security, the environment, religion, politics, and economics. A fascinating look at what may be ahead for human life on the planet.
Whatever It Takes:Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America
. By Paul Tough. Houghton, $24.95 (9780307265715).
This is a thoroughly engrossing look at a visionary man and his bold experiment to offer a cradle-to-college program for thousands of underprivileged children through the Harlem Children’s Zone, a $58 million project encompassing 97 city blocks and serving 7,000 children.
The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret. By Seth Shulman. Norton, $24.95 (9780393062069).
In this remarkable challenge to received wisdom, Shulman suggests that Alexander Graham Bell pilfered another man’s idea and is a historical impostor.
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar
. By Paul Theroux. Houghton, $28 (9780618418879).
Realizing that many travel writers never retrace their steps, Theroux decided to travel as he did in his landmark book The Great Railway Bazaar (1975). The result is a wonderful book infused with the insights of maturity, succeeding on many levels while also doing what the best travel writing can’t help but do: make the reader want to hit the road.
Road to Quoz:An American Mosey
. By William Least Heat-Moon. Little, Brown, $27.99 (9780316110259).
Heat-Moon, a revered champion of back roads and buried history, reports with great wit and compassionate insight on his quest for quoz, that is, “anything strange, incongruous, or peculiar” while on a “mosey” through nearly a dozen states. As he visits quirky small towns and meets intriguing people, Heat-Moon reminds us of the seemingly lost pleasures of taking one’s time.
American Wife. By Curtis Sittenfeld. Random, $26 (9781400064755).
This fictional portrait of Laura Bush is told entirely in the first person as the First Lady relays her unlikely ascent to the White House from her humble beginnings. Sittenfeld conveys in convincing, thoroughly riveting detail a life far more complicated than it appears on the surface.
The Black Tower. By Louis Bayard. Morrow, $24.95 (9780061704420).
In a superb novel, Bayard offers a rip-roaring plot full of smart and funny turns as it follows the wily Vidocq, a real-life figure who went from being a criminal to becoming one of the first private investigators, as he searches for Marie Antoinette’s lost son, long thought to have been imprisoned in the Black Tower.
Come with Me to Babylon. By Paul M. Levitt. Univ. of New Mexico, $24.95 (9780826341785).
In the tradition of Malamud and Potok, this stirring novel of Jewish immigration from a Russian shtetl to early-twentieth-century New York challenges the clichés of the promised land by showing how the dream of success can lead to corruption and heartbreak. An unforgettable personal drama of secrets and sacrifice.
Dangerous Laughter:Thirteen Stories
. By Steven Millhauser. Knopf, $24 (9780307267566).
Millhauser, author of many intriguing works and a Pulitzer Prize winner, is one of the most inventive contemporary American fiction writers. He now presents a collection of short stories that are hilarious and creative delights.
Driftless. By David Rhodes. Milkweed, $24 (9781571310590).
In a triumphant return to publishing 30 years after a motorcycle accident, Rhodes picks up the story of July Montgomery, a magnetic character introduced in Rock Island Line (1975). July has finally found sanctuary but soon finds himself drawn into the dramatic predicaments of his unexpectedly intrepid neighbors in this radiant novel of community and courage.
The Enchantress of Florence. By Salman Rushdie. Random, $27 (9780375504334).
Rushdie spins a tall tale based on the hoary premise of a stranger coming to town. The town is the capital city of the Mogul Empire of Akbar the Great, and the stranger is a Florentine conjurer who has come all the way from Italy to seek an audience with the king of kings, for he has a story fit only for the emperor’s ears. An elaborate, complicated read, intensely reflective of the author’s worldliness, intelligence, and partiality to the fantastical.
Esther’s Inheritance. By Sandor Marai. Knopf, $24 (9781400045006).
This first U.S. publication of a novel by a Hungarian writer famous in the 1930s as a chronicler of the culture of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire is deeply psychological, pristinely wrought, and breathtakingly incisive.
Fine Just the Way It Is:Wyoming Stories 3
. By Annie Proulx. Scribner, $25 (9781416571667).
The third volume of the author’s celebrated and popular Wyoming stories further establishes Proulx as one of the most inventive yet traditional story writers working today.
The Gargoyle. By Andrew Davidson. Doubleday, $25.95 (9780385524940).
Davidson’s stunning debut opens with a bourbon-drinking porn star in a car crash and continues in a hospital room, where the badly burned survivor is visited by a beautiful sculptress who tells him they first met and fell in love 700 years ago.
The Given Day. By Dennis Lehane. Morrow, $27.95 (9780688163181).
Focusing on the Boston police strike of 1919, Lehane’s detail-rich exploration of America at the end of World War I captures a country on the verge of being torn apart by civil and political unrest. Like Doctorow’s Ragtime, the novel vividly dramatizes how the tortured dreams that drive individual lives also send a nation roiling forward.
House of Widows. By Askold Melnyczuk. Graywolf, paper, $16 (9781555974916).
A young American’s quest to learn why his Ukrainian-born father committed suicide leads him into a Middle European heart of darkness. A shocking coming-of-age tale about love, war, duty, honor, betrayal, history, and politics—and the perils of each.
Indignation. By Philip Roth. Houghton, $26 (9780547054841).
In this fast-paced, compassionate, humorous, historically conscious novel, the setting and the main character are plucked from traditional Roth country: a nice Jewish boy living in Newark in the early 1950s, this time the son of a kosher butcher.
Kieron Smith, boy. By James Kelman. Harcourt, $26 (9780151013487).
A grandparent’s death, a new home, tense relations with an older brother, the Catholic-Protestant divide that harries Glasgow—Kelman brings these and other challenges that likable, often misunderstood Kieron faces so intimately alive that we seem to be reading an unusually perceptive diary.
The Lazarus Project. By Aleksandar Hemon. Riverhead, $24.95 (9781594489884).
Immigrant Lazarus Averbuch is shot to death when he tries to meet with Chicago’s chief of police in 1908. Struggling Bosnian writer Vladimir Brik decides to write about Lazarus and embarks on a risky research expedition in Moldova and Sarajevo. Hemon interweaves these two tales to create an excoriating novel of fury, empathy, and dark humor.
Lush Life. By Richard Price. Farrar, $26 (9780374299255).
On New York’s gentrifying Lower East Side, two boys from the projects hold up three men, killing one. Two cops investigate. Given the plummeting crime rate in most major cities, it might be argued that crime-driven social dramas are no longer relevant. But making the streets safe for the café crowd has its hidden costs—and no one shows that better than Price. (Top of the List winner—Adult Fiction.)
A Mercy. By Toni Morrison. Knopf, $23.95 (9780307264237).
The time is the late 1600s, when what will become the U.S. remains a chain of colonies along the Atlantic coast. Not only does slavery still exist, it is a thriving industry that translates into plenty of business for lots of people. Morrison’s riveting, even poetic, novel is a fitting companion to her highly regarded Beloved.
A Partisan’s Daughter. By Louis de Bernieres. Knopf, $22 (9780307268877).
Yugoslavian emigrant Roza rescues an unhappy man, who mistakes her for a prostitute, by spinning enchanting tales of lust, love, and loss, make-believe and truth, in de Bernieres’ provocative and artful celebration of the transforming power of stories.
People of the Whale. By Linda Hogan. Norton, $24.95 (9780393064575).
Hogan’s hauntingly beautiful and suspenseful novel about the deep bond between a Northwest Indian tribe and the whales they worship and continue to rely on, in spite of a ban on whale hunting, dramatizes the interconnectivity of cultural extinction, environmental destruction, and war.
The Plague of Doves. By Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins, $25.95 (9780060515126).
In this mesmerizing novel set in Pluto, North Dakota, a white town on the edge of an Ojibwa reservation, Evelina, a girl of mixed Indian and white descent, learns about the town’s long, bloody history. With both impeccable comic timing and a powerful sense of the tragic, Erdrich continues to illuminate, in highly original style, the mystery and the complexity of human relationships.
The Red Scarf. By Kate Furnivall. Berkeley, paper, $15 (9780425221648).
Moving somewhere between the romance of Doctor Zhivago and the horror of The Gulag Archipelago, this riveting historical novel portrays the hardships of a Siberian labor camp in 1938. Two women escape from the camp, and their attempt to find a childhood friend pulls readers’ heartstrings toward an astonishing finale.
Three Girls and Their Brother. By Theresa Rebeck. Crown/Shaye Areheart, $23.95 (9780307394149).
When the redheaded Heller sisters are featured on the cover of the New Yorker, they are launched directly into the celebrity stratosphere in this fast-paced, wickedly funny satire. With wry humor and sharply observant prose, Rebeck lands one roundhouse punch after another in a supremely gratifying takedown of show-biz politics.
Unaccustomed Earth. By Jhumpa Lahiri. Knopf, $25 (9780307265739).
Pulitzer Prize winner Lahiri is a masterful short story writer, filling her newest emotionally and culturally astute tales of cultural collision and confusion, several portraying two Bengali families in America, with telling detail and a keen sense of life’s abrupt and painful changes.
The Widows of Eastwick. By John Updike. Knopf, $24.95 (9780307269607).
This continuation into the present day of The Witches of Eastwick, the author’s 1984 comic novel about three women friends who live in the Rhode Island coastal town of Eastwick, boasts vibrant characters, careful detailing, and a sense of anticipation of impending dire events, leaving this an absorbing read, enjoyable to the fullest even by readers unfamiliar with its predecessor.
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