In October, Eugene Fama won a Nobel Prize in economics for proving — in essence — that a room full of monkeys throwing darts could pick stocks better than the average investor.
Book section editors like to imagine that we do better than a room full of monkeys, but, as they say, past performance is no guarantee of future results. Any process of artistic judgment is fraught with blind spots, prejudices and the mysteries of taste. Look back a few decades at the favorites and the big award winners, and you’ll wonder who was throwing those darts.
In the 15 years I’ve been involved in drawing up “best books” lists, I’ve grown increasingly anxious and humble about the process. But I’ve also come to recognize what fun such lists are. We want our own enthusiasms confirmed. And challenged. Slavish consensus would be boring. Give us a sharp debate about our favorite work of history, our most cherished novel — and then some good suggestions about what to read next.
At Book World, we poll our regular reviewers about the books they enjoyed during the year, and then the editors weigh and consider, count and recount. We’re not worried so much about making the perfect choices (those don’t exist). We just want to make sure our choices provide a rich investment for your time.
Here’s to another profitable year of reading.
By Jill Lepore (Knopf)
Jill Lepore’s luminous story of the life of Benjamin Franklin’s sister is stitched together from fragments and scraps. There is no record of anything Jane Franklin might have thought or felt in her youth. Her brother does not mention her in his autobiography. Yet she emerges here as witty, curious and resilient in the face of unimaginable grief, largely from listless, sickly or lost children. Lepore, a history professor at Harvard, shows that Jane’s importance lies in her ordinariness — her learning thwarted by circumstance, but her intelligence shaped by her uniquely female experience. — Joanna Scutts
By Ann Dowsett Johnston (HarperWave)
Ann Dowsett Johnston, a recovering alcoholic, veers between reporting and memoir as she untangles the messy realities behind women’s rising rate of alcohol abuse and why it is so much more dangerous for them than for men. A past editor of Maclean’s magazine in Canada and former vice principal at McGill University, Johnston alarms us, one searing fact at a time. There are moments in “Drink” when the parade of alcoholic women seems endless. So many sad stories. So many alcohol-fueled ways to ruin a large swath of one’s life. It feels relentless and frightening. Overwhelming. For a lot of women brave enough to read it, it may feel a little too familiar, too. Therein lies the hope.
— Connie Schultz
By Lawrence Wright (Knopf)
Lawrence Wright, winner of a 2007 Pulitzer Prize for “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11,” brings a clear-eyed, investigative fearlessness to Scientology — its history, its theology, its hierarchy. The result is a rollicking, if deeply creepy, narrative ride, evidence that truth can be stranger even than science fiction. He builds a portrait of its founder, the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, as a voluble, charismatic, imaginative man who liked to spin fantastical stories. “Going Clear” asks exactly the right questions: What is it that makes the religion alluring? What do its adherents get out of it? How can seemingly rational people subscribe to beliefs that others find incomprehensible? — Lisa Miller
By Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt)
In this, the third volume of his Liberation Trilogy, Rick Atkinson reconstructs the period from D-Day to V-E Day by weaving a multitude of tiny details into a tapestry of sublime prose. He conveys the immensity of the war, the absurdity, the heroism and iniquity, the pomposity of generals and politicians. His capacity for whimsy provides welcome respite from the oppressive horror. “The Guns at Last Light” is a very long book, but in contrast to so many popular histories, this one seems too short.
— Gerard DeGroot
By David Finkel(Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux)
In this sequel to “The Good Soldiers,” his 2009 account of an American infantry battalion at war in Iraq, David Finkel attends to what he calls the “after war.” His concern is with the soldiers who return from the war zone bearing wounds — and with the loved ones on whom those wounds also become imprinted. Above all, Finkel, an editor at The Washington Post, is concerned with wounds that may not be fully visible: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and related conditions. What he finds is anxiety, shame, depression, guilt, sleeplessness, self-abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse, drug abuse and suicidal tendencies, but not much in the way of useful therapy.
— Andrew Bacevich
By Anthony Marra (Hogarth)
Here, in fresh, gorgeous prose, is a story that dares to be as tender as it is ghastly. Marra’s first novel opens in 2004 in a tiny, blood-soaked Chechen village, when the father of an 8-year-old girl is abducted by federalist thugs. A peasant doctor is determined to save his old friend’s daughter by spiriting her away to an all-but-abandoned hospital in a nearby town. The experiences of these neighbors come to us in flashbacks that reach back years. As the elements of this complicated plot begin to align in ways too tragic and moving to anticipate, the past resolves into focus; the future is freighted with anguish but flecked with hope. — Ron Charles
By James McBride (Riverhead)
This boisterous, highly entertaining novel, winner of a National Book Award, presents Henry Shackleford, who claims to be the only black person to have survived John Brown’s raid on the Virginian town of Harpers Ferry in 1859. As the story begins, Brown mistakes 11-year-old Henry for a little girl, and “Henrietta” becomes the abolitionist’s inspiration. For the next three years, he takes us from adventure to misadventure; from riding the plains with Brown’s Bible-thumping roughnecks to palavering with Harriet Tubman. Against the grim grid of history, we see a bumptious American tale, and McBride’s use of the vernacular makes for a comical ride. A terrible climax will come to pass, and we hurtle toward it, laughing, in this deeply researched, richly imagined book. — Marie Arana
By Louise Penny (Minotaur)
The ninth novel in Louise Penny’s series starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his sidekick, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, is extraordinary. When the story begins, Beauvoir has transferred into the command of Gamache’s archrival, Chief Superintendent Francoeur. Meanwhile, in a small house in Quebec, a woman is found murdered: the last member of the Ouellet quintuplets, wh
o had been born in the Great Depression. (Penny lifts liberally here from the real-life story of the Dionne quintuplets, whose parents ceded custody of their daughters to the government of Ontario.) Another narrative thread involves the possible suicide of a government worker. Penny has written a magnificent mystery that appeals not only to the head, but also to the heart and soul. — Maureen Corrigan
By Philipp Meyer (Ecco)
With its vast scope — stretching from pre-Civil War cowboys to post-9/11 immigrants — “The Son” makes a viable claim to being a Great American Novel. Here is the tale of the United States written in blood across the Texas plains, a 200-year cycle of theft and murder that shreds any golden myths of civilized development. The story rotates chapter by chapter through three distinct voices born about 50 years apart: Col. Eli McCullough describes his harrowing life in captivity with the Comanche Indians who murdered his family; Eli’s misanthropic son mourns the brutal conflict with his Mexican neighbors; and Eli’s great-granddaughter considers her life as one of the world’s wealthiest women. Meyer has produced a remarkable orchestration of American history.
By Claire Messud (Knopf)
Claire Messud’s ferocious novel arrives at a curious time in our national conversation about gender roles. Nora, the 42-year-old narrator, is single, childless and sick of being invisible. But what has really stirred her wrath just as she was realizing that “if you’re a childless woman, you will quite possibly remain that way”? It starts with her new friendship with an Italian artist who reawakens her artistic ambitions. Even as this psychological drama races toward a dark climax, Nora seduces us with her piercing assessment of the way young women are acculturated, the way older women are trapped. Male or female, you’ll feel your own shameful anxieties and fragile hopes being flayed by these braided strands of confession and rage. — R.C.