Jonathan Yardley Picks the Best Books of 2008

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, December 7, 2008

In this tiny corner of the journalistic universe, the year now drawing to a close was quiet but, in hindsight, unusually satisfying. With the exception of Scott McClellan's What Happened, no huge bestsellers crossed my desk, and that book, while it served a useful purpose in giving the public an inside look at the machinations and pervasive cynicism of the Bush White House, is scarcely one for the ages. Nor, for that matter, are more than two or three of those to be mentioned herein, but each is worthy in its own way. Of the 49 books reviewed in this space during 2008, I commend 15 to you for enlightenment, entertainment and other pleasures.

As has been the rule in recent years, the majority of the books making this list are nonfiction. This has something to do with a drift away from reviewing fiction -- in part because of a mounting impatience with American "literary" fiction, in part because there are only so many ways to review fiction and year by year I have felt more and more uncomfortable in that straitjacket -- and a good deal to do with my conviction that in this country the most interesting writing is being done in nonfiction.

Of the six works of fiction on this list, only two could be described as "literary," and that's stretching a bit. Keith Gessen's first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, is really a slacker novel in a vaguely literary setting, having to do with three appealing young men who have largely self-inflicted difficulties with women and are trying to figure out what to do with their lives; Gessen is smart and talented, and it will be interesting to see what he does next. Geraldine Brooks by contrast is well established, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2006. People of the Book, which follows an ancient Hebrew manuscript through the ages, possesses the admirable combination of literary merit and popular appeal; though Brooks's fiction has little else in common with Anne Tyler's, they both write intelligent, accessible novels for intelligent readers.

I'm not going to make any cosmic claims for Shining City, by Seth Greenland, but it had me laughing out loud over and over again. It concerns a rather hapless Los Angeles middle-management guy who falls into a wholly unexpected bonanza: His sleazy older brother dies of a splendidly stage-managed heart attack and leaves him a dry-cleaning business that turns out to be a front for a prostitution ring. I'd never before heard of Greenland, but Shining City sent me to his first novel, The Bones, and the two put me squarely in his fan club.

My dissatisfaction with contemporary literary fiction has led me to look more closely into what is commonly pigeonholed as "genre" fiction and, as I've said in the past, to find it more closely connected to the realities of American life than the self-referential fiction that pours out of creative-writing departments. Three of the most skillful writers of such work make the list this year. Michael Connelly brings two of his characters, the detective Harry Bosch and the lawyer Mickey Haller, together for the first time in The Brass Verdict; Alan Furst goes to Poland as it slides toward World War II in The Spies of Warsaw; and Dennis Lehane combines the crime genre with historical fiction in The Given Day, a long, ambitious, flawed but arresting novel about Boston before and during the Policemen's Strike of 1919. All three books are written by grownups for grownups; you may find them in the airport paperback racks come next year, but don't make the mistake of dismissing them as airplane fiction.

Only one memoir makes the list this year: Some of It Was Fun: Working with RFK and LBJ, in which Nicholas DeB. Katzenbach describes his eight years in the Justice and State departments, painting vivid, sympathetic, even touching portraits of Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Katzenbach was one of the heroes of that time, especially with regard to civil-rights confrontations during the 1960s. For all the danger, it was also a time of promise and hope, which Katzenbach conveys with quiet passion.

Maybe Sara Roahen's Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table should be called a memoir as well, since it tells how this young woman from Wisconsin moved to New Orleans and fell in love with Louisiana cuisine, but it's also (of course) a food book and a Katrina book and, above all, a New Orleans book. Roahen learned a great deal, indeed ultimately became one of the city's leading food journalists, but she never pretended to be a native. The book is charming, surprising and evocative, and it left me practically screaming for a Domilise's sausage po'boy, with gravy and fully dressed.

Another book that doesn't fit into any clear category is Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), by Tom Vanderbilt, which is so far as I know the first comprehensive book about its subject ever written for a general readership. Not merely that, it's written very well and jam-packed with carefully researched information about every imaginable aspect of driving. It's one of those rare books that leaves you wondering: Why hasn't this been done before?

Five works of history make the list, covering a broad range of subjects. The widest net is cast by Kathryn Shevelow in For the Love of Animals: The Rise of the Animal Protection Movement, which concentrates on England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Shevelow, who teaches British literature and culture at the University of California at San Diego, is an avowed animal-lover, but this original and smoothly written book is not a PETA manifesto; it's a sober, immensely informative account of how people's attitudes toward animals slowly changed.

When I was a teenager in the 1950s, memories of the trial in 1924 of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb were still fresh, but gradually that horrendous murder case has receded into the past, so it's good to have For the Thrill of It: Leopold, Loeb and the Murder That Shocked Chicago, by Simon Baatz, who himself had never heard of the case until a few years ago. He's rather too much in love with the results of his research -- the book could have used some judicious trimming -- but he tells the story clearly and is especially good at portraying the conflict between the prosecutor, Robert Crowe, and defense attorney, Clarence Darrow.

Two books will be of particular interest to readers in this part of the world. Washington: The Making of the American Capital, by Fergus M. Bordewich, is less about Pierre L'Enfant, whose classic design for the city is today barely recognizable, than about the speculators whose high-wire acts nearly brought the city down before it got built, and the slaves whose labor, generally unacknowledged, made it possible. Reading Bordewich's account, it's hard not to be amazed that the city exists at all.

Less than a century and a half after construction started on Washington, a small band of Brits came here as part of "an elaborate clandestine organization whose purpose was to weaken the isolationist forces in America and influence U.S. policy in favor of Britain." They worked for the legendary spy William Stephenson, a.k.a., "Intrepid," and they included a tall, handsome aviator who had been shot down and severely wounded over Africa, Roald Dahl. Given how famous Dahl eventually became, it is no surprise that Jennet Conant focuses on him in The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington. His story is interesting, surprising and at moments quite funny.

The last work of history is The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History, by Gordon S. Wood, a collection of long book reviews written over the past quarter-century that manages to contain all the important themes and developments in how history is now studied and written. Much of the book concentrates on "presentism," wherein historians and others attempt to use the past for the purposes of the present and in the process occasionally distort the past in serious ways. This, I think, is a book that will be around for a while.

So too will be my book of the year, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan. A mixture of biography, history and literary criticism, this original and valuable book shows how reading and writing shaped Lincoln and how his words helped shape America. Perhaps the case for Lincoln as one of our greatest writers already has been made, but Kaplan makes it conclusively. If you'd thought that everything to be said about Lincoln already had been said, think again.

Happy holidays. See you in 2009. ยท

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