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Friday, December 10, 2010; 12:11 PM

This year the fiction part of my personal selection of the year's best books is shorter than ever: only two novels, alas. This reflects my disenchantment with what passes for American literary fiction these days, a subject upon which I've remarked in this space in the past, as well as the simple fact that over four-and-a-half decades of reviewing books I've found it more and more difficult to write about fiction in interesting or original ways. The temptation to lapse into formulaic writing is strong, and one way to resist it is just to review less fiction.

In any event, two novels stand out from the rather small pack that crossed my desk in 2010. One came as a surprise, the other met my expectations. The first, I n the Company of Angels (Bloomsbury, $25), is by an American writer, Thomas E. Kennedy. A native New Yorker who is now in his 60s, Kennedy has lived in Copenhagen for many years and has published frequently in Denmark, but prior to the appearance here of this novel, the first of what he calls his "Copenhagen Quartet," little of his work had been published in the United States. What a pity, for he is a writer of real skill and sensitivity, telling the story of a Chilean who comes to Copenhagen to recover from torture at the hands of Augustin Pinochet's thugs and finds his life changed in unexpected ways.

Having greatly admired Olga Grushin's first novel, "The Dream Life of Sukhanov," and having included it in my favorites list for 2006, I was not surprised that her second, The Line (Putnam, $25.95), turned out to be every bit as good. Set in Moscow during what could be the mid-1950s, it draws upon "three different periods of Soviet history: the repression of Stalin's 1930s, the hopefulness of Khrushchev's Thaw (late 1950s-early 1960s), and the stagnation of Brezhnev's 1970s." It involves a few score people who queue daily in front of a mysterious kiosk where tickets may or may not be sold for a concert featuring a famous Russian composer long in self-exile, and who form a miniature society that becomes a microcosm of Russia itself.

As for nonfiction, we begin with three books about World War II. Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp (Norton, $27.95), by Christopher R. Browning, describes life in Starachowice, a camp in central Poland where thousands of Jews were forced to work on behalf of the Nazi war machine. Browning, a leading scholar of the Holocaust, was drawn to the subject after reading about the acquittal in 1972 of an officer at the camp who clearly had been guilty of wartime atrocities.

Richard Overy, another distinguished historian of the wartime years, writes in 1939: Countdown to War (Viking, $25.95) a brief, authoritative account of the few days in late summer 1939 when the fate of Europe hung in the balance. He argues that war was not necessarily inevitable - at least not at that precise time - but that it was brought about by a combination of factors, among them Hitler's refusal to believe that England and France would honor their commitment to come to Poland's defense and the utter exhaustion of the leaders of all parties.


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