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.

In Berlin at War (Basic, $29.95), Roger Moorhouse, a British writer of popular histories, describes life in the German capital from the confident and complacent (if also fearful) early months through the utter devastation ultimately wrought by Allied bombing and the ground attacks from east and west. Moorhouse is sympathetic to ordinary Berliners, especially as the bombing intensified and the city turned into an inferno, but he doesn't sentimentalize them.

Considerably more pleasant matters are the subject of Country Driving (Harper, $27.99), the third book about China by Peter Hessler, who covered that stupendous country for the New Yorker for much of the past decade. As readers of "River Town" and "Oracle Bones" are well aware, Hessler is remarkably observant and, when the occasion calls for it, exceedingly funny. He's at the top of his form in the opening section, in which he drives great distances on some of China's endless miles of new highways. His description of the Chinese driver's test is worth the price of admission, but there's more, including a visit to the little settlement outside Beijing where he spent much time for several years, and another to a booming new industrial city. Everywhere he goes, Hessler finds much to amuse and inform the reader.

Saul Bellow: Letters (Viking, $35), edited by Benjamin Taylor, is an imperfect collection because one senses that a lot of good correspondence is missing and because many of the letters included are essentially trivial, but so much here is first-rate that the book's shortcomings must be overlooked. The treasure includes an indignant letter to William Faulkner protesting his support for the release of the anti-Semitic Ezra Pound from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington; various letters to wives, ex-wives and lovers, in which the moods range from passion to fury; gossipy letters to Ralph Ellison and John Berryman.

Finally, six books about notable lives, three biographies and three memoirs. Duke Ellington's America (Univ. of Chicago, $40), by Harvey G. Cohen, is too long by perhaps 200 pages and at times drowns the reader in its author's copious research, but he has unearthed a staggering amount of material - much of it at the Library of Congress - and he uses it to bolster his argument that Ellington "mediated the tensions between popular and serious American art, intellectual and popular culture, creativity and conformity, democracy and communism, and especially between blacks and whites. Through his actions and his work over half a century, he changed American culture, transforming the nation's cultural and racial landscape."

Joseph Pulitzer is now known for the prizes that bear his name and not much else, yet as James McGrath Morris makes plain in Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print and Power (Harper, $29.99), he was one of the giants of American journalism. His circulation wars against William Randolph Hearst in New York City weren't pretty, and the decline into sensationalism of his beloved New York World was a great loss, but at his best he upheld high standards in St. Louis (where he got his start) and New York, and he doesn't deserve to be filed away with Hearst in the Yellow Press drawer.

An even better biography of an even more controversial giant of the press is Alan Brinkley's The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century (Knopf, $35). Co-founder and guiding light of what eventually became Time, Inc., Luce was revered and hated with equal passion for much of the 20th century, and through his hugely successful magazines had a profound influence not merely on how journalism is done but on the politics and ideology of his millions of readers.

John Julius Norwich is not as widely known in this country as he deserves to be, but in his more than 80 years he has become a prominent figure in Britain, where he writes well-received popular histories on a broad range of subjects and appears frequently on television as host of historical documentaries. His life, as described in his memoir Trying to Please (Axios, $20), has been full, accomplished and happy, and traveling with him through all those years is pure pleasure.

The remarkable writing career of Louis Auchincloss ended early this year with his death at the age of 92, but he has left a slender memoir, A Voice from Old New York (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25), as his last testament. It's a lovely book, utterly unapologetic about the old WASP New York where he lived his entire life but utterly illusion-free about it as well. He was always a much more complicated and interesting writer than his critics imagined - they dismissed him as a "novelist of manners," with upper-class manners to boot - and this elegantly written little book proves the point.

And then we have Composed (Viking, $26.95), by Rosanne Cash, who in her music and now in her memoir is entirely beyond category. The daughter of Johnny Cash by his first marriage, a composer and performer in her own right, Cash turns out to be a splendid prose stylist as well. Her life hasn't been easy, and getting out from the huge shadow cast by her beloved but stupendously famous father - not to mention that of her stepmother, June Carter Cash - has been one of the harder parts of it, but she has lived to tell the tale and she does so with wit, grace and style. "Composed" is very close to perfect.

See you in January.

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