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Book World Live: Book World's Best Books of 2008

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The Editors of Book World
Tuesday, December 9, 2008; 12:00 PM

From the latest work by a Nobel Prize-winning novelist to an eye-opening analysis of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Washington Post Book World's list of the top ten books of 2008 has something for everyone.

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Book World's editor Marie Arana, deputy editor Rachel Hartigan Shea, fiction editor Ron Charles and nonfiction editor Alan Cooperman were online Tuesday, December 9 to discuss the best-reviewed books of the past year. They also offered suggestions for the readers on your holiday gift lists.

A transcript follows.

Join Book World Live each week for a discussion based on a story or review in Book World or in the weekday Style Section. For more from Book World, read the daily Short Stack blog, subscribe to the weekly Book World podcast, and join the ongoing discussion in Dirda's Reading Room.

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Marie Arana: Welcome to Book World Live! We look forward to talking to you about the best books of 2008, a list of about 200 books published in the most recent issue of Book World. Since more than 200,000 books are published in this country every year, you can imagine how difficult it is to select books to review, much less choose a list such as this. The task is made far easier, though, by this simple strategy: We rely completely on our reviewers' praise. The list represents, therefore, not our personal opinions, but those of the reviewers we engaged over the past year. It's a fascinating roster of books.

Tell us what kind of books interest you, and we're bound to have some good suggestions for you. . .

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Silver Spring, Md.: Where can I find a list of the best children's books for 2008?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: We will publish a list of the best children's books of the year next Sunday, December 14. The list will be sorted by age group. But we can't give away our picks until then!

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Fairfax: For a book on sustainable development, which would you recommend: Sachs' End of Poverty, Collier's Bottom Billion, or Easterly's White Man's Burden?

Ron Charles: Don't forget a couple of interesting novels about the environment and sustainable development: Lydia Millet's "How the Dead Dream." It's about a real estate developer who realizes -- late -- just what he's been doing to the world. Dark and mysterious. You might also enjoy Joyce Hinnefeld's lovely "In Hovering Flight," about two ornithologists who are fighting to protect habitat. It's poetic, contemplative.

Alan Cooperman: For big think, all three are good. If I had to choose just one, I'd recommend Bottom Billion because of its focus on the poorest. But if it's truly sustainable development that interests you, then these "big think" books -- overarching theories and proposed solutions involving international efforts -- is only part of the literature. I see, for example, that the 10th anniversary edition (in paperback) has just come out of Alan Weisman's Gaviotas, a classic study of a single community in Colombia.

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The Outlander by Adamson: The premise of this books sounds great. However, I never ever read a book that is in the "romance" section. Please convince me this isn't your typical gothic novel. Thx

Ron Charles: You won't find this literary novel in the Romance section unless it's been misshelved. "The Outlander" won the best first novel prize in Canada. Its author, Gil Adamson, is a very fine poet. (This novel, in fact, is based on some of her poems.) The gothic elements are stronger in another novel I enjoyed very much this year: Ron Rash's "Serena." Like "The Outlander" it weaves in historical material about the early 20th-century environmental movement. Nothing "typical" about either of these powerful novels.

Marie Arana: I'd trust Ron on this one. It's the reason he's such a good fiction editor and critic. His range is wide, but his discriminating taste very sure. He loved this book, although he kept asking us in our final judging session, "It's a gothic novel, okay? That okay with all of you?"

We seconded his vote roundly.

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Oviedo, Fla. : I think the best gift for a true book-lover is a donation to that person's local library system. Makes money available for books for all, and many systems are experiencing cutbacks. Our local library is now closed on Fridays. I think the notion of a book, read once, sitting on someone's shelf is both dated and elitist. Support the library - some of those books are read hundreds of times. from an English major and librarian's daughter...

Ron Charles: And don't forget what a wonderful resource librarians are: Ask them for recommendations!

Rachel Hartigan Shea: The library is also a great place to risk reading a book you normally wouldn't. It won't cost you anything if you don't like it. On the other hand, if people don't buy books, publishers won't publish them. See Alan and Marie's disheartening blog item on the publishing industry's woes here.

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criteria: Do things like sales figures and awards affect your decisions on what to include in these best-of-the-year lists?

Ron Charles: I don't think sales figures affect our decisions at all. 1) Sales figures are very hard to come by. 2) Many fine books don't sell particularly well. 3) The truly best-selling titles are often pretty silly (self-help, romance, thrillers that we don't even review).

Awards don't have much influence on us either: We recognize that other groups' choices are just as subjective as ours, and many prizes are announced after our list goes up anyway.

Marie Arana: Sales are not a factor at all. Sometimes we're surprised (long after we've reviewed a book) to learn that a book has done so poorly or so well.

Book World editors used to have a rule that we never looked at press materials that accompanied a book. That has changed, since we need those press materials for any number of reasons (our podcast, our blog, etc. etc.), but the spirit is the same. We try very hard not to be influenced by attendant forces (prizes, sales, publicity, Oprah!).

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Arlington, Va.: I'm glad to see that The Eaves of Heaven made your list. I don't know if anyone else feels this way but after reading this book, last year's NBA winner for fiction Tree of Smoke, which I loved at the time I read it, just didn't seem to have the same import anymore. Maybe I was just swept up in the hype of the reviews when TOS came out, and maybe they are different enough in aim and scope that the comparison is not apt, but I just think Andrew X. Pham's book is a much more powerful work and deserving of equal if not more attention than TOS received.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: We're always happy--and a little bit nervous--when we pick books that don't appear on any other lists. Glad that "Eaves of Heaven" met with your approval!

Marie Arana: I was delighted we could put this put on the top ten. It's a fascinating blend of memoir and history. You see the writer caught up in the long, winding (and tragic) series of events that befell his family.

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Bethesda, Md.: How would you compare the quality of this year's crop of best books with previous years'?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: Well, it's hard to compare the extended lists against each other, but I think there's a lot more variety in this year's ten best list. Last year, we had three weighty biographies; this year, we have a memoir, an extensively researched history of a family, a presidential biography with a far different approach from most others, an exciting moment-by-moment history of a terrible crisis, and letters between poets. Something for everyone, I'd guess.

Marie Arana: What struck me after we made all our choices and I sat back and reflected on our list of top ten was that the nonfiction side was so firmly about history. The most passionate words of praise seemed to be reserved not for works on science or journalism or current events or even memoirs, but for books on a world long past (yet deeply influential).

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Reston, Va: In the 1970s I read a strange science fiction novel. It was based on earthlings visiting a world where humans also existed, but their social interactions were the exact opposite of Earth.

I'm not sure, but I think it was published in the 1960s or 70s. I can't remember the title or author. Wondering if the description rings a bell?

Alan Cooperman: Is it possible you read Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions? It does include strange science fiction and another world in which aliens communicate by tap dancing and passing gas.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Please name some good biographies. My mother reads these avidly and I would like to get her some good reading for the holidays.

Marie Arana: Oh, there are a slew of great biographies this year.

Is she interested in the arts or in historical figures?

"American Lion," by Jon Meacham is a good popular biography of Andrew Jackson.

"The Snowball," by Alice Schroeder is a revealing biography of one of our titans of finance, Warren Buffett.

"Lincoln: Biography of a Writer," by Fred Kaplan, is a splendid insight into the creation of one of America's best wordsmiths.

"Madame de Stael," by Francine de Plessix Gray, is a striking (and short!) biography of one of the most remarkable women in history.

Alan Cooperman: Also, I'd strongly recommend Stanley, a biography of the explorer by Tim Jeal, and A Passion for Nature, a biography of John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and, indeed, of the modern environmental movement.

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Outlander: Perhaps the earlier chatter was confusing the 2008 Outlander by Adamson with a book, titled the same, by Diana Gabaldon. Her novel, which shows up first in a Google search, is commonly filed under romance, although it might more appropriately be termed historical fiction. It's pretty rousing stuff (heh), and surprisingly literary for the genre, but probably shouldn't be mistaken for the Adamson book you are recommending.

Ron Charles: Thanks for that clarification. Diana Gabaldon is a bestselling novelist and a frequent reviewer for us who lives in Arizona. When she came to the National Book Festival last year, her tent was packed to riot conditions!

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Children's Book Picks: Please help! Can you give me some "best of" for Xmas gifts for kids 8-14 years old? Thanks very much.

Rachel Hartigan Shea: We've got one coming out Sunday in our children's holiday issue, plus a separate review of several books that fall squarely into that age range.

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writing vs. reading vs. reviewing: I know some of you are published authors yourselves (Marie, perhaps others?) and wonder if you see the reviewing process differently when you are also a writer whose work is reviewed by others?

Marie Arana: Oh, what a good question. You know, when I came to this job in Book World, my colleagues thought I was a wuss because I had been working on the creative side at two publishing houses, and I was so sympathetic to the writers! I wasn't tough enough, they always told me. Too nice.

So I thickened my skin and learned to look at books dispassionately.

Now, here I am many years later, writing books myself and facing the slings and arrows of reviewers. I must say, though, I've learned from every review I've ever received.

I'd like to think that Book World is a place where readers not only learn about books, but writers learn how better to write them.

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Munich, Germany: On first glance, the only translated fiction books to make it on to your best-of-list were "What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire?" and "Beijing Coma". I read recently that Americans tend not to read translated fiction. Is your choice of books to review influenced by your perception of readers' tastes?

Alan Cooperman: Hunh. I thought that TWO translated books out of FIVE was a pretty high ratio! It's a much higher proportion, I'd bet, than sales of translated fiction overall in the United States. And our picks are meant more as friendly advice to readers than as a mirror of readers' tastes. We already have a mirror of readers' tastes in the bestsellers lists. That said, we certainly do pick books that we think readers will enjoy.

Ron Charles: Alan is refering to "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" (translated from French) and "2666" (translated from Spanish). I also enjoyed Gyorgy Dragoman's "The White King" (translated from Hungarian) and Jose Saramago's "Death With Interruptions." I thought Per Peterson's "To Siberia" (from Norwegian) was dull, but most critics thought it was very powerful. And of course, we reviewed many novels from England, Canada and Australia, too, so I think we do rather well with non-US fiction.

Marie Arana: Book World actually has an excellent record of reviewing books in translation. We're very attentive to this genre, and unlike many publications, we credit the work of translators by making sure reviewers focus on the comparative prose.

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Ummm ... What About Audiobooks?: Did I miss it, or did the Book World year-end Best lists once again exclude audiobooks?

There are many of us - MANY OF US - who "read with our ears" while communting. You do know, don't you, that a good book can be made worse by a bad reader, and a bad book made much better by a great reader, right? Sure you do. Which is my way of pointing out that I can't just take your list of best paper-and-ink books and assume that those have made for the year's best audiobooks.

You're planning to list the best children's books next week, so how about a list of best audiobook?

Rachel Hartigan Shea: I'm afraid we don't plan on having a best audiobooks list, but we will have a review of several audiobooks for children. Due to our limited space, we review audiobooks so rarely that we couldn't really justify choosing the best.

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Alexandria, Va.: What do you know about the book "How to Break A Terrorist" by Matthew Alexander? Is it worth reading?

Marie Arana: That book is just out this month, no? So we don't have a comment. Best to keep watching our pages.

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Last year's list?: I'm looking at this year's best-of list and realizing that I have read very few of these books. In these cut-back times, I am more likely to read paperbacks. Is last year's best-of list available?

washingtonpost.com: Book World's 2007 Holiday Issue

Rachel Hartigan Shea: From the 2007 fiction list, "Finn" by Jon Clinch; "The Last Cavalier" by Alexandre Dumas; "On Chesil Beach," by Ian McEwan; "Savage Detectives," by Roberto Bolano; and "Tree of Smoke" by Denis Johnson are all out in paperback.

From the nonfiction list, "Edith Wharton," by Hermione Lee; "FDR," by Jean Edward Smith; "Ralph Ellison," by Arnold Rampersad; "The Unnatural History of the Sea," by Callum Roberts; and "The Zookeeper's Wife," by Diane Ackerman, are all out in paperback.

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washingtonpost.com: Producer Elizabeth here - I have a question for everyone. Is there one more book you really wish there had been room for on the list?

Ron Charles: Susan Choi's "A Person of Interest" is a terrifically smart and exciting novel about the Unibomber. It focuses on a paranoid scientist who's "a person of interest" in the investigation of the bombing death of colleague (whom he loathed).

Marie Arana: I was sorry we didn't have room for "Pictures at a Revolution," by Mark Harris. It's a very good book about the best movies of 1967, a snapshot of the culture of America at that time.

Alan Cooperman: There was a really wonderful, quirky book published this year that we did not include: a collection of the writings of Charles Fort called The Book of the Damned. Also, a good biography of Fort came out this year. You can read Michael Dirda's review of both here.

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Marie Arana: I was interested to see in one of the trade publications today that among the top selling books in Kindle is Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser, a marvelous collection of stories by this very skilled and imaginative writer. It made me wonder at all those travelers on trains, buses, and planes reading Millhauser's strange and wonderful tales.

And it was surprising that it was on that top list along with a cookbook and a bundle of thrillers.

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Ron Charles: Paperback readers: Notice that "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" (Top 5 Fiction) is a paperback original. You'll also find that some of the books on our extended list have already gone to paperback.

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Halifax, Nova Scotia: One book I wish would get more attention is 'Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics' by Yasheng Huang. It is a careful re-examination of China's economic reforms. Despite the dense subject matter it is clearly written. As such it should be of interest not only to economists, but also to policy makers and anyone interested in China's development.

Marie Arana: There was a huge rush of books this year on China. Prompted, to be sure, by the Olympics, but it's also a threshold moment for the country. Be sure you consider:

"Factory Girls," by Leslie T. Chang (mentioned by Rachel in our blog Short Stack today), about China's migrant workers.

"Out of Mao's Shadow." by Philip Pan, which braids a dozen interesting stories to end up with a fascinating mosaic.

"China's Great Train," by Abrahm Lustgarten, about how much China has changed in the last 3 decades.

Alan Cooperman: Also, Olympic Dreams by Xu Guoqi, which is a history of sport in China and of the politics of the Olympic Movement, particularly vis-a-vis China.

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Kindle: Yeah, why IS the Kindle sold out this season? Do any of you have one? Why so popular? Oprah???

Ron Charles: I need to take notes as I read, so it's not much use to me personally, but I'm starting to see Kindles on the subway.

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Marie Arana: Well, folks, that's about as much time as we have today. Back to the book trenches, where all the books of 2009 await.

Thanks very much for joining us today. Remember to visit our website, where you can find our Best of 2008 list. And look out for our Best of Children's Books, which we'll publish this coming weekend.

Keep reading!

Ron Charles: And check out our weekly podcast. You can find a link to it at the top of the Book World site on-line.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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