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December 7, 2008
Best Books of 2008

The following are excerpts from the most favorable reviews of the year. Regular reviewers are identified by initials if they are quoted more than once.

Arts & Letters

Alphabet Juice, by Roy Blount Jr. (FSG). Samuel Johnson defined a lexicographer as "a harmless drudge," but he obviously never foresaw the dangerously funny Roy Blount. -- Michael Dirda

Chagall, by Jackie Wullschlager (Knopf). Presents the painter in colors as glowing and haunting as his own canvases. -- Meryle Secrest

Hitler's Private Library, by Timothy W. Ryback (Knopf). Fascinating -- and unnerving. Hitler, Ryback shows us, remained a serious reader all his life. -- MD

How Fiction Works, by James Wood (FSG). Not what makes fiction work, but what makes the best fiction work better than the rest. -- Christopher Tilghman

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants, by Alison Light (Bloomsbury). While it focuses primarily on the interaction between Virginia Woolf and the women who cared for her, it also probes the complex nature of dependence. -- MD

Posthumous Keats, by Stanley Plumly (Norton). The poet's ardent wish to glimpse his death while still alive is the subject of this obsessive book. -- Ted Genoways

Rostropovich, by Elizabeth Wilson (Ivan R. Dee). Readers will be persuaded that the cellist was every bit as grand and humane as she portrays him. -- MD

The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, by John Stape (Pantheon). As Stape reminds us in this brilliantly concise (and often witty) biography, Conrad's life was one of loneliness and recurrent suffering. -- MD

A Summer of Hummingbirds, by Christopher Benfey (Penguin). A tender, suspenseful and informed meditation on action and thought in the cultivated realms of East Coast America following the Civil War. -- Mindy Aloff

White Heat, by Brenda Wineapple (Knopf). Brings diligence and imagination to an account of the relationship between Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. -- Joel Brouwer


Alfred Kazin, by Richard M. Cook (Yale). An engrossing, even-handed biography, neatly balancing the public intellectual against the private man. -- MD

American Lion, by Jon Meacham (Random House). The most readable single-volume biography ever written of Andrew Jackson. -- Douglas Brinkley

Five Easy Decades, by Dennis McDougal (Wiley). McDougal paces his excellent biography of Jack Nicholson with the command of an experienced marathoner. -- Mark Athitakis

Gerard Manley Hopkins, by Paul Mariani (Viking). While Mariani rightly emphasizes Hopkins's spiritual and artistic life, he also includes the kind of human details that vivify a biography. -- MD

Ida, by Paula J. Giddings (Amistad). White Southerners explained to Northerners that they lynched only when they had to. Ida B. Wells was determined to expose that lie. -- Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore

Madame de Staël, by Francine du Plessix Gray (Atlas & Co.). Du Plessix Gray does a marvelous job recognizing de Staël's faults while steadfastly commending her talents. --Carolyn See

The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, by Andrew Lycett (Free Press). A surprisingly action-packed biography of Arthur Conan Doyle. -- Michael Sims

The Open Road, by Pico Iyer (Knopf). Iyer's elegant and intensely personal look at the Dalai Lama. -- Shashi Tharoor

A Passion for Nature, by Donald Worster (Oxford). Captures John Muir the man with economy and grace, and gives the reader a clear sense of his public stature. -- Dennis Drabelle

The Snowball, by Alice Schroeder (Bantam). The most detailed glimpse inside Warren Buffett and his world that we likely will ever get. -- James Rosen

Stanley, by Tim Jeal (Yale). An unalloyed triumph, not only because it is eminently readable, but because it never loses sight of the abandoned child in the man. -- Jason Roberts

Traitor to His Class, by H.W. Brands (Doubleday). Explains how FDR managed to defy his family and social class and become the most reform-minded president in U.S. history. -- Lynne Olson

Tried by War, by James M. McPherson (Penguin). McPherson shows that Lincoln was a diligent student of military affairs and a shrewd judge of men. -- Michael F. Bishop

The World Is What It Is, by Patrick French (Knopf). There's not much to like or praise about V.S. Naipaul as a human being. A superb, clear-eyed study. -- MD

Business & Economics

The Ascent of Money, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin). An admirably illuminating book that will take its place beside such modern classics as Adam Smith's Supermoney. -- Shelby Coffey III

High Wire, by Peter Gosselin (Basic). You might not expect a book on economic policy to be a page-turner, but Gosselin's is just that. -- Martha M. Hamilton

Payback, by Margaret Atwood (Anansi). A delightfully engaging, smart, funny, clever and terrifying analysis of the role debt plays in our culture. -- David Liss

While America Aged, by Roger Lowenstein (Penguin). Uses the stories of three deeply encumbered institutions as examples of how the country as a whole has long lived beyond its means. -- Phillip Longman

Foreign Policy

America and the World, by Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft (Basic). The next president would do well to heed their counsel. -- Moisés Naím

Daydream Believers, by Fred Kaplan (Wiley). Like a master archaeologist, Kaplan lays out all the failures, omissions and delusions of Bush administration officials. -- Anne-Marie Slaughter

Defeat, by Jonathan Steele (Counterpoint). He asks the Iraq question in a new and interesting way: Could we have ever gotten this right? -- Daniel Benjamin

Dreams and Shadows, by Robin Wright (Penguin). Ranges from Iran to Morocco. An absorbing book. -- Geoffrey Wheatcroft

Freedom's Battle, by Gary J. Bass (Knopf). Recounts a series of humanitarian interventions in a lively, subtle and comprehensive manner that sheds a penetrating light on current policy debates. -- Robert D. Kaplan

The Limits of Power, by Andrew J. Bacevich (Metropolitan). Bacevich speaks bluntly to his countrymen about their selfishness, their hubris, their sanctimony and the grave problems they now face. -- Robert G. Kaiser


American-Made, by Nick Taylor (Bantam). A succinct survey of the Great Depression and particularly its consequences for workers. -- H.W. Brands

American Transcendentalism, by Philip F. Gura (Hill and Wang). From 1830 to 1850, a group of New England intellectuals confronted the great polarizing tension in American history, that between hyperindividualism and brotherhood. -- MD

Capitol Men, by Philip Dray (Houghton Mifflin). Devotes the majority of his pages to a significant minority: some of the first African Americans ever to serve in Congress. -- Jabari Asim

The Day Freedom Died, by Charles Lane (Henry Holt). The story of the single most egregious act of terrorism during Reconstruction. -- Eric Foner

Defying Dixie, by Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore (Norton). Readers will come away with a renewed appreciation for the complex origins of a freedom struggle that changed the South, the nation and the world. -- Raymond Arsenault

Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, by Ian Kershaw (Yale). A splendid summary of Kershaw's conviction that ordinary Germans were what he calls "morally indifferent" to mass murder. -- James J. Sheehan

Lincoln and Douglas, by Allen C. Guelzo (Simon & Schuster). Guelzo, author of the best book about the Emancipation Proclamation, has now written an important one about this legendary campaign. -- Michael F. Bishop

Prague in Danger, by Peter Demetz (FSG). Demetz places his own unique experience against the catastrophe of World War II. -- Bradley Abrams

Sarah Johnson's Mount Vernon, by Scott E. Casper (Hill and Wang). While innumerable books have been written about the Founding Fathers, it's refreshing to read one in which slaves play a central part. -- W. Ralph Eubanks

This Republic of Suffering, by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf). The extent to which the Civil War found America unprepared to deal with its carnage at the most basic levels is fascinatingly horrifying. -- Stephen Budiansky

Throes of Democracy, by Walter A. McDougall (Harper). A rollicking trip through America's past self-deceptions and a laudable exploration of the American character. -- Heather Cox Richardson

Vermeer's Hat, by Timothy Brook (Bloomsbury). Uses pictorial elements to describe the economic entanglements between the Netherlands and China in the 17th century. -- Michael Dirda

Waking Giant, by David S. Reynolds (Harper). Reynolds's depiction of an exploding popular culture during the Jacksonian era makes this an unmitigated delight. -- Douglas Brinkley


Audition, by Barbara Walters (Knopf). Her heartfelt candor lifts it above mere titillation. -- Kathleen Matthews

Counselor, by Ted Sorensen (Harper). The armies of speechwriters that will descend on Washington in the administration to come will devour this book, the finest work on their craft ever written. -- Ted Widmer

From Harvey River, by Lorna Goodison (Amistad). Beautiful is the life Goodison evokes: Jamaica as paradise, inhabited by West Africans. -- Carolyn See

Grand Obsession, by Perri Knize (Scribner). A comprehensive lesson in piano making, piano tuning, piano everything, and it's all fascinating. -- Eugenia Zukerman

Hope's Boy, by Andrew Bridge (Hyperion). Refreshingly free of the self-absorption that mars so many horrendous childhood sagas. -- Juliet Wittman

Kinky Gazpacho, by Lori L. Tharps (Atria). Looks back at the challenges of being one of the few black students in her private school and college. -- Andrew Ervin

Résistance, by Agnès Humbert (Bloomsbury). With thrilling immediacy, this book guides us through the first stumbling steps of a disparate cell of writers, linguists, historians and social gadflies in Occupied France. -- Tobias Grey

The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham (Harcourt). Wickersham writes beautifully about the amount of sheer space a suicide takes up in the lives of surviving family members. -- Reeve Lindbergh

Nature & The Environment

The Bridge at the Edge of the World, by James Gustave Speth (Yale). A thoughtful diagnosis of the root causes of planetary distress. -- Ross Gelbspan

Dog Man, by Martha Sherrill (Penguin). A spellbindingly beautiful story about raising Akita dogs in the unforgiving "snow country" of northern Japan. -- Pico Iyer

Hot, Flat, and Crowded, by Thomas L. Friedman (FSG). Friedman says we can survive, even prosper, by going green. -- Joseph S. Nye Jr.

Philosophy & Religion

The Best of All Possible Worlds, by Perri Knize (Scribner). A comprehensive lesson in piano making, piano tuning, piano everything, and it's all fascinating. -- Eugenia Zukerman

How to Read the Bible, by James Kugel (Free Press). It was a way of reading, as much as the texts themselves, that Jews and Christians canonized as their Bible. A major contribution to popular understanding. -- Jerome Segal

Nothing to be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes (Knopf). Offers an extended meditation on human mortality, but one that is neither clinical nor falsely consoling. -- MD

A Persistent Peace, by John Dear (Loyola). The flowing autobiography of a high-energy idealist. -- Colman McCarthy

Saving Darwin, by Karl W. Giberson (HarperOne). A cultural history of the anti-Darwin movement. -- Amy E. Schwartz


Angler, by Barton Gellman (Penguin). There will almost certainly be no vice president as powerful as Cheney for decades, and no account of what he has wrought that is as compelling as this book. -- James Mann

Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein (Scribner). The relationship between Nixon and the 1960s counterculture. -- Elizabeth Drew

They Knew They Were Right, by Jacob Heilbrunn (Doubleday). Heilbrunn brings back obscure names like Max Shachtman, Melvin Lasky and Albert Wohlstetter, and explains their impact on neocon intellectuals. -- Ted Widmer


The Black Hole War, by Leonard Susskind (Little, Brown). As good an introduction as you're going to find to the strange world of black hole astrophysics. A great read. -- James Trefil

The Telephone Gambit, by Seth Shulman (Norton). How Alexander Graham Bell got to see Elisha Gray's confidential filing in the Patent Office, and how Bell was awarded the patent. Masterful. -- Henry Petroski

Your Inner Fish, by Neil Shubin (Pantheon). Describes a fossil named Tiktaalik ("large freshwater fish" in Inuit) and conveys its significance with both precision and exuberance. -- Barbara J. King

Society & Culture

Final Salute, by Jim Sheeler (Penguin). Pays the deceased troops and their families the great tribute of never reducing them to one-dimensional characters. -- Andrew Carroll

In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan (Penguin). In this slim, remarkable volume, Pollan builds a convincing case against the entire Western diet. -- Jane Black

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown). A powerful brief in favor of the argument that time, place and resources are decisive factors in success or failure. -- Howard Gardner

Relentless Pursuit, by Donna Foote (Knopf). The most interesting account of inner-city high school life in many years. -- Jay Mathews

Whatever It Takes, by Paul Tough (Houghton Mifflin). One man's quest to propel an entire community of kids out of poverty. -- Donna Foote


The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and The Game of Their Lives, by Neil Swidey (PublicAffairs). Introduces us to Jack O'Brien, the near-legendary coach at Charlestown High School in Boston. Indispensable to anyone interested in the art of coaching at any level. -- Andrew Ervin

A Few Seconds of Panic, He might not be a real Bronco, but he's a real sportswriter, and this book tells you what brings real Broncos to tears. -- Steven V. Roberts

Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin (Penguin). Chronicles Nelson Mandela's 1995 effort to unite an apartheid- ravaged South Africa by hosting the rugby World Cup. A classic sports-and-community story. -- Allen Barra


The Geography of Bliss, by Eric Weiner (Twelve).A grump spends a year visiting the world's most and least happy places. -- Daniel Gilbert

A Voyage Long and Strange, by Tony Horwitz (Henry Holt). Horwitz visits the modern locations where pre-Mayflower explorers actually walked, fought and sometimes died. -- Nina Burleigh

The War on Terror

The Bin Ladens, by Steve Coll (Penguin). A fascinating panorama of a great family, presented within the context of the 9/11 drama. -- Milton Viorst

The Dark Side, by Jane Mayer (Doubleday). Documents some of the ugliest allegations of wrongdoing charged against the Bush administration. --Andrew J. Bacevich

The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins (Knopf). A splendid volume of short nonfiction pieces about two dozen incidents of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. -- Bing West

Law and the Long War, by Benjamin Wittes (Penguin). The question of how the U.S. government should snoop on, detain, interrogate and try suspected terrorists requires a whole new legal framework. -- Michael J. Glennon

The Shadow Factory, by James Bamford (Doubleday). He goes where the 9/11 Commission did not fully go. -- Bob Kerrey

Spies for Hire, by Tim Shorrock (S&S). Contractors have long had the run of the Pentagon and CIA, but Shorrock persuasively shows that the business has changed dramatically in recent years. A strenuous indictment. -- Jeff Stein

Standard Operating Procedure, by Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris (Penguin). Coolly recounts how America suddenly found itself repopulating Saddam's old dungeons. A devastating critique. -- Douglas Brinkley

The Strongest Tribe, by Bing West (Random House). The first overview of the entire course of the Iraq war to be published since "the surge." -- John A. Nagl

The War Within, by Bob Woodward (S&S). A study of what happens when men and women, charged with leading the country in wartime, do not tell each other what they really think. -- Josiah Bunting III

The World

1948, by Benny Morris (Yale). An ambitious, detailed and engaging portrait of the first Arab-Israeli war from its origins to its unresolved aftermath. -- Glenn Frankel

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba, by Tom Gjelten (Viking). At once a colorful family saga and a carefully researched corrective to caricatures of pre-revolutionary Cuba and Fidel Castro's rule. -- Linda Robinson

Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat, by John Lukacs (Basic). Penetrating miniature of Churchill, particularly during the critical days. -- Edwin M. Yoder Jr.

China's Great Train, by Abrahm Lustgarten (Times). The building of the railway is not just a great yarn. It's also a microcosm of how the Communist Party has refashioned China in the last 30 years. -- John Pomfret

The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997, by Piers Brendon (Knopf). History with the nasty bits left in. -- Karl E. Meyer

Diamonds, Gold, and War, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs). An accessible, nimble and moving account of the creation of pre-apartheid South Africa. -- Douglas Foster

The Dictator's Shadow, by Heraldo Muñoz (Basic). A compelling, personal account of life in a police state and a strong reminder of how far Chile has come. -- Joshua Partlow

Factory Girls, by Leslie T. Chang (Spiegel & Grau). Delves deeply into the world of migrant workers and what their collective dislocation means for China. -- Seth Faison

A Failed Empire, by Vladislav M. Zubok (Univ. of North Carolina). Reveals the full extent of Stalin's brutal post-war suppression of the Soviet people. -- Richard Rhodes

Forgotten Continent, by Michael Reid (Yale). Latin America has undergone an economic makeover in the last two decades. -- Moisés Naím

Gandhi & Churchill, by Arthur Herman (Bantam). Herman constantly juxtaposes the long and eventful lives of both protagonists. -- E.M. Yoder

God and Gold, by Walter Russell Mead (Knopf). Traces the rise of the common culture of the English-speaking peoples, stressing the historical continuities from Britain to America. Well-written and wide-ranging. -- Philip Jenkins

The House at Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper (S&S). We breathe Liberia's coal smoke and fish-tangy air; we taste its luscious palm butter and hear the charming patter. -- Wendy Kann

Kingmakers, by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac (Norton). These English soldier- diplomats are the progenitors of the current crop of American diplomats and soldiers on the same turf. -- James Reston Jr.

The Lost Spy, by Andrew Meier (Norton). A well-written romp through the international communist movement of the 1920s and '30s. -- Peter Pringle

Muqtada, by Patrick Cockburn (Scribner). Empathetic, insightful, and full of violence and rage. -- Vali Nasr

Out of Mao's Shadow, by Philip P. Pan (S&S). The 10 or so intersecting stories Pan tells here are gritty and real. A concrete, closely observed encounter with particular people, places and events. -- Andrew J. Nathan

Panama Fever, by Matthew Parker (Doubleday). This major account of the canal's history compares favorably with David McCullough's and pays closer attention to the thousands of workers who toiled on the project. -- H.W. Brands

A Path Out of the Desert, by Kenneth M. Pollack (Random House). A grand tour of the Middle East and its pathologies. -- Greg Myre

Sizwe's Test, by Jonny Steinberg (S&S). Nearly 30 years after the AIDS epidemic began, this provocative account offers something genuine, important and new. --Douglas Foster

The Terminal Spy, by Alan S. Cowell (Doubleday). An excellent job of reconstructing Alexander Litvinenko's last days. -- Thomas de Waal

The Translator, by Daoud Hari, as told to Dennis Michael Burke and Megan M. McKenna (Random House). Lays open the Darfur genocide intimately and powerfully. -- David Chanoff

Tree of Rivers, by John Hemming (Thames & Hudson). A rich, multifaceted narrative that strives to mirror the place itself. -- Edgardo Krebs

The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan). A riveting pastiche, at once solemn and lively, of the stories of peasants and urbanites, prisoners and children under Stalin. -- Vladislav Zubok

The following are excerpts from the most favorable reviews of the year. Regular reviewers are identified by initials if they are quoted more than once.

General Fiction

Alfred & Emily, by Doris Lessing (Harper). A clever, moving coupling of fiction and nonfiction about Lessing's parents. -- Valerie Sayers

America America, by Ethan Canin (Random House). A teenager from a modest family works in the home of the powerbroker behind a Kennedyesque candidate challenging President Nixon. -- Ron Charles

Beet, by Roger Rosenblatt (Ecco). An academic satire greased by the humor and rage that could come only from enduring a thousand stultifying faculty meetings. -- RC

Beijing Comaby Ma Jian, translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew (Farrar Straus Giroux). We first meet Dai Wei in his 10th year in a coma caused by an injury sustained during the Tiananmen Square massacre.Though his body is imprisoned in a society where everything is owned by the party, his mind is free. -- Belle Yang

Breathby Tim Winton (FSG). This would seem to be a novel about surfing, but it's about moving out of your depth, getting in over your head, having your soul damaged beyond repair. -- Carolyn See

A Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif (Knopf). Calls to mind the biting comedy of Philip Roth, the magical realism of Salman Rushdie and the feverish nightmares of Kafka. -- Julia Slavin

Diary of a Bad Year, by J.M. Coetzee (Viking). Coetzee's surrogate is a distinguished novelist -- South African, laden with honors, now living in Sydney. Asked why he isn't writing a novel, he answers, "I don't have the endurance any more." -- Louis Begley

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie (RH). The Emperor Akbar the Great dreams his ideal mistress into existence, a Florentine orphan rises to become the military champion of Islam, and a black-eyed beauty casts a spell on every man who sees her. -- Michael Dirda

Enlightenment, by Maureen Freely (Overlook). A journalist learns that a left-wing filmmaker who was her lover during their student days in Istanbul has been arrested at the U.S. border by Homeland Security. -- Jason Goodwin

Fanon, by John Edgar Wideman (Houghton). The real-life story of Frantz Fanon, a psychiatrist and revolutionary, intersects with the story of a narrator who is writing a book about Fanon. -- James A. Miller

A Father's Law, by Richard Wright (Harper Perennial). Published for the first time on the centennial of Wright's birth, this book is a prescient examination of the generational and class conflicts that await black Americans as they move from the margins of society into the cultural mainstream. -- W. Ralph Eubanks

The Flying Troutmans, by Miriam Toews (Counterpoint). In this funny, heartbreaking story, a collection of oddball family members go on a cross-country road trip to find Dad. -- RC

The German Bride, by Joanna Hershon (Ballantine). While Eva's transformation from pampered European cosmopolite to Wild West frontierswoman might sound outlandish, her story is, as a matter of historical fact, not all that unusual. -- Donna Rifkind

Goldengrove, by Francine Prose (Harper). A teenage girl tries to move on with her life after the drowning death of her perfect older sister. -- RC

The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti (Dial). Follows a bright, one-handed orphan through enough harrowing scrapes and turns to satisfy your inner Dickens. -- RC

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial). Characters spring to life in letters and telegrams exchanged over the course of nine months shortly after the end of World War II. -- Wendy Smith

His Illegal Self, by Peter Carey (Knopf). A precocious 7-year-old boy raised by his Park Avenue grandmother is kidnapped by his radical mother and smuggled to Australia. -- RC

Home, by Marilynne Robinson (FSG). This companion to her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead describes the efforts of Rev. Boughton's wayward son to find redemption. -- RC

The House on Fortune Street, by Margot Livesey (Harper). The most durable structure here is not a house but the novel itself, whose design unites so seamlessly with its intentions that one wants to admire it from every angle. -- Donna Rifkind

Indignation, by Philip Roth (Houghton). A self-righteous young man trying to escape his father's supervision finds only more infuriating annoyances at college. -- RC

The Konkans, by Tony D'Souza (Harcourt). Constructed of several interlocking narratives, the story unfolds through the eyes of a young man who witnesses the growing separation between his American mother and his Indian father. -- Rabindranath Maharaj

Life Class, by Pat Barker (Doubleday). Art students in London stumble toward World War I. -- RC

Love Marriage, by V.V. Ganeshananthan (RH). Follows a fractured family of Sri Lankans who have scattered around the world. Told in a series of lyrical, linked stories, it is surprisingly feminine and fable-like. -- Nandini Lal

Lush Life, by Richard Price (FSG). A vivid study of the contemporary urban landscape. Price's knowledge of his Lower East Side locale is positively synoptic, and his ear for dialogue is equally sharp. -- Stephen Amidon

Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster (Henry Holt). A retired book critic, recovering from a car accident, imagines an alternate world in which the 2000 presidential election sparked a civil war. -- Jeff Turrentine

The Northern Clemency, by Philip Hensher (Knopf). Two middle-class families in England try to adjust to the economic and social upheavals of the modern era.-- RC

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (RH). As these 13 stories unfold, Olive is revealed as a woman wounded, as well as wounding. Strout's ear is unerring. -- Molly Gloss

The Pig Did It, by Joseph Caldwell (Delphinium). This macabre romantic comedy plays out in sparkling dialogue, including some hilarious speeches that are both incantations of Irish mythology and masterful bits of parody. -- RC

The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins). A vast, fractured narrative, teeming with white and Native American characters -- ancestors, cousins, friends and enemies, all separated and rejoined again and again in uncanny ways over the years. -- RC

Pravda, by Edward Docx (Mariner). Written with a mastery and passion that summon up Dickens and Dostoevsky. Told from multiple points of view, the story zigs back and forth from New York to London to Paris and St. Petersburg. -- Eugenia Zukerman

Serena, by Ron Rash (Ecco). A gothic tale about Appalachian lumber and a vicious woman who pushes her husband too far. -- RC

So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger (Atlantic). An old-fashioned, swashbuckling, heroic Western, with pistols and ponies and señoritas and sharpshooters -- an adventure of the heart and mind. -- Carrie Brown

Someone Knows My Name, by Lawrence Hill (Norton). A compelling narrative that moves from mid-18th-century West Africa to South Carolina, Manhattan, Nova Scotia, Sierra Leone and London. Aminata is 11 years old when she is chained and transported to the New World. -- Delia Jarrett-Macauley

Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan (Viking). A pretty 18-year old girl drives to her job at a gas station, but never arrives. Her disappearance is at the heart of this novel, but its real concern is with her devastated family. -- RC

The Soul Thief, by Charles Baxter (Pantheon). At a university in Buffalo, N.Y., during the 1970s, a graduate student believes his identity is being stolen. -- Maureen Corrigan

The Story of a Marriage, by Andrew Sean Greer (FSG). The chronicle of a San Francisco couple, closely and elegantly examined. -- Carolyn See

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (Ecco). A Hamlet-inspired story about a mute teenage boy who raises a special breed of dog. -- RC

Trauma, by Patrick McGrath (Knopf). Beautifully crafted and paced, it can be viewed as either a superb psychological thriller or as a masterly evocation of modern alienation and despair. -- MD

We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, by James Meek (Canongate). A disaffected reporter who works for a London newspaper is dispatched to Afghanistan to cover the war. -- Maureen Freely

What Can I Do When Everything's On Fire?, by António Lobo Antunes, translated from the Portuguese by Gregory Rabassa (Norton). An anguished son immerses himself in Lisbon's underbelly to find out about his drag-queen father's brutal death. -- Jaime Manrique

When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale (Doubleday). A 9-year-old British schoolboy gives a child's-eye view of turbulent and sometimes disturbing circumstances with his loving but chaotic protector, his "mum." -- Donna Rifkind

Windy City: A Novel of Politics, by Scott Simon (RH). Simon is clearly infatuated with Chicago, and the zeal with which he celebrates the city, warts and all, is hard to resist. -- Gary Krist

Historical Fiction

The Black Tower, by Louis Bayard (Morrow). Parisian detective Eugène Vidocq investigates a mystery involving the boy-king Louis XVII, the second son of Marie Antoinette. -- Ross King

The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway (Riverhead). In this elegiac novel inspired by an actual event during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992, Galloway explores the brutality of war and the redemptive power of music. -- Eugenia Zukerman

The China Lover, by Ian Buruma (Penguin Press). A recreation of film star Yamaguchi Yoshiko's controversial, eventful and remarkably resilient career through the narratives of three men. -- Wendy Law-Yone

Daphne, by Justine Picardie (Bloomsbury). A complicated tale-within-a-tale about Daphne du Maurier's obsession with the Brontës.-- Nicholas Delbanco

Day, by A.L. Kennedy (Knopf). The story of an English tail gunner who flew 28 bombing missions over Germany before being shot down in 1943 and spending the rest of World War II in a POW camp. -- Wendy Smith

Fall of Frost, by Brian Hall (Viking). Presents a vision of Robert Frost as an unsuccessful farmer, a tormented father, a distanced husband and a poet who deals always with the hard pitch of things. -- Peter Behrens

The Invention of Everything Else, by Samantha Hunt (Houghton). A whimsical love story about one of the world's most remarkable inventors, Nikola Tesla. -- Ron Charles

Johnny One-Eye: A Tale of the American Revolution, by Jerome Charyn (Norton). An exuberantly picaresque adventure. -- WS

Killing Rommel, by Steven Pressfield (Doubleday). A splendid tour de force that brings to life the heroism, sacrifice, tragedy, frustration, fear and -- yes -- thrill of war. -- Patrick Anderson

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, by Mo Yan, translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt (Arcade). The narrator appears in the form of a series of animals who witness the Land Reform Movement and the disastrous Great Leap Forward that killed tens of millions. -- Steven Moore

Palace Council, by Stephen L. Carter (Knopf). Carter's vignettes of historic figures, including Langston Hughes and J. Edgar Hoover, display both scholarship and imagination. But his portrait of Richard Nixon is pitch-perfect. -- Scott Simon

Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh (FSG). The year is 1838, and the setting British India, a country immiserated by opium and colonial rule. Against this background, Ghosh brings together a colorful array of individuals on a triple-masted schooner. -- Shashi Tharoor

Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian (Shaye Areheart). In 1945 a family flees westward before the advancing Russian army, while a group of Jewish women, mostly French, are being transported by their Nazi guards. -- Margot Livesey

Stand the Storm, by Breena Clarke (Little, Brown). A passionate, dramatic story about a family of quasi-free Negroes in Georgetown just before, during and after the Civil War. -- Gail Buckley

Telex From Cuba, by Rachel Kushner (Scribner). Cuba in the last few years before Fidel Castro took over. This is a treat to the very last page. -- Carolyn See

Mysteries & Thrillers

The Appeal, by John Grisham (Doubleday). This long, engaging and sad fable opens with the tension-filled moments before a Mississippi jury delivers its verdict in the case of a woman who lost her husband and son to chemical poisoning. -- Bethanne Patrick

Cold in Hand, by John Harvey (Harcourt). "Cold in hand" refers to a state of extreme desolation, which makes it an apt title for this dark novel that will please anyone who enjoys police procedurals. -- Patrick Anderson

A Cure for Night, by Justin Peacock (Doubleday). Young lawyer, difficult client -- but this novel rises above its routine plot because Peacock writes so well. -- PA

Fractured, by Karin Slaughter (Delacorte). A furious mother kills an intruder, but the boy wasn't the killer and his death is a tragic mistake. -- PA

The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon (Atlantic). A priest asks Guido Brunetti of Venice's police force to look into the finances of a dissenting preacher. -- Dennis Drabelle

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland (Knopf). An intelligent, utterly engrossing thriller that is variously a serial-killer saga and an informed glimpse into journalism and business. -- PA

The Killer's Wife, by Bill Floyd (St. Martin's). There's a final bloody showdown, of course, but Floyd wisely plays to his story's creepy strengths, emphasizing psychological suspense in favor of a relentlessly unsettling tone. -- Kevin Allman

L.A. Outlaws, by T. Jefferson Parker (Dutton). One of the most enticing heroines in recent American crime fiction leads a double life as an eighth-grade history teacher and a sexy, sassy armed robber. -- PA

The Legal Limit, by Martin Clark (Knopf). Skillfully weaving a plot that includes lie detectors, wiretaps and arcane legal principles, the author creates a world in which family ties can easily turn into nooses. -- Stephen Amidon

Murder in the Rue de Paradis, by Cara Black (Soho). Leduc's City of Light is a stylish, dangerous place, and Aimée Leduc is a marvelous invention, a third-generation Sam Spade in couture. -- Kevin Allman

The Sister, by Poppy Adams (Knopf). With its stylish prose, taut plotting and dark psychology, this is reminiscent of the best books by Ruth Rendell's alter ego, Barbara Vine. And it comes with a bonus: a storehouse of information about moths. -- DD

Small Crimes, by Dave Zeltserman (Serpent's Tail). No sooner does Joe step out of the jailhouse than cosmic I.O.U's begin to rain down on his head. A thing of beauty: spare but ingeniously twisted and imbued with a glossy coating of black humor. -- Maureen Corrigan

When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown). Thank God, in these hard times, for a cheerful, ghoulish, gory book like this. This is a grand mystery, with plenty of quotes from the classics, so you can feel edified while being creeped out. -- Carolyn See

Short Stories

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser (Knopf). For all of their boyish enthusiasms and fantastic, even gothic, trappings, Millhauser's stories deal with decidedly complex themes: the price of obsession, the folly of hubris and the inevitable collapse of best-laid plans. -- Jeff Turrentine

Dictation, by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton). The first of these four engaging stories describes the friendship between the two typists who took dictation from Henry James and Joseph Conrad. -- Michael Dirda

Foreigners, by Caryl Phillips (Knopf). This triptych of fictionalized biographies ultimately offers hope as well as suffering and death. -- Vincent Carretta

Our Story Begins, by Tobias Wolff (Knopf). Since it would be nearly impossible for any reader to select the "best" of Wolff, he has courteously picked 21 of his favorites. -- JT

Poe's Children, edited by Peter Straub (Doubleday). An unsettling collection that blurs the artificial boundary between horror fiction and "literature." -- Bill Sheehan

Say You're One of Them, by Uwem Akpan (Little, Brown). These five stories -- set in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Benin -- are all about children and their perilous, confusing lives. -- Susan Straight

The Size of the World, by Joan Silber (Norton). Six stories with linked themes, families and political realities, in settings ranging from Sicily during World War I to Bloomington, Ind. at the time of the Sept. 11 attacks. -- Howard Norman

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf). The stories revolve less around the dislocation Lahiri's earlier Bengali characters encountered in America and more around the assimilation experienced by their children. -- Lily Tuck

Yesterday's Weather, by Anne Enright (Grove). Enright's Irish subjects are family, children, love, domestic horror. -- Peter Behrens

The Book World Staff's Top 10 of 2008
Five fiction, five non-fiction. The envelope please...

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Jonathan Yardley's Favorite Books of 2008
Lincoln, traffic and gumbo make the cut, but what other topics get the nod from our Pulitzer Prize-winning critic?

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