Some Very Excellent Books

John Powers: A tug of war between social comedy and morality play — or is it between Wings of the Dove and Brideshead Revisited? — Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize–winning The Line of Beauty uses the story of a social-climbing gay -aesthete to capture ’80s London in its soaring -cadenzas of Thatcherite amorality and wrenching undertones of loss when AIDS quietly, but lethally, lowers the boom.

Brendan Bernhard: It was a big year for Philip Roth, but for me the Roth of the Year was the Viennese elegist Joseph Roth (1894–1939) and his saga of the von Trotta family in the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire: The Radetzky March and The Emperor’s Tomb. Also, the out-of-print spy novels of Charles McCarry (The Secret Lovers, The Tears of Autumn and The Last Supper), along with one he published this year (Old Boys). Coincidentally, the Roth books have been brought out in paperback by the excellent Overlook Press, which will soon be reissuing the novels of McCarry.

Dave Eggers: Robert Newman’s The Fountain at the Center of the World makes the anti-globalization movement very entertaining and even funny.

Joy Nicholson: Ask the Pilot, by Patrick Smith — manna for masochists who fear flying. The nonfiction book explains whether a jumbo jet can land without any engines, if the contents of airplane toilets are jettisoned during flight, and if anyone has ever actually survived a crash by donning a flotation vest. For nervous fliers, reading it is like extreme S/M — except you laugh a lot more.

Vendela Vida: Russell Banks’ The Darling. The scope of the book is tremendous, and Banks’ first-person female narrator is utterly convincing. Most of all, I admire this book because Banks took a lot of writerly risks, and, for me, they all paid off.

Michelle Huneven: In her modestly brilliant, technically stunning and completely beguiling novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, Cynthia Ozick pays homage to Jane Austen and George Eliot by appropriating their methods of creating profound literary pleasure and applying these methods to the story of a smart, intrepid, unloved orphan as she sets out in life and promptly is waylaid in the crowded home of a passionate, uprooted and increasingly unhinged rabbinic scholar, his depressed, bedridden wife and many adrift children.

Joshuah Bearman: Real Ultimate Power: The Official Ninja Book, by Robert Hamburger. There are so many questions in this world, none of them answered in this book. But what you will discover, perhaps, is that ninja-ness is life-changing in the eye-opening way, like scuba diving. Explore Real Ultimate Power as you would the depths of the reef.

Geoff Nicholson: The Photobook: A History, by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger. Martin Parr adds to his reputation as photographer, subversive and ironist by showing that he’s also a scholar. Most of the books featured come from his own collection — he owns everything — and the work is a gorgeous celebration of the richness that comes when photographs are organized and ordered within the confines of a book.

Diana Wagman: Our country went to hell this year, but at least there were a lot of good books written about it. The best, for me, was Generation Kill, by (Weekly contributor) Evan Wright. It was horrible to read and absolutely compelling. I cried, I was nauseated, and I haven’t felt the same since about our soldiers in Iraq.

Robert David Jaffee: Hendrik Hertzberg’s new book, Politics. One of the country’s deans of political commentary, Hertzberg provides us with nearly 40 years of his best essays, including a special section that delves into the failings of the Constitution and our electoral system, and a concluding chapter on 9/11. After discussing the influence of the late author Philip K. Dick on our present dystopia, Hertzberg writes, "Bush doesn’t know Dick."

Jonathan Gold: Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925–1939, by Joseph Roth. Joseph Roth in a cheerful mood should be like Henry Miller impotent or Henry James as action hero, but this collection of essays from his time in France (which may bear the same relation to his body of work that "Homage to Catalonia’’ does to Orwell’s) is about as lyrical as he got, history as nostalgia informed by the kind of closely observed detail that can make other writers consider careers in accounting.

Erin Aubry Kaplan: The best of The Onion. In a year in which headlines have recorded the meltdown of our national character and discussions of political trifles like gay marriage with not a shred of irony, parody has become a fine art. Nobody does it any better than the online mock tabloid (yes, mock tabloid) The Onion. Read it and weep.

Joe Donnelly: Tijuana Straits. It’s more than just another of Kem Nunn’s hard-boiled, surf-adjacent character studies; it’s a vivid indictment of environmental and human degradation.

Deborah Vankin: The re-release of Zöe Heller’s Everything You Know. She manages, with precision and hilarity, to get inside the heads of two drastically different characters: an aimless, sexually promiscuous British teen and a nasty, if somewhat perverted, aging Hollywood scribe — and they both come off as charming. Their story is sad, dark and bitterly funny.

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