Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolaño

Even before his untimely death in 2003, I’d been repeatedly told that this wandering Chilean was the great Latin American writer of his generation. But people are always making such claims, and I didn’t listen. Then I read this seductive collection of stories — tales of exile, disappointment and unhappy hours spent with a father who enjoys his putas — and instantly bought his other two translated books, Distant Star and By Night in Chile (a small masterpiece). Unlike Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, Bolaño did not aspire to win public glory or become the voice of his people. He was defiantly, pointedly, sometimes redundantly personal — he had a tone all his own. History-haunted, grotesquely funny and suffused in a loner’s melancholy, his stories have a mood that can swallow you up like the last evening on Earth. —John Powers

New Directions | 256 pages | $24 hardcover

The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006?edited by Dave Eggers

No matter that this series is edited by Dave Eggers — who I hate and love for being too ironic for his own good and for bringing a cheeky kind of clever weirdness to contemporary fiction — “nonrequired” stories are just about all I can handle these days. To have them collected in one book? Even better. While waiting for the laundry to dry, I read about a mail-order bride in Judy Budnitz’s “Nadia.” While stuck in line at the post office, I got into the one about a misunderstanding between a stupid tourist and drunken soldiers on a bus, a.k.a. Jeff Parker’s “False Cognate.” At a really long red light, I browsed the “Best American Things to Know About Hoboes” and “Best American Fake Headlines from The Onion.” Plus, by way of introduction, Matt Groening expounds upon the bibliomania of his youth in tragicomic fashion. This is the stuff you read when you just can’t get to the stuff you really read. —Gendy Alimurung

Houghton Mifflin | 373 pages | $14 paperback

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Males by Michael Pollan

Impact: You want impact? Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals is a sincere inquiry into the perplexing origins of our food: Who grows the corn, what grazes the grass, how the cow gets slaughtered and who decides what “organic” means (and whether it matters). In the process, he exposes all the ways in which the organically dressed but mass-produced food market increasingly supports the same kind of nonseasonal eating and large-scale agricultural practices that conventional grocery distribution has so destructively fostered. The result? A very public debate between Whole Foods Market’s CEO, John Mackey, and the author that began on their respective Web sites and expanded into reams of press coverage alerting the public to the significance of local food. The best part: The friendly, high-ground battle no doubt generated more readers for Pollan’s elegant and yet world-changing prose — especially his joyous ode to the mysteries of fungi in Chapter 19. A masterpiece, even if it doesn’t announce itself as one. —Judith Lewis

Penguin Press | 450 pages | $27 hardcover

Everyman by Philip Roth

Philip Roth couldn’t hope to match the paranoid goose bumps of 2004’s The Plot Against America, his dark WWII fantasy about an America too easily nudged toward anti-Semitism and fascism, so he wisely downsized his narrative ambitions with Everyman. This slender novel begins at the graveside service for a New York ad executive and sketches the unnamed man’s family life in a Jewish enclave of Newark before moving forward in time through career, marriage and adultery. At first the story treads a deceptively nostalgic path through the man’s past, as Roth recalls the father’s jewelry store (named Everyman), seen here as a kind of democratic nexus connecting the often contentious ethnic groups of his neighborhood. Increasingly, however, the protagonist’s character weaknesses become depressingly clear as his body decays with age. A nightmare of bad faith. —Steven Mikulan

Houghton Mifflin | 192 pages | $24

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud

For all the kudos this novel received — shortlisted for the Booker Prize, listed among the New York Times Book Review’s top 10 books of the year — there have also been complaints about its lack of character development. All right: The characters here are a little undefined and, perhaps more to the point, not entirely lovable. But this Murdochian tale of Brown graduates in New York City before, during and after 9/11 is so witty and wise, so pitch perfect, so well written, who cares? It’s not like Messud (who contributes book reviews to the Weekly) cannot create deep characters; see her remarkable 2002 pairing of novellas, The Hunters, for that. (And if it’s microfiction you desire, see Richard Ford’s Lay of the Land, if you have the patience — and the time!) Messud’s Children are of a place and a moment — the Gawker Generation? — and she captures them in all their relative pain and glory. —Tom Christie

Knopf | 448 pages | $25 hardcover

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

Fifty years after novelist Irène Némirovsky was arrested by French police and shipped off to Auschwitz, her daughter opened what she believed to be her mother’s wartime journals and found instead the first two of a projected five novellas. Published in France in 2004, Suite Française is nothing less than an account of life under German occupation as it was happening. Now said to be the first work of fiction about wartime France, this lucid, precisely observed book casts a jaundiced but humane eye on the folly of occupiers and occupied alike, eking terror and comedy from their struggle to survive under absurd conditions. Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Ukraine, Némirovsky converted to Catholicism in France. It didn’t help: She died, aged 39, a month after her arrival in Auschwitz. Now her rigorous, generous vision returns to remind a generation conditioned by upbeat Hollywood endings that oppression is evil not because it happens to saints or heroes, but because it is evil. —Ella Taylor

Knopf | 416 pages | $25 hardcover

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers

First of all, there are the sandhill cranes, which are on the endangered list yet manage each February to turn a stretch of Nebraska’s Platte River into a swarming metropolis of the snowy creatures, a Manhattan of lowing, child-size birds. A pickup truck flips over. Its driver wakes up in the hospital with Capgrass syndrome, a rare form of brain damage whose victims suspect that the people and places closest to them have been replaced with imposters, kind of like Invasion of the Body Snatchers — and then the hijinx ensue. Capgrass syndrome is a very postmodern disease. Powers is a very postmodern novelist, the favorite son of the population a Venn diagram might show as the intersection of NYRB subscribers, those who take the Scientific American, and those who read orchestral scores for fun. Powers is nothing if not fugal in his riffage, especially here — this is probably his best since the even more fugal Goldbug Variations. If you are going to buy only one novel this year about an obscure yet poetic neuropsychiatric disorder, this should be the one. —Jonathan Gold

Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 464 pages | $25 hardcover

LA Weekly