Each year at this time the daily book critics for The New York Times make lists of favorite books. Favorite is not synonymous with best, so this process can be painful. Brutal honesty is required. We pick what we actually liked, not what we only admired, although ideally our favorites fit both descriptions. But if any of us had fallen for the “Fifty Shades of Grey” books, we’d have to say so. We didn’t, so we don’t.
Anyway, after too much deliberation, we recommend these.
The Passage Of Power: The Years Of Lyndon Johnson by Robert A. Caro (Alfred A. Knopf)
In the latest installment of his magisterial, multivolume biography, Caro uses his wondrous narrative gifts to tell the dramatic story of how Johnson was catapulted to the White House in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and how he used his potent political skills to push his predecessor’s civil rights legislation through Congress and lay the groundwork for his own revolutionary war on poverty.
A Hologram For The King by Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s Books)
Using a new, pared down voice in this sad-funny-moving novel, Eggers recounts the tale of a penny-ante Job named Alan Clay, who’s betting everything on a quixotic scheme to sell the king of Saudi Arabia a lucrative new technology contract. Alan’s dreamlike story unfolds to become an emotionally stirring allegory about the frustrations of middle-class Americans coping with unemployment and diminished dreams in a newly globalized world.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (Little, Brown & Co.)
The author of this beautifully observed first novel joined the Army when he was 17 and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. In chronicling the friendship of two young soldiers struggling to stay alive on the battlefield there he has written a deeply affecting book that conveys the horrors of combat with harrowing poetry. At once a freshly imagined bildungsroman and a metaphysical parable about the loss of innocence and the uses of memory, it’s a novel that will stand with Tim O’Brien’s enduring Vietnam book, “The Things They Carried,” as a classic of contemporary war fiction.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Harper)
Taking its title from the famous thoroughfare that bridges Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., this fresh, tactile novel introduces us to Archy Stallings and Nat Jaffe, the proprietors of a struggling vinyl-record store that’s threatened by the prospect of a new megastore opening down the street. The stories of Nat and Archy and their families become a choral tale that addresses many of Chabon’s perennial themes — concerning fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and the consolations of art — while underscoring his ability to write magically about just about anything.
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs And The Great Age Of American Innovation by Jon Gertner (Penguin Press)
From the 1920s through the ’80s Bell Labs — the research and development wing of AT&T — was the most innovative scientific organization in the world, pioneering the development of the transistor, the laser and digital communications. In this riveting new book Gertner not only gives us keenly observed portraits of the individual scientists behind such transformative products but also examines the reasons Bell Labs became such an incubator of talent — and the place, for several decades, where the future was invented.
The Twelve Tribes Of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Alfred A. Knopf)
This extraordinarily powerful debut novel chronicles the many sorrows visited upon one Hattie Shepherd, a woman who left the Jim Crow South in the 1920s to start a new life in Philadelphia, and who at 16 lost her twin babies to pneumonia. That loss hardens Hattie’s heart, and she raises nine more children with stoic determination and not a whole lot of warmth — an emotional legacy that will shape the remainder of their lives. Writing with authority and psychological precision, Mathis endows Hattie’s life with an epic dimension — much as Toni Morrison has done with so many of her characters — while at the same time making her daily life thoroughly palpable and real.
The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers And Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever by Alan Sepinwall
In this engaging new book the television critic for hitfix.com provides a smart, observant look at 12 “great millennial dramas” — including “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “24,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” — that transformed the TV landscape and moved the small screen out from under the shadow of the movies. Mixing critical analysis and interviews with the creators of these shows, the book is a spirited and thoughtful cultural history that possesses all the immediacy and detailed observation of Sepinwall’s popular blog, What’s Alan Watching?
Every Love Story Is A Ghost Story: A Life Of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max (Viking)
This revealing biography of Wallace — who committed suicide in 2008 at 46 — traces the connections between his life and art, mapping the sources of his philosophical vision, while chronicling the heartbreaking struggle he waged throughout his adult life with severe depression. It gives the reader a sympathetic portrait of the artist as a young man: conflicted, self-conscious and, like many of his characters, yearning for connection yet stymied by the whirring of his brain and the discontinuities of an America reeling from information overload.
Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown (Simon & Schuster)
In this captivating volume a longtime columnist for the satirical British magazine Private Eye weaves together dozens of real-life encounters into a glittering daisy chain that reads like an entertaining illustration of the theory of Six Degrees of Separation. Frank Lloyd Wright meets Marilyn Monroe who meets Nikita Khrushchev. Tolstoy meets Tchaikovsky who meets Rachmaninoff who meets Harpo Marx who meets George Bernard Shaw. Brown’s sketches of these incongruous meetings — drawing upon diaries, biographies, interviews and other source material — possess the historical resonance of reportage, the surreal fizz of fiction.
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks (Alfred A. Knopf)
This physician’s latest book is a fascinating natural history of hallucinations. There are visual hallucinations (like seeing Kermit the “Sesame Street” frog several times a day), auditory hallucinations (hearing music or voices), and hallucinations produced by illness, fevers, sleep deprivation, drugs, grief, trauma and exhaustion. Sacks’ compassion for his patients and philosophical outlook transform what might have been clinical case studies into humanely written short stories that illuminate the complexities of the human brain and the mysteries of the human mind.
Dwight Garner: Poems
1962-2012 by Louise Gluck (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
An event. Gluck’s collected poems have a great novel’s cohesiveness and raking moral intensity. This is a poet with a prosecutorial mind: in supple and exact language, she interrogates the world around us. She is fearsome. And fearless.
Fire In The Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr (Bloomsbury)
Wojnarowicz (1954-92) was a painter, photographer, writer, performance artist, filmmaker and an AIDS activist whose work helped define the anarchic downtown Manhattan art scene of the 1980s. This admirably sensitive and cleareyed biography makes a case that, in life and art, he was “so ugly he was beautiful.”
Wild: From Lost To Found
on The Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed (Alfred A. Knopf)
As loose and sexy and dark as an early Lucinda Williams song, this memoir — about a long and sometimes desperate hike alone on the Pacific Coast Trail when the author was 26 — makes an earthy and American sound. It’s moving, without making you feel you are committing mental suicide.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Grove Press)
In this vivid memoir, Winterson makes it plain that words were her ticket out of a sadistically grim childhood. By the time she was a teenager, she says, “I knew how words worked in the way that some boys knew how engines worked.” About her adoptive mother, we read, “She was a monster, but she was my monster.”
In Praise Of Messy Lives:
Essays by Katie Roiphe (Dial)
This collection of brisk and provocative essays argues that we’ve grown pretty dull and conservative, more interested in being parents than in being adults. Roiphe carefully — and necessarily — isolates “messiness as a value, a good thing, a lost and interesting way of life.”
Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity by Andrew Solomon (Scribner)
This knotty, gargantuan and lionhearted book introduces us to families that are coping with things like deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism and schizophrenia.