At the end of the year, every book reviewer makes the same two points: These year-end picks are only one person's favorites; and no critic can possibly read every book — or even every acclaimed book. So what follows is a naturally limited list from just one bookhound. I've supplemented the picks with a list of books I wish I had time to read — the booklover's standard lament. Consider these extras as recommendations, too.
• Zeitoun by Dave Eggers.
Fiction prodigy Eggers switched to narrative nonfiction to tell the true, closely observed story of one New Orleans family and their experiences of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. An excellent, surprisingly detached reporter, Eggers penetrates both the goodness in America's psyche as well as its darker dysfunctions in times of crisis. Zeitoun is as all-American as can be, tragic and funny and everything in between, with a wide vision and a clear portrait of individual courage in the face of officially sanctioned stupidity. The irony is that this all-American book's main character is a Syrian immigrant during a crisis which happened during a period of national paranoia.
• K Blows Top by Peter Carlson.
Lively, smart popular history at its best, K Blows Top relates the insanity, slip-ups, scary temper tantrums, goofy misunderstandings and captivating cultural conflicts that mesmerized America when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the U.S. for two weeks in 1959. The first example of what we now call "media frenzy," K's visit -- highlighted by veiled nuclear threats and the premier's outbursts when told he couldn't visit Disneyland -- was one of the grandest, most outlandish and surreal spectacles of the Cold War, and Carlson captures the odd ambience of the time perfectly.
• I'm Down by Mishna Wolff.
So you think you felt out of place while growing up? Read I'm Down, and you'll get a much broader perspective on just how odd "not fitting in" can be. Wolff grew up in the early '80s in Seattle with her father, a white man who lived his life as if he were black, and wanted -- no, expected -- her to "act black," too. Her dad, a frustrated, and frankly confusing, anti-establishment guy, moved with Mishna and her younger sister to a poverty-stricken African-American neighborhood. Wolff's tale of adjusting to her rough surroundings by learning the art of trading insults and becoming a wit is refreshing, strange, and eye-opening.
• The Attack On The Liberty by James Scott.
Charleston journalist Scott, a former CL contributor, wrote a first-rate "investigative history" of a nearly forgotten incident during the Israeli Six-Day War in 1967, an episode that involved Charlottean John Scott, his father. Ensign Scott was on the U.S. spy ship Liberty off the coast of Gaza in international waters, when America's "loyal ally," Israel, strafed the ship with rockets and napalm, then followed up with torpedoes that blew a 40-foot-wide hole in the ship, flooding the lower compartments. Thirty-four Americans were killed and 171 wounded, but the entire incident was covered up by President Johnson, who needed American Jewish support for his increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. This is terrific journalism, and a compellingly written story.
• In Hanuman's Hands: A Memoir by Cheeni Rao.
It's a mystery why some remarkable books don't catch on despite lots of PR and word of mouth. That was the case in 2009 with this amazing memoir. Rao, an Indian immigrant in Chicago, combines two types of memoir -- the spiritual quest and the drug addiction saga -- while somehow meshing the cultures of street-level America with the spirituality of India, and finding common ground between psychotherapy and the pantheon of Hindu gods. It's quite a feat, and an astonishing debut.
• Hell by Robert Olen Butler.
Reading Butler's full-tilt absurdist satire is like having fireworks go off in your brain. It takes place in Hell, but is also a darkly hilarious spoof of 21st century life. Protagonist Hatcher McCord, the anchorman of Evening News From Hell, dates Anne Boleyn and tries to find out why he's in the lair of Satan (who wears Armani and can only be contacted by voice mail). Hitler is executed over and over; Dubya spends eternity looking for his Wings Made Divine (WMD); Shakespeare's computer keeps crashing and losing his work; while TV commercials are personalized and neverending. A little gimmicky at times, but in a 100 mph novel, you hardly notice.
• A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert.
Cleverly composed, chronologically mixed tales about the female members of the Townsend family, over a period of nearly 100 years. From Dorothy Townsend, an early-20th century British suffragist, to her scientist daughter who comes to America, an activist niece who's arrested for her politics in 2003, and the activist's daughters, straining to find themselves within conventional lives, they offer insights into how modern women have fared in their quests for more freedom.
• Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead.
Whitehead has won numerous literary awards and was short-listed for the Pulitzer, but is still looking for a "breakout" book. This autobiographical, coming of age novel apparently wasn't it either, but it should have been. It's 1985, and 15-year-old Benji Cooper spends the summer with his brother in their folks' summer home in Long Island's Sag Harbor, a popular summer residence for many of New York City's African-American professionals. Loaded with pop culture references and sharp dialogue that bring the '80s to life.
• Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon.
Hemon's novel The Lazarus Project was one of the best books of 2008, and revealed the author as one of the most interesting new writers working today. His collection of short stories, Love and Obstacles -- all narrated by an East European immigrant who resembles Hemon -- continues some of the themes from Lazarus: the intricacies of memory, the merging of past and present, and the strains put on normal life by creativity. Funny, smart, chilling, pretty cranky in parts, but consistently beguiling.
Wish I Had Time For:
• Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin Kelley.
• Lit: A Memoir by Mary Karr.
• Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee by Chloe Hooper.
• Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon.
• A Gate At the Stairs by Lorrie Moore.
• Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem.
• Love in Infant Monkeys: Stories by Lydia Millet.
• The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.