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2008 lit picks 

Favorite books of the year

At the end of the year, part of our job is to help readers separate the past 12 months' literary wheat from the chaff, but first a disclaimer: This list is only one person's (my) record of favorites from 2008, and it reflects only my tastes, inclinations and limitations. Those limitations include being unable to read every published book -- nor even every book that garnered critical acclaim -- despite reading habits that a friend has called "almost pathological, man." So, to supplement my 2008 picks, I've also included honorable mentions, as well as a list of books I really wish I had time to read -- the booklover's standard lament. Consider these extras as recommendations, too. With those caveats in place, here are one booklover's picks for the best of '08.

FICTION

Serena by Ron Rash. With the Depression-era lumber industry in western North Carolina and a budding conservation movement as his setting, Rash creates a fast-moving story for the ages, complete with Shakespearean or ancient Greek levels of ambition, cruelty and deception -- and a female protagonist unique in American literature. National raves show Rash's muscular writing and universal themes breaking him out of the "Southern writer" pigeonhole.

The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon. An East European immigrant investigates the real-life 1908 murder of an alleged anarchist, and returns to Eastern Europe and its new, surreal gangster-soaked culture. A masterfully written, funny, chilling look at the connections between today's world and the past.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. Winner of Britain's Man Booker Prize, The White Tiger bursts the bubble of Western clichés about India with dark, often hilarious jabs from its narrator, a murderous chauffeur who sees his personal class warfare as both justice and entrepreneurship.

What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn. A bright, lonely 10-year-old British girl who solves imaginary crimes suddenly disappears. Twenty years later, a former classmate, a real detective, ponders the case. A gripping, unique and moving novel.

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti. This startling, spellbinding debut novel doubles as an adventure story about a one-handed orphan mixed up with a fantastical set of villains in 19th-century New England. Action-packed, funny and oddly uplifting amid the violent squalor.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Life Class by Pat Barker.

The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant.

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey.

A Most Wanted Man By John le Carre.

WISH I HAD TIME TO READ:

2666 by Roberto Bolaño.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh.

Lush Life by Richard Price.

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz.

NON-FICTION

Charlatan by Pope Brock. Dr. John R. Brinkley was a brilliant, egomaniacal surgeon who scammed tens of thousands of patients during the 1920s and '30s, at the height of medical quackery in the United States. He became enormously rich via "goat gland surgery," in which he "restored men's manly powers" by grafting goat testicles onto those of less-than-virile men. He cured some, killed untold hundreds and butchered thousands. Later, he helped turn radio into a powerful advertising medium; revolutionized American political campaigning while running for governor of Kansas; and invented "border radio" -- super-powerful stations just over the border in Mexico, which led to the introduction of country music and the blues to areas outside the South. The author is wry and fun to read, telling one "if you think that's unbelievable ..." story after another.

The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century by Alex Ross. Classical music critic for the New Yorker blows the doors off the usual concepts of music history with this breathtaking look at 20th century "serious" music, its creators and the contexts within which they worked. If nothing else, check out Ross' terrific Web site, therestisnoise.com.

Havana Nocturne by T.J. English. In pre-Castro Cuba, the Mafia ran the most successful string of big-buck casinos, posh hotels and spectacular nightclubs ever seen in this hemisphere -- and paid Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista nearly $10 million (in today's money) per week for the privilege. A long overdue, well-crafted telling of a classic story of money, sex, corruption and politics.

Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives by Jim Sheeler. An unsentimental yet very moving account of two years in the life of Maj. Steve Beck, an earnest, caring marine whose job was to notify families of their loved ones' death on the battlefields of Iraq.

Family Bible by Melissa J. Delbridge. Duke University archivist Delbridge weaves together scandalous, booze-sex-insanity-&-Jesus stories of her Alabama upbringing into a tableau of the South that rises way above the usual clichés of the genre.

HONORABLE MENTION:

Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency by Barton Gellman.

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare by David Hajdu.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt.

WISH I HAD TIME TO READ:

The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals by Jane Mayer.

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are by Rob Walker.

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust.

The Forever War by Dexter Filkins.

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