We asked Shelf Awareness people for their 10 (or so) favorite books of the past year. Most of them were published in 2008, but not all, since we wanted to know what gave them reading pleasure no matter the pub date. This is our second batch of selections.
Breakdowns (1978; Pantheon, 2008) and Jack and the Box (Toon Books) by Art Spiegelman. Forgive me, but I could not separate these two. As Spiegelman said in his interview in Shelf Awareness (October 7, 2008), "It's all on a weird continuum." These two books (especially the new intro to Breakdowns)--one aimed at adults, the other at children--could serve as a tutorial on what makes comics work.
Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). A heroine graced with extraordinary physical strength and skills meets her match in a fellow graceling from a neighboring kingdom. First novelist Cashore delves deeply into questions of whether love confines or expands us as individuals.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial). This is on Marilyn's list, too. (She's the one who told me I had to read it; she was right.) Reminiscent of Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road in its depiction of the intimate relationship between author and editor, this exquisite novel also exposes the ways in which complicated situations bring about surprising results.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic). In a future America, two dozen children are charged with fighting each other to the death until one emerges victorious, in a televised extreme reality show. Collins cunningly constructs a way for her heroine to survive without killing anyone. Just try to put it down.
Masterpiece by Elise Broach, illustrated by Kelly Murphy (Holt). Not since Charlotte's Web has there been an interspecies relationship so compelling. A beetle and a boy learn to communicate in order to solve an art theft in this superior novel that celebrates the virtues of art, truth and friendship.
Six Innings by James Preller (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan). Organized around the six innings of a Little League baseball game, this middle-grade novel delivers as much on-the-field action as it does life lessons.
Sunrise Over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers (Scholastic). Without judgment, Myers paints a realistic, sometimes gruesome but never gratuitous picture of the ambiguities of war and the violence--physical and emotional--endured by a group of young men and women in the Iraq war.
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury (Harcourt/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). This perfect picture book for new parents, new siblings and newborns everywhere celebrates babies around the world and the families who love them.
The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. illustrated by Marc Simont (1950; New York Review of Books, 2009). Brimming with wit and wordplay, this fairy tale stars a Duke as disturbing as the Judge in Sweeney Todd, the beautiful Saralinda (his "niece"), her suitor Xingu and the incomparable Golux, who speaks in delectable riddles.
Thoreau at Walden by John Porcellino (Center for Cartoon Studies/Hyperion). Porcellino's judicious use of wordless panels allows readers to breathe in the air around Walden Pond, hear the owls, smell the snow. He distills Thoreau's big ideas into digestible, nourishing bites.
The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (S&S/Atheneum). This mythic tale set in an ancient forest unspools in the rhythms of a primal drum beat as the lives of the Alligator King, Grandmother Moccasin (a venomous half-serpent, half-human) and a calico cat and her two kittens who live beneath a porch with a loyal bloodhound intertwine. Appelt's story eloquently demonstrates that there can be no joy without pain.
Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest's Most Controversial Season by Nick Heil (Holt). Like Jon Krakauer in Into Thin Air, Heil chronicles triumph and tragedy during one climbing season on Mt. Everest--in this case May 2006. Page after page the reader is amazed at the insanity of what it takes to scale the world's highest mountain and yet every so often thinks, hmmm.
A Load of Bull: An Englishman's Adventures in Madrid by Tim Parfitt (Macmillan). In the late 1980s, Parfitt helped launch the Spanish edition of Vogue, planning to spend about six weeks in Madrid. The stay lasted nine years, and Parfitt's account of his initial unease with Spanish culture--and then full-scale love of it--is laugh-out-loud funny, reminiscent of Tim Parks's books about Italy.
Five Germanys I Have Known by Fritz Stern (FSG paperback, 2007). A little late, but this isn't breezy material! Stern, the former Columbia professor, friend of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, among many other Germans, and author of Gold and Iron and Einstein's German World, to name a few titles, grew up Jewish in Nazi Germany and was able to leave with his family in 1938. Unlike many refugees who understandably never looked back at that horrible time, here Stern mixes his personal story with his vocation and tries to make sense of and reconcile with the beastly chapter of what had been one of the most civilized nations on earth.
The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture by Ruth Benedict (1946, Mariner Books, 2005). A striking exploration of a complex, fascinating culture originally published in the postwar period to help Americans understand their former mortal enemies. Among many other things, the author explains how the Japanese people could immediately switch total loyalty from the Imperial government to occupation forces and why there are a bewildering variety of ways of addressing other people, depending on relationship, in Japanese.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born (Picador). Winner of the IMPAC Dublin award and by the Norwegian writer who was once a bookseller, this novel is a precise, eerie, slow-paced, reluctant rumination by an older man who has moved to the country and wants to live out the rest of his life in peace. But the arrival of a stranger stirs up memories he longs to avoid.
Voices by Arnaldur Indriðason, translated by Bernard Scudder (Picador). The third in the series starring Reykjavik inspector Erlendur Sveinsson, Voices is a classic police procedural where mood is everything: this time the force investigates the grim, sleazy murder of a hotel Santa Claus that takes place during a very unmerry Christmas season for Erlendur.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland (Knopf). A bestseller in Europe, this first in a trilogy by the late Swedish author features one of the most intriguing characters in a mystery: Lisabeth Salander, a 24-year-old hacker and researcher--she of the dragon tattoo. Salander aids Mikael Blomkvist, a muckraking journalist much like author Larsson, in solving a 40-year-old mystery that involves a powerful Swedish family.
Whacked by Jules Asner (Weinstein Books). This gem of a novel by the former model, E! Entertainment host and wife of Steven Soderbergh is distinguished by its style: with exquisite wit and a wonderful sense of timing, Asner shows but does not describe the crazed, competitive world of life in Hollywood. More please.
Fear and Yoga in New Jersey by Debra Galant (St. Martin's). Who knew that life in the Garden State could be so funny and entertaining--even for those of us intimately familiar with it? Thank you, Debbie.
The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family by Laura Schenone (Norton). The author's interest in learning her great grandmother's recipe for ravioli becomes a journey into her family's past that involves travel to Italy and meetings with many long-lost relatives. A course for dinner morphs into a delicious feast.
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf).
View from the Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier (Pantheon).
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Free Press).
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial).
Home by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (Doubleday).
Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link (Viking).
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic).
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (Riverhead, 2007)
Super Natural Cooking by Heidi Swanson (Celestial Arts, 2007). Every recipe that I have tried from either this cookbook or from Swanson's website has turned out great with little or no alteration--plus they're healthy and vegetarian-friendly!
Serena by Ron Rash (Ecco). I sorely miss the Deadwood series on HBO. This was like Deadwood for women. Finally.
Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield (Three Rivers Press, 2007). Gives whole new meaning to listening to songs that you grew to love with a loved one. And how possibly to listen to them again after they're gone. Keep a box of Kleenex near.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher (Razorbill, 2007). A YA title that was astonishing in its telling of a young girl with so much promise who took her life and the clues she's left for the town to understand why.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (Harper). Enzo attacking that zebra. Killed me.
The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III (Norton). No one does foreboding like Dubus. I almost called Bill Rusin at Norton in the middle of night while I watched over my young daughter sleeping.
The Pitchfork 500: Our Guide to the Greatest Songs from Punk to the Present edited by Scott Plagenhoef and Ryan Schreiber (Fireside). So. Much. Fun. The editors of Pitchfork and others compile their favorite songs from the late '70s until present. (Yes. There are some songs in here from the '80s. Shush.) Blew out my iTunes budget for the year.
Bloom! A Little Book About Finding Love by Maria Van Lieshout (Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan, 2007). My daughter loves this book about a little pig looking for love. I love it because it was the first book she could "read" to me.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961; Vintage movie tie-in). You must read or reread this before you see the movie coming later this month. I found it years ago because I read somewhere that it was Raymond Carver's favorite novel. But when I read it again, I loved it because it's so wonderfully written and very, very Mad Men.
Animal's People by Indra Sinha (Simon & Schuster). A brilliantly written, devastating account by a 17-year-old deformed boy, Animal, of the industrial chemical spill that destroys his town.
A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif (Knopf). A dark, funny confession by the man who blew up the plane with the dictator of Pakistan inside.
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic (Grove Press). A colorful little town in Bosnia is violently liberated during the civil war in this sobering, stunning, frequently hilarious masterpiece.
Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh (Penguin Press). A courageous young man's personal study of urban poverty--funny and brave and profoundly touching.
The Howling Miller by Arto Paasalinna (Canongate). The delightful tale of a nonconformist, packed with plenty of Finnish drier-than-dry humor and grumpy good-heartedness.
Life Class by Pat Barker (Doubleday). The Booker Prize-winner follows three young art students through the art world of pre-war London and into the war.
Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier (Grove Press). A thoughtful philosophical entertainment about a man who walks away from his job. A European sensation.
Real World by Natsuo Kirino (Knopf). An unputdownable account of four Japanese girls who become involved with a very troubled boy who's just killed his mother.
The Soloist by Steve Lopez (Berkley). A soul-stirring tale about a homeless musician who went to Julliard and the Los Angeles Times reporter who tries to rescue him.
A Sun for the Dying by Jean-Claude Izzo (Europa). The last novel of master writer Izzo to be translated by Howard Curtis. A homeless man makes his way back to Marseilles to die in this overpowering, heartbreaking farewell to life.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (Free Press). Booker Prize-winner and best novel of the year. An Indian chauffeur tells you what drove him to kill his boss in a morally-complicated tour de force.
Shannon McKenna Schmidt:
The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (Atria). The story of an orphan who becomes an apprentice to the doge's chef in 15th-century Venice is a savory blend of history, intrigue and the culinary arts.
The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris (Morrow). The sequel to Chocolat brings back Vianne Rocher and her daughter, Anouk, for more confections and magic.
Interred with Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell (Plume). In this fast-paced tale, scholar turned stage director Kate Stanley is searching for a lost Shakespeare play . . . and evading a killer enacting murders in the manner of the Bard's fictional villains.
Izzy & Lenore: Two Dogs, an Unexpected Journey, and Me by Jon Katz (Villard). Katz reminisces about two of his canine companions, including Izzy, a once-abandoned border collie with whom he takes up volunteer work with hospice patients.
The Journal of Hélène Berr (Weinstein Books). Berr's true account of life as a young Jewish French woman and Sorbonne student in Nazi-occupied Paris is both tragic and uplifting.
Land of a Hundred Wonders by Lesley Kagen (NAL). In this humorous and poignant novel set in small-town Kentucky in 1973, fledgling newspaper reporter Gibby McGraw sets out to prove herself by solving a murder.
Murder in the Marais by Cara Black (Soho, 2003). Each of Cara Black's atmospheric Aimée Leduc mysteries is set in a different quarter of Paris. Her latest is Murder in the Rue de Paradis.