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.
A lot of soul searching goes into these lists. So does a little protocol. Each of us — Michiko Kakutani, Dwight Garner, and I — has drawn only from the group of books he or she reviewed. Since none of us review work by fellow writers for the Times or by friends, there are necessary and notable omissions. (A glaring one: The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver). Since the daily editions of the Times can’t review everything, there are omissions by happenstance, too. In the midnight hour these 10 Favorites — not 10 Bests — call for a gut check. Bottom line, for each of us: Is this a book I’d give to a friend? Aside from The One, there are three music books I did give to friends and regret not including here. The Leonard Cohen twofer, I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons and The Holy or the Broken by Alan Light, are transfixing for Cohen’s admirers, this one included. But they are detailed and specific, best suited to devotees. And there wasn’t space for Rod Stewart’s memoir, even though it’s a ton of fun. Michiko Kakutani wound up listing Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations rather than Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. Dwight Garner chose Spillover rather than Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir, The Last Holiday.
Anyway, after too much deliberation, we recommend these. Each list is in descending order, top favorite first. — JANET MASLIN
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. 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.
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. The author speaks, in bracing language, to a luminous conundrum: How is it that many families “have ended up grateful for experiences they would have done anything to avoid”? Solomon shoots arrow after arrow into your heart, without neglecting your mind.
THE RICHARD BURTON DIARIES Edited by Chris Williams (Yale University Press). The actor Richard Burton, who was a maniacal reader and a smart and funny writer, kept a journal during the peak years of his life with Elizabeth Taylor. This a love story so robust you can nearly warm your hands on its flames. “E is my only ism,” Burton writes. “Elizabethism.” When she was away, he said, “I miss her like food.”
RED PLENTY by Francis Spufford (Graywolf Press). This delicious book — not quite history, not quite fiction — is about the era when Russians really thought their version of Communism would make them the happiest and most unfettered people in the world. It’s an angular yet intimate thing, this book, as if Clive James had written it with Milan Kundera.
SPILLOVER: ANIMAL INFECTIONS AND THE NEXT HUMAN PANDEMIC by David Quammen (W.W. Norton). This book, about the galaxy of viruses that threaten to cross over from animals to humans, is timely and terrifying. Quammen, a gifted science writer, combines physical and intellectual adventure. He also adds a powerful measure of moral witness: ecological destruction is greatly to blame for our current peril.
ALIEN VS. PREDATOR: POEMS by Michael Robbins (Penguin Poets). Big fun. This first book of poems, stuffed with wit and pagan grace, brainily dices high and low culture. Robbins is intimate with Philip Larkin yet can rhyme Axl with Paxil and Rorschach with Horshack. He is comfortable at high speeds and with swamp temperatures, which he refers to as “Eleventy thousand degrees outside/with a heat index of kablooey.” He feels like the real deal.
BRING UP THE BODIES by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt). The second installment in this splendid, sharp-clawed historical trilogy is even better than the first. Both center on Mantel’s brilliant reimagining of Thomas Cromwell, a minor player in most tales of Henry VIII but the major schemer in this ingenious version. “Wolf Hall” was a superb but not essential prologue to the second book’s more fine-tuned war of nerves. Tightly focused on sparring between Cromwell and Anne Boleyn, it mixes 16th-century ambience with timeless bitchery.
BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: LIFE, DEATH, AND HOPE IN A MUMBAI UNDERCITY by Katherine Boo (Random House). Boo makes it easy to forget that this indelible book about life in a Mumbai slum is not a novel. She is one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction. Characters are vibrantly drawn, and the central narrative is truly gripping. Without diminishing the stark realities of abject squalor Boo’s agile prose, wry tone and surprisingly upbeat theatrics are Dickensian in the best sense of that word.
WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple (Little, Brown). Sheer bliss. A riotous comedy of bad manners, set in Microsoft-obsessed Seattle and written as a string of barbed emails, texts, FBI documents and other communiques. The plot is nominally about why the title character vanishes. It escalates dizzyingly well. But this novel’s main strength is the inspired ventriloquism of an author who started out writing for television and knows how to give a story many colliding voices.
TRUTH LIKE THE SUN by Jim Lynch (Alfred A. Knopf). Gimmick-free and uncategorizable, this is just a flat-out great read with the spirit of a propulsive, character-driven 1970s movie. Drawing on the history of the 1962 World’s Fair and its Space Needle, Lynch pairs unlikely antagonists: an old-school political fixer blessed with immense charm, and an overeager newspaperwoman whose research, done in 2001, has the power to destroy him. They never behave predictably, and their showdown lingers long after Lynch’s story is over.
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain (Ecco). Fountain found inspiration for this debut novel in a surreal spectacle he witnessed on television. At a Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game in 2004, a group of soldiers found themselves celebrated as heroes of the war in Iraq, though real wartime experience has nothing to do with the notions of manhood and victory that are part of football hoopla. Billy Lynn, the book’s wide-eyed main character, finds himself shellshocked by sights he would never see on a battlefield. Fountain devastatingly juxtaposes the complacency of America’s home game with the reality facing troops headed back to war.
GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn (Crown). The year’s most ubiquitous work of pop fiction was a true shocker: the he-said, she-said, she’s-dead, multiple-perspective portrait of one very dangerous marriage. Flynn, a former television critic, knew every old trick it took to whipsaw her readers. She also made up new ones. Word of mouth gave “Gone Girl” a huge boost, even though it’s impossible to describe without spoilers.
ARCADIA by Lauren Groff (Voice). Groff’s surprising second novel is so immersed in the life of a flower-power commune that patchouli ought to waft off its pages. But the hippie ambience is an illusion. This proves to be a story of tough realities hidden behind Utopian daydreams, as seen through the eyes of a little boy perplexed by his elders. Divided into sections that make startling narrative leaps, this tale carries through to 2018 and shimmers all the way.
WATERGATE by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon). In this stealth bull’s-eye of a political novel, Mallon invests the Watergate affair with all the glitter, glamour, suave grace and subtlety that it doesn’t often receive. Written with the name-dropping panache of a Hollywood tell-all, it seamlessly embellishes reportage with fiction. It’s also warmly affectionate about the Watergate principals in a totally counterintuitive way, while reducing bombshell moments to mere asides in a larger Washington drama.
IKE’S BLUFF: PRESIDENT EISENHOWER’S SECRET BATTLE TO SAVE THE WORLD by Evan Thomas (Little, Brown). An Eisenhower revival has been quietly brewing, with books about the famously uninteresting 34th president arriving at an increasingly steady clip. “Ike’s Bluff” breaks the mold: it offers a colorful, anecdotal portrait that humanizes Dwight D. Eisenhower and casts new scrutiny on the old stereotypes about him. Using revealing new material from those closest to Ike, Thomas describes a cagey, caustic, volatile figure whose benign smile was his biggest bluff of all.
THE ONE: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF JAMES BROWN by RJ Smith (Gotham Books). This James Brown biography is as showstopping as the screaming, moaning, kinetically blessed performer it describes, capturing both the toughness of Brown and the racially polarized America in which he fought to become a crossover star.