The best books of 2008.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 16 2008 7:40 AM

Pad Out Your Amazon Wish List

Slatepicks the best books of 2008.

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Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic
At 768 large (13 inches x 17 inches) pages, 20 pounds, and a price tag of $200, Le Corbusier Le Grand is not for everyone, but if you're interested in architecture, you should at least find a library copy. Le Corbusier was one of the 20th century's greatest architects—if not the greatest. He was everywhere: an artist in 1920s Bohemian Paris, a central figure in the invention of modern architecture, a planner of France's postwar reconstruction, the chief designer of the United Nations building in New York, and architect of the Punjab capital in Nehru's post-Colonial India. This eclectic collection of architectural documents, personal letters, newspaper clippings, snapshots, and travel mementos graphically captures the man, his times, and his work. This book is also, inadvertently, a study is wistful nostalgia—the record of a period when everything appeared new, and everything seemed possible.

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Amanda Schaffer, contributor
In The Myth of Mars and Venus, Oxford professor Deborah Cameron debunks the widely held view that men and women's speaking styles consign them, in effect, to different planets. Best-selling authors, from John Gray to Deborah Tannen, have promoted this belief; Cameron tells us why many of their claims and others are overblown. In wry, witty prose she details how generalizations about men's and women's verbal abilities have changed over time. In 18th-century England, for instance, men were typically thought to be "more elegant, more polite and more correct" than women. She also analyzes transcripts of males and females in lively conversation to make her case. Most powerfully, she asks why the two-planet myth has gained so much traction when "no group of men and women in history have ever been less different, or less at the mercy of their biology, than those living in Western societies today." Men are from Earth. Women are from Earth. Read this book.

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June Thomas, foreign editor
"I have lived on the same page of the A-Z all of my adult life," narrator Jamal declares early in Hanif Kureishi's novel Something To Tell You. Just as Jamal walks the same London streets every afternoon, Kureishi has been working over the same subjects for the last quarter-century: fathers betraying their children, and vice versa; assimilation and reconciliation. He's not the most imaginative of writers, but his homing instinct is as rewarding as that of Giorgio Morandi or Michael Apted's Up series. Like everything Kureishi has written, there are parts that just don't work—here it's all the sexual relationships and the entire second half—but if you care about the great transitions of our time, you won't find a better exploration of "the days before the working class were considered to be consumerist trash in cheap clothes with writing on them, when they still retained the dignity of doing unpleasant but essential work."

American Wife

Julia Turner, deputy editor Laura Bush's life is full of incongruous tidbits—she's an insatiable reader, she killed her high-school boyfriend in a car accident, she was a smoker and a Democrat when she met W—that don't seem to amount to the proper Republican political wife we know today. Curtis Sittenfeld's American Wife, a novel about a very Laura-like first lady, offers a satisfying answer for anyone wondering how this nice, bookish girl ended up with a galoot like George. The best section of the book depicts their courtship. Sittenfeld's Bush—called Charlie Blackwell here—is, amazingly, both recognizable and appealing: a bon vivant with flared nostrils, trustworthy (as a mate, anyway) because "he seemed to be someone who found his own flaws endearing and thus concealed nothing." The book is a great read and as interesting a postmortem of the Bush years as any other I've encountered.

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Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of the Slate Group
Netherland is the best new novel I've read, not just in the past year, but since I can remember. Through the eyes of a Dutchman arriving several centuries after the fall of New Amsterdam, Joseph O'Neill illuminates an invisible outer-borough New York, explores the metropolitan psyche after Sept. 11, ponders the poetics of cricket, and brings us an update on the immigrant's American dream. The contained lyricism and honed perfection of his prose makes this a book that can, without absurdity, be compared to The Great Gatsby, on which it is strongly modeled. Don't miss the inspired discussion on the Slate "Audio Book Club" by Stephen Metcalf, Katie Roiphe, and Meghan O'Rourke, three critics who are equal to the material.

And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers and contributors: A Summer of Hummingbirds, by Christopher Benfey; Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power, by Fred Kaplan; The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, by Adam Kirsch; Now the Hell Will Start, by Brendan I. Koerner; Reputation: Portraits in Power, edited by Timothy Noah; The Bush Tragedy, by Jacob Weisberg; Obamamania! The English Language, Barackafied, edited by Chris Wilson. Click here to see a complete list of recent books by Slatesters.