The best books of 2008.

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

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Slatepicks the best books of 2008.

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Michael Agger, senior editor There's a new baby in the apartment this year, so my mind was only fit for the occasional Wodehouse novel. I did read McCain's Promise, though—a reprint/expansion of a Rolling Stone article by David Foster Wallace, in which the bandanaed one followed McCain during the 2000 campaign. DFW's suicide looms over literary 2008 for me. Even when not reading him, I was glad to know that he was alive, parsing the splendor and darkness of our moment. McCain's Promise circles around a Wallace fixation: authenticity. Can a guy who spent six years in a box leverage his commitment to honor in a noncheesy manner that will also make him president? DFW attacks this question in his scorched-earth style. The reader is left with a feeling that all great writing imparts: I should really look at myself and my world more closely.

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Emily Bazelon, senior editor To remind yourself why you are beyond ready for a new president, pick up a copy of Jane Mayer's The Dark Side. As a writer for The New Yorker, Mayer served up some of the biggest revelations about how exactly the war on terror became the excuse, after Sept. 11, for a vast expansion of executive power. (She's the reason we first heard of David Addington.) In her book, she breaks additional news and, more crucially, brilliantly synthesizes the history of executive-branch abuses from the last eight years. Mayer builds her case about torture and other nefarious legal doings one careful fact and analytical step at a time—and absolutely damns this waning presidency.

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Christopher Beam, political reporter Most books about the Iraq war have focused on bungled preparation or mind-bending incompetence. Dexter Filkins doesn't set out to moralize—although you could certainly do so after reading The Forever War. He instead recounts the overthrow of the Taliban and the invasion and rebuilding of Iraq with a mix of sorrow and inevitability, one devastating vignette at a time. Filkins is best-known for his reporting on the 2004 battle of Fallujah, which provides the book's backbone as well as its most horrific moments. But his view is panoramic. He's watching a Taliban execution on a soccer field. He's accompanying L. Paul Bremer on a smiley tour of a doomed local hospital. He's stepping over body parts at Ground Zero. He's watching American soldiers train Iraqi election officials. He's nearly kidnapped by a source. All without showboating or overdramatizing. The book's title describes the never-ending skirmishes between factions in Afghanistan, where fighters switch sides "like a game of pickup basketball." If one dies, another takes his place. As Obama turns his attention to Afghanistan, The Forever War is a bleak reminder of why that war could prove just as quixotic as Iraq.  

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Christopher Benfey, art critic Spend some time with Rosamond Purcell's enthralling photographs in Egg & Nest, and you might be tempted to become an oologist. Oology is not the science of oohs and ahs but the practice, frowned on in the civilized world, of collecting rare eggs and nests. Most of the photographs were taken at the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology in Camarillo, Calif., which combines the collections of many Victorian bird enthusiasts. There's a woodpecker's nest in the shape of a wooden shoe, a grackle's nest woven of lace and audiotape, and a nest from Wasilla, Alaska, lined with feathers and fur. Unbearably poignant is a photograph of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died in the Cincinnati Zoo on Sept. 1, 1914. You'll even find a definitive answer to the age-old conundrum about the chicken or the egg. Hint: Ex ovo omnia.

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Torie Bosch, medical editor We don't just inherit eye color and build from our ancestors—we can also inherit their demons. In the touching and troubling Stalking Irish Madness, Patrick Tracey recounts how schizophrenia has tormented his family, afflicting two sisters, an uncle, a grandmother (who had a dentist yank out all of her teeth, hoping it would silence the voices in her head), and a great-great-grandmother. To find out why the Irish are perceived to be particularly vulnerable to insanity, Tracey travels to his ancestral home of Ireland. He searches for distant relatives touched by madness and visits an institution that filled beyond capacity during the potato famine; fairy mounds where, according to legend, otherworldly creatures could steal a man's sanity; and a well whose waters are rumored to heal troubled minds. There may not be a cure for Tracey's sisters, but Stalking Irish Madness shares some promising ideas—like encouraging schizophrenics to interact with their voices instead of being terrified of them.

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Sara Dickerman, contributor It's hard to deny the lyric beauty of this year's superchef monographs from Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, and Heston Blumenthal. But I crave pragmatic advice in the kitchen and so recommend An Edge in the Kitchen, by Chad Ward. Ward's knife guide is brash, bossy, and full of good counsel. He dismisses age-old sales techniques about kitchen knives (forget about knife sets!) and points out moderately priced, even cheap, knives for the budget-conscious. Meanwhile, his breakdown of higher-end blades helped me understand all the technical information that I've been dilettante-ishly nodding along to for years. There's a succinct primer on cutting techniques (including the memorable advice to chicken-carving neophytes that it's easy to tell a bird's breast from its back if you picture Mick Jagger strutting onstage). Most important for me, Ward's rah-rah evangelism has emboldened me to take on the daunting task of sharpening my own knives. 

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Amanda Fortini, contributor The persona behind Human Dark With Sugar, a wonderful collection of poetry by Brenda Shaughnessy, is tough, intelligent, and intense, simultaneously devouring the world's sensual pleasures and keeping them at a distance with a jaunty wit. "I'd go anywhere to leave you but come with me," Shaughnessy writes. Hers is a sharp-elbowed femininity, the sort on display in the late poems of Sylvia Plath, or the early poems of Deborah Garrison, or the novels of Elizabeth Hardwick and Renata Adler—it's a sensibility we haven't seen much in recent years, and it feels bracingly fresh. The poems range over of-the-moment topics like emotional eating, experimental lesbianism, and the frustrating vicissitudes of modern relationships. ("To see you again, isn't love revision?") But Shaughnessy's true subjects are those of nearly all poets, female and male, throughout history: romantic love and the creation of art. This work is ambitious, and its creator is, too: "No one needs an every day poet./ We have desks and their visible dust."David Greenberg, "History Lesson" columnist
The cliché about Sept. 11 is that "everything changed"—that the attacks on New York and Washington marked a rupture in time and brought on a new era in foreign policy. In America Between the Wars, Derek Chollet and Jim Goldgeier provide not just the first historical account of U.S. foreign policy from the fall of the Berlin Wall (Nov. 9, 1989) to 9/11, but also the first revisionist account (revising, that is, the popular wisdom). Where others have seen change, they emphasize continuity. With expertise, literary facility, and a degree of narrative talent not normally found in policy wonks, they explicate all the key issues that emerged after the Cold War and with globalization: terrorism, rogue states, genocide, financial interdependence, and so on. More impressively, they situate their discussion of these issues within a complicated matrix of newly scrambled partisan politics. It's a significant historical contribution.

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Melinda Henneberger, contributor
I want to put in a word for my friend Donna Trussell's new collection of poems, What's Right About What's Wrong. Each one is a compact little rock of Texas Gothic, thrown hard. (Think Flannery O'Connor in verse, with less God and more rodeo.) Even before Trussell was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001—she got the call telling her to report for surgery while watching the Twin Towers fall—her work, as she says, "tended toward death, death, pet death, sex, love, death.'' But fierce or yearning, I love these ghosts—like Miss Candace Mayes, who surrendered her place in the last lifeboat off the Titanic to a mother who died years later of guilt, in an asylum where "Her hands would climb the trellis. Her feet were never still.'' Of a daughter never conceived who calls, "[G]ive me your darkest winter, it will be spring to me.'' And of a poet read posthumously, who can't help asking, "Who are you? What do you do? Tell me, is the sun out?' "

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Ann Hulbert, books editor
What better luck than to discover that a writer whose novel you couldn't put down—in fact, got wet-eyed upon finishing—couldn't put down her story, either? In Home, Marilynne Robinson has returned to the terrain of Gilead (2004). We have crossed the road in Gilead, Iowa, and left the spare upstairs room in which the aging Rev. Ames wrote the letter to his young son that was Gilead. Now we inhabit, mostly, the kitchen of the heavily furnished house of his friend, another ailing old man, the Rev. Boughton. Don't let the setting mislead you: This book is the opposite of slow or suffocating. Gilead is a haunting place, a town whose stillness allows spiritual struggle to register in all its dailiness, its raw ungainliness and urgency. Boughton's daughter, Glory, filters the story this time—the story of the prodigal son. It is, as Robinson's inimitable prose will remind you, among the most painful and suspenseful stories there is. Are restless souls, wandering in exile, doomed to feel forsaken forever? Or will they be found?

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Christine Kenneally, contributor
You can be as clever as you like about coining words, but invented language usually doesn't take off. Yet for weeks after reading Neal Stephenson's Anathem, I couldn't help thinking about the world in terms his characters used. Everywhere "slines" were yapping on their "jeejahs," and I imagined leaving it all to join a "math," or at least doing a little "blithe." Here, the author of the brilliant Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, and the behemoth Baroque Cycle trilogy imagines a future other-Earth where a group of young scientist-monks discover a parallel universe. Anathem is almost too long, but ultimately it's rewarding, and Stephenson is—as ever—equally in love with difficult ideas and the classic pleasures of storytelling. The world he builds is richly visual, its complicated social politics are convincingly detailed, and its cool and conflicted heroes struggle with thrilling intellectual puzzles while they are tested in epic physical adventures.

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