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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Adam Kirsch, contributor
The new book of poetry that gave me the most pleasure this year is Azores, by David Yezzi. Yezzi writes with insight and elegance about the lives we actually lead—about the ironic balance between violent feeling and regulated behavior that defines adulthood. The book's title sequence describes a sailing trip across the Atlantic that is simultaneously a sexual adventure; like Hart Crane's "Voyages," "Azores" is suffused with the eroticism of the sea. But unlike Crane, Yezzi concludes by recognizing that "we are not suited to live long at sea," that our "lust for water" is countered by a "fidelity to land." The sophistication of Yezzi's language perfectly suits the sophistication of his understanding, and he displays a civilized mastery reminiscent of Philip Larkin and Donald Justice, which no poet of his generation can match.

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Juliet Lapidos, assistant editor
I'd never considered traveling to Nantan, Japan. It's far away. Also, I'd never heard of it. Same goes for Pretoria, South Africa, and Torres del Paine, Chile. But thanks to The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture, I now have excellent reasons to visit each of these little-known locales: unusual, sometimes eerie, but always stunning modern buildings. In Pretoria, for example, there's House Steenkamp by Elmo Swart. Built to resemble a snail, the private home spirals out of the earth. I imagine that a decagenarian gnome lives there and that he likes to invite passers-by in for tea. Caveat emptor: If you purchase this atlas, you may need to reinforce the legs of your coffee table—it's 800 pages and weighs 14.5 pounds. It's well worth the heavy lifting, however, and the hefty price tag. With pithy descriptions and lavish photographs of 1,037 homes, hotels, museums, and stadiums in 89 countries, the atlas offers a comprehensive account of what starchitects and little-known firms alike have been up to since the year 2000. See you in Nantan.

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Josh Levin, associate editor
There are few clichés more clichéd than those associated with the inspirational sports story: the tough-as-nails coach, the down-on-its-luck town, the big showdown at the championship game. Jere Longman's The Hurricanes, an account of a southeast Louisiana high-school football team after Hurricane Katrina, both transcends this formula and capitalizes on its enduring appeal. The tale of a bunch of kids returning home to a sliver of land that's this close to falling into the Gulf of Mexico, shacking up in trailers, and christening their team the Hurricanes works well as a straight-ahead narrative of sports triumph. But it's the accretion of only-in-southeast-Louisiana detail—this is perhaps the year's only football book that includes a 10-page sketch of the life of Cambodian shrimp-boat captains—and Longman's devotion to his remarkable characters, particularly the manic, off-color, empathetic coach Cyril Crutchfield, that makes the story so memorable and haunting.

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Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor
Amid a flock of excellent legal books this year, two are really outstanding in my view. The first is Jane Mayer's The Dark Side. The second is my former law professor Richard Ford's The Race Card. Ford asks a simple question: How can claims of racism—in the courtroom, the media, and casual conversation—be so pervasive in America if so few of us are racists? His answers are provocative: Much of what we call racism is the result of racist decisions made decades ago with respect to housing, education, or urban planning. Cab drivers who refuse to pick up black men may be motivated by factors beyond racial hate—like not wanting to drop someone off in a bad part of town. The Race Card advances a debate that has been mired in reductive thinking for decades. You won't agree with Ford on everything. But you may find yourself thinking differently about everything. And that's my definition of a great book.

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Timothy Noah, "Chatterbox" columnist
Richard Price's Lush Life gave me more reading pleasure than any other book in 2008. The novel is a work both of fiction and of urban archaeology, exploring the three successive civilizations that inhabited Manhattan's Lower East Side during the past century and a half. These are, of course, the upwardly striving Jewish working class; the black and Hispanic underclass; and the youthful white urban pioneers who, in seeking Bohemia, created instead one more enclave of wealth and privilege. Price's conceit is that each successive civilization never fully supplants its predecessor and that the resulting stew of ghosts and living beings is beset by awful misunderstandings and outright violence. It's a wonderful book, teeming with authenticity, sadness, and dark wit.

Atmospheric Disturbances

Troy Patterson, television critic In the early chapters of Atmospheric Disturbances, her debut novel, Rivka Galchen makes like a hardened postmodernist. The narrator is unreliable, and a kind of skewed narratology, a sizing up of how stories shape perception, is the theme. Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a New York psychiatrist, believes that malign forces have replaced his wife with a "simulacrum." "She imitated Rema's Argentine accent perfectly, the halos around the vowels," Leo thinks. (Meanwhile, the novel, with its fantastical bent and philosophical air, evokes the Argentine accent of Borges.) Leo's pursuit of answers leads him to a meteorologist, an academic weatherman who in fact controls the weather and who shares the author's surname. Rather clever. Merely clever. But! But the author turns a structuralist exercise into an exciting workout. The book reads like a tense private-eye thriller set in a languorous, floating Wonderland. I read a couple of other first-rate first novels this year—Jonathan Miles'Dear American Airlines, Matthew Quick's The Silver Linings Playbook—but Galchen presented the most eye-catching calling card.

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Robert Pinsky, poetry editor
John Keats had the most heartbreaking of careers. During his brief life, his unsurpassed poetry—as we now perceive it—earned him more scorn than recognition. He died in poverty, unappreciated by the scholars and critics of his time. All this the world well knows. But none has known well how to apprehend the significance of Keats, his discouragement in life, and his triumph in art, beyond the ordinary approaches of biography or literary criticism—until Stanley Plumly's Posthumous Keats. Plumly's passionate, informed understanding of Keats enlarges into a meditation on poetry and death, on a human lifespan and posterity, on the fiery energy of art and the swinish complacency of the world, on disaster and courage. In a world of ephemeral blah-blah, the poet Plumly has written a book to last: worthy of its subject and commensurate with both words of its title.

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David Plotz, editor
When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson. The title is a joke: There will never be good news. This book is a peculiar experiment: Can you write a warm and fuzzy novel in which there is nothing but misery? Yes, you can! The novel opens with the horrific triple murder of a mother and her children, then graduates to a train wreck, arson, suicide, drowning, kidnapping, con games, and much worse. But Atkinson gives us characters who are so emotionally rich and so decent—despite the awfulness around them—that a story that should have been either blackly comic or heartbreaking is instead entirely heartwarming. Like her last two mysteries, Case Histories and One Good Turn, this book features the exhausted detective Jackson Brodie, but her greatest creation is Reggie Chase, an autodidact orphan teen with a perfect moral sense and a desperate need for family.

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Katie Roiphe, contributor
The book that had the most profound effect on me this year was Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, edited by her son, David Rieff. The journals are shocking and singular in both the intimacy of their brisk, notelike form and the astonishing personality they reveal. The imperial voice of Against Interpretation is here aimed at herself. The critic takes her own personality on as a subject and dissects, often unflatteringly, her own weaknesses. One has to admire the fierceness of will she shows in inventing, improving, and tinkering with herself. She has endless lists of books she should read, ways to improve her behavior. If there was any doubt, the notebooks confirm that the uncompromising intelligence, the unsparing honesty Sontag shows in her work is not a pose or affectation. Her entries give evidence that she is, to her core, as unrelenting and unironic a critic in life as she is in her work. One can't help coming out of these strange and brilliant notebooks with a sense of one's own laziness, one's slack acceptance of one's own comfortable existence.

And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost

Jody Rosen, music critic Some ethnomusicologists' scholarly quests lead them to remote Javanese villages. Roger Bennett and Josh Kun went to Boca Raton, Fla. Children of the 1980s who grew up steeped in pop, punk, and Jewish cultural ambiguity, Kun and Bennett spent eight years searching garage sales to recover a "lost kingdom of sound"—the Jewish pop that slipped between history's cracks: rock-opera Shabbat services, Israeli folkies, mambo pianists who brought Latin-Yiddish fusion to the Catskills and the cruise-ship circuit. The result, And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost, is the year's most enjoyable popular-music book and one of its most revelatory—part revisionist cultural history, part eye-popping coffee table anthology. Focusing on forgotten figures like Tom Jones-esque cantor Sol Zim, Bennet and Kun expand the narrative of Jewish-American music beyond the Tin Pan Alley-Brill Building axis. And the extraordinary LP cover reproductions remind you how much we're losing as record stores shutter and the music business dissolves into bytes. Has there ever been a more deranged, beautiful album cover than Topol's War Songs, in which the Israeli star is pictured crooning into a hand grenade perched atop a microphone stand?

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Ron Rosenbaum, "Spectator" columnist
Could Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov have prevented the nation's economic collapse? The thought occurred to me when I learned of a new translation (by Marian Schwartz) of the classic 19th-century Russian novel—the beautiful, dreamy ode to indolence. The second one in two years. (The 2006 translation is by Stephen Pearl.) Whatever version you read, you can't help but be captivated by the "rapture" that Tolstoy spoke of when reading and re-reading it, the pure delight in ease and idleness the wastrel landowner Oblomov indulges in, the long-forgotten pleasures of a day spent not getting out of bed. It's the perfect corrective to the hyperactive, overdriven mentality that says one must not only have derivatives of collateralized mortgage obligations, but that one must drive oneself into a frenzy of making derivatives of derivatives of derivatives. All to inflate one's means beyond any capacity for human enjoyment and drive the economy to collapse in the process. If only these people had learned the pleasures of staying in bed that Oblomov offers. The point of pointlessness.

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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.