December 14, 2008 | 4:05 pm
Posted by Book Buzz
It’s almost holiday season and books still make great gifts. Here are a couple top ten lists to help with your selection.
Perhaps the most popular list, released by TIME, offers fiction and non-fiction books. Interestingly enough the magazine only lists five fiction and five non-fiction, while the website features 10 for both categories.
Here is a taste:
1. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
The gaping wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan have produced a torrent of words, but no single volume so far has the precision and power of The Forever War. Filkins has been covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 1998, and since then he has filled 561 notebooks with observations and interviews. Even under the direst of conditions Filkins is alive to novelistic detail: the popping sound of a 105 mm cannon, like “a machine that served tennis balls”; a barber shaving the beards of Talibs so they can switch sides; a man whom Saddam forced to pay for the bullets that were used to execute his brother, and who received a receipt for his payment. Filkins’ set pieces have the absolute clarity of lightning flashes that burn away the fog of war.
2. The Thief at the End of the World by Joe Jackson
Henry Wickham was born in England in 1846, and he was one of fortune’s fools if there ever was one. Dreamy, ungifted and of modest means, Wickham set off for the Amazon at the age of 20 to collect exotic feathers for his mother’s hat business. When that venture failed he spent the next 10 years failing to set up a rubber plantation while various relatives who came over to help him dropped dead around him. From this stupendous disaster he wrung one towering, historic, ethically questionable victory. Defying malaria, anacondas, electric eels, freshwater stingrays, Confederate colonists, customs inspectors and Yanomamo tribesmen, he smuggled 70,000 priceless rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil and back to Kew Gardens, in a single stroke handing England supremacy in one of the key resources of the 20th century. Wickham’s life is a stone-cold historical thriller, a black comedy and one of the great secret fables of the modern age.
1. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
It’s baffling, maddening, difficult, violent, obscene, over-indulgent, under-edited and way too long, but 2666 — a number that appears nowhere in the actual book — is also the best novel of the year. The two central plots of 2666 are, very loosely speaking, the life story of an enigmatic German novelist called Archimboldi, and a murder mystery about the killings of hundreds of women in and around a seedy Mexican town called Santa Teresa. But only two of the book’s five sections (2666 is a bit like Dante’s hell, in five easy circles) deal with those stories directly. Packed with red herrings and digressions and leads that lead nowhere, 2666 is a work of anger and anarchy that laughs bitterly at the idea of tidy resolutions. It’s like a Borges story that exploded. But beneath the chaos is a fanatical order, the desperate artistry of a genius scribbling as his life ran out — Bolaño died of liver disease in Spain in 2003.
2. Lush Life by Richard Price
Book critics talk a lot about “crime novels” that “transcend” their “genre.” Lush Life doesn’t transcend anything, it simply is a great novel of social observation. This is what Dickens would be doing if he were still in business. Price’s playground is the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a tiny area that hyperdevelopment has made, if anything, overly lush and full of life, crowded as it is with rich white hipster bars, tenements full of wannabe artists, poor black projects, and immigrant businesses of all kinds, all packed together into too-close quarters. One night a drunk white aspiring actor (i.e., a bartender) gets shot to death by two black teenagers. The witnesses are unreliable at best. The cops — cops are to Price what saints were to Michelangelo — who work the case do so cynically, sardonically, bitterly and with fanatical tenacity, all while uttering the best dialogue being written anywhere by anybody.
1. Foundations of Western Thought : Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans (Portable Professor Series)
by Timothy B. Shutt
2. The Great Religions: Essential Questions
by Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Claude B. Levenson, Dom Robert Le Gall, Malek Chebel, Malek Chebel
3. When Bad Things Happen to Good People
by Harold S. Kushner