Another year . . . and another totally subjective list of my favorite books of the year. As ever, it is a personal list, and one that totally leans toward my own sensibilities. And yet I can’t imagine a reader picking up any one of these books and not being challenged, stimulated, or wildly entertained — or all three at once. I hope you find one you enjoy.
“The Pale King”
Admittedly, a novel about a bunch of I.R.S. agents doesn’t exactly sound like a rip-roaring good time, and there are long stretches of crushing, nearly unendurable boredom. But if you can hang with it, you’ll find any number of riffs — about loneliness, for example, or the indignity of living a bureaucratic nightmare — that are as exhilarating as anything in contemporary fiction.
This may be the saddest part of David Foster Wallace’s tragic suicide (in 2008): He was getting better.
“Townie: A Memoir”
Andre Dubus III, who was the son of the great short-story writer Andre Dubus, is himself a well-respected novelist (“House of Sand and Fog”). Here he perfectly captures the Trans Am era of the 1970s in this affecting memoir about a teen living in his father’s shadow, dealing with divorce, and, most of all, fighting. It’s about expiating anger through violence. Young Andre loses fights, wins fights, and keeps on fighting until the drawn blood can drown out loss. Or does it? Either way, it’s a harrowing experience.
“Thinking, Fast and Slow”
Daniel Kahneman’s book tells us nothing less than why we think the way we do. The conclusions are not always uplifting, but they are fascinating. We learn how fickle and easily persuaded minds are, and why we choose the things we do, and why we’re so often wrong. Mr. Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winner in economic sciences, has written a book that will keep you humble about your own cognitive intelligence while at the same time stimulating it.
“Those Guys Have All the Fun:
Inside the World of ESPN”
James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales use the same technique they employed in their 2003 “S.N.L.” tell-all — of stringing together a series of interviews to tell their story — and the results here are just as seamless and effective. It is the tale of how a fired hockey announcer used a $9,000 cash advance on his credit card to form a television empire and change American culture for good. There’s also fun dirt on the ESPN broadcasters, who with 24-hour exposure have become more familiar to many of us than Cronkite was a generation ago.
How ironic is it that a writer once notorious for her “emotional coolness” is now America’s foremost chronicler of loss? While Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” dealt with the death of her husband, “Blue Nights” covers the death of her adopted daughter, Quintana, and is even more lucid and self-lacerating. Was she a good mother? Did she give enough? They’re questions all parents ask themselves, but rarely with the honesty of Ms. Didion.
“Feast Day of Fools”
The third book in James Lee Burke’s new Sheriff Hack Holland series, and clearly influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” — so much so, in fact, that a writer of less talent could be accused of theft. Most readers know Mr. Burke from his Dave Robicheaux series, which many consider the best crime fiction published in America. But the Holland books — full of crackling violence and dust bowl existentialism — just might top it.
“The Devil All the Time”
Set in the same white-trash Ohio milieu as “Knockemstiff,” the author’s stunning fictional debut of a few years ago, Donald Ray Pollock’s work continues to read like a mash of William Faulkner and 1970s American exploitation cinema. This one is billed as a “thriller,” and though you’ll get plenty of “evil,” don’t expect “good” to show up anytime soon. This is noir fiction so thick you can barely see through it, and while it is thoroughly apolitical, it tells us more about the spiritual annihilation caused by poverty than a hundred sociologists.
There will never be a need for another Jobs bio after this doorstopper, which includes Walter Isaacson’s unprecedented access to the man himself (more than 40 interviews). It says a lot about what a compelling read this is that the drama of Jobs’s personal life often supersedes that of his business life. (Jobs frequents a restaurant in Northern California where, unknowingly, his estranged father is the owner, and the inventor’s long-lost sister turns out to be the novelist Mona Simpson.)
The flaw is Mr. Isaacson’s uncritical devotion to Jobs’s achievement: There’s no doubt that Jobs is the main architect of our technological future, but with a whole new generation who can barely take a moment to look up from their iPhones to have a conversation, the author never questions whether that inheritance is a blessing or a nightmare.
“The Paris Wife: A Novel”
The story of Ernest Hemingway’s marriage to his first wife, Hadley Richardson, told from the wife’s perspective. The novel gets it all in: Paris in the 1920s, Scott and Zelda, and a portrayal of the characters later to be met in “The Sun Also Rises.” It’s a great concept, and Paula McLain does a credible job embodying the thoughts and feeling of her heroine.
Things end badly for Hadley in the short term, of course — or was she “lucky” to have been spared a lifetime of torment? Ms. McLain hints at an answer.
“Go the F**k to Sleep”
A children’s book for adults by Adam Mansbach, and a great guilt reliever: You’ve thought these very words — now someone has the guts to write them down. Almost as funny as this book are the reviews of it, on Amazon.com, for example, by “outraged” (and apparently perfect) parents. As for the rest of us who have a sense of humor, it is f**king hilarious.
Kurt Wenzel is the author of the novels “Lit Life,” “Gotham Tragic,” and “Exposure.” He lives in Springs.