2008's best books: Yours and ours
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There are plenty of people who are glad to see this year end, but readers shouldn't be among them.
The year brought a wealth of interesting, entertaining and provocative books and introduced several writers with promise along with worthy efforts from the old reliables -- and some that didn't make the mark.
All this means it's time again to rate the books of the year. We're doing it a little differently for 2008, though. We've sought your input along with the book reviewers of the Post-Gazette.
The results are three lists of 2008 releases -- reviewers' top 20 books, the readers' favorites and significant regional books of the year.
"Songs for the Missing" by Stewart O'Nan. Pittsburgh native uses Eastern Ohio for a moving tale of a missing teen.
"Senselessness" by Horacio Castellanos Moya. The El Salvadoran's first novel translated into English makes a powerful statement.
"The Story of Edgar Sawtelle" by David Wroblewski. Tragedy forces a disabled boy to depend on his dogs for survival.
"The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie. A master novelist entertains with a magical tour of history.
"Home" by Marilynne Robinson. Religion, family, love melded in 1950s Iowa.
"Lush Life" by Richard Price. The Lower East Side of New York is turned into a clash of cultures.
"The Given Day" by Dennis Lehane. Post-World War I Boston is on the verge of anarchy as Babe Ruth enjoys the show.
"People of the Book" by Geraldine Brooks. A beautifully rendered history of Jewish struggle in Europe.
"A Mercy" by Toni Morrison. America on the cusp of institutionalizing slavery is described in her singular way.
"The Whiskey Rebels" by David Liss. Nasty life on the Pennsylvania frontier with threats from criminals and the U.S. government.
"The Condition" by Jennifer Haigh. "Beach reading" turns into solid domestic drama.
"The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson. Late Swedish writer dazzles in puzzling mystery.
"Dangerous Laughter" by Steven Millhauser. The Pulitzer Prize winner's satire is sharp as ever.
"Fine Just the Way It Is" by Annie Proulx. Life doesn't get any easier in Wyoming, but it's still on the weird side.
"Unaccustomed Earth" by Jhumpa Lahiri. Indian-American lives unfold with sympathy and warmth.
"Our Story Begins" by Tobias Wolff. Short-story craftsman at work.
"Dictation" by Cynthia Ozick. Women find their way in a tough men's world in these four stories.
"Out Loud" by Anthony Varallo. Heinz Literature Prize winner writes with humor and sensitivity.
• "Sleeping It Off in Rapid City" by August Kleinzahler. Life's a gritty place, but lyrical.
• "Fire to Fire" by Mark Doty. Winner of the National Book Award.
• "Save the Last Dance" by Gerald Stern. Pittsburgh's finest poet struts his moves at age 83.
• "Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front" by Todd DePastino. Mt. Lebanon resident fleshes out the mission of World War II's best cartoonist.
• "Traitor to his Class" by H.W. Brands. A fresh take on Franklin Roosevelt.
• "The Bin Ladens" by Steve Coll." A Middle Eastern family of Shakespearean proportions.
• "The Hemingses of Monticello" by Annette Gordon-Reed. The view from slave quarters of a Founding Father.
• "The World Is What It Is" by Patrick French. Authorized biography of V.S. Naipaul pulls no punches.
• "Counselor" by Ted Sorensen. Was he Kennedy's brain? A personal account of troubled times.
• "Nixonland" by Rick Perlstein. The forces and factors that eventually powered the Republican Party are caught vividly.
• "Coal River" by Michael Shnayerson. How coal companies destroy nature without restraint.
• "A Summer of Hummingbirds" by Christopher Benfey. An imaginative account of American intellects after the Civil War.
• "American-Made" by Nick Taylor. The Works Progress Administration at work. Must reading for the president-elect.
• "The Telephone Gambit" by Seth Shulman. Troublesome history of how Bell got phone monopoly.
• "Angler" by Barton Gellman. Vice President Cheney and his bunker mentality.
• "The Dark Side" by Jane Mayer. Meticulous explanation for how the administration subverted the Constitution.
• "The War Within" by Bob Woodward. Mr. D.C. Beltway damages the president.
• "Traffic" by Tom Vanderbilt. What happens when we get behind the wheel.
• "In Defense of Food" by Michael Pollan. Journalist on the way we eat today -- badly.
• "Serve the People" by Jen Lin-Liu. Lively and rare look at Chinese cuisine.
• "Bad Money" by Kevin Phillips. Political commentator saw crash coming.
• "Greenspan's Bubbles" by William Fleckenstein with Frederick Sheehan. Ex-Federal Reserve chairman's tenure dissected with distaste.
• "Arnie and Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus and Golf's Greatest Rivalry" by Ian O'Connor. How these guys catapulted pro golf into the big bucks.
• "Passing Game: Benny Friedman and The Transformation of Football" by Murray Greenberg. The Joe Namath of early pro football gets his due.
• "Ty Cobb: Safe at Home" by Don Rhodes. Another look at the Georgia Peach finds some humanity there.
We received a wide range of responses from readers to name their best books of 2008. Several named titles from previous years as well, but we'll confine our list to this year.
"Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout. (Sherrie Flick)
"The Garden of Last Days" by Andre Dubus III and "City of Thieves" by David Benioff. (Ron Vassel)
"Unaccustomed Earth" by Jhumpa Lahiri; "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows; "The Commoner" by John Burnham Schwartz; and "A Prisoner of Birth" by Jeffrey Archer. (Dorothy Kabakeris)
"The Lucky One" by Nicholas Sparks. (Alma McClain)
"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini. (Chris Kopar)
"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and "House of Daughters" by Sarah-Kate Lynch. (Ellen Dwyer).
"When Will There Be Good News?" by Kate Atkinson; "Life Class" by Pat Barker; "His Illegal Self" by Peter Carey; "Diary of a Bad Year" by J.M. Coetzee; "Dear American Airlines" by Jonathan Miles; "Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill; "What I Was" by Meg Rosoff; "Breath" by Tim Winton and "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. (Cynthia Richey)
"Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill and "Breath" by Tim Winton. (Patrick McGinty)
Children's and Young Adult
"The God of Animals" by Aryn Kyle; "Madapple" by Christina Meldrum; and "Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah. (Carrie Fox)
"She Touched the World" by Sally Alexander. (Kate Dopriak)
"Hot, Flat and Crowded" by Thomas Friedman; "American Lion" by Jon Meacham; and "Traffic" by Tom Vanderbilt. (Cynthia Richey)
"The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher" by Kate Summerscale; "The Geography of Bliss" by Eric Weiner; "American Eve" by Paula Uruburu; and "The Dream" by Harry Bernstein. (Dorothy Kabakeris)
"American Lion" by Jon Meacham and "Bad Money" by Kevin Phillips. (Ron Vassel)
"Beautiful Boy" by David Sheff. (Chris Kopar)
"The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes -- and Why" by Amanda Ripley. (Jennifer Brodt)
"Zombies Ate My Headlines" by Tim Murry of Carbolic Smoke Ball. (Kim Brown, Jim Pascoe, Matthew Smith and Mike Woycheck)
"Pittsburgh Signs Project" edited by Jennifer Baron, Greg Langel, Elizabeth Perry and Mark Stroup. (Merrily Schweers, Janice Langel)
Western Pennsylvania's year in books was distinguished by a best-seller:
"The Fallingwater Cookbook: Elsie Henderson's Recipes and Memories" by Suzanne Martinson, Elsie Henderson, Robert Sendall and Jane Citron (University of Pittsburgh Press, $29.95) was, and is a success for the authors and the Pitt Press.
The book offers 100 recipes from the cook at the immortalized weekend retreat of the Edgar Kaufmann family along with her reflections on life there.
Among other distinguished efforts were:
"The Point of Pittsburgh" by Charles McCollester is published by the Battle of Homestead Foundation in time for the city's 250th birthday. It's $50 hardcover, $35 softcover from the foundation and retails for $75 and $50.
McCollester teaches history of industrial and labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, so he brings a strong focus on the growth of industrial society here.
"Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania" (Carnegie Mellon University Press, $29.95) grew out of a project at the Studio for Creative Inquiry at CMU's college of fine arts.
It collects compelling photos by a wide range of shooters in 14 counties around Pittsburgh.
"For the Love of Murphy's: The Behind-the-Counter Story of a Great American Retailer" by Jason Togyer (Penn State University Press, $34.95).
Togyer, a University of Pittsburgh editor, retells the ups and downs of the McKeesport-headquartered chain store that once dominated our region.
"Charles J. Connick: His Education and His Windows in and Near Pittsburgh" by Albert M. Tannler sells for $19.95 from Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation.
The guide offers a tour of stained-glass windows around town by the famed artist.
"Pittsburgh: 1758-2008" is a joint project of the Post-Gazette and the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99).
This softcover expands on the city bicentennial book published by the PG in 1958 called "A Pittsburgh Album."
"A Panorama of Pittsburgh: Nineteenth Century Printed Views" presents the collection of drawings mounted at the Frick Art & Historical Center this year.
Exhibit curator Christopher Lane wrote the text and the University of Pittsburgh Press is the publisher. It's $24.95.
"A Reflection of Faith: St. Paul Cathedral, Pittsburgh, 1906-2006" is published by the Pittsburgh Catholic diocese and sells for $100 hardbound, $40 soft cover.
Edited by David Wilkins, it's a collection of essays and photos about the Oakland landmark.
First Published December 14, 2008 12:00 am