1. State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: I love stories that create a sense of place, so this anthology of 50 essays by 50 authors, each about his or her own state, was a jackpot. Every three or four pages, you get a completely different tone and different atmosphere. It never feels jerky, like you're whipsawing back and forth between different books, because the essays weave together seamlessly.
2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: No book I've read lately comes even close to this one in terms of sheer energy and vitality. Over the course of the novel, you can see the doomed hero ? the last in a family line burdened by an ancient curse – circling the drain, yet it never feels heavy or dark. Instead, Oscar and his family rail against their fate with everything they've got. They go down, but it isn't without a fight ? or without a page not worth reading.
3. The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes: Here I'm cheating, since I am only three-quarters of the way through this massive tome about how Victorian laymen seized the realm of science from their lofty, aristocratic forbearers. Still, I can tell it's going to be great. Informative but never text-booky, it brings to life people so often treated as nothing more than their ruffled collars and powdered wigs and showcase an era that, in its sheer ignorance of the world around it, is difficult to imagine.
4. Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss: You don't have to be a grammar nerd to enjoy this punctuation manifesto. Author Lynne Truss' blunt, peppery humor enlivens it well beyond the point of a how-to manual. You'll enjoy it so much you'll forget you're learning something.
5. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon: Literati in the know would swoon over Chabon's grocery list, so I'm a little late to the party here. I decided to start with his first novel, about a young man floundering through a summer between semesters in graduate school. If Chabon pursues the aimlessness of this phase of life to absurdity, he does it to illuminate its dark, difficult-to-relate corners. In doing so, he comes away with one of the better coming-of-age stories I've ever read.
6. The Reader by Bernard Schlink: “Provocative” is putting it mildly when it comes to this story of an affair between a 15-year-old boy and a thirtysomething ex-Nazi. But Schlink rescues his story from pulp fiction-dom by weaving in the persistence of memory and questions of whether and how long guilt, collective or otherwise, should last. No small feat, given this book clocks in at less than 200 pages.
7. Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton: In seven vignettes, Thornton captures the seven cylinders that make up the engine of today's art scene. A writer she is not, but Thornton's insights and her journalistic powers of observation make for a read that's more exciting than the topic might suggest.
8. The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich: If I could go back to a time before I read this collection of short stories, I'd tell myself not to gulp it all down at once. Too much Erdrich in one go isn't good for the system. But even in a story-after-story-set-in-North-Dakota haze, I can still tell there's something special about “The Blue Velvet Box,” “The Shawl,” “Fleur and “Saint Marie.”
9. The Little Friend by Donna Tartt: When I say I didn't like this book, it's because it really let me down. Tartt couldn't capitalize on her thickly atmospheric settings and engaging characters when it came time to deliver the knockout punch. But still, it raised my expectations higher than most books could ever dream of. So here's to great attempts and promises to do better next time. [review]
10. Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx: Proulx is, without question, one of my favorite authors. No one can do as much with a short story as she can. This collection, her third, of short stories set in Wyoming is far down on my list, though, because the mechanics are starting to show through. Maybe it's time to move on to a new setting, Annie, or to experiment with characters who feel something other than soul-crushing grief. I am not saying these are bad ? the kick's still there. It's just that it's largely the same kick, time after time, and your formula is evident.