Is it that time of year already? I suppose it is. We have here the third annual Nine Best Books list (see 2007 here and the legendary 2006 list here)! Please hold your applause until the end of the list, thank you.
You know, when I started this in 2006, I had such hopes, dreams, and ambitions. Now I know not to rely on such things. That 2006 list got my hopes up too high, I suppose. The 2008 list has more in common with 2007, in that there are books that I admired, liked, and learned from but nothing that lives with me. That's not a strike against these--it's just an impossible standard. Also like the 2007 list, these are all very close contenders--number two could have easily been number one, number five would be fine as number three, and number eight could be in fourth place. Any of the honorable mentions could fit into the eighth or ninth spot. This is all just how it happened today, and that, for better or worse, is what will live on.
The rules, by the way, are to consider any book I read during 2008--not just books published in 2008. Going over the list of all the books I read, I did notice that for someone who has long professed a disinterest in World War II and the Civil War, I somehow managed to read an awful lot about both subjects. And the first book of the year was about World War II and the last book was Civil War era. I guess I do protest too much.
And without further rambling, here's the list, with links to my full-length write up of each book.
9. Lincoln: Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan
A different way of looking at an oft-written about figure, done with thoughtfulness and precision. Kaplan's research is very specific and he takes apart many myths.
8. The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America, by David Hajdu
Every generation finds something to blame for juvenile delinquency. For a brief time in the 1950s, the culprit was comic books, with the outcry growing so great that comic book makers were put before a HUAC like commission (the transcripts are hilarious). I liked this book not so much because of the explanation of the war against comics--though that is of course compelling--but because of Hajdu's story of the history of comics and the people who created them.
7. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple
Like the Lincoln book, this is a different way of looking at a historical figure who's been the subject of endless numbers biographies, critical appraisals, and psychological dissections. Looking at Dickinson's correspondence with Higginson reveals a different side of the poet than you see in just the general sketches. While the book is good for Dickinson fans, I'm sure, it's also fine for those not really familiar with Dickinson's life (like me). Wineapple's studies of various poems is also instructive and clear, especially for people who aren't really students of poetry (like me).
6. Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam, by Pope Brock
There are two things I love to see in a book--that the author cares deeply about his or her subject, or that the author is having a great time. Pope Brock's book about an unrepentant fraud scamming America in the 1920s and '30s is written with such glee and mischief that you want to laugh along with him, except you're too busy thinking, "What? What?!!" as each astonishing heist is revealed.
5. The Day of Battle, by Rick Atkinson
Atkinson's account of the Allied campaign in Italy is distinguished by great writing, and a neat ability to find just the right quote from the right person at the right time. He's good, as they say, at finding the details while still seeing the big picture.
4. Bombshell: The Secret Story of America's Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy by Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel
This book about Ted Hall, a physicist who gave secrets about US atomic weapons to the Soviets, taught me more about Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project than many other books specifically about that subject. It also deals with the troubling issue of what happens when a person does something that he believes is in the world's best interests but everyone else thinks is not. Is it evil or traitorous if the accused thinks he was helping?
3. Whittaker Chambers, by Sam Tanenhaus
This biography of one of the 20th century's more controversial figures is sympathetic without being defensive. Somewhat like Bombshell (and who could be more opposite than Ted Hall and Whittaker Chambers?), it offers readers a chance to understand who Chambers was and why he did what he did.
2. Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, by Tim Jeal
This is a fantastic job of research as Jeal peels away the layers to find the real man behind the larger-than-life myth--a real challenge considering Stanley's lifelong efforts to bury his ignominious past and create a biography he thought would be more suitable for an eminent Victorian.
1. Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis
This biography of the cartoonist Charles Schulz reveals the spectacularly complicated man behind the seemingly simple drawings. Schulz was someone who hid in plain sight--everything about his life came out in his cartoons, though it's not obvious until you read Michaelis's book. His use of Peanuts strips throughout illuminates how the cartoons reflected Schulz's life in a way that makes you think, "Ohhhhh...now I see." It's an incredibly detailed book that shows impressive research, but also left me a little bit in wonder. Schulz seems like the unhappiest man who ever lived, but maybe that's what he needed to create his work.
Honorable mention (alphabetical by title): The Devil Kissed Her, by Kathy Watson; Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, by Steven Johnson; Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City, by Neil Bascomb; Hons and Rebels, by Jessica Mitford; One Minute to Midnight, by Michael Dobbs; Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull, by Barbara Goldsmith; The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall; Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise of Spiritualism, by Barbara Weisberg; The Whisperers, by Orlando Figes