6. BEST COLLEGE COURSE YOU SHOULD’VE TAKEN BUT DIDN'T
Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)
Ross has all the attributes of a great professor—passion, rhythm, command—and he employs them on a subject in which most of us desperately need professing: classical music, that mystifying wash of tinkles and swells that has long been the official soundtrack of High Culture.
7. BEST BIOGRAPHIES
David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts; John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917–1932 (Harper; Knopf)
You could argue over which of these artists scribbled more indelibly on the popular consciousness of the twentieth century: the bohemian high-art philanderer who changed styles every couple of minutes, or the repressed midwestern homebody whose main character wore the same shirt for roughly 50 years. Richardson’s biographical series has already inspired comparisons to the holy titans of the form: Ellmann (Joyce), Painter (Proust), Edel (James). To Michaelis’s credit, few would have thought to treat the creator of “Peanuts” with similar reverence.
8. FUNNIEST GRIEF AND RAGE
Anne Enright, The Gathering (Grove Press)
Any attempt to describe this novel’s plot makes it sound like a standard-issue shapeless miserable grab bag of alcoholism, abuse, and suicide. What redeems it is the grumpy, darkly addictive voice of its narrator. “I do not forgive her the sex,” she writes of her 70-year-old mother, who had twelve children. “The stupidity of so much humping.” (I’m pretty sure Alice Sebold—see left—meant to do something more like this.)
9. MOST TRAGIC FIGURE
Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying (Knopf)
Danticat’s uncle Joseph lost his wife to illness, his larynx to cancer, his home and church (and almost his head) to a Haitian mob—until finally, at 81, he fled to Miami, where he was finished off by the hellishly inept bureaucracy of U.S. Immigration: detained, interrogated, and allowed to die in custody. Danticat tells his story with almost inhuman restraint.
10. BEST COUNTERCULTURAL COFFEE-TABLE BOOKS
Banksy, Wall and Piece; Steve Grody, Graffiti L.A. (Random House; Abrams)
This was a breakout (or sellout) year for graffiti—that system of urban hieroglyphics for which Grody’s monumental Graffiti L.A. is a Rosetta stone. At the head of the crossover pack is Banksy, the “art terrorist” who once blasted the word boring in huge red letters on the side of London’s National Theatre, and whose auction prices have exploded lately.