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The Top Ten Books

Photographs by Hannah Whitaker/New York Magazine  

6. The Unfortunates by B. S. Johnson (New Directions)
You might pick up Johnson’s lost (but newly rescued) experimental classic for the gimmick: It’s a book in a box, with unbound chapters to be shuffled and read in any order you like. You’ll fall in love, however, with something much more traditional: the honest, human portrait—in halting, self-lacerating, Beckettian prose—of a friend dying of cancer.

7. Three Memoirs:
Epilogue, by Anne Roiphe (Harper); The Suicide Index, by Joan Wickersham (Harcourt); An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken (Little, Brown). The tragic memoir is a notoriously treacherous genre. These three, however—stories of a stillborn first son (McCracken), a dead husband (Roiphe), and a father’s suicide (Wickersham)— find the elusive golden mean between grief and humor, sentimentality and cynicism, spontaneity and art.

8. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (FSG)
Ghosh’s historical epic is so “historically epic” it verges on parody: a swarming parade of characters, clustered around the opium industry in 1830s India, all ushered by a nonstop adventure plot onto one very crowded boat, where they speak an insanely stylized concatenation of languages. It’s somehow very fun instead of very stupid and kicks off what promises to be a deeply addictive trilogy.

9. Day by A. L. Kennedy (Knopf)
The flaws of Kennedy’s ambitiously lyrical novel (sketchy minor characters, familiar war plot) are overpowered by the book’s secret weapon: the voice of sad-sack rear-gunner Alfie Day, which enters your ear, then permanently colonizes part of your brain, through a series of interior monologues written riskily in the second person.

10. Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster)
Baker’s fascinating, infuriating, unorthodox account of the Good War’s origins is willfully myopic: He eschewed standard histories almost entirely in favor of primary sources (diaries, memos, newspapers). Critics who dismissed the book’s revisionist innuendos as naïve, or even evil, missed the point. It never poses as an authoritative, comprehensive history; it’s an autodidact’s idiosyncratic attempt to refresh one of our most overfamiliar subjects.


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