As always, these year-end picks are just one critic's favorites, not necessarily a list of the "best" books of the year. I've supplemented the picks with a list of books I wish I had had time to read (the booklover's standard lament). Consider those extras as recommendations, too.
Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco Press). The National Book Award-winning memoir by the legendary rock singer/songwriter details her deep friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe during their 20s, in the late '60s and '70s. It's a riveting look at two visionary artists at loose ends in that era's chaos, finding themselves with each other's help in elegantly described New York City. Smith's writing is drop-dead gorgeous, tender and surprisingly "proper," though the descriptions of that explosive era's NYC underground is strong stuff.
Bob Dylan In America by Sean Wilentz (Doubleday). Not yet another Dylan bio, this is as intelligent and insightful a look at Dylan's place in American culture as I've ever read. Wilentz, a leading American historian, is particularly strong in connecting Dylan to national undercurrents of cultural rebellion such as radical artists of the 1930s, as well as the Beats; and describing recording sessions that produced Dylan's signature albums of the mid-60s, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 and Blonde On Blonde.
The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking). Perhaps readers are "Custer-ed out," which would be understandable, considering what a jackass the general was, but it has been surprising to not see this terrific book on many other year-end lists. Philbrick takes a huge body of info and synthesizes it to create the most complete, clearest, and most compelling narrative yet of that iconic day in 1876. In his masterpiece, Mayflower, Philbrick offered a picture of the Pilgrims' struggle to survive in Massachusetts, and how they fit into the early history of Euro-Native relations. He's done it again here, by treating the battle as a prism of those relations' end game.
Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols (Norton). In her insightful look at an often-reviled music form, Echols argues very convincingly that the disco phenomenon sped up social changes in America, particularly for freedom-seeking women and gays. More than a treatise, the book also creates a widescreen picture of a pivotal era.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Knopf). Man, what a writer! Egan's stylistic leaps are so clever, they're almost intimidating; but this story, loosely described as a look at the scene surrounding a famous but fading music producer, is also a thrilling, incisive look at our culture today — its self-importance, its delusions of rebellion, you name it. And did I mention that it's also wickedly funny?
X'ed Out by Charles Burns (Pantheon). Burns is practically an icon of the graphic novel genre, and deservedly so. He creates fascinating, cryptic stories that mine the human subconscious as powerfully as any "regular" writer of fiction today. Here, a dark, mirror image of European comics icon Tintin wakes up from a surreal, terrifying dream — obviously, medication Doug is taking to keep away bad dreams isn't working. X'ed Out, the first of a planned trilogy, continues Burns' vision of a world in which everyday certainties are subverted by the feeling (and often, the knowledge) of something terrible lying in wait just beneath the surface of normal life.
Burning Bright by Ron Rash (Ecco Press). A wonderful short story collection from one of the South's genuinely great writers. Twelve stories set in or near the Appalachians, in eras from the Civil War to the present, deliver calm, sometimes dark visions of ordinary people struggling to find what's most important to them. Rash's muscular, precise, poetic writing, and his mastery of dialogue, make each of these stories hard to forget.
Star Island by Carl Hiaasen (Knopf, $26.95). The master of satirical mysteries restored his mojo this year, producing his best novel in years. Singer Cherry Pye, a sub-Britney pop star, can't sing, remember lyrics or keep away from drugs and men. From that base, Hiaasen builds a picture of American pop culture filled with razor-like wit, outrageous situations, incredible characters, as always, and hilarious insights. And not to worry, Hiaasen got in his usual wicked digs at developers.
"Wish I'd Had Time" Books
The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman (Dial Press)
The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart (Random)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Crown)
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (Random)
Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran — A Journey Behind the Headlines by Scott Peterson (Simon & Schuster)