Year in Review
During the past 12 months, more than 400 books were featured in this column. The annual Laurel & Hardly Books of 2008 are served up and presented in no certain order.
“American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, When FDR Put the Nation to Work” by Nick Taylor (Bantam, $27)
This is, without a doubt, one of the most comprehensive books ever written about the Work Projects Administration, a program that served as the linchpin of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and was responsible for putting more than eight million Americans back to work during the Great Depression. This highly readable history is crisply written and relevant, especially during our present economic meltdown.
“American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau” edited by Bill McKibben (The Library of America, $40)
McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, edits what could be called environmentalists’ greatest hits, a collection of thought-provoking essays covering such hot-button issues as overpopulation, trashing the planet, consumerism and energy policies by some of our greatest thinkers and writers on the subjects including Barbara Kingsolver, Edward Abbey, Rachel Carson, Theodore Roosevelt and Rick Bass.
“The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict” by Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes (Norton, $22.95)
This is the book that made most Americans sputter with rage last spring. Stiglitz, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, and Bilmes, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, built a convincing case that the eventual cost of the war in Iraq could be $3 trillion, maybe even more. According to the authors, it’s wake-up time in America and we need to take a long, hard look at the impact of this war and how it is draining not just our national treasury but, perhaps, even our future as well.
“Vets Under Siege: How America Deceives and Dishonors Those Who Have Fought Our Battles” by Martin J. Schram (Thomas Dunne Books, $25.95)
Syndicated columnist Schram lays out in cold, graphic detail the pattern of institutional neglect, delay and denial of the Veterans Administration in an account that is nothing less than an expose and indictment of this troubled agency. Schram claims the time has come to cut through VA red tape and provide these brave men and women the care and help they need since they deserve nothing less.
“The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers” by Bryan Christy (Twelve, $24.99)
Christy, an attorney and freelance writer, exposes one of the most underreported fields of international crime – reptile smuggling. His fascinating book investigates this subculture filled with intrigue, shady characters and violence. Think “Sopranos” but with less of the charm. This no-nonsense, impeccably researched book is an example of exceptional crime reporting that is both impassioned and focused.
“Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Raw Squid” by J. Maarten Troost (Broadway Books, $22.95)
This highly entertaining book, filled with exotic locales, frightening typhoons, camels, mobsters, bizarre foods (think processed ox stomach) and a dishy translator, who may or may not be a “take out” girl, is the perfect sequel to this author’s previous bestsellers, “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” and “Getting Stoned With Savages.” Your passport has been stamped. Settle back and enjoy my favorite travel book of the year.
“Spiders: The Ultimate Predators” by Stephen Dalton (Firefly, $34.95)
Dalton, a wildlife photographer and author of 15 nature books, points out that, regardless of where we are, there is more than likely a spider within a few feet of us. Even though most of us grab a rolled up magazine when we spot a spider, Dalton is more inclined to pick up his camera. This beautifully executed book captures the elusive world of spiders through more than 250 spectacular photographs. In addition to the images, Dalton sorts out the anatomy of spiders and reveals such things as how catch their prey and construct their webs.
“The Partnership: The Making of Goldman Sachs” by Charles D. Ellis (Penguin Press, $37.95)
When the author began researching Goldman Sachs 10 years ago, not even he could have comprehended that by the time he finished his book, the financial world would be in an economic meltdown. This grim twist is just one of the many reasons this book is so fascinating and, yes, relevant.
“The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life, His Own” by David Carr (Simon & Schuster, $26)
In one of the most searing, shocking books of the year, Carr, a cultural reporter for The New York Times, tracked down and interviewed more than 50 people from his past who were swept up in his life during a time of addiction. In his harrowing narrative, Carr reconstructs his own history as he would any legitimate news story. The result is a candid account that packs all of the pain and surprise of a punch to the gut.
“Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon” by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. (Knopf, $50)
Featuring more than 1,000 illustrations, this magnificent volume begins with Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and concludes with the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Much like a remarkable national scrapbook, this is an intriguing and enlightening tribute to Lincoln as we observe the 200th anniversary of his birth.
“Netherland” by Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon, $23.95)
In this story of heritage and home, friendship and love, a European man living in post-9/11 Manhattan is troubled by two loves, the one he has for his wife and the other for his adopted country.
“The Little Book” by Selden Edwards (Dutton, $24.95)
This is the debut novel that everyone was reading and talking about this summer. This atmospheric, multilayered story defies categorization. It is inventive, bracing, poignant, and well-written and, despite the title, there’s nothing little about it.
“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson (Knopf, $24.95)
This debut novel by the late Larsson features colorful characters, intriguing locales and a exciting plot. An uncle’s determination to find out if his niece was murdered triggered one of the most exciting mystery stories of the year.
“A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca – The Extraordinary Tale of a Shipwrecked Spaniard Who Walked Across America in the Sixteenth Century” by Andrés Reséndez (Basic Books, $26.95)
In 1527, a mission set out from Spain to colonize Florida. After numerous setbacks, only four members of the original party survived: three Spaniards and an African slave. This is the gripping story of their adventures as they wandered through Florida and across what is now the American Southwest.
“Arizona” by David Muench (Graphic Arts Books, 50)
Muench is one of the country’s most gifted photographers and his book presents some of the most breathtaking views of our state ever captured on film.
“Sanctuaries of Earth, Stone, and Light: The Churches of Northern New Spain, 1530-1821″ by Gloria Fraser Giffords (University of Arizona Press, $75)
This is, perhaps, the definitive book on the architecture of the mission churches of New Spain. It is sweeping, comprehensive and highly readable. Giffords makes Spanish colonial architecture accessible and has proved once again that she is a scholar at the top of her game.
“With Picks, Shovels & Hope: The CCC and Its Legacy on the Colorado Plateau” by Wayne K. Hinton and Elizabeth A. Green (Mountain Press, $30)
This crisply written history of the Civilian Conservation Corps focuses on the camps and projects on the Colorado Plateau, an area that included the Four Corners region. Filled with vintage photographs and images and brimming with rich detail, this book puts the CCC and its regional accomplishments in context.
“A Place of Refuge: Maynard Dixon’s Arizona” by Thomas Brent Smith (Tucson Museum of Art, $40)
This richly illustrated book documents the life and work of Dixon, one of America’s most talented Southwestern artists of the last century.
“Shadows at Dawn: A Borderland Massacre and the Violence of History” by Karl Jacoby (Penguin Press, $32.95)
On April 30, 1871, just before dawn, a rag-tag group of Americans, Mexicans and members of the Tohono O’odham tribe surrounded and attacked a small settlement of Apaches near Tucson. Nearly 150 Apaches, mostly women and children, were slain in their sleep, making it one of the bloodiest American Indian massacres ever. Prize-winning historian Jacoby documents the attack and its aftermath.
“A Wolf at the Table” by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95)
How could a writer with such promise crank out such a whiny piece of crap?
“Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality” by Jerome Corsi (Threshold, $28)
This is the literary swiftboat that sank. Corsi didn’t let sloppy research and outright fabrications get in his way when he set out to attack and defame Barack Obama in his latest book. Fortunately, readers saw through his ploy and after a few weeks as a bestseller, it fizzled and had little impact on the national election that followed.