|Every family has its holiday rituals. One of the best-loved in mine is the annual New Year’s Day lists. We sit around the kitchen table with cans of soda and slices of pizza, announce our picks for the 10 best books we read and the 10 best movies we saw in the past year, then defend our choices while other family members scoff (said scoffing sometimes accompanied by loud throwing-up noises).The films are always from the year itself, but when it comes to the books, the only rule is that they must have been read between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. That’s the rule I’ve followed here. And here’s a bonus: With the exception of A Fan’s Notes, none of these books were finalists for a National Book Award, so you may actually have already heard of a couple. Isn’t that a treat?
So, with no further ado — the envelope, please:
(10) Double Play, Robert B. Parker. If you only read his Spenser novels, it’s easy to forget how versatile Parker can be. This story of Jackie Robinson’s fictional bodyguard during the season when Robinson crossed pro baseball’s color line reminded me.
(9) Eventide, Kent Haruf. The hard-as-nails McPheron brothers return in a sequel to Plainsong. This novel isn’t quite as good, but it still makes abundantly clear that Mr. Haruf has forgotten more about rural middle America than most novelists ever knew to begin with.
(8) Prince of Thieves, Chuck Hogan. The everything-goes-wrong armed robbery at Fenway Park is the book’s white-knuckle set piece; what gives the novel depth is Hogan’s loving, knowing, brutal depiction of South Boston.
(7) The Punch: One Night, Two Lives, and the Fight That Changed Basketball Forever, John Feinstein. In 1977, an NBA player (Kermit Washington) almost killed another (Rudy Tomjanovich) with one punch. Feinstein has done a great job of showing the consequences that can result when athletes in peak condition start swinging. First published in 2002 and never more current than now, given the recent Pacers-Pistons basketbrawl.
(6) Double Vision, Pat Barker. Ms. Barker, best known for her Booker Prize-winning Regeneration trilogy, has written three novels since. This harrowing story of an injured artist who realizes that her half-crazed assistant is trying to step into her personality (and her talent) is probably the best of them. Seen small, it’s one hell of a nail-biter. Seen large, it’s an uncomfortably accurate picture of the escalating climate of violence and madness in our post-9/11 world.
(5) Absolute Friends, John le Carré. The powerfully affecting tale of cashiered spy Ted Mundy and his lifelong friendship with Sasha, his enigmatic opposite number. What turns on the novel’s powerful afterburner is le Carré’s Absolute Fury at the Bush-Blair reaction to the bin Laden attacks on New York. This is the sort of book you either love or hate…which means it’s doing its job.
(4) Life of Pi, Yann Martel. You’ve read this, right? A kid named Piscine Patel (Pi) is cast adrift in an open boat with an acquaintance, Richard Parker, after Pi’s ship sinks in the middle of the ocean. Pi and Richard Parker survive in the open boat for a very long time. Oh, and Richard Parker happens to be a Bengal tiger. You’ve read it, right? No? Oh, God, hurry up. Life of Pi is wonderful.
(3) A Fan’s Notes, Frederick Exley. I started reading this while trying to find my way into a nonfiction sports book I was working on. Before long I forgot about mine and just read Exley’s, which begins by purporting to be a love letter to the New York Giants football team and soon becomes a horrifying low-level recon flight over a bombed-out life. Written in 1968, but fresher than all the recently touted booze ‘n’ dope memoirs.
(2) Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre. The funniest, fiercest, saddest piece of satire I’ve read since Catch-22. Poor mother-ridden Vern Little has the bad taste to survive a massacre at his high school, and to have been the deceased killer’s only friend, so guess who ends up getting crucified in the small south Texas town where the deal went down? Here’s another book that pissed a lot of people off, but take your uncle Stevie’s word for it: This is one all-American carnival.
(1) The Plot Against America, Philip Roth. In this alternate history, Lindbergh wins the White House in 1940, Walter Winchell runs for president (he’s assassinated), and large numbers of American Jews run for Canada. Those that remain face a future more terrible than they can imagine. One has to wonder if Roth knew this has been done before (most notably in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, 1962), but the book’s brilliance renders the question irrelevant. What raises Plot — and makes its exclusion from even a National Book Award nomination so bewildering — is its vividly textured, emotionally resonant depiction of growing up urban Jewish on the eve of World War II. Here is the novelist’s art at its most seductive and essential, allowing almost total sensory immersion without ever slighting intellect. As story, The Plot Against America is riveting and generous; in its depiction of a time and place, it stands with the early work of James T. Farrell. If someone were to ask me what a novel is supposed to do, I’d say, ”Here. Read this. Then you’ll know.”