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The Telegram
  • Holmes: The best books we read this year

  • If you’re falling behind in your reading, you’re not alone. And if you think you’ll catch up, forget about it.

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  • If you’re falling behind in your reading, you’re not alone. And if you think you’ll catch up, forget about it.
    Thanks to the emergence of self-published digital books that never make it to paper, publishing is exploding. The number of books published in the U.S. exploded tenfold between 2003 and 2011, to more than 3 million – and all anyone wanted to talk about was “Fifty Shades of Gray.”
    But it’s quality you want, not quantity, so we’re here to narrow your choices. In what has become a holiday tradition, I’ve asked Daily News staff and contributors to tell name the best book they read this year. They weren’t limited to books first published this year, since a good book has unlimited shelf life, just a book they discovered this year worthy of sharing with friends.
    A trio of biographies made strong impressions on me this year. “The Passage of Power,” the third installment of Robert Caro’s monumental four-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, shows LBJ as an emotionally stunted and ineffective vice-president who is transformed overnight into a president capable of leveraging national tragedy into historic achievements.
    David Maraniss’ “Barack Obama: The Story” tells only half of the president’s story, ending when he leaves community organizing behind and heads off to law school. What emerges from his extensive reporting – Maraniss traveled the globe to interview the friends, teachers and distant relatives not just of Barack, but of his parents and grandparents – is a figure of mysterious depths. While everyone who knew young Bill Clinton foresaw his future in politics, writes Maraniss, who also penned a Clinton biography, no one said the same of Obama, who was always more given to observation and introspection than political ambition.
    “Steve Jobs,” by Walter Isaacson
    But the best book I read this year has to be Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs,” the definitive biography of Apple’s founder. Talk about a walking contradiction: Jobs the rebel, who refused to register his car or wear shoes to the office, created the most valuable corporation in U.S. history. Jobs the perfectionist, who could be obnoxious and cruel, built a vision and a team of loyalists that transformed not one industry, but several. Jobs’ personality shaped his products and his products shaped our lives.
    “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers
    Bookstore displays are spilling over with the latest “true story” about the killing of bin Laden or heroic adventures in the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. “The Yellow Birds,” a novel by Kevin Powers, will quietly rise above them all and take its place among American literature defining our role in recent wars – and the scars those wars left. 
    The same way Tim O’Brien’s 1990 novel “The Things They Carried” and, more recently, the 2010 publication of “Matterhorn,” by Karl Marlantes, branded the jagged images of the Vietnam War into the reader’s memory, Powers’ short story will leave readers with exposed nerve endings. As Powers writes, “You don’t dream when you are dead. I dream. The living dream, though I won’t say thanks for that.”
    Page 2 of 5 - - Richard K. Lodge
    "Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn
    "Gone Girl" tells the story of a young married couple, Nick and Amy Dunne, and alternates between Nick's first-person narrative and Amy's diary. It starts off on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary: Nick thinks everything is fine, but Amy has disappeared from their home on the Mississippi. Nick starts to come under a cloud of suspicion when certain damning clues in her diary point to him as a possible murderer, and Nick's behavior certainly doesn't dissuade you from thinking he could have killed her.
    Then it gets weird.
    The ending - which I won't reveal - may confuse you or infuriate you, but it will stay with you for a long time, until you bug your friends to read it so you can discuss.
    - Meghan Kelly
    “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene
    This has been a fruitful year of reading for me, with lots to recommend – from Joseph Stiglitz’ “Free Fall” to Philip Roth’s “The Human Stain,” not to mention Greg Palast’s disturbing “Vultures’ Picnic.” But the nod for the best book has to go to Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.”
    Some 70 years after its publication, there is nothing dated about Greene’s story of a dissolute “whisky priest’ fleeing for his life across Mexico. What draws you in, though, is not so much the chase as the pursuit of something to believe in, even as that belief is uncompromisingly laid to waste on every page. Nobody I have read puts this struggle so sharply and elegantly on the razor’s edge - and makes it so rewarding - as Greene does.
    - Phil Maddocks
    “The Song of Achilles,” by Madeline Miller
    In her bold debut novel, “The Song of Achilles,’’ Madeline Miller has appropriated the shadowy relationship between Achilles and Patroclus at the heart of Homer’s “Iliad’’ and enflamed it with a passion that’s both primordial and contemporary. In passages of lyrical beauty, she has infused the mythic warriors of a timeless classic with a conflicted humanity that makes them poignantly mortal. Many have praised Miller’s ability to reveal new dimensions of an ancient poem while preserving the poetic grandeur of the Homeric epic. But some scholars have howled that she desecrated a classic by turning it into a heavy breathing Harlequin romp for the metrosexual generation.
    Whatever readers decide, Miller sends them through the killing fields of Troy in the company of legendary warriors as familiar as grunts returning from Fallujah and Kandahar, reminding us war breeds horror and heroism and that’s still part of its fascination.
    Page 3 of 5 - - Chris Bergeron
    "The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor"
    “The Habit of Being” is not a book very specific to this year I suppose—inasmuch as it was published about 30 years ago and it collects the correspondence of a writer who died nearly 50 years ago. What it was for me this year was the book I needed, as consoling and challenging, as inspired and hilarious and as intensely perceptive and spiritually penetrating as the fiction Flannery O'Connor wrote in her short life, with the novels "Wise Blood" and "The Violent Bear It Away" and stories like "A Good Man is Hard to Find' and "Everything That Rises Must Converge."
    The collection of letters, to colleagues and friends, admirers and fellow sufferers, aspiring writers and faltering Catholics, finally amounts to an unguarded self-portrait by an artist with an unflinching eye and a profound, exacting and bravely-held faith. Story was Flannery O'Connor's art, her devotion and her truth. Her life was short and afflicted with pain and illness, yet with all her faith she never portrayed herself the martyred saint. What she managed instead was honesty, courage and even humor. “I can, with one eye squinted, take it all as a blessing,” she wryly offers, as an aside in one letter, as a telling reminder of grace.
    - Tom Driscoll
    “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” by Rebecca Skloot
    HeLa cells were the first human cells ever reproduced endlessly in a lab – at Johns Hopkins in 1951 – and they’re the most commonly used cells in medical research today. Few knew that HeLa cells came from the cervical cancer of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman who died shortly after the biopsy was taken without her knowing. Lacks’ five children and husband weren’t told until 1973 that her cells were collected, and they never received a cent of the millions of dollars raised. Some of Lacks’ relatives ironically can’t afford health insurance.
    In “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot, through years of research, offers a thoughtful look into the lives of Henrietta and her kin, and one of the most significant medical discoveries of the century. But perhaps most importantly, Skloot explores how poverty and race tangled with science and ethics in a time before law governed tissue collection.
    - Jessica Trufant
    “A Song of Ice and Fire,” by George R.R. Martin
    George R.R. Martin has created a world filled with dragons, snow zombies and decades-long winters, yet feels as real as your neighbor’s backyard.
    Martin keeps you on edge at every moment; the books are filled with red herrings (so pay attention!), and you’re still stunned at every revelation. Each book has about a dozen POV characters and the visceral connection you feel to them takes the reader to a surprisingly strong emotional state.
    Page 4 of 5 - The HBO series "Game of Thrones" does a good job representing the characters, but like any good author, Martin fleshes them out. Tyrion Lannister, in particular, is as intriguing an anti-hero as you’ll see in literature. The five-book (so far) series is similar to ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ but if J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth is PG-13, Martin’s Westeros is definitely R.
    - Dan Cagen
      
    “Haunted,” by Chuck Palahniuk
    Memorable as the book that elicited an unusual number of people fainting during live readings, "Haunted" is not for the squeamish. The book is a collection of short stories interwoven with the actual tale - a group of aspiring writers locked in an unknown location, steadily sabotaging themselves in an attempt to have the best story once rescued.
    True to the author's style, “Haunted” pushes the limits on exposing the parts about being human that make us uncomfortable. The characters are not pretty, and they are not paragons of virtue. They are disfigured and selfish, and you really aren't rooting for any of them for very long. Despicable and absurd as the characters are, the reader can't help but note how well Palahniuk captures being human. And, of course, the book is funny - for those who enjoy this particular brand of ironic - OK dark, some might say just sick - humor.
    - Alison McCall
    “Mockingjay,” by Suzanne Collins
    This is the third book in the “Hunger Games” series, a trilogy of young adult fiction set in a bleak, post-civil war future where North America and its resources are essentially an enslaved worker class feeding the pleasures and needs of an elite class sheltered away in a protected city-state. Whereas J.K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series was about the power of friendship, loyalty and morality lessons set in the fairy tale land of magic and wizardry, the Hunger Games” - aiming for some of the same readers - takes on much darker territory of totalitarian rule, violence akin to the Roman gladiator sport and government corruption. There's the typical teen angst and love triangle on the surface of these books, but the heart of this book is a disturbing dissection of ruthless survival.
    A movie (rated PG-13) has already been made of the first book and I'm at a loss as to how the remaining two movies can keep that rating, given the escalation and severity of the violence. The third book is the strongest in the trilogy for its writing and the pull-no-punches plot. The final 50 pages feel like they were written in one long breath.
    - Rob Haneisen
    “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’’ by Katherine Boo
    Page 5 of 5 - A review that started with the opening paragraph of Katherine Boo’s book convinced me to give it a try:
    “Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.’’
    The intertwined stories of lives spent in squalor are all the more remarkable because the former Washington Post journalist’s work isn’t a novel: It’s the work of a reporter who earned the trust of people who had no reason to trust her, a reporter who followed the threads long enough to find out what happened after the Mumbai police came.
    While “Behind the Beautiful Forevers’’ takes place in areas most Americans will never see, ruled by class and caste restrictions we can’t fully understand, scenes and emotions of hope and hopelessness reflect universal struggles.
    And, as Boo writes in an author’s note, in an era of global economy, perhaps the struggles aren’t as far removed from our world as we might think. The 2012 National Book Award winner doesn’t have a tied-up-with-a-bow ending and its protagonists aren’t classically heroic. What it does have is enough twists and turns, and enough vivid descriptions of impossible situations, to make it tough to put down.
    - Julia Spitz
    Rick Holmes, opinion editor for the Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. (http://blogs.wickedlocal.com/holmesandco). He can be reached at rholmes@wickedlocal.com.
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