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Originally published Thursday, December 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Our picks for the best books of 2008

Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn and other reviewers select their top fiction and nonfiction reads of the year.

Seattle Times book editor

For those of us who like our words on a printed piece of paper, 2008 has been a year of upheaval. Newspapers are declaring bankruptcy and slashing budgets; publishing houses are laying off dozens of long-term, valued employees. For some bookstores, this retail season may have a thumbs-up, thumbs-down effect on their survival.

Then again ... Amazon keeps selling out of the Kindle, its handheld book reader. Though book sales as a whole are down, online book sales are up. Local independent bookstores are surviving through a combination of smarts, hard work and a devoted clientele. And just look at this Seattle Times best books of 2008 list, below.

There are good books, and some great ones, here: I know, because I've read a lot of them. Our reviewers have nominated other books that informed, inspired and delighted them. So I say: Long live the book! It's been around in some form for almost 3,000 years; I predict its endurance for many more, even if the medium of words on the page is supplanted by something cheaper, faster or more direct.

Our best-books list is presented in alphabetical order by last name of author. Fiction first, then nonfiction; if no reviewer is named, the recommendation is mine. Critic Michael Upchurch, who has reviewed much of the fiction featured in these pages this year, presents his "best" list on the facing page.

Fiction

"2666" by Roberto Bolano (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Bolano's posthumously published novel (the Chilean author died in 2003) is "vast, sprawling and often disturbing," said Melinda Bargreen, "a kaleidoscope whose splintered focus — the disappearance of hundreds of women in a Mexican border town — is only gradually revealed through Bolano's often spectacular prose."

"The Various Flavors of Coffee" by Anthony Capella (Bantam Dell). In 1890s London, a young poet and coffee taster experiences various flavors of coffee and different facets of love. It's "an eclectic brew of such diverse elements as the coffee trade, women's suffrage, foreign travel and slavery, and is spiced up with a dollop of exotic romance," said Bharti Kirchner.

"The People on Privilege Hill" by Jane Gardam (Europa Editions). This story collection by one of England's most astute contemporary authors delighted Bob Papinchak, especially the reappearance of "Old Filth," the eccentric old lawyer and title character of Gardam's novel of the same name. "The rest of the group are consummate examples of short-story writing at its best — impeccable style and captivating substance — a rare couple in any writing," said Papinchak.

"The Other" by David Guterson (Knopf). Guterson's tale of two friends who meet on the Roosevelt High School track — one takes a conventional life path, the other violently rejects the trappings of modern life — forces a consideration of the choices we all make. And it's an indelible portrait of Seattle before the technology boom obliterated the city's 20th-century landscape.

"Incognegro" by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece (Vertigo). Set in the American Deep South of the 1930s and based on the real-life adventures of NAACP head Walter White, this "crisply inked graphic novel combines the thrill of fighting crime under a secret identity with the fierceness of crusading for political justice, as a Harlem Renaissance investigative journalist 'passes' for white so he can infiltrate lynch mobs," said Nisi Shawl.

"The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard" by Erin McGraw (Houghton Mifflin). Nell, a peppery heroine from the prairie, is "classically American in her aspiration to reinvent herself in Hollywood," and "learns that no one else can really be trusted," said Wingate Packard. "McGraw excels in portraying this woman's pleasure in the work of her hands, and the dialogue is superb in its freshness."

"A Mercy" by Toni Morrison (Knopf). Ellen Heltzel said the Nobel Prize-winning author's latest novel, set in the early days of American slavery, "folds together human frailty and endurance while exploring the roots of sexism and racism in a fable-like novel about one mid-Atlantic household that existed a century before the Revolutionary War."

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"Netherland" by Joseph O'Neill (Pantheon). A Dutch financier, separated from his family and adrift in post 9/11 New York, finds friendship among rugby-playing immigrants from the Third World. "This is a tale of recognition and reconciliation framed by the stories of two foreigners in New York City: one quietly going through the rubble of his marriage in order to rebuild his life; the other following a crazy dream while living in the darker shadows of the city," said Lucy Mohl.

"Lush Life" by Richard Price (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). I have to second the motion of Adam Woog, our crime-fiction columnist, who listed this novel as one of his "bests" last week — it transcends the mystery genre. Ostensibly about a murder on Manhattan's Lower East Side, it showcases Price's mastery of character and dialogue, and his excavation of the many layers of New York's pulsing, tragic history is a pure delight to behold.

"Goldengrove" by Francine Prose (Harper). In this novel, the death of a sister/daughter "catapults a family into a fugue state of grief, a deep abyss from which Prose examines the moments in which life reasserts itself in a slow dance of grief, loneliness, despair and finally, a willingness to try again," said Valerie Ryan.

"Home" by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Robinson revisits the small-town setting of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "Gilead" to tell the story of a son's attempt to reconcile with his dying father. Family dynamics and the burdens of guilt and judgment have never been so meticulously recreated, as well as an abiding sense of joy at the small pleasures of existence.

"Cost" by Roxana Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A devastating portrait of the pain and chaos drug addiction inflicts on a family, as a divorced woman tries to save her son from heroin addiction while simultaneously caring for her parents.

"How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone" by Sasa Stanisic (Grove Press). Mary Brennan praised this "funny, heartbreaking novel about a young boy growing up before and during the Bosnian War; it's a beautifully written memoir of all the things he, and his village, lost forever."

"The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein (Harper). This Seattle-based novel by a local author — narrated by a dog — became a Starbucks book pick. Stein's story of family love and loyalty shows that "a good novel can tell us more about how to live a good life than a stack of self-help books," said Mark Lindquist.

"Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out" by Mo Yan (Arcade). Richard Wallace said that "virtuosity and compassion have rarely been blended so brilliantly as in this sweeping novel of life in a Chinese farming village in the second half of the 20th century — told by a donkey, an ox, a pig, a dog and a monkey."

Nonfiction

"Home: A Memoir of My Early Years" by Julie Andrews (Hyperion). The autobiography of the star of "The Sound of Music" and "Mary Poppins" shows her "to be not only a gifted, unique performer, but a woman with a remarkable ability to reflect and forgive, and a writer capable of quietly stopping a reader in her tracks with description," said Moira Macdonald.

"Alphabet Juice" by Roy Blount Jr. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Adam Woog said that author and NPR personality Blount, "our subtlest and most gifted funny guy, has always been besotted with words, and he turns this obsession loose with a zesty, insightful wallow in the power and the glory of English."

"Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World" by Timothy Brook (Bloomsbury). This "brilliant work of historical research inspired by a leading historian's fascination with the Dutch master is both an absorbing recreation of the origins of our globalized world, and a profoundly moving reminder of humanity's shared destiny," said Douglas Smith.

"Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China" by Leslie T. Chang (Spiegel & Grau). Of Chang's portrait of Chinese factory workers, Karen Gaudette said that "plenty has been written about China's export economy, but Chang's narrative follows the ever-changing lives of the girls and boys whose city-bound journeys since the 1980s represent the largest migration in human history, weaving in her own family's migration saga along the way."

"A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America" by Dudley Clendinen (Viking). Stories of life within a managed-care facility for the elderly "are sometimes amusing, sometimes unbearably sad, but always engaging thanks to the brilliant writing of Clendinen, former New York Times reporter and editorial writer," said John B. Saul.

"Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, The Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus" by Gregory Gibson (Harcourt). This story of an eccentric book dealer's quest to acquire the archives of a Times Square freak show containing lost photographs by Diane Arbus is a cultural thriller in which "elements of low kitsch and high art connect in a fascinating arc," said Ann Yow.

"Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris" by Bonnie Henderson (Oregon State University Press). This slim book, an "engaging and thoughtful exploration of beach debris and how it got there, will make you want to go to the beach and find your own stories," said David B. Williams.

"Fruitless Fall — The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis" by Rowan Jacobsen (Bloomsbury). Irene Wanner called this look at the decline of the American honeybee population "a timely, thought-provoking examination of Colony Collapse Disorder, in which bees fail to return to their hives causing critical shortages of pollinators, a growing worldwide problem whose cause and cure remain a mystery."

"Hell's Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler's War Machine" by Diarmuid Jeffreys (Metropolitan). Bruce Ramsey praised this story of "corruption of the German chemical industry, which began as a group of competitive, innovative civilian companies producing dye and drugs — including the first aspirin — and ended as a cartel producing weapons and poisons for the Nazis."

"Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer" by Fred Kaplan (HarperCollins). There's been a flood of new books about Lincoln, anticipating the 2009 bicentennial of his birth, but Steve Raymond said that "this one provides a fresh and different perspective. It's more than a biography; it's also a practical guide for writers and an inspiration for anyone who loves great language."

"Nixonland" by Rick Perlstein (Scribner). Historian Perlstein amply demonstrates that President Richard Nixon fueled the class and cultural divisions that still afflict America today. And he recreates the 1960s and '70s so vividly so that readers who lived through those traumatic times will remember things they didn't know they had forgotten.

"Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race" by Richard Rhodes (Knopf). This account of post-Hiroshima nuclear proliferation by the author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" is "more chilling than any teen vampire novel," said John Hartl. "By profiling influential American and Soviet leaders, Rhodes tries to explain 'what fears and ambitions (could) justify such an apocalyptic accumulation.' "

"The End of Food" by Paul Roberts (Houghton Mifflin). Following up on his prescient 2004 book, "The End of Oil," Leavenworth author Roberts tackles "another, even more troubling issue," said Barbara Lloyd McMichael. "Roberts sifts through the complexities of a global food production system that allows a billion of Earth's residents to get fat, while another billion suffers from dire hunger."

"Anticancer: A New Way of Life" by David Servan-Schreiber (Viking). Fred Bortz said that this "life affirming" book by a physician and psychiatry professor "is filled with practical advice that enables cancer patients to overcome their initial feelings of helplessness and to adopt a proactive attitude of survivorship."

"The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead" by David Shields (Knopf). Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett said Seattle author and UW professor Shields "manages to be informative, moving and funny on the subject of how our bodies age and change. Shields ... weaves in a parallel exploration of his difficult, age-defying father, resulting in a remarkable melding of facts and feelings."

"Claim of Privilege: A Mysterious Plane Crash, a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets," by Barry Siegel (Harper). Siegel's book chronicles a landmark legal case, arising out of a 1948 military airplane crash, that established the "state secrets doctrine" used by the Bush administration to cloak its "war on terror" strategies in secrecy. Siegel recounts the struggle, decades after the fact, of families of the survivors to learn the truth in an account that "reads like a grimly ironic but hard-to-put-down mystery novel," said Kevin J. Hamilton.

"Magnifico: The Brilliant Life and Violent Times of Lorenzo de' Medici" by Miles J. Unger (Simon & Schuster). This biography of Lorenzo de' Medici, writes David Takami, "transports the reader to 15th-century Florence, a place of matchless splendor, both natural and man-made. The result is an indelible personal profile and an enthralling account of both the glories and brutality of the era."

"The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves" by Andrew Ward (Houghton Mifflin). Seattle resident Ward "has accomplished something against gigantic odds: a Civil War history that seems fresh, and oddly uplifting amidst the carnage," said Steve Weinberg, about this work of history told from the perspective of Civil-War era slaves.

"The Man Who Loved China" by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins). Bob Simmons praised this story of "how an illicit love affair between academic superstar Joseph Needham and a beautiful graduate student led to the writing of a stupendous 23-volume work, 'Science and Civilisation in China,' a 50-year project that changed forever the way Western decision-makers view Chinese history and culture."

"The Post-American World" by Fareed Zakaria (W.W. Norton). Newsweek columnist Zakaria writes in his introduction that "This is a book not about the decline of America but rather about the rise of everyone else." Alan Moores said that from that point forward, the author "offers a sanguine yet critical appraisal of America's new role on the global stage."

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or

mgwinn@seattletimes.com. She is the Seattle Times book editor and a director of the National Book Critics Circle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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