It’s That Time of Year

December 28, 2011

For compiling best lists, that is. I either make or participate in the making of at least three different kinds of best-book lists every year. First, there’s the Booklist Editors’ Choice list, published in our January double issue, but I’m only one voice among many in putting together that annual compendium. Then there’s my Back Page list of favorite personal reading, in which Booklist staff members select their top off-the-clock reading experience (books not read to review). And finally, there’s this list, which I suppose we could call my most Arousing Reads (on second thought, that might not be an appropriate title). The books below, new or old, read to review or not, are simply the titles I most enjoyed over the past 12 months. Drum roll, please.

American Boy, by Larry Watson

I’ve been reading Watson since his wonderful first novel, Montana 1948, was published in 1993. His latest, like much of his work, is a coming-of-age story with bite, as much about failure as it is about growth. The fact is, he had me with the first sentence: “I was 17 years old when I first saw a woman’s bare breasts . . . and when you consider that I also saw my first bullet wound on that same body, you have a set of circumstances truly rare.”

Winston’s War: Churchill, 19401945, by Max Hastings

A recent trip to the Cabinet War Rooms in London (an absolute must-see, by the way) prompted me to pick up Hastings’s fascinating account of Winston Churchill’s management of the British armed forces during World War II. Hastings gives Churchill his due as an inspirational leader and master speechmaker (“We shall fight on the beaches . . .”), but he also points out that the British prime minister made his share of strategic blunders and endured a surprising amount of home-front criticism. History at its most galvanizing.

Isle of Joy, by Don Winslow

This is my rediscovery of the year. Early in his career, Winslow—now known for a bestselling mystery series about surfers in San Diego—wrote what, under the guise of an espionage novel, is really an homage to New York in the late 1950s. With that irresistible blending of nostalgia and crisp detail one finds in the classic black-and-white photographs of the era, Winslow captures the city at the tipping point when postwar society met the bohemian era.

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

Murakami writes two kinds of novels: short, intimate, crystalline portraits of lovers, often struggling between secret selves, and much longer, broad-canvas epics. His latest falls into the latter camp but without sacrificing the intimacy of the shorter works. My favorite book of the year, hands down, it’s a vividly imagined parallel-world adventure about a woman who walks off a Tokyo expressway and enters a two-mooned universe of confounding complexity. Expertly melding fantasy, realism, and romance, this is literary alchemy of the highest order.

BILL OTT is editor and publisher of Booklist.