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BOOK REVIEW / FAVORITE BOOKS 2008

December 07, 2008

The Ayatollah Begs

to Differ

The Paradox of Modern Iran

By Hooman Majd

Doubleday

In the "best book yet written on the contradictions of contemporary Iran," according to our reviewer, Majd dissects a paradox of a country both ancient and modern, Persian and Islamic, morally lax in private and supremely puritanical in public.

The Bin Ladens

An Arabian Family

in the American Century

By Steve Coll

Penguin Press

While the name "Bin Laden" stirs up but one image in people's minds, Coll's stirring history centers on the wealth, prestige and power that Osama's family wields and its deep interaction and shared strict interpretation of Islam with Saudi Arabia's Al-Saud family.

The Bishop's

Daughter

A Memoir

By Honor Moore

W.W. Norton

Moore tries to reconcile the public image of her father, a devoted family man and once Episcopal bishop of the Diocese of New York, with her discovery that he led a secret existence as a gay man. In the end, she realized "that to me his living of his passion was heroic."

Claim of Privilege

A Mysterious Plane Crash,

a Landmark Supreme Court Case, and the Rise of State Secrets

By Barry Siegel

Harper

The Pulitzer Prize-winning former Times reporter shows the vast implications of a 1953 Supreme Court case that ushered in the legal state secret. The decision enshrined the ability of the executive branch to refuse to turn over evidence to those suing the government simply by asserting that national security would be threatened.

Comfort

A Journey Through Grief

By Ann Hood

W.W. Norton

Hood rejects the concept of "closure" after the sudden death of her 5-year-old daughter from a virulent form of strep. She does not miss her daughter any less as time goes by, though the heart must stretch to accommodate new love.

The Eaves of Heaven

A Life in Three Wars

By Andrew X. Pham

Harmony

Pham's story of his father's fleeing occupation and war after a childhood of privilege in Vietnam is one of devastation and radiance, highlighting the history of a benighted land.

The Forever War

By Dexter Filkins

Alfred A. Knopf

In the witness tradition of combat journalism, Filkins' meticulously constructed vignettes don't claim to form a narrative but illuminate and humanize the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Hemingses

of Monticello

An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed

W.W. Norton

Starting with Thomas Jefferson and his slave and mistress Sally Hemings, Gordon-Reed explores master-slave relations in Virginia and the dichotomy of slavery's presence in a society claiming to be based on freedom.

How Fiction Works

By James Wood

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Wood is our Edmund Wilson, unafraid to approach criticism with the seriousness and intention of art. Here, he looks at fiction's mechanics and aesthetics, arguing in favor of literary realism.

Lincoln

The Biography of a Writer

By Fred Kaplan

Harper

Abraham Lincoln was, Kaplan tells us, "the Twain of politics." In this charming and unexpected biography, he frames a part of the 16th president's greatness in his having a "personality and a career forged in the crucible of language."

Minders of

Make-Believe

Idealists, Entrepreneurs,

and the Shaping of American Children's Literature

By Leonard S. Marcus

Houghton Mifflin

In this enlightening, vivid history, Marcus unravels many of the myths about children's literature. Children's books, he writes, are "messages forged at the crossroads of commerce and culture."

Mustang

The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West

By Deanne Stillman

Houghton Mifflin

Inspired by the 1998 killing of 34 mustangs near Reno, Stillman's tale of wild horses becomes a saga of the American West that blurs boundaries between essay and reporting, history and literature.

Nixonland

The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America

By Rick Perlstein

Scribner

Richard Nixon, Perlstein tells us, worked on the resentments of the so-called Silent Majority to achieve his power, thus helping facilitate a culture war that we're still fighting in which what separates us, rather than what unites us, defines who we are.

Obscene in

the Extreme

The Burning and Banning

of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath"

By Rick Wartzman

PublicAffairs

In 1939, the board of supervisors of Kern County banned John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." A former Times editor and columnist uses that story as a lens on California labor history.

Orange County

A Personal History

By Gustavo Arellano

Scribner

Arellano, a contributing editor to The Times' Op-Ed pages, grew up in Orange County and describes it as home to "Rep. Robert Dornan and Mickey Mouse, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and extraterrestrial basketballer Dennis Rodman, not to mention the largest community of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam."

Pictures at

a Revolution

Five Movies and the Birth

of the New Hollywood

By Mark Harris

Penguin Press

Harris uses the five Academy Award nominees for best picture of 1967 as a window on a revolutionary moment in Hollywood, when the focus of the studios shifted, and film became more gritty and political.

Posthumous Keats

A Personal Biography

By Stanley Plumly

W.W. Norton

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