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Books of the year: Nonfiction
The titles selected by critics as the best of 2008.

1. The Forever War
by Dexter Filkins
(Knopf, $25)
Dexter Filkins is a model war correspondent, said Douglas J. Feith in National Review. Since the mid-1990s, the intrepid New York Times reporter has put himself “time and again” in the line of fire, and he’s now gathered his notebook jottings into a collection of “brief, often stunning” vignettes that show us the face of war in Afghanistan and Iraq in all its horror and complexity. The Forever War was finished before shifting alliances in Iraq and a surge in U.S. troops contributed to a dramatic decline in violence, but Filkins saw the conflict’s dynamics clearly enough that a reader today can spot why even then there were reasons for hope. At a time when the war on terror has become a distant abstraction to most Americans, said Christian Caryl in Newsweek, nothing could be more welcome than Filkins’ “ravenous search for the particular.”
A caveat: When an otherwise “riveting” account of military violence refrains from making larger moral judgments, said Chris Hedges in The Philadelphia Inquirer, it is always a form of “war porn.”

2. The World Is What It Is
by Patrick French
(Knopf, $30)
Patrick French’s life of the Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul is “perhaps the most shockingly ‘authorized’ biography in the history of authorized biographies,” said Sam Anderson in New York. The 76-year-old Trinidadian-born novelist revealed himself to French as “a misogynistic, narcissistic, sadomasochistic monster.” His only obvious reward for this honesty was that his chosen scribe handled all the ugly details “with novelistic subtlety and grace.” But a great writer requires a biography that is truthful above all, said George Packer in The New York Times. The World Is What It Is stands as “a magnificent tribute to the painful and unlikely struggle by which the grandson of indentured Indian workers” used talent, envy, and egocentrism to make himself into “the greatest English novelist of the past half-century.”
A caveat: The book dwells excessively on the humiliation that Naipaul’s first wife and his longtime Argentine mistress suffered at the novelist’s hands, said Martin Rubin in The Wall Street Journal. It’s as if both women are being victimized again.

3. The Dark Side
by Jane Mayer
(Doubleday, $27.50)
“Many books get tagged with the word ‘essential,’” said Louis Bayard in Salon.com. Jane Mayer’s account of how Vice President Dick Cheney and a handful of other “pasty men in ties” transformed the public war on terror into a secret war on American ideals “actually is.” News readers have long been aware of the legal handiwork that put the White House’s imprimatur on the use of “black-site” prisons, covert kidnappings, and outright torture. But it took “a journalist as steely and tenacious as” The New Yorker’s Mayer to give this bleak history “all the weight and sorrow it deserves.” Without question, said David Milofsky in The Denver Post, The Dark Side is “the most disturbing book I read this year.”
A caveat: Mayer’s narrative “suffers from being almost entirely reliant on unverified claims made in anonymous interviews,” said Branislav L. Slantchev in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

4. The Hemingses of Monticello
by Annette Gordon-Reed
(Norton, $35)
The relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings wasn’t just about sex, said Scott McLemee in Newsday. By building a multigenerational family saga around revolutionary America’s most famous concubine, historian Annette Gordon-Reed has “created a powerful alternative vision of the past” that highlights “the strange and malignant forms of intimacy” that routinely developed between Southern gentry and their favored slaves. Sally’s mother, for instance, had been a light-skinned concubine herself and was probably a half-sister to Jefferson’s wife. Gordon-Reed is too responsible a scholar to assume that Jefferson and Sally Hemings loved each other, but too probing to ignore the question, said Kirk Davis Swinehart in the Chicago Tribune. She won a National Book Award for this massive volume, and rightfully so. It “deserves to endure as a model of historical inquiry.”
A caveat: At 798 pages, this “exhaustive” work is sure to “exhaust the reader as well,” said McLemee.

5. The Suicide Index
by Joan Wickersham
(Harcourt, $25)
Anyone who doesn’t believe that memoirs can be high literary art “should be silenced” by this brave and beautifully written book, said Laura Miller in Salon.com. Joan Wickersham’s father committed suicide in 1991, and the author turned her need to know why into a “harrowing” examination of the devastation such an act wreaks on surviving friends and family. Wickersham uncovers plenty of possible motives, said David L. Ulin in the Los Angeles Times. Her father was facing business collapse, his wife was flirting with an affair, and he’d never come to terms with the physical abuse he’d endured as a boy. Sensing that a straight narrative couldn’t adequately contain “the morass of emotions that her father’s act stirs up,” she’s ingeniously structured her book as an index. Suicide comes to seem an inescapable feature of the family heritage, making this “a survivor’s story” that “finds clarity in its inability” to reach closure.
A caveat: The book’s format may be too “idiosyncratic” for some readers, said Reeve Lindbergh in The Washington Post.


How the books were chosen

We tabulated the end-of-year choices of critics for The Atlantic Monthly, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, The Denver Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, New York, The New York Times, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, Salon.com, Time, The Village Voice, and The Washington Post.

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