Best Books of 2008

Need a vacation? Us too. But instead of spending our money on a fleeting getaway, we’re escaping into the pages of a good book. Here, our roundup of the best tomes of 2008
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Parisiennes: A Celebration of French Women

By Carole Bouquet, Madeleine Chapsal, et al (Flammarion)

"Real elegance is simply a true encounter with oneself," writes Carole Bouquet in one of the intimate essays accompanying the photographs in Parisiennes. Bouquet may be right; still, we can sidle up to elegance with these images of French women (driving, cooking, flirting) by Brassai, Doisneau, and others. — Thelma Adams

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Seven Days in the Art World

By Sarah Thornton (W.W. Norton)

The international art market is teeming with glitz and drama. Journalist Thornton immersed herself in this billion-dollar milieu—a frenzy of auctions, bitchy gossip, and Prada-toting social climbers—and emerged with this juicy account, which includes more than 200 interviews with collectors, curators, dealers, and famous artists. — Carmela Ciuraru

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By A.L. Kennedy (Knopf)

Why this hugely gifted Scottish author remains so far below the radar is a frustrating mystery. Here, a shy ex-soldier accepts a role as an extra in a POW film and finds himself sifting through agonizing memories. — Carmela Ciuraru

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The Middle Place

By Kelly Corrigan (Voice)

We earn our livings and raise our children, but our parents continue to shape us. So when are we really grown-ups? Kelly Corrigan, 40, answers that question in her insightful, often funny memoir about surviving breast cancer only to find that her adored father has been diagnosed with cancer too.

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Unaccustomed Earth

By Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf)

In these eight exquisitely detailed stories, Pulitzer Prize-winner Lahiri lights on private moments of sadness that come in the aftermath of painful family conflicts. In "A Choice of Accommodations," Lahiri writes refreshingly about an aging body: A man puts his hands on his wife’s hips, "over the stretch marks that were like inlaid streaks of mother-of-pearl that would never fade, whose brilliance spoke only for the body’s decay." Subtle and wise, Lahiri captures a universal yearning. — Carmela Ciuraru

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By Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Robinson’s companion novel to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead illuminates the family of Reverend Robert Boughton in the 1950s, as two of his adult children—the wayward, elusive Jack and the quiet, dignified Glory—return to Gilead, Iowa. The author, one of America’s most quietly thrilling novelists, paints a serene landscape (vegetable gardens, Sabbath dinners, and vine-covered porches), which contrasts with Glory’s memories of Jack, her father’s ancient anger, and her struggle to make peace with two men who have kept her on the edges of their orbits. — Susan Straight

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A Mercy

By Toni Morrison (Knopf)

Morrison’s first adult novel in five years is, like any book by the Nobel Prize-winner, a literary event. Fans of Beloved will find in this slender volume many of the same satisfactions: Incantatory prose, memorable characters and Morrison’s nearly magical gift for transporting us to another place and time. A Mercy unfolds in 1690s America, in the early days of the slave trade. Life in the New World is brutal and precarious, rife with religious and racial hatreds. Security is elusive, happiness fleeting, and freedom out of the question—particularly for women, who find themselves menaced regardless of race. At its core, this novel is a meditation on bondage and freedom. — Jennifer Haigh

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The Glen Rock Book of the Dead

By Marion Winik (Counterpoint)

Marion Winik sees dead people. Well, so do we all. Those who’ve passed from our lives are always showing up in our heads; we still talk to them. Winik does more: She has invited 51 one of her nearest-and-dearest departed (The Neighbor, The Mah-Jongg Player, The King of the Condo) to a surprising lively gathering, devoting a short chapter to each one. Her fascinating, tiny tributes tell the bare-assed truth about relationships while coming together to create a portrait of Winik’s own imperfect, love-filled life. — Marcia Menter

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By Julia Leigh (Penguin)

The plot of this brooding novella is simple: After escaping a violent marriage, a woman reluctantly returns to her childhood home in France. She is reunited with her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in 12 years, along with her brother and his wife, who are grieving for their stillborn baby. With its stylized dialogue and black humor, Disquiet reads like a play set on a gothic stage. — Carmela Ciuraru

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The Possession

By Annie Ernaux (Seven Stories Press)

Bestselling French author Ernaux has built her career on rendering almost every aspect of a woman’s experience, from the hidden contours of her marriage to the indelible loss of her mother, with unsparing honesty and insight. Her latest novella is an excruciatingly frank—and spot-on—portrait of romantic jealousy in midlife. Ernaux’s take on obsession will stay with you long after you zip through these 62 razor-sharp pages. — Dawn Raffel

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