I, Claudius by Robert Graves: This was my favorite book of the year. I really couldn’t put it down. It’s just a classic injustice/revenge story, with a lot of poisonings and beheadings, following the life of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who unexpectedly (especially to himself) became Emperor of Rome in the 1st century A.D. Graves makes Claudius into a wholly sympathetic, pretty funny lead character, who basically watches on the sidelines while his family kills each other off. On something like the second page, Graves (as Claudius) is right on when he says something about how this won’t be another “he begat he who begat him who begat him…” bore. If you really dig it, I’d recommend continuing on to Claudius the God, which picks up right after I, Claudius ends. It’s another 900 pages or so. By the end of that one, you’ll have had your fill. (Although, later I did rent the BBC documentary too … I loved it!)
Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan: I’d never really known the chronology of Frank Sinatra’s career, especially the rough times. This book charts his early life in Hoboken and years as a rising star, but most interesting is his reinvention of himself in the late 1940s. He really fell out of favor with the public after being listed as unfit for duty in WWII, and over the next years, while his superstar wife, Ava Gardner, was sleeping with every man she could get her hands on, he sank deeper and deeper into a Jack Daniels-depression and plunged out of the spotlight. But even as rock ‘n’ roll was eclipsing his big-band standards as the music de jour, Frank somehow found a new voice (with help from his new string arranger Nelson Riddle) and climbed back to the top. Anyone with even a passing interest in Frank should check this one out.
King Suckerman by George P. Pelecanos: I’m from D.C. originally, so I get a kick out of the hyper-local scene here, and all the little historical details. Not sure if that will resonate with anyone else. This is a thug and cop novel with shotguns and drugs. This is not the D.C. you will find if you go there today.
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins: This guy is not afraid of diving into the serious shit. It’s a first-hand account of the fighting and aftermath in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over and over you just can’t believe what you’re reading.
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John Dufresne has written seven books, including the novel Love Warps the Mind a Little, a New York Times Notable Book, the fiction writing guide The Lie That Tells a Truth, and, most recently, the novel Requiem, Mass. He lives in Dania Beach, Florida.Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. Coetzee’s least allegorical book and his most powerful. A dark and cheerless portrait of a professor driven by desire and of a country returned to its primal instincts. An uneasy read for sure, but too compelling to put down.The Unprofessionals by Julie Hecht. Julie Hecht is the most interesting voice in America fiction and in this, her first novel, her familiar narrator, a bewildered and obsessive middle-aged photographer, details the complicated relationship she has with a twenty-one-year-old heroin addict. Neither of them can comprehend the emptiness of contemporary American life. The novel is hilarious and harrowing, painful and profound.What It Is by Lynda Barry. A beautiful book full of Barry’s colorful collages, and the best book I’ve read in a long while on the creative process and on the exhilaration and joy of making things up. Write along with Lynda – you won’t be able to stop yourself.Hubert’s Freaks: the Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus by Gregory Gibson. A neurotic book dealer and collector of ephemera happens on a cache of material from a Times Square freak show that happens to also have twenty-something Arbus photos – and then the fun begins. An art-world mystery and a study of obsession.Eat Me: the Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin by Kenny Shopsin and Carolynn Carreno. Part memoir, part cookbook, part eccentric culinary essay, Eat Me is fun, provocative, and a welcome antidote to the often-pretentious celebrity-chef-of-the-week offerings.More from A Year in Reading 2008