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California Literary Review

Critics’ Picks: Best Books of 2008

Non-Fiction Reviews

Critics’ Picks: Best Books of 2008


Deaf Sentence by David Lodge
Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (Viking Adult)

“DEAF SENTENCE, by David Lodge, is surely one of this fine author’s finest comedies. This time his academic is a retired language maven who has reached an age where deafness sets in for one of every eight of us, alas. And — susceptibility to venery remains a constant. As he says, deafness is comic; blindness tragic. But there is blindness and there is blindness: in this instance the seductress combines intelligence, looniness, scholarship and suicide. An almost lethal array of sex, and danger in late middle age’s confusion of them all with the imminence and immanence of death. His protagonist is self-aware, yet not, but he recognizes early on that he has to deal with “Deaf and the Maiden,” a new sort of music indeed!” — Jascha Kessler

Driftless by David Rhodes
Driftless by David Rhodes (Milkweed)

“Rhodes has extended a unique, funny, absorbing, at times frightening reality that he’s been building since The Last Fair Deal Going Down. In Driftless this world turns honestly optimistic and shows a man writing with openness, faith and compassion where once bitterness and anger may have held sway…What all this boils down to is that Driftless is a novel crafted by a real writer.” — John Holt

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (The Dial Press)

“Such a pity Mary Ann Shaffer is not around to enjoy her celebrity! Shaffer died in February of this year and thus missed her own miracle—best-sellerdom for a first book written by an already “mature” librarian, former bookseller, and unpublished, aspiring writer. The good news, however, is that her opus is engaging, ingenious and ahead of the publishing game.” — Julia Braun Kessler

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišic
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišic (Grove Press)

“A vibrant play on memory from an emerging European author.” — Elinor Teele

A Mercy by Toni Morrison
A Mercy by Toni Morrison (Knopf)

“Toni Morrison provides a unique historical perspective on matters of slavery, race, class, family, and the undying hope that brought so many European immigrants to the Atlantic Colonies of the late 1600’s. ” — John Guthrie


American Made by Nick Taylor
American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work by Nick Taylor (Bantam)

“A wide-ranging and enjoyable account of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a key experiment in Franklin’s New Deal” — Elinor Teele

Comnrade J by Pete Earley
Comrade J by Pete Earley (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York)

“COMRADE J, a study by veteran espionage journalist Pete Earley, developed from in-depth interviews with post-Soviet espionage chief Sergei Tretyakov for 9 years based in Riverdale, NYC, is a solid and chilling revelation of how things really work in this dangerous world. Tretyakov is perhaps the most important defector to the US in a half-century, and the work reveals people and methods in a way no thriller can do, and no newspapers have ever seen fit to do. If one learns anything really important from this study, it is that Americans are still asleep, and that enemies are everywhere, working 24/7. Intelligent men and women, and none of them located at the UN, to say the least. Tretyakov’s epiphany at the end of his stay is something worth reading the whole story for. ” — Jascha Kessler

My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Khan
My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me by Mahvish Khan (PublicAffairs )

“As a third year law student, Mahvish Kahn volunteered to work as a translator with the Dechert Law Firm of Philadelphia, a firm that represented a portion of the Guantánamo detainees pro bono. After an exhaustive investigtion by the FBI to get the necessry secret clearance, her offer was accepted. She provides a unique and thought-provoking first hand perspective on the prisoners she worked with.” — John Guthrie

On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change by Ada Louise Huxtable
On Architecture: Collected Reflections on a Century of Change by Ada Louise Huxtable (Walker & Company)

“A collection of Huxtable’s past essays on architecture, along with a few new pieces. Inspiring in its intelligence and passion.” — Paul Comstock

The Patron's Payoff by Jonathan K. Nelson
The Patron’s Payoff: Conspicuous Commissions in Italian Renaissance Art by Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser (Princeton University Press)

“At the peak of the Renaissance in 1473 a rich Florentine merchant named Giovanni Rucellai donated ‘a great deal of money’ for various charitable projects, including the restructuring of the facade of the Church of Santa Maria Novella (adjacent to today’s main train station). As with Donald Trump and his tower, architecture was used for personal promotion, and Rucellai’s name was emblazoned in Latin across the church facade. The links between money and art in the Renaissance, utilizing modern analytical keys of the economics of information, are explored in depth by Jonathan K. Nelson and Richard J. Zeckhauser in the fascinating and nicely illustrated book.” — Judith Harris

Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris (Penguin Press)

“This brilliant study of the five films nominated for best picture at the 1968 Academy Awards is far more than top-shelf film criticism. PICTURES AT A REVOLUTION is an evocation of the assent of 1960’s counter-culture and the displacement of the ‘organization man’ ethos that had previously dominated America in general and Hollywood in particular.” — Ed Voves

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