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A sleigh full of books

A sack full of books

American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama by Rachel L. Swarns (Amistad, $27.99). I found Rachel Swarns' book fascinating because it dealt with the difficulties most African Americans have tracing their lineage. Our elderly relatives typically said little if anything about a slavery-tainted past they preferred to forget. Using census records, I did find my great-grandfather, an Alabama farm laborer in 1870. Beyond that, the Civil War and elusive slave records have stymied my efforts. Swarns' book is inspirational for anyone thinking of tracing family roots.

- Harold Jackson,
editorial page editor
"Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo (Random House, $27). A Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, Katherine Boo spent three years getting to know the residents of Annawadi, a ramshackle slum in Mumbai. Their lives provide a brilliant, heartbreaking study of the human spirit in all its folly and determination.

- David Hiltbrand, TV writer
Canada by Richard Ford (HarperCollins, $27.99). "First, I'll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later." Richard Ford grabs readers' attention with those two opening sentences of his novel Canada and never lets go in this grave, mesmerizing tale about family and loss. A work of harsh beauty by a masterful storyteller.

- Martha Woodall, staff writer
Capital by John Lanchester (W.W. Norton, $26.95). "We Want What You Have." The anonymous postcards are slipped through every door in one block of Pepys Road in London. Prank or a threat? On the surface, the street's residents, beneficiaries of rising property values, would have much to envy in 2008. As Lanchester's brilliant novel unfolds, however, a much more nuanced picture of the residents' lives emerges. By the time a financial collapse arrives, no one will be the same.

- Brian Leighton,
executive news editor
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw (Simon & Schuster, $25). Carol Anshaw tracks the very disparate lives of five Chicagoans who once shared a tragic car ride. Brilliantly observed and written, this sweeping novel suggests a cross between Doris Lessing and Lorrie Moore.

- David Hiltbrand
11-22-63 by Stephen King (Gallery Books, $19.99). Perhaps only King could successfully combine a 20th-century American tragedy with a time-travel tale. A divorced Maine schoolteacher discovers a way back to the past. The intriguing but ultimately implausible story bogs down at its conclusion as the author tries desperately to gather all its loose ends.

- Frank Fitzpatrick, sportswriter
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown, $25). Ostensibly a crime novel, this is really more a disturbing psychological profile and a pitch-perfect rendering of how a missing-person case can get amplified and distorted through the lens of 24-hour cable and tabloid news. Flynn's writing style is electric. The book made me reluctant to turn out the light at night, both because I wanted to keep reading and because it made me feel more than a little uneasy in the dark.

- Tom Avril, staff writer
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, $25). Death of a Salesman for the new millennium, but funny - as well as heart-bustingly sad.

- Steven Rea, movie critic
I'm Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons (Ecco, $27.99). Beautifully written and entirely unfawning bio of the novelist, poet, raconteur, Buddhist, ladies' man, and croaky-voiced singer/songwriter. Hallelujah.

- Steven Rea
In the Lion's Mouth by Michael Flynn (Tor, $25.99). The third book in Flynn's sensational Spiral Arm space saga returns the elusive (even to himself) double agent Donovan buigh. As always, the sci-fi author from Easton delivers action, imagination, and intrigue in a beguilingly lyrical style.

- David Hiltbrand
Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross King (Walker, $28). Leonardo da Vinci was a dilatory genius who had trouble finishing what he started, and took long enough with those works he did complete, like The Last Supper, to exasperate his patrons. With a keen eye for detail, King introduces us to a complex man and to the chaotic, creative age in which he lived.

- Michael D. Schaffer
Live by Night by Dennis Lehane (William Morrow, $27.99). It's not that Prohibition-era bootlegger Joe Coughlin lacks a conscience, it's just that he's pretty good at ignoring it. Coughlin, the antihero of Lehane's latest novel, knows that sin ultimately exacts a steep price on the sinner and those who love him. A fast-paced tale of decisions and consequences.

- Michael D. Schaffer
The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda by Devin McKinney (St. Martin's, $29.99). He was Abe Lincoln and Tom Joad, the man who knew too much and the man who fathered Jane and Peter. A thoughtful and revealing assessment of the American movie icon.

- Steven Rea
Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China by Paul French (Penguin Books, $26). It's winter 1937, with Japanese forces poised to invade, when the bloody corpse of a woman, the daughter of a former British consul to China, is discovered near an ancient city wall. French offers an intimate and incisive account of a murder that captivated the city, and an irresistible portrait of old Peking's dark places and characters.

- Jeff Gammage,
staff writer
The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin (Random House, $28.95). With breezy prose, veteran observer Toobin examines the ongoing battle for control of the court. He argues that the era when moderate Republicans held the balance of power ended with the arrival of two ideological conservatives, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. After 75 years when moderates and liberals held sway, the pendulum has swung.

- Frank Fitzpatrick
One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (Dutton, $26.95). Divorced, disillusioned, and decaying in the suburbs, Drew Silver doesn't have a lot to live for. Or so he thinks in this agile, riotously funny modern parable of a novel.

- David Hiltbrand
The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro (Alfred A. Knopf, $35). The fourth volume in this massive and masterful LBJ bio examines Johnson's halfhearted run for the presidency in 1960, the humiliation and despair he endured as vice president, and his sudden ascension to the world's most powerful position after John F. Kennedy's assassination. The near-pathological enmity between LBJ and Robert F. Kennedy, which will come to a head in Caro's fifth and final volume, is a compelling thread.

- Frank Fitzpatrick
A Private Venus by Giorgio Scerbanenco (Hersilia Press, $14.95). Giorgio Scerbanenco can be as dark as Leonardo Sciascia, as deadpan realistic as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, as probing in his observation of people as Georges Simenon, as humane as Andre Camilleri, as noir as Jean-Patrick Manchette, as hope-against-hopeful as David Goodis, but with a dark, dark humor all his own. Scerbanenco is widely regarded as the father of Italian noir, and the country's top crime-fiction prize is named for him. The first-ever English translation of his 1966 novel A Private Venus has to be this year's big event in translated crime fiction.

- Peter Rozovsky,
copy editor
Skyjack: The Hunt for D.B. Cooper by Geoffrey Gray (Broadway, $15 paperback). A fast, entertaining romp through the case of the mysterious Cooper, who commandeered a Northwest Orient flight in 1971, extorted $200,000 in cash, and parachuted into true-crime history. Gray provides new details from the FBI's file and a compelling look at the would-be investigators who remain obsessed by Cooper's disappearance.

- Jeff Gammage
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese, $26.95). A clever - very clever - book about appearance vs. reality in life and literature, set amid the backdrop of the British intelligence community. McEwan is a fluid writer and a master illusionist. This is one novel that both my wife and I enjoyed equally and would make a great subject for a book club discussion.

- Bill Marimow, editor
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (Harper, $27.99). Telegraph Avenue captures a historic moment: the sunsetting of the urban record store. Chabon's wordplay is brilliant; it's laugh-out-loud funny and jazzy and kind of a record of its own. At the same time, the scenes are often slow to build and the verbiage holds down the swing. The effect keeps this witty novel from going gold.

- Karl Stark,
assistant managing editor, Health & Science
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz (Riverhead, $26.95). Junot Diaz's dazzle, punch, sly wit, and subtle gravitas are all on glorious display in his latest short-story collection, This Is How You Lose Her. The slim volume provides a wonderful introduction to the Dominican-born author's jazzy writing style, punctuated by Spanish slang and idioms.

- Martha Woodall
Treacherous Beauty: Peggy Shippen, The Woman Behind Benedict Arnold's Plot to Betray America by Mark Jacob and Stephen H. Case (Lyons Press, $24.95). Benedict Arnold may have been the American Judas, but he had something Judas didn't: a coconspirator. Arnold's wife, the beautiful young Peggy Shippen of Philadelphia, was up to her wig in Arnold's treason, argue authors Case, a lawyer, and Jacob, a journalist. But Peggy, a champion manipulator of men (including George Washington), nimbly escaped blame, according to the authors. A fascinating story.

- Michael D. Schaffer
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum (Ecco, $26.99). The Internet is everywhere and nowhere. It pervades our daily lives but really does seem to come disembodied out of a cloud. Yet the Internet has an infrastructure, a very complicated one, and Blum guides us unerringly through it.

- Michael D. Schaffer
Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (Little, Brown, $25.99). Maria Semple, a recovering TV writer (Arrested Development), has created a quirky comic masterpiece with this novel about an irresistibly precocious teen and her awesomely agoraphobic mom. Where'd You Go is an ingenious, enjoyable, continually surprising farce.

- David Hiltbrand