The best book I read this year was Carolyn Parkhurst's energetic backstage novel about travel "game operas," Lost and Found (Little, Brown). Narrating their world-hopping adventures on an Amazing Race-style television series, Parkhurst's characters conspire, hide their secrets, play to the cameras, and get caught flat-footed by reality where they least expect it—on a reality show. Maybe it works because the fictional producers have "cast" this novel with seemingly predictable types—the former child stars, the mother-daughter team, the recovering gays—giving Parkhurst the opportunity to reveal the human beings behind those little chyron labels. The TV folks hope to capture the contestants' self-discovery between commercials, but this novel bursts out of its covers with humor, pathos, and unexpected suspense.
Arthur & George (Knopf), by Julian Barnes, proves that the turn-of-the-century historical thriller is still eminently capable of illuminating its times and reflecting ours. As Barnes traces—and only lightly fictionalizes—the relationship between Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and wrongly accused half-breed "cattle slasher" George Edalji, he examines the divided character of the British Empire as it approaches its sunset, and he considers how presuming a fact before proving it can be alternately brave and dangerous. The book builds to a moving conclusion in which Edalji pays tribute to a man—and a culture—that saved his life, but only after threatening it.
A zombie apocalypse might not seem like the foundation for a novel of much heft, but in World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War (Crown) Max Brooks treats the subject with an unexpected high seriousness and keen command of contemporary relevance. Elevating the politics of George Romero's zombie films to a global scale, Brooks' Studs Terkel-inspired oral history echoes everything from 9/11 to Katrina before fading out with an oddly optimistic reworking of World War II scenes. The rotting corpses might take center stage for a while, but they eventually give way to a guarded hopefulness that shared values might just see us through the worst history has to offer, walking corpses and all.
Neal Gabler has made a career out of chronicling men of modest means who gained the world but lost their soul in riveting biographies like Winchell and An Empire Of Their Own: How The Jews Invented Hollywood. Gabler chronicles another larger-than-life architect of the American century in Walt Disney: The Triumph Of The American Imagination (Knopf) but this time Gabler's jaundiced take on human nature and the excesses of fame has been replaced by clear-eyed admiration for his subject. The Walt Disney Gabler writes about is as plucky, resourceful and strong-willed as any of his animated or live-action heroes, if infinitely more complicated. The epic yet breathlessly paced The Triumph Of The American Imagination begs to be turned into a movie but perhaps only its subject could do it justice.
Running With Scissors author Augusten Burroughs often seems to be straddling the line between biography and sick fantasy, but his over-the-top anecdotes generally pay off either way. Possible Side Effects (St. Martin's) is his most accessible, punchline-friendly book yet. Whether he's talking about punishing bad drivers by flashing pornographic placards at them or discussing his childhood terror of "that creepy bug woman" the Tooth Fairy, he's mordantly hilarious, a dark-side David Sedaris. Some of the essays here approach short-story tightness; strictly from a craft perspective, this is a step up over anything he's done before.
The Emperor's Children (Knopf), by Claire Messud, continues the dissection of privilege that began in her masterful 1999 novel The Last Life to a generation of young Manhattanites who struggle to define themselves against the legacy of a celebrated journalist. Messud enters the rarified world of New York's literary and cultural elite with a satirist's eye for its suffocating pretensions and insularity; as the title suggests, few characters here are wearing a stitch of clothing. Though she displays little tolerance for elitism and hypocrisy, Messud take enough care to give her characters dimension and fully register the heartbreaking consequences of their entanglements. When the events of September 11th puncture through the narrative in the third act, it might have seemed like a cheap literary device in other hands, but instead it brings instant perspective to a group of people who could stand to awakened from their moral slumber.