For the Francophile. Okay, I admit it. I reviewed a disproportionate number of books on France this year, and for this I apologize. What can I say except that for the Francophile it was A Good Year, as the title of Peter Mayle's latest novel suggests. Mayle's book was the only work of fiction in this category that was reviewed and I didn't love it enough to swoon. The nonfiction works were better, and they included a delicious memoir on Jacques Pepin called The Apprentice, My Life in the Kitchen, the socially and culturally enlightening guide French or Foe by Polly Platt (which was published in the 1990s but recently released in paperback), and Almost French by Sarah Turnbull (also in paperback), which details her move to Paris and gradual understanding and acceptance of French ways and means. French Impressions: The Adventures of An American Family by John S. Little was a funny romp through expat France in the 1950s, and although I didn't review it for fear of overwhelming readers who couldn't care a whit about the country, a similar excellent book with a more gastronomic bent and to-die-for recipes is Clementine in the Kitchen by Samuel Chamberlain. The book was originally published in the 1940s but has been reissued in paperback and is about his family's Cordon Bleu French chef and her transition to America.
For the adventurer in your life, Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson was a fantastic journey into the depths of the ocean to unravel the mystery surrounding the identity of a Nazi sub discovered by a group of divers. In fiction, Helen Fielding's latest novel Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination is a silly but fun James Bondesque romp through the world of espionage. Several literary thrillers were well-received this year, including The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. This novel still tops bestseller lists and is called "the thinking man's DaVinci Code" but if your giftee hasn't read The DaVinci Code yet, I beg to differ and suggest this work instead. The Bookman's Promise by John Dunning and The Intelligencer by Leslie Silbert are somewhat formulaic but likable romps through literature and ancient texts. The Bookman's Promise focuses on a mysterious collection of books by adventurer Richard Burton, while The Intelligencer convincingly takes readers back to Elizabethan England and the spywork of playwright Christopher Marlow. William Martin brings Harvard and its history to life in an excellent fictional account of a search for an unknown work by William Shakespeare in Harvard Yard. And while Pompeii is not a literary thriller per se, it is a fast-paced, fascinating historical thriller reconstructing Roman life around Mt Vesuvius just before the volcano explodes.
Less brash and off-the-beaten-path novels included Dear Mrs. Lindbergh by Kathleen Hughes, which spans the 20th century and pays tribute to the great barnstorming aviatrixes of the 1920s and the painful nascent challenges women faced trying to balance work and family. One Vacant Chair by Joe Coomer won the S. Mariella Gable prize and its gentle, slow-paced, careful prose tends to focus more on the growth and transformation of the characters than on the original plot that's along for the ride. Steve Martin's slim The Pleasure of My Company was a sheer pleasure to read and focuses on a neurotic, nearly home-bound thirty-something man who is both stifled and comforted by the restrictions he's placed on his insular life. Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett was another great novel, and it follows the story of two polar-opposite twin sisters and the abusive man who comes between them.
In the nonfiction category, several books were absolute winners. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a hilarious and self righteous romp through punctuation by English stickler Lynn Truss, while Monster of God by David Quammen was a monster of a book but a fascinating look at predators and how our relationships with them has changed. The Lobster Chronicles by Trevor Corson offers a captivating multi-faceted examination of the gastronome's favorite Crustacean, while CandyFreak by Steve Almond takes on the chocolate industry in both funny and poignant prose. David Sedaris veers from satirist to memoirist in his latest offering Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Chris Bohjalian explores the people and peculiarities of his small New England town in Idyll Banter.
If you still need some suggestions, here are a few of the promising works sitting on my shelf at the moment. I make no claims as to their ultimate merit since I haven't actually read them yet. The Bastard on the Couch is the companion book of 27 male essays to my beloved favorite female angst book The Bitch in the House, and so far it's just as insightful and interesting. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a first novel on modern Afghanistan now in paperback and receiving rave reviews, while Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid by Tim Ecott looks enticing. David Foster Wallace's new book of stories, Oblivion, promises to be a challenge, while Jodi Picoult's novel, My Sister's Keeper, is apropos for the times and focuses on a sister genetically chosen to provide a bone marrow treatment for her sister.