Rick Holmes: The best books we've read this year

Rick Holmes

Reading is "out," especially among the young, experts say, but the biggest publishing event of the past year was the Harry Potter finale, eagerly devoured by millions of kids. Go figure.

Books are a long way from obsolete, and they may be improving, finding new forms like graphic novels, and new delivery systems like audio books and Kindle, Amazon.com's new electronic wireless book reader.

As long as people read books, they'll enjoy recommending their favorites to friends. I've got a few recommendations of my own, but I thought I'd widen this year's suggested reading list to include my colleagues here at the Daily News and some contributors to our opinion pages.

Since most of us don't read books the year they are first published, and because a great read doesn't suffer with age, I asked people simply to tell me something about the best book they read this year. Here are our bookshelf picks:

- "Three Cups of Tea," by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, tells the true story of a world-class mountaineer who took on a different challenge: building schools in the isolated villages on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It shows us a part of the world we need to know more about, and teaches how much a single person can accomplish.

- Rick Holmes

- "Blessed: The Autobiography" by the late soccer great George Best. I bought the book (Ebury Press, Random House, 2001) used for a few bucks on Amazon, and it was a mess, pathetic, much like Best during his lifelong battles with alcohol. But the story was brilliant, like Best on the field - look him up on youtube.com. Born in Northern Ireland, he spent his best years playing in England and his waning "football" years in the North American Soccer League. He continued to drink even after a liver transplant and died in 2005 at age 59.

- Chris Biondi

- Southern Crazy is my favorite genre, so I was thrilled to find a copy of "Little Altars Everywhere" when I spent a few days at the beach. It was a perfect match for the surroundings. Author Rebecca Wells, who also wrote "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," has a deft touch with dark Southern Crazy, but some of the themes explored in these short stories are dark indeed. It's all about family, as Southern Crazy from William Faulkner to Toni McGee Causey always is, but it's certainly not family-friendly.

- Julia Spitz

- "The Road," by Cormac McCarthy, takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where some great fire has turned much of the planet to ashes. The story follows a father and son as they make their way to the coast, while trying to avoid cannibals who prey upon the weak and unsuspecting. This is a bleak and riveting novel from one of the great minimalist masters of American fiction. Much more than a horror novel, it is an examination of survival and morality. I read this book in two sittings - the last 300 pages by candlelight in an all-night session during an ice-storm power outage.

- Rob Haneisen

-"John Eliot and the Indians" by J. Tremaine Copplestone, is an inspired, majestic narrative that traces the life work of America's greatest early missionary through his efforts to found "Praying Indian" towns throughout what is now MetroWest and their eventual demise as an outcome of King Philip's War. Meticulously researched, clearly written and filled with surprises on every page, this privately printed book casts a whole new light on early English-Indian relations and their tragic outcome. Available mainly in local libraries and historical societies.

- Peter Golden

- "The Kite Runner," by Khaled Hosseini is the best book I've ever read. The story is intense. Every paragraph pulls you deeper into a heartbreaking story of a friendship doomed because of religious and class differences and one man's search for forgiveness because he didn't have the courage to stand up for a friend. It's a work of fiction, but feels like truth.

- Deb Gauthier

- Probably two of the best general non-fiction books in the past 10 years came out this year - Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes," (about the CIA) and David Halberstam's "Coldest Winter," about the United States during the Korean War. Both books are based substantially on newly disclosed information, and both books provide what can only be described as a shocking revelation of governmental deceit in the waging of the Cold War. It has often been said that the Russians awoke in 1991 to learn what had been done in their names during the Cold War. As is now revealed by these books, Americans were just as deceived and misled. Anyone who says that this isn't relevant to his or her life, need look no further back than 9/11 to realize that bad government policy and lies about that policy create a vulnerable populace. Forget "feel good" books. Make 2008 the year we woke up to what our government has done in our names.

- Rob Meltzer

- The best book I read in 2007 was "Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who spends four months each in Italy, India and Indonesia trying to find a balance between pleasure and selflessness after a messy divorce. Gilbert is frenetic, fun and relatable as she shares her year abroad. Her writing style is honest and she doesn't hold anything back from her readers.

- Lindsey Parietti

- "Absurdistan," by Gary Shteyngart, is incisive, funny and playful. It's clear Shteyngart loves the language and it loves him. Part descendant of Roth, part Rabelais. Note: Only for readers older than 16.

- Aaron Wasserman

- The best book I read this year is an older one: "The Other Boleyn Girl," by Phillipa Gregory. It's historical fiction, set against the backdrop of the Court of Henry VIII, and tells the story of the notorious Anne Boleyn's more noble sister, Mary, herself a consort of Henry until her sister and her ambitious family shove her aside. It has all the components of a juicy read - history, a great family story, intrigue, treachery, scandal and, of course, sex. I've since lent it to my sister, who lent it to her sisters-in-law, who lent it to their friends, and I doubt if I'll ever see it again.

- Cathy Buday

- "The Bond" by Drs. Sampson Davis, Rameck Hunt and George Jenkins, is a followup to their book "The Pact," published in 2002. Their first book talked about their struggles, growing up in and around the ghettos of Newark, N.J., meeting in high school, and making a promise to each other to become doctors. This new book talks about how each of them felt growing up without a father in the home. The book includes chapters written by two of the three fathers. Essentially, this is a story about forgiveness and reconnecting.

- Jeff Adair

- "The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo" by Joe Sacco is a non-fiction graphic novel about Sacco's time in Sarajevo and follows the story about Neven, a veteran of the Bosian War, who works as a "fixer" - a native who offers visiting Western news crews help finding local color for their broadcasts. The book also mixes in a brief history about the conflict and Sacco parallels uncertainty about the war, its aftermath and Neven's own checkered past. This is no kid's book.

- John Hilliard

- The best book I read this year was "Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage," by Alfred Lansing. The story about 27 men attempting to cross the Antarctic in 1914 is almost unbelievable, especially when in 2007 most of us won't venture outside in our $200 down jackets if it is below 32 degrees.

- Brad Spiegel

- "The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell," by Mark Kurlansky, is a fascinating book about the founding of America and how oysters allowed the explorers and those who came later to survive in such harsh conditions. Hal science, half history, with even a few recipes thrown in for good measure, Kurlansky weaves technical facts about oysters into a lesson about where food comes from and how oysters helped to develop a nation. Imagine there were once oysters the size of dinner plates for the taking in New York Harbor!

- Nancy Olesin

- Jon Clinch's first novel, "Finn" re-tells the story of Huckleberry Finn through the feral eyes of "Pap" Finn, the boy's drunken, embittered father. Incorporating details from Mark Twain's classic, Clinch re-imagines Twain's satirical yet idealized vision of pre-Civil War life by inventing a haunting back story for Huck's past that adds dark psychic depths to the American myth of lost innocence. In an act of creative audacity, Clinch has invested Huckleberry Finn's archetypal journey down the Mississippi with the escaped slave Jim with a tortured humanity as true as anything Twain ever wrote.

- Chris Bergeron

- "The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece," by Jonathan Harr, tells about finding, authenticating, and restoring an original Caravaggio painting. What was particularly interesting was how art historians tracked down receipts detailing money paid to Caravaggio for the painting. Apparently, it wasn't unusual for wealthy families to keep records from the 1500s and earlier that are still in their descendants' possession.

- Elizabeth Banks

- Of all the books documenting George W. Bush's Mesopotamian misadventure, "Babylon by Bus," by Ray LeMoine, Jeff Neumann, and Donovan Webster, may be the most entertaining. It tells the true story of two Boston slackers - inventors of the first "Yankees Suck" T-shirts, no less - who, in despair after the Sox lose the 2003 American League Championship Series, light out for Iraq. They land jobs in the Green Zone and provide a skewed view of the first disastrous year of J. Paul Bremer's occupation, including details about life in Iraq you won't read elsewhere. Who knew Bon Jovi is still a superstar in Baghdad?

- Rick Holmes

Happy new year - and happy reading.

Rick Holmes is opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News and blogs at http://blogs.townonline.com/holmesandco. He can be reached at rholmes@cnc.com