1. Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before, by Michael Fried. The text is weak (and mostly skippable), but still this had high value for me. It's a look at how photography has become the centerpiece of contemporary art, starting with Jeff Wall and offering well-chosen color images from the leading creators. I had been needing a book like this.
2. The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How American and Europe are Alike, by Peter Baldwin. This book offers an onslaught of facts and statistics, toward the aim of showing that the United States and Europe aren't so different after all. You also can read it as a critique of purely statistical reasoning. At the very least, it's a good reference work even though I wasn't convinced by the central thesis.
3. Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything, by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell. This is an exciting and prophetic book about taking the ideas of self-experimentation and self-recording to an extreme. Record your entire life and then do…?…with the data. Something, they'll figure it out. Just record the recorders and run regressions on what ends up working.
4. The Perfect Fruit: Good Breeding, Bad Seeds, and the Hunt for the Elusive Pluot by Chip Brantley. There is now a "go-to" book on the pluot and this is it. It explains why plums vary so much in quality, why plums are usually bad these days, how the pluot was intended as a replacement, and why some stores call them plumcots. I paid attention the whole way through.
5. The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. I loved the first part, about the guy's relationship with his dying father, but found the wartime blacklist story only "good." Still, this is one of the better Colombian novels and I could imagine the author writing a truly great novel someday. Here is one good review.
6. Lorrie Moore, A Gate at the Stairs. Has any novel this year received better or more unanimous critical reviews? The writing is smart, beautiful, and quirky and Moore is not afraid to let her main character be weird. Still, I lost interest within one hundred pages and stopped reading. I am willing to admit the fault may be mine and over Christmas I'll try it again. Somehow I need more analytic structure in my fiction. If you look at the Amazon reader reviews, they make related points. Here is some background information on the book. Do let me know if you loved it.
7. Joyce Appleby, The Relentless Revolution: A History of Capitalism. My mouth watered at the thought of a popular (Norton) Joyce Appleby book on the origins of capitalism. It is intelligent throughout but it wasn't teaching me anything so I put it down. Skimming did not alter this impression. It is more a disappointment than a bad book but it is a disappointment nonetheless. All of a sudden she's afraid to take chances.
8. Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder. It bored me and I stopped. It's OK but I view it as an inefficient blend of narrative and mild information about East African ethnic cleansing. Most critics praised it.
The new Pamuk book, due out in October, is phenomenal and is getting better each day.