“The Flamethrowers,” by Rachael Kushner
There may be closer-to-perfect novels that came out this year, but few have the narrative drive of “The Flamethrowers,” which captures the anarchy of the 1970s in a saga about artists and radicals that moves from Reno (the main character’s hometown, as well as her nickname) to Rome. This coming-of-age tale begins as Reno races her motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats, on her way to becoming “the fastest chick in the world,” and takes off from there. Oh, and Kushner can write.
“Wave,” by Sonali Deraniyagaia
The title refers to a tsunami that hit Sri Lanka, where the author was vacationing with her family, the day after Christmas 2004. One moment, she was relaxing as her husband took a shower and her sons, five and seven, played with their new toys. Minutes later, they were in a Jeep, futilely trying to outrace the tide. Sonali Deraniyagaia’s memoir is an account of the unthinkable — the sudden loss of her entire family — and what came afterward in waves of grief and love.
“Lawrence in Arabia,” by Scott Anderson
Maybe you saw “Lawrence of Arabia” when you were a kid (not long before the Kennedy assassination). If so, you have some idea of T.E. Lawrence, the Oxford scholar turned British Army officer who rode a camel through the desert, dressed like the Arabs and played a key role in their revolt against the Ottoman Turks during World War I. It’s one of the strangest, most thrilling stories in the history of warfare, and Scott Anderson tells it with infinitely greater accuracy and detail.
“Forty-One False Starts,” by Janet Malcolm
This isn’t her best — that would be a tie between “In the Freud Archives” and “The Journalist and the Murderer” — but a book by Janet Malcolm is a highlight of any year. Her collection of essays, on artists and writers from Diane Arbus to J.D. Salinger, begins with a portrait of the painter David Salle slip-sliding into middle age. Malcolm assembles the piece in fragments — 41 possible openings to the article she set out to write — proving herself to be one of the most original artists around.
“Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief,” by Lawrence Wright
His last book, “The Looming Tower,” revealed the backstory behind 9/11. In “Going Clear,” Lawrence Wright applies the same depth of reporting to the top-secret world of Scientology — no easy task, given the group’s longstanding practice of suing reporters into submission. As Wright’s evidence piles up, what becomes truly clear is that the “church” founded in the1950s by sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, which took off as it began to target celebrities in the late ’60s, has plenty to hide.
“Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes,” by Maria Konnikova
Sherlock Holmes’s powers of deduction fascinated Maria Konnikova when she was a child. Now a columnist for Scientific American, she takes a closer look at the fictional detective through the lens of 21st-century psychology and neuroscience and, with that as her springboard, offers ways to sharpen cognitive skills (especially important as we age). Elementary? Maybe not, but “Mastermind” is a lively guide to what your yoga instructor might call “mindfulness” — the ability not merely to see, but to observe.
“Days That I’ll Remember: Spending Time With John Lennon and Yoko Ono,” by Jonathan Cott
This has been a big year for Jonathan Cott, a Rolling Stone magazine veteran known for his cerebral yet passionate interviews with everyone from Bob Dylan to Henry Miller. A book-length version of his celebrated Q&A with Susan Sontag appeared just weeks ago. But Cott’s labor of love was the volume that came out in February: “Day’s That I’ll Remember,” based on a decade of conversations with John and Yoko, including one that took place just three days before John Lennon died.
“The Luminaries,” by Eleanor Catton
This year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, an epic set in New Zealand during the 19th-century gold rush, isn’t just a mystery. It’s a series of them, involving murder and betrayal, sex and opium, smuggling and shipwrecks — even astrology. Nothing is as it appears, and the endless twists and turns (not to mention the 848-page length) will no doubt leave some readers in the dust. But if you like old-fashioned Victorian storytelling, you’ll want to hang on for the ride.
“The Tenth of December,” by George Saunders
A rare mix of satirist and humanist, George Saunders focuses on moral dilemmas in this collection of offbeat tales, such as “Victory Lap” (in which a boy witnesses an attempted kidnapping) and “Escape From Spiderhead” (about convicts serving as guinea pigs in an experimental prison). Back in February, a New York Times critic promised this would be the best book you read all year. That may have been a stretch, but Saunders has certainly earned his “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
“The Property,” by Rutu Modan
The plot sounds simple: A young woman and her grandmother travel from Tel Aviv to Warsaw to reclaim an apartment lost when their family fled the Nazis during World War II. But Israeli illustrator Rutu Modan, author of the award-winning “Exit Wounds,” is a subtle and painstaking storyteller —she even enlisted actors to perform scenes before she drew them — and the result is a complex tale involving memory, romance and family secrets.