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Times Critics Discuss the Year in Books, From Triumphs to Disappointments

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

Did anyone in particular disappoint you?

GARNER Jamie Quatro and Uzodinma Iweala each wrote second books that felt like letdowns after their first, stronger, ones. Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Ondaatje seemed to be writing on autopilot — very high sorts of autopilot, perhaps, but autopilot still. Jonathan Lethem is among the most gifted novelists alive, and it has killed me to have to review his last two novels, including this year’s “The Feral Detective,” without enthusiasm.

I wanted “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back),” the memoir from Jeff Tweedy, of the band Wilco, to be great, but it’s slack and talky and less than the sum of its parts. Lionel Trilling’s morose letters were published this year. As a friend of mine put it, he may have been America’s best critic but he’s its worst letter writer. The final volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” series was so oddly off that it was as if, to borrow a lyric from one of Wilco’s best-known songs, he was trying to break our hearts.

SZALAI I admired Gilbert King’s “Devil in the Grove” (2012) so much that I expected a lot from his follow-up, “Beneath a Ruthless Sun,” which ended up being too convoluted and digressive to deliver. Patricia O’Toole’s “The Moralist,” her biography of Woodrow Wilson, was penetrating on Wilson’s winding, halting entry into World War I, but her handling of his racist legacy — his segregation of the civil service being just one example — felt cursory.

SEHGAL Like Jen, I was intrigued by the premises of certain nonfiction books and let down by the execution. One notable heartbreak was “Two Sisters,” by Asne Seierstad, about two Norwegian sisters who joined ISIS as fighters in Syria in 2013. It’s a strangely partial portrait and dictated largely by the sisters’ father, a wildly unreliable character — an odd decision to say the least, especially from Seierstad, a veteran journalist and a writer I much admire.

What’s the book on each of your lists of 10 favorites that most surprised you, either in terms of how much you enjoyed it or why you enjoyed it?

GARNER Sigrid Nunez’s novel “The Friend” was, for me, this year’s great happy surprise. I’d never really read her before — in fact, I’m embarrassed to say, she’d hardly been on my radar at all. The best feeling you can have as a reader is to devour a terrific book and then flip to the back flap and realize that, hey, this person has six more just waiting for me.

SZALAI I never thought I’d rip through a 700-page book about Israel’s clandestine assassination program, but Bergman’s “Rise and Kill First” is a long book that doesn’t feel that way. The storytelling in Merve Emre’s “The Personality Brokers” is so exquisite and enthralling that I momentarily forgot how much I loathe personality tests.

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