1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. J. K. Rowling. You could call it the most satisfying ending to a guessing game since the casting of Scarlett O'Hara. The seventh and final installment of the Potter series went in no radical directions (Harry didn't die), but Rowling made it look effortless when she niftily tied off one plot line after another. The kids who grew up on these novels--and therefore can't help but take them somewhat for granted--have no idea how lucky they are.
2. The Yiddish Policeman's Union. Michael Chabon. The premise sounds just too cute: the Jews, instead of settling in Israel, settle in southern Alaska (this was a real notion of FDR's). The story opens just when the territory is about to revert to Alaska, and as a police detective, a shlumpy divorced malcontent--think Columbo with one third the animation--named Landsman gets going on a murder case involving a chess genius. Twenty pages in and you just know, from the authority with which Chabon spins his tale, that he's not going to put a foot wrong. And he doesn't.
3. Lucien Freud. William Feaver. Freud must have some odd deal with the devil, because he gets a big new edition of his work every year or so. This is the second slipcased edition in a decade. But then again, how many artists are this prolific? Now in his 80s, Freud is still painting portraits at a furious rate--and it is, as it always has been, almost all portraits, of friends, acquaintances, anyone he fancies who has the stamina to sit for weeks and sometimes months, usually nude on a rug, a ratty sofa, the floor of Freud's studio. Does he get better? Not really. But he got great a long time ago, and there's been no falling off. Flesh was never made more palpable in paint.
4. The Long Embrace. Judith Freeman. This one has oddball nonfiction classic written all over it. Part biography (make that a double), part travel book, this strange tale looks (admiringly, tenderly) at the lives of Raymond Chandler and his wife, Cissy (who was 18 years his senior). It also looks at the detective fiction that Chandler wrote so well and at the city where he set his novels. The Chandlers moved constantly, and as Freeman follows them from house to house, she builds one of the strangest and most beguiling visions of Los Angeles ever published.
5. Zeroville. Steve Erickson. There is no dearth of novels about Hollywood, but there are darn few good ones. This one is excellent. A man gets off a bus in Los Angeles in 1969. He has a shaved head and on his scalp is tattooed a picture of Montgomery Clift kissing Elizabeth Taylor in "A Place in the Sun." He has adventures, makes a movie, wins and loses--the plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but let's just say that while this is not the most pleasant story you'll ever read, you have this hankering to stay inside it forever.
6. The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Alex Ross. The New Yorker's classical-music critic concentrates here on the usual suspects (Stravinsky, Schoenberg) and some not so usual (Sibelius), on eras and on historical movements and how history and culture collided and colluded and how it was we got from "Der Rosenkavalier" to minimalism. Ross has a wonderful ear and a broad appreciation of music (on his Web site he compares the same interval in pieces by Sibelius, Coltrane and Bernstein). He's also infectiously in love with his subject.
7. Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. Richard Rhodes. This one will make you want to blow your brains out. The run up to a nuclear holocaust that wasn't, it details how all the same villains who gave us the war in Iraq were present and active when the United States and the Soviet Union brinked right up to blowing the world to smithereens back in the days of the Reagan administration.
8. The Book of Psalms. Robert Alter. New translations should make texts alive again, and this one does that in spades. Alter translates felicitously, but he also explains his choices, giving you little lessons in word choice, pastoral imagery, history and religion. You think you know these texts, or you do until you read Alter, who reignites their beauty in bracing and unexpected ways.
9. After Dark.Haruki Murakami. The denizens of Tokyo in the wee small hours, as filtered through the novelist's peculiar, laidback brand of magical realism, complete with a woman who's been asleep for months and who disappears for a while--through the screen of a television set.
10. Falling Man. Don DeLillo. In this fictional accounting of a few lives in the wake of 9/11, DeLillo stares down the temptation to hold forth on Important Themes, preferring instead to register just what it was like to live through that strange time when everything seemed more vivid and nothing added up. A disquieting, haunting book.
11. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The author is a reporter for The Washington Post; the story describes the foolish choices and the outright cupidity on the part of American officials that produced the current situation in Iraq.
12. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA. Tim Weiner. From the end of World War II to the present, a New York Times reporter's mordant account of government sponsored spying and deceit: the dark side of the American Century.
13. A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932. John Richardson. The word magisterial gets kicked around a lot with reference to biographies of larger-than-life figures, but this time it goes double: Picasso has no rivals as the emblematic artist of the last century, and Richardson, now up to his third volume chronicling the painter's achievement, is well on his way toward giving his subject the biography he deserves.
14. Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Ishmael Beah. There are reportedly some 300,000 children currently forced into military service around the world. Beah's account of how he found himself with a gun in his hands and at the mercy of an army of killers in Sierra Leone reads like Dickens on acid.
15. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. Edited by Otto Penzler. Pulp fiction from the '30s was the breeding ground of everything hardboiled in American culture and the launching pad for at least three of the best novelists of the 20th century: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain. This 1,150-page omnibus, complete with a lot of the original illustrations from Black Mask and the other magazines of the period, is a trove of lurid writing, some of it hilariously so, and plenty of gems. Youse had better love it.