1. NOTHING LIKE IT IN THE WORLD: Veteran historian Stephen Ambrose writes at full throttle about the construction of the transcontinental railroad during the 1860s. This magnificent tale of high finance, low finagling and workers hacking through 2,000 miles is magnificently told.
2. ROBERT KENNEDY: Evan Thomas calls his superb biography “the story of an unpromising boy who died as he was becoming a great man.” Bobby's well-documented life and legend are reexamined here with moral clarity, psychological subtlety and a bracing dramatic pace.
3. A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS: Dave Eggers tricks out his riveting memoir with an ironic title and plenty of literary gamesmanship, but the story he tells is indeed heartbreaking: the death of his parents and his subsequent guardianship of his younger brother. His book shows how laughter is sometimes the only medicine.
4. EXPERIENCE: Taking a breather from fiction, Martin Amis writes movingly about life with his famous father, Kingsley, who died in 1995. The book hums with the same antic prose and looping comic riffs that characterize Martin's novels, along with a surprising admixture of tenderness.
5.IN THE HEART OF THE SEA: The 1820 sinking of the Nantucket whaler Essex, the event that inspired "Moby-Dick," is thrillingly retold by Nathaniel Philbrick.
1. THE BLIND ASSASSIN: Margaret Atwood's novel is part family saga, part social history, part suspense tale and altogether captivating. As its elderly narrator, Iris Chase, looks back on her life and some mysterious deaths she evokes not only a tangled past but a luminous fictional realm.
2. THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY: Michael Chabon's serious but never somber tribute to the golden age of American comic books leaps 600 pages in a single bound. The title characters create an imaginary pulp icon while they live through a vivid era of real-life melodramas from the 1930s to the '50s.
3. RAVELSTEIN: Much ink was spilled wondering how much Saul Bellow's novel told of the real life of his deceased friend Allan Bloom. Such a waste of energy. What matters is that the author, 85, produces another brainy, complex and cantankerous hero to add to his gallery of memorable fictional beings.
4. BEOWULF: The Anglo-Saxon epic, the bane of English majors, looks brand-new and thrilling in a verse translation by Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney. The tale may still strike readers as bloodthirsty, but Heaney's language evokes Beowulf's tragic stature, his helplessness to avoid and his bravery while facing the dictates of his fate.
5. WHITE TEETH: Zadie Smith's miraculous first novel takes place in a tumultuously multicultural London where unlikely friendships and even more unlikely romances rule. Much of the action is comic, but even at their most foolish, Smith's characters are both fascinating and admirable.