The Magicians

By Lev Grossman. Published in 2009.

For a book with such an obvious sales gimmick—in this case, “Harry Potter for grown-ups”—The Magicians is strikingly well imagined. It might be opportunistic, but it’s not uninspired, and author Lev Grossman is a talented enough writer to find new ways around familiar elements while exploring fresh themes. The result is a book that’s less a fantasy novel than a dark coming-of-age tale—magic without the carefree whimsy and bright moral lines that usually accompany it.

Columbine

By Dave Cullen. Published in 2009.

Dave Cullen taught me the difference between hate and contempt. Some five years ago, he wrote an article for Slate exploring the motives of the notorious Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, with new analysis from the FBI’s lead investigator on the case, a clinical psychologist. The key idea was that the two boys were very different people: Harris was a full-blown psychopath (in the true psychiatric sense), and Klebold was a suicidal depressive who fell into the other boy’s orbit.

That conclusion and the well-informed rationale behind it are fascinating, but it was the distinction between hate and contempt that haunted me. In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, most people assumed that the killers’ motive was hatred—for jocks, for minorities, for Christians, whatever—but judging from the considerable evidence left behind, Harris, the mastermind, wasn’t motivated by hatred of individuals or even of specific groups. In a way, that would have required acknowledging his victims as human beings, fellows worthy of hate. Harris considered himself a god among insects; his victims were interchangeable fodder for his apocalyptic vision. In short, he didn’t feel hate so much as general contempt. And that’s what makes him so frightening.

Cullen expands upon that old article—along with his numerous others and a decade’s worth of investigation into the attack—to produce Columbine, an exhaustive, compelling look at that horrific day in April 1999, the months that lead up to it, and the years that followed. At once a true crime tome, a psychopathy primer, and a media criticism treatise, the book is engrossing and deeply thought-provoking. That unforgettable lesson on hate and contempt is not an anomaly: Columbine is not a rubber-necking tabloid tale but a reflective, compassionate view of both the trees and the forest. As the New York Times acknowledged, Columbine isn’t In Cold Blood reborn (which cracked me up: Capote’s masterpiece is truly the unattainable grail of the true crime genre), but by virtually any other standard, it’s a triumph.

The Hunger Games

By Suzanne Collins. Published in 2008.

I checked out a copy of Suzanne Collins’s well-reviewed YA novel solely because the premise immediately recalls that of the cult classic Battle Royale. For those who haven’t experienced the Japanese movie, it’s an elaborate, bloody melodrama about a group of adolescent schoolmates forced by a police state to fight to the death as part of a poorly explained effort to suppress dissent. When you watch Battle Royale in the United States, someone always notes that it was banned here (not true: it simply never found a distributor) or that it could never have been made here (OK, that’s probably true), so the existence of an American book aimed directly at teenagers with that exact forbidden plot cracks me up.

The God of Animals

By Aryn Kyle. Published in 2007.

The first chapter of The God of Animals initially appeared as an award-winning short story in The Atlantic, and the residue of its earlier incarnation lingers in the pages of the novel. Good short stories distill so much into such little space—every word counts—and The God of Animals, with its tone set by that gorgeous first chapter, has that same kind of bewitching weight.

Geek Love

By Katherine Dunn. Published in 1989.

The story of Geek Love is grotesque—a vivid nightmare of abuse, violence, incest, and all manner of depravity—so it’s a testament to Katherine Dunn’s skill as a writer that the novel manages to overcome readers’ knee-jerk repulsion. Although the horror remains, as it should, the detached disgust melts away, making room for the wonder and thought and empathy the book also inspires. Dunn easily could have traded in shock value, but her writing is too smart and too human for anything so cheap. The bizarre premise might capture the attention, but the carefully controlled narrative, perceptively drawn characters, and evocative language are what make Geek Love so memorable and profoundly affecting.

The Day of the Triffids

By John Wyndham. Published in 1951.

I remember thinking, after the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s widely ridiculed The Happening, that his choice to make plants the villains was a fatal flaw. Even the most sensitive allergy sufferer isn’t going to recoil in mortal terror from the image of a tree releasing pollen into the air. And carnivorous plants, as every scientifically inclined kid soon accepts with disappointment, are much more exciting in theory than practice. Plants, I believed, simply can’t be scary.

But I was wrong. Decades ago, author John Wyndham made predatory plants a key element in his post-apocalyptic novel The Day of the Triffids. (Forgive me. I’m still on a post-apocalyptic kick.) Wyndham succeeds where Shyamalan fails, I believe, because his triffids are still recognizably plants. Rather than giving them wild, goofy powers, Wyndham ratchets up familiar plant traits—poison, digestion of carrion—and hints that the triffids’ truly bizarre attribute—their ability to “walk,” however awkwardly, for limited distances—likely developed from reckless genetic modification. It’s just this side of plausible, just enough to burrow its way into the imagination.

Even more effective, though, is that triffids don’t become a serious threat until people are already rendered vulnerable. The “apocalypse” of the novel is not a single event but a series: one catastrophe paving the way for another and then another. The initial catastrophe—the meteor shower (or was it?) that blinds virtually the entire population—is perhaps the least plausible but certainly the most nightmarish: what it lacks it raw credibility it makes up for with its play on primal fears. Yet Triffids never feels exploitative. Wyndham’s writing is coolly matter-of-fact, and he excels at merely suggesting horrors, giving just enough to let the reader’s imagination run wild. The result is a weirdly reserved yet oddly effective exploration of the breakdown of human civilization—compelling, thought-provoking, and quintessentially British.

The Wordy Shipmates

By Sarah Vowell. Published in 2008.

I wasn’t sure how long I’d have to stand in line to vote, so the day before, I picked up a copy of The Wordy Shipmates for the queue. As it turns out, my wait was only about thirty minutes, but Sarah Vowell’s short history of the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony was still a worthwhile purchase—not to mention oddly appropriate for a post-election cool-down.

Vowell is the best kind of history buff, pulling off the difficult balancing act of placing people within their historical context while holding on to her own values and judgment. In other words, she is fair but not a moral relativist. She neither whitewashes the past nor condemns everyone who wouldn’t fit in at a contemporary urban liberal cocktail party, and she has a real appreciation for the quirks and foibles that transform people from generic historical figures into distinct individuals. Now that I think about it, Vowell is a talented popular historian for the same reason she’s a talented storyteller: she recognizes and celebrates the complexity of human beings.