Scintillating fiction debuts by Mark Haddon and Jincy Willet. Graphic novels, never before featured on LJ‘s Best Books list, by Marjane Satrapi and Craig Thompson. Insightful commentary on Iran by Satrapi and Azar Nafisi. Translations of Cervantes and Gabriel García Márquez, both by the remarkable Edith Grossman. And photo essays with global implications from Frédéric Brenner and Agustín Víctor Casasola.
If nothing else, this year’s best books list proves that good things often come in pairs. Some of our picks appear on other best-of lists—in any year, the truly special books rise to the top. But other choices will, we hope, be pleasant surprises. Observed Janet Ingraham Dwyer (Worthington PL, OH), “Once again I appreciate the eclectic selection. This list includes some relative sleepers such as Evidence of Things Unseen (by the splendid Marianne Wiggins) and Stephen S. Hall’s Merchants of Immortality. It’s greatly preferable when the various year-end lists don’t repeat one another; we learn about more good books this way.”
Aczel, Amir D. Pendulum: Léon Foucault and the Triumph of Science. Atria: S. & S. ISBN 0-7434-6478-8. $25.
In February 1851, the French scientific community received an odd invitation “to come see the Earth turn…from three to five” at the Paris Observatory. Using only a pendulum, an obscure, self-taught physicist clearly proved what Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo could not: that the Earth rotated on its axis. Set against the backdrop of the French Second Empire, Aczel’s gripping narrative compellingly blends scientific discovery, political intrigue, and personal triumph against all odds. (LJ 8/03)
Alexander, Caroline. The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. Viking. ISBN 0-670-03133-X. $27.95.
When time and Hollywood take hold, the reality behind a story is bound to get obscured, but the spin doesn’t always start as close to the real events as it did with the story of the Bounty. Alexander gives the ship’s misadventures a first-class investigative treatment, chasing down seemingly minor players and obscure documents to yield a new take on Captain Bligh and his men—and it’s very different from the one concocted by the mutineers’ families and friends. (LJ 9/15/03)
Applebaum, Anne. Gulag: A History. Doubleday. ISBN 0-7679-0056-1. $35.
Over the course of its 30-plus-year existence, the Gulag—the vast system of formidable labor camps established in the Soviet Union after the Russian Revolution—housed a total of 18 million people, of whom 4.5 million never returned. In this landmark study, Applebaum delves deep into the history of the Gulag, describing the daily life with pulse-stopping precision and documenting the horrid crimes that this “country within a country” witnessed during Stalin’s regime. (LJ 3/1/03)
Brenner, Frédéric. Diaspora: Homelands in Exile. 2 vols. HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-008778-1. $100.
The French-based Brenner’s photographs of Jews in Diaspora span five continents and 25 years, with artfully composed black-and-white photographs in one volume and questioning, chattering, interpretive commentaries in the other. Together, the two volumes yield hundreds of voices and visions, showing the range and tenacity of Jewish culture in its worldly incarnations. (LJ 12/03)
Carey, Peter. My Life as a Fake. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-41498-3. $24.
In this follow-up to the Booker Prize–winning True History of the Kelly Gang, Carey once again dramatizes Australian lore, this time focusing on a 1940s literary hoax that mocked modernist poetry. Writing as Bob McCorkle, Christopher Chubb aims to show up a particular editor but inadvertently lands him in court on obscenity charges—and spawns a giant who claims to be the phony poet. Imagination runs wild here, but Carey reins it in just enough to keep it utterly believable. The result is a giddy page-turner that crosses genres, which should expand Carey’s ever-enthusiastic audience. (LJ 11/1/03)
Casasola, Agustín Víctor (photogs.) & Peter Hamill (text). Mexico: The Revolution and Beyond. Aperture. ISBN 1-931788-22-7. $50.
Capturing Mexican life from 1900 to 1940, this uncommonly beautiful work evokes both the tumultuous days of revolution and life’s humbler moments. Hamill’s essay lays the groundwork for Casasola and brother Miguel’s 40-year parade of images, which portray the lurching birth of a Mexican nation, as cities were lit, urban poverty sprawled, and European hats and coats emerged among the shawls and sombreros. This sampling of the tremendous Casasola archive delivers a kaleidoscopic national portrait created by a dedicated native witness.
Cervantes, Miguel de. Don Quixote. HarperCollins. tr. from Spanish by Edith Grossman. ISBN 0-06-018870-7. $29.95.
Everything old is new again: Cervantes’s masterpiece, considered by many the first modern novel, is here rendered in fresh and invigorating prose by expert translator Grossman. Grossman dispenses with the archaic while reawakening the don’s comic spirit, showing genius of her own. What an excellent way to celebrate the book’s quadricentennial. (LJ 11/1/03)
Cohen, Elizabeth. The House on Beartown Road: A Memoir of Learning and Forgetting. Random. ISBN 0-375-50727-2. $23.95.
Just as newspaper reporter Cohen’s life took a wonderful turn with the birth of her daughter, it veered sharply the other way with the arrival of her Alzheimer’s-stricken father and the departure of her husband. Instead of giving in to the weight of all this sudden need and abandonment, Cohen became the go-between for two similarly helpless charges, in the end producing this charming and intelligent book. What might have seemed impossibly contrived as a novel is instead a sympathetic work of reporting about being involved simultaneously with both ends of life—childhood wonder and aged senility. (LJ 10/1/03)
Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963. Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-17238-3. $30.
After getting full access to Kennedy family records, historian Dallek embarked on a mission to write the first one-volume biography of JFK in four decades. The result is a reverent but soberly critical account that sheds new light on Jack’s life as well as his presidency. The JFK that emerges is at once an unruly man with serious health problems and a charming politician who seduced a nation. (LJ 7/03)
García Márquez, Gabriel. Living To Tell the Tale. Knopf. tr. from Spanish by Edith Grossman. ISBN 1-4000-4134-1. $26.95.
If you’ve ever wondered about the inspiration behind García Márquez’s unforgettable tales and his weird and wonderful characters, read this revealing memoir; you’ll quickly learn why his imagination knows no limit. As captivating as any of his novels, this first volume in a promised trilogy reaffirms García Márquez’s literary greatness while deepening our understanding of Colombia’s painful history. (LJ 11/15/03)
Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-50945-6. $22.95.
In one of the most daring first-person narratives in recent years, first novelist Haddon recounts a teenaged autistic boy’s search for the killer of his neighbor’s poodle. Like his hero, Sherlock Holmes, Christopher Boone has the advantage of a fiercely logical mind, yet he is so rigid that he can’t navigate the wider world. When clues point to a bigger mystery involving his parents, the boy must travel to London or suffer the consequences of his knowledge. Haddon deftly expresses Christopher’s mind games, spinning a story filled with quiet but powerful irony. (LJ 5/1/03)
Hall, Stephen S. Merchants of Immortality: Chasing the Dream of Human Life Extension. Houghton. ISBN 0-618-09524-1. $25.
Do you want to live to age 100? Should you live to be that old? In his fascinating report on life-extension research, science writer Hall raises some provocative questions about the social and bioethical consequences of expanding the human life span beyond the biblically mandated threescore and ten, or 70, years. (LJ 6/1/03)
Hazzard, Shirley. The Great Fire. Farrar. ISBN 0-374-16644-7. $24.
In Hazzard’s magisterial new work—her first novel since Transit of Venus in 1980—World War II has just swept through the world like a “great fire,” and in its wake British soldier Aldred Leith comes to recognize that nothing will ever be the same. In perfectly modulated prose, restrained yet weighty with meaning, Hazzard delivers a powerful sense of loss and redemption. (LJ 10/15/03)
Hughes, Robert. Goya. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-58028-1. $40.
The painter of choice for the Spanish royal court, Francisco Goya lived longer and painted more daringly than would seem possible in his historical moment: he worked straight through deafness, Inquisition, war, and exile. Informed by Hughes’s own brush with death, this biography is infused with both personal and cultural urgency. Inquisitive, touching, and passionate, it translates the esteemed painter’s work for modern sensibilities. (LJ 11/15/03)
Johnson, George. A Shortcut Through Time: The Path to the Quantum Computer. Knopf. ISBN 0-375-41193-3. $24.
Contemplating the union of quantum theory and computing is a daunting task. It’s hard to imagine that the newest Pentium chip shoves 40 million electronic switches into a nickel-sized bit of silicon and even harder to imagine what that means when we sit down at the keyboard. But in this accessible and elegant little book, award-winning science writer Johnson gives us a much-needed shortcut, rendering the unimaginable in reader-friendly prose. (LJ 3/1/03)
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Crown. ISBN 0-609-60844-4. $25.95.
Larson (Isaac’s Storm) uses a novelist’s stylish techniques to re-create the triumphant 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago while not taking fictional liberties with history. This convincing portrait includes a ghoulish subplot involving a rich, murderous doctor, Henry H. Holmes, who preyed on the fair’s droves of innocent visitors, at least nine of whom disappeared forever into his nearby den of horrors, the “White Fair Hotel.” Larson tells the crime story without overshadowing the transformative national achievement of the fair. A period piece overlaid with a darkly contemporary sensibility. (LJ 1/03)
Nafisi, Azar. Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books. Random. ISBN 0-375-50490-7. $23.95.
In 1997 Iran, Nafisi formed an illicit book group whose syllabus provided the perfect framework for appraising life before and after the Islamic Revolution—and afforded her female students what little freedom they knew. Through impassioned discussions of Nabokov, James, and Fitzgerald, she details her teaching career and the obstacles her students faced. Her seamless blend of literary criticism and memoir begets a whole new genre and reminds us that fiction, no matter how perverse or fantastic, springs from—and ultimately informs—reality. (LJ 4/1/03)
Oney, Steve. And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank. Pantheon. ISBN 0-679-42147-5. $35.
In a perfectly disturbing blend of meticulous research and powerful storytelling, Oney details the 1913 murder of a young pencil-factory worker in Atlanta and the conviction—and then lynching—of her Jewish supervisor. Based on 17 years’ research, the book finally reveals the truth behind this longstanding cause célèbre, untangling a dense web of anti-Semitism, corrupt journalism, racism, and state-sanctioned murder. (LJ 10/15/03)
Pépin, Jacques. The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen. Houghton. ISBN 0-618-19737-0. $26.
When Pépin turned down an offer to be the White House chef for President Kennedy in favor of a job improving the menu at Howard Johnson’s, little did he know the influential role he would play in changing the way Americans eat. Pépin’s engaging and charmingly modest memoir recalls his culinary journey from early apprenticeships in the traditional restaurants of rural France to his multiple roles today as a cookbook author, television personality, and teacher. (LJ 4/15/03)
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842. Viking. ISBN 0-670-03231-X. $27.95.
After winning the National Book Award for In the Heart of the Sea, Philbrick returns with an outstanding account of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. Led by the arrogant Lt. Charles Wilkes, the expedition can be credited with charting hundreds of Pacific islands and even discovering Antarctica, but Wilkes returned home a marred hero. With elegance and patience for detail, Philbrick fully captures the drama of the journey, delivering a maritime history that reads like an absorbing novel. (LJ 11/15/03)
Quammen, David. Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. Norton. ISBN 0-393-05140-4. $26.95.
This is not just another naturalist’s appeal on behalf of the dwindling, majestic big cats. It is something larger: a lucid exploration of the man-eater (tiger, lion, bear, shark, crocodile) in history and the crucial psychic space these creatures occupied in human consciousness for thousands of years. Quammen’s curiosity takes him around the world to investigate comparative hunting literatures and myths as well as study the remaining places where big predators hold their fearsome place of honor atop the food chain. A truly original work of natural and intellectual history. (LJ 8/03)
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. Pantheon. ISBN 0-375-42230-7. $17.95.
The great-granddaughter of Iran’s last emperor and the daughter of upper-middle-class leftists, Satrapi came of age in post–Islamic Revolution Iran. In this enchanting graphic novel, she cleverly recounts—through simple language and unadorned drawings—what it was like for a child to witness the injustice of the new fundamentalism. From the comical beginning to the heart-wrenching end, this tale charms and educates equally. (LJ 5/1/03)
Thompson, Craig. Blankets. Top Shelf. ISBN 1-891830-43-0. pap. $29.95.
In this graphic novel of his youth in rural Wisconsin, Thompson resuscitates the flagging coming-of-age genre. His alter ego navigates first love, family, and religion—hellish obstacles, to be sure, but depicted beautifully here. Crystallizing desire, despair, joy, redemption, and other fleeting emotions with voluptuous lines and a barrage of cross-hatching, Thompson has produced a triumph for the genre. (LJ 7/03)
Toker, Franklin. Fallingwater Rising: Frank Lloyd Wright, E.J. Kaufmann, and America’s Most Extraordinary House. Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4026-4. $35.
As Toker makes delightfully clear, Fallingwater is not just a great house, it’s a great story—even for those who have never given much thought to that cantilevered wonder at Mill Run, PA. Here, Toker shows how an isolated waterfall, a celebrated architect, and the volatile energies of a Pittsburgh department store magnate combined to create a miracle of 20th-century architecture. (LJ 10/1/03)
White, Curtis. The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves. HarperSanFrancisco: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-052436-7. $23.95.
This book’s easy engagement with concepts like the New Censorship, “true” art, and Pure War and its unusual ability to provoke and invigorate more than make up for its sometimes shaky execution. White makes a passionate case for the importance of the imagination as he skewers our society’s overwhelming lack of fresh thinking. The media, academia, and politics are briskly taken to task in this wake-up call. (LJ 9/1/03)
Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. Farrar. ISBN 0-374-17526-8. $26.
Unlike the scores of works by biographers exploring the life, deeds, and character of our first President, Wiencek’s book focuses on the longstanding mystery of Washington’s final legal act: Why, alone among the slaveholding Founders, did he free his 124 slaves at the end of his life? Wiencek comes to a fresh admiration for the President through telling the story of the lifelong evolution of Washington’s views on the ownership of human beings. (LJ 9/15/03)
Wiggins, Marianne. Evidence of Things Unseen. S. & S. ISBN 0-684-86969-1. $25.
This is a novel shot through with radiance. It’s embedded in the very fabric of the story, as practical Fos, always fascinated with what makes things shine, wends his way to Opal, a glassblower’s daughter. Together they endure the Depression and discover the good and bad in science. But what one finally remembers from the text is the light—not mere glow but light as waves. In this complex union of form and content, the characters move like light toward the unseen, their lives trailing along as evidence. A singular accomplishment. (LJ 6/1/03)
Willett, Jincy. Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather. Thomas Dunne Bks: St. Martin’s. ISBN 0-312-31181-8. $23.95
No, this cheeky black comedy did not win that prestigious literary prize, but maybe it should have, judging from the wan winners that narrator/librarian Dorcas Mathers tries to sell for 50¢ a piece: “You remember, Handleman’s Jest. Parameters & Palimpsests.… We sell them because no one has checked them out for four years.” Literary pretentiousness is just one of Willett’s many targets in her scathingly funny first novel about sibling rivalry and love. (LJ 9/1/03)
Yehoshua, A.B. The Liberated Bride. Harcourt. tr. from Hebrew by Hillel Halkin. ISBN 0-15-100653-9. $27.
The festive wedding of his Arab graduate student bitterly reminds Yohannon Rivlin, a senior professor at Haifa University, of the abrupt and mysterious collapse of his son’s marriage. At the same time, his academic research entangles Rivlin further into the personal life of his student, whose new marriage may also be subject to question. Yehoshua, one of Israel’s finest authors, has written a moving tale about the very human desire for liberation. (LJ 11/1/03)
|Barbara Hoffert is Editor; Wilda Williams is Senior Editor; Heather McCormack is Managing Editor; and Carolyn Kuebler, Mirela Roncevic, and Nathan Ward are Associate Editors, LJ Book Review|