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Critic: Margaret Black

1. Astonishing Splashes of Colour

Clare Morrall

This first novel gives a whole new meaning to the trite expression “dysfunctional family,” showing that among a vivid array of peculiar and selfish individuals (whose problems can verge on the psychotic), an unexpected degree of caring and decency emerges pretty much all the time.

2. The Earth and Sky of Jacques Dorme

Andrei Makine

Andrei Makine returns yet again to the Siberia of post-World War II Russia, where his protagonist, an orphan in a ghastly prison/school for the children of political criminals, learns about a brief, dazzling love affair between a Frenchwoman and a Russian pilot during the siege of Stalingrad. Three time periods converge—the inconceivably violent war, the grungy postwar school, and the narrator’s adult life as a pilot in the Arctic—all brilliantly conceived in 216 pages.

3. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Yiyun Li

This first collection of short stories explores what can only be called the cross-cultural experience of various Chinese people, young and old, who are trying to make sense of the utterly changed social and economic landscape of their present.

4. The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe

Paula Fox

In this spare memoir of her 23rd year, Paula Fox came face to face with struggling survivors of World War II as they tried to maintain life in a blasted postwar landscape locked in one of the coldest winters on record, yet had something of the traditional trip abroad, for her year there showed her “something beyond my own life, freeing me from chains I hadn’t know were holding me, showing me something other than myself.”

5. White Savage: William Johnson and the Invention of America

Fintan O’Toole

In this life of William Johnson, an Irishman who suppressed his Catholic background in order to advance in England’s Protestant empire, the complete success of his association with the Iroquois tribes tipped the balance in upstate New York during the conflict between the French and the English in northern America.

6. The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade

Pietra Rivoli

Pietra Rivoli takes readers on a breathtaking, informative ride through the complexities of contemporary global economics, using nothing but a $6 T-shirt purchased in a Florida drugstore.

7. The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

The author examines the first year following the death of her beloved husband, including the pain and disorientation that many have suffered, but few have such talent to express.

8. Wormwood Forest

Mary Mycio

The author celebrates the strange, fantastic resurrection that has taken place in the land contaminated by the explosion and meltdown of the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

9. A History of the World in 6 Glasses

Tom Standage

Tom Standage describes how six drinks have both characterized and determined the nature of history in the periods when they predominated: beer, wine, hard alcohol, coffee, tea, and Coke.

10. Saving Troy: A Year with Firefighters and Paramedics in a Battered City

William Patrick

This beautifully structured book captures the ongoing heroism of everyday firefighters and EMTs—the perpetual pressure, the drama, the revulsion, the humor, the bravery, and the never-ending press of impossible calls.

Critic: gene mirabelli


1. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

“If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work,” says this book, and it dramatizes that premise in a number of very entertaining ways.

2. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

Thomas Friedman

You may have noticed, as Friedman has, that we live in a global economy, that wages in Schenectady are effected by wages in Jakarta, and that most of what you buy in Wal-Mart is made in China. While this isn’t news, it’s certainly important and Friedman does a good journalistic job of surveying the global economy, showing its interconnectedness and noting its effects on governments, corporations and individuals.

3. China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World

Ted C. Fishman

No nation has ever moved so swiftly and so massively toward global economic hegemony as China. China is booming. There are more Chinese who speak English as a second language than there are native English speakers in the United States, and it’s projected that over the next 15 years China will have to construct an urban infrastructure equivalent to that of Houston every month.

4. Why Europe Will Run the Twenty-first Century

Mark Leonard

Worried readers looking for a balance to China may be encouraged by Mark Leonard’s little book. It’s a concise work, and not everyone will think it a counterweight in intellectual heft to Fishman’s tome.

5. Class Matters

Correspondents of The New York Times

Originally appearing as a series in the Times, this work illustrates the class bias in our so-called classless society by focusing on the lives of real New Yorkers. It’s not a secret that class matters, but it’s instructive to see, for example, what a heart attack does to two people who have great differences in money, education and social standing. Moral: get rich as soon as you can.

6. The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century

James Kunstler

The scarcity of fuel and the effects of climate change are only two of the many catastrophes that are coming together to change for the worse the way we live, or so says Kunstler, an apocalyptic writer who makes Malthus look like a starry-eyed optimist.

7. The 9/11 Commission Report

The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks

This report offers an overwhelming wealth of information, and not just dull data but dramatic stories as well. There are heroes in this terrifying tale, but even a scattered reading in this long and detailed work leaves the reader with a sense of utter tragedy.

8. The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq

George Packer

In this work, the hawkish liberal Packer reports on the bureaucratic maneuvers that led up to the invasion of Iraq and shows the horrific consequences of this optional war and its horribly bungled aftermath. His is a dramatic and personal account; it’s a best seller and deservedly so.

9. The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East

Robert Fisk

Award-winning journalist Fisk has produced 1,000-plus pages and included all the historical breadth and depth you can ask for. An Olympian look into what’s going on in our world.

10. See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism

Robert Baer

This book was published three years ago, but it’s here because it’s the basis for this year’s great political movie Syriana. The movie is fiction, a thriller involving the global oil industry from Washington, D.C., to the fields of the Persian Gulf, the upper-level maneuvering for wealth and power, and the consequences. The book is nonfiction.

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