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Best of 2002
Critic: Margaret Black

1. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia
Orlando Figes

Figes whirls you around the lavish ballroom of Russian culture during the past 300 years. There’s some of everything, from Leo Tolstoy’s majestic novel War and Peace to Tarkovsky’s sci-fi movie Solaris (the original). Figes tells stories you’ve never heard before and anecdotes that will make you laugh out loud. So the book is more than 800 pages. So you get a little confused with all the names. Give yourself over to Figes and you’ll have a terrific time.

2. The Fourth Treasure
Todd Shimoda

Shows what can be done when the story, characters, and book itself are all part of one unified art form. Plus Shimoda’s got several marvelously intricate plots, all of which come to satisfying conclusions.

3. A Mind of its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis
David Friedman

Has more interesting information than you’d believe possible on this subject, fascinating as it is, and he’s a very entertaining writer to boot. So it’s the second “cultural history” on this list—they are completely different and utterly absorbing.

4. The Eyre Affair
Jasper Fforde

This novel takes place in a time-shifting, alternative universe where everyone’s deliriously obsessed with literature. Even thugs trade bubblegum cards of characters in Henry Fielding novels. There’s evil afoot—someone’s altering the text of classic novels—and our heroine, Thursday Next (whose uncle has invented a way to send pizza by fax), sees the hand of Acheron Hades, the third most evil man in the world, at work.

5. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood
Alexandra Fuller

This brilliantly written memoir has great insight into colonialism in Africa. Fuller’s tale of growing up marshmallow in a black world is totally unsentimental, unsparing, and deeply moving. It’s also one of the year’s funniest books, and that’s a real triumph, given the subject matter.

Best of 2002
Critic: Carlo Wolff

1. What Should I Do With My Life?
Po Bronson

Great journalism, great idea: beautifully written accounts of self-discovery by a reporter fully engaged in the process himself.

2. Deep in a Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker
James Gavin

This gripping biography of trumpeter Baker retools and updates the notion of cool by tracking the devolution of a bebop legend from matinee idol to monster junkie.

3. Hello to the Cannibals
Richard Bausch

This wonderful novel showcases Bausch’s exceptional grasp of the feminine by linking the lives of Lily Austin, an insecure, gifted mother and playwright of the late 20th century, and her subject and role model, 19th-century explorer Mary Kingsley.

4. Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust
Richard Rhodes

Rhodes breaks searing ground in this exploration of the Nazi death squads that murdered millions of Jews, Slavs and others whom Adolf Hitler and his henchmen viewed as obstacles to their megalomaniac plans.

5. Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War
T.J. Stiles

This life of the famous American outlaw clarifies the development of modern violence and proves the simplistic Jesse James of the movies falls far short of the historical mark.

6. Jolie Blon’s Bounce
James Lee Burke

Detective Dave Robicheaux encounters the Devil in an enthralling mystery that doubles as an exploration of morality. The writing is intoxicating.

7. Chasing the Dime
Michael Connelly

Thriller writer Connelly steps out of his Harry Bosch character to explore computer wizardry and wrong numbers. Tight as a drum, this transcends genre.

8. The Fruit of Stone
Mark Sragg

A western novel with high cheekbones, unforgettable characters and an unusual grasp of domesticity.

9. No Heroes: A Memoir of Coming Home
Chris Offutt

Offutt is so good he makes his engrossing memoir a profound inquiry into the notion of home.

Best of 2002
Critic: David Greenberger

1. Inflating a Dog
Eric Kraft

The latest installment in the ever-expanding meta-novel of the life of Peter Leroy is a loving portrait of his mother, which is to say Kraft’s loving portrait of his mother.

2. Dream Brothers: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley
David Browne

This dual biography rings with the lure of music as well as the melancholy heart of frail beings.

3. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters
Robert Gordon

A tale rich with hijinks, humor and dignity, as well as travails, fractious circumstances, deceit and sadness—in short, it is imbued with the same substance that empowers its core subject: the blues.

4. One Hundred Demons
Lynda Barry

Barry’s best yet, as she questions a lifetime of often-conflicted impulses, urges and desires common to us all. I must also note that my daughter Norabelle shows up in one of the chapters as a real character, though that in no way changes the truth of my previous statement.

5. Da Capo Best Music Writing 2002
Jonathan Lethem (ed.)

Third in this annual series draws from writings on hiphop, jazz, country, rock and some hard-to-classify roots and branches. Highpoints include “The Many Faces of Korla Pandit” by R.J. Smith and “A Long Strange Trip,” Michael Hall’s sad but honorable portrait of Roky Erickson.

6. Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the WarnerMusic Group
Stan Cornyn with Paul Scanlon

Warner Bros. was an oasis of honest, innovative and lasting music from the late ’60s through the ’70s, and Stan Cornyn gleefully spun in the midst of it all, heading up what was loosely called Creative Services. It’s a testament to Cornyn and Scanlon that the former’s innate wit and charm comes shining through over the course of this rather lengthy tome.

7. Warm Voices Rearranged: Anagram Record Reviews
Brandan Kearney and Gregg Turkington

Short and sweet, here’s a few samples: “Glib Repeater” (Peter Gabriel), “Matured? No, unable” (Madonna True Blue) and “ELP release a gross, dreary album. Mankind ran!” (Emerson, Lake and Palmer Brain Salad Surgery).

Best of 2002
Critic: Amy Sisson

1. Stories of Your Life and Others
Ted Chiang

The unusual second-person, future-tense narrative in this debut collection’s title story seems brazen, but by the end you’ll be convinced that Story of Your Life could not have been told any other way. With that beautifully crafted tale, Chiang has set himself an almost impossible standard, but most of the award-winning stories in this book show that he’s up to the challenge.

2. Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable
Mark Dunn

The statue commemorating the great Nevin Nollop, inventor of the famous pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” has lost the letter “z,” kicking off a Council prohibition against that unfortunate letter. As tiles drop and letters are excised from the alphabet, Nollopians must come up with creative new ways to express themselves in this extremely clever first novel.

3. Frida
Jonah Winter, illustrated by Ana Juan

This stunning picture-book biography portrays a much-simplified version of Frido Kahlo’s artistic life. Utilizing traditional Mexican folk-art characters, illustrator Ana Juan has successfully captured Kahlo’s world of self-portraiture, making it suitable and memorable for children yet appealing to adults.

4. Tepper Isn’t Going Out
Calvin Trillin

Murray Tepper’s quiet affection for perfectly legal street parking is eventually noticed by the press, the public, and a control-freak mayor who wants to prosecute Tepper as a public nuisance. This gently satiric novel is simply a pleasure to read.

5. Leaping to the Stars
David Gerrold

In the concluding volume of the “Dingilliad,” Charles Dingillian and family finally escape the social and economic collapse of the solar system, but find that special-interest factions continue to covet the priceless artificial intelligence in their possession. No weak end to a series, this thoughtful book continues to explore humanity’s propensity to screw things up.

6. Lullaby,
Chuck Palahniuk

Carl Streator is a widower journalist researching SIDS when he discovers the murderous power of an African culling chant. In this strange, supernatural thriller, the author of the cult classic Fight Club becomes accessible to a wider audience without losing his satiric edge.

7. Kiln People
David Brin

With alternating chapters told by four versions of the same private investigator (one real, three “dittos”), this science-fiction mystery presents not only an expedited nature-versus-nurture scenario, but also a playful and effective exploration of narrative technique.

Best of 2002
Critic: John Rodat

1. Genius
Harold Bloom

Bloom examines and traces the notion of genius, as represented by 100 writers, through the history of Western literature—from the Yahwist to Ralph Ellison. Bloom groups the hundred geniuses—yes, mostly white, mostly male, all dead—not chronologically, but in accordance with metaphorical links suggested by the sefirot, the 10 symbols of creative power in the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. It’s exactly as obscure as it sounds, but lit fans interested in the academic conversation surrounding the canon will dig this. Won’t you, you dusty wackos?

2. The Last American Man
Elizabeth Gilbert

Magazine writer Elizabeth Gilbert expanded an article she wrote for GQ into this book-length nonfiction examination of the life of outdoorsman Eustace Conway, who “left his comfortable suburban home at the age of seventeen to move into the Appalachian Mountains, where for the last twenty years he has lived, making fire with sticks, wearing skins . . .” and so forth. But Gilbert’s account is no shallow encomium to some rough-and-ready frontier archetype. It’s an affecting chronicle of a remarkable utopian’s attempts to spread the word, without being absorbed into the world he hopes to change.

3. The Subject Steve
Sam Lipsyte

In this fantastic first novel, “Steve (not his real name)” is diagnosed by his two doctors—the Mechanic and the Philosopher—with a fatal disease for which they can find no cause, though they’re eager and media-saavy enough to label it: Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome. The diagnosis sets the protagonist off on an existential quest, and the author off on a satirical romp infused with equal parts Orwellian morality and Kafkaesque absurdity. A very funny skewering of a society in need of just that.

4. Breaking Open the Head
Daniel Pinchbeck

There’s no shortage of first-person drug-experience books, the psycho-pharmaco-travelogues. And though I tend to enjoy the fictionalized accounts, all the nonfiction entries in that category have generally left me cold. Breaking Open the Head benefits from author Daniel Pinchbeck’s winning combination of the traits of the Beatnik searcher and the Gen-X skeptic: He recognizes that his mission is hinged on “the impossible, the embarrassing, the ultimate childish question of Why?” Though, of course, the childish nature of his quest in no way deters him from traveling around the world, stuffing his face full of drugs, er, sacraments (yagé, DMT, iboga), puking and hoping to meet God.

5. The Tale of the Rose
Consuelo De Saint-Exupéry

This memoir by the wife of the author of The Little Prince was found in manuscript form 15 years after her death; since its original publication in France, in 2000, it has been translated into 19 languages and has been a global bestseller. The biographical introduction alone justifies the hubbub. The Salvadoran woman born Consuelo Suncin Sandoval in 1901 is like a character out of a Marquez or Cortazar novel: strong, intelligent, poetically perceptive and intensely passionate. Her story—the story behind the love story in her husband’s most famous book—adds force to the legend Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, but stands equally well solely on its on merits.

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