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Best of 2003

Critic: J. Eric Smith

1. Never Mind the Pollacks
Neal Pollack

A loving (?) literary bitch-slap to music critics and everything music critics hold dear, written in perfect music-critic style, poking every sacred cow and icon as it ripsnorts along on its way to nowhere.

2. Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
Simon Winchester

The disaster is fun to read about, sure, but this book succeeds more for its depiction of colonial Indonesia before and after the eruption, and how a great natural disaster changed the course of empire.

3. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Erik Larson

The author of the equally engaging Isaac’s Storm tells the twin tales of Chicago’s Columbian Exhibition (the world’s fair to end all world’s fairs), and of H.H. Holmes, who became America’s first documented serial killer in the shadow of Mister Ferris’ amazing wheel.

4. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
Walter Isaacson

A worthy addition to the Franklin canon, reintroducing us to the founding father who we all think we know, and who we all would have wanted to hang out with, were we stuck in 18th-century Philadelphia.

5. Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal
Ian Christe

The rarest of music literature beasts: a genre overview that works equally well for those who know nothing about the style of music tackled, and those who know far more than is good for them about the style of music tackled. Meticulous and essential.

6. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Jon Krakauer

Another exploration of the devils or angels that make select men and women do things that rational human beings would never attempt. Unlike the protagonists in Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, however, this book isn’t about conquering nature, but instead tells a tale of murder in the family. Chilling.

7. The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World’s Oldest Game
J.C. Hallman

A fascinating peek inside both the cult of international chess and various cults of personality, not to mention an excellent travelogue about the chess-mad Russian autonomous province of Kalmykia, where a game is never just a game.

8. The Wright Brothers Legacy: Orville and Wilbur Wright and Their Aeroplanes in Pictures
Walt Burton, Owen Findsen

There were many, many books about the Wright Brothers issued this year to commemorate the centennial of their first powered flight, but this one is the gem of the bunch, as you really need to see these rare images to appreciate the accomplishment.

9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Mary Roach

Not the best before-dinner reading, but an excitingly grim look into what happens to our meat once our souls have walked toward the light and not come back. Just don’t read it before dinner. Really.

10. The Pythons: An Autobiography by the Pythons
Monty Python with Bob McCabe

The bestest, biggest, funnest coffee table book since that best, big, fun Beatles one came out a couple of Christmases ago. Good for the casual Holy Grail fan, good for the obsessives who can’t help but spout bits of Python scripts at inappropriate moments, good with crunchy frog, good with lupine, good with Spiny Norman.


Critic: Margaret Black

1. Set This House in Order
Matt Ruff

Flawed though it is, Set This House in Order, Matt Ruff’s novel of multiple personalities, wins the prize as the most involving, gripping, and unexpectedly funny story to be published this year. When a mutinous personality breaks the “family” pact and hijacks decent, hardworking Andrew Gage into solving the mystery of their collective past, the novel careens into one of the most extraordinary road trips you’ll ever read.

2. The Great Fire
Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire is this year’s best novel for serious readers who long for sheer elegance of writing, depth of character, and olympian social insight. It deals with unsanitized war, its aftermath, and the possible redemption of love.

3. Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their Circle
Lois W. Banner

Intertwined Lives makes complicated Celtic knots out of the life stories and careers of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, two great, and greatly involved giants of early 20th-century anthropology.

4. In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians
Jake Page

As the subtitle of In the Hands of the Great Spirit says, Page covers the long story of the original inhabitants of what is now the United States, and does so with enormous grace and nuance. For anyone who wants a firm grasp of Indian history, the arguments about that history, and where we stand today, this book is a great place to start.

5. Double Vision
Pat Barker

Pat Barker’s just-published Double Vision considers the problem of looking at the unspeakable, and yet continuing to live ordinary lives as best we can. Her setting is an apparently placid rural Britain, but a violent car crash and huge pyres of burning animals quickly signal the complications of reality. Although not a formal sequel, this novel appears to carry over one of Barker’s most disturbing characters from her previous novel, Border Crossing.

6. All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror
Stephen Kinzer

All the Shah’s Men reminds us, in Kinzer’s fast-paced cinematic account, about another time when arrogant American ideologues changed the government of a Middle Eastern state and what the outcome was.

7. The Time Traveler’s Wife
Audrey Niffenegger

For a fascinating, genuinely literary excursion into time travel, you can’t do better than The Time Traveler’s Wife. The focus is the moving love story involving an involuntary time traveler and his chronologically normal wife, including an excellent scene in which the husband first meets his wife, and she’s actually known him since her childhood. The mechanics and logic of time travel seem a bit muddled, but the element of not taking anything with you, including clothes, makes for some interesting situations.

8. Fudoki
Kij Johnson

Again coupling beautifully authentic period detail with strange fantasy, Johnson returns to medieval Japan in Fudoki, where an ancient royal princess on the verge of death imagines an epic about a cat who turns into a warrior and, after a long adventure across the country, founds a lineage in far northern Japan.

9. The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime
Mark Haddon

The sound of A. Conan Doyle in the title is no accident. Brilliant but autistic 15-year-old Christopher finds a dog murdered with a pitchfork and sets out, like his hero Sherlock Holmes, to solve the mystery. That young Christopher, who has no feeling for himself or others, manages to engage our feelings and make us laugh and root for him is no small accomplishment.

10. Property
Valerie Martin

Readers with a taste for American history will be grimly intrigued by Property, Martin’s tour de force written from the point of view of a mean-spirited, narrow-minded slaveholder in 1830s Louisiana. Manon Gaudet can’t figure out what she hates more: her husband, his black mistress, or the system. What’s most amazing is Martin’s ability, despite her narrator, to make us understand everyone’s actions and sympathize more broadly than we thought.

Critic: John Rodat

1. World Light
Halldor Laxness

Technically speaking, this is not a new book—not by a long shot. But Laxness’ powerful novel, which originally was published in Iceland in 1937, took a long time to reach the Metroland offices in English. World Light is a stunning, gorgeous and lyrical work; it is also bleak and tragic. It has the breadth and richness of characterisation of Dickens, without that author’s sometimes cloying populist sentimentality. The protagonist, the foundling visionary poet Olafur Karason, suffers life beautifully—he’s a post-happy-ever-after Pip.

2. Exquisite Corpse
Robert Irwin

Another reissue of a sadly overlooked author (by the Overlook Press, no less). Irwin’s Exquisite Corpse tales the tale of Caspar, an aspiring French painter and member of the budding and doomed surrealist cell the Serapion Brotherhood. Set in the ’40s and ’50s, Exquisite Corpse could be read as a fictional case study of the personality of that era’s European artistic in-crowd (real-life figures such as Salvador Dali and Andre Breton make appearances); but when Caspar falls for Caroline, the novel takes a different turn—becoming a surrealist reimagining of Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. By turns affecting and puzzling, Exquisite Corpse features a clever metafictional ending that is the most surprising of things, satisfying.

3. Goodbye, Amelia
Simone Felice

Regional author and poet Simone Felice’s first book-length publication is actually a novella and a collection of poems. The novella (titled, like the book itself, Goodbye, Amelia) is an elegiac, almost fablelike study of the violent force animating the worlds in which we live—emotional, political, natural. The characters are sketched in painful hues, poetically and symbolically; Felice foregoes the labored minutia of workshop fiction for freeing bold strokes.

4. Vernon God Little
D.B.C Pierre

This year’s winner of the Booker Prize has received his fair share of, entirely valid, criticism. The psuedonymous author—a former career gambler and con man, if he is to believed—has been taken to task for what his detractors claim is sloppy research: His Texas setting has all the wrong plants, soil, vernacular, etc. And beyond that, it’s true that the plotting is less than perfectly sound, the objects of his satire are a little obvious and the resolution is an almost complete washout. That being said, Pierre’s (or whatever his real name is) quirky language crackles with such energy that it kept me up until 3 AM to finish the book in one sitting. Verisimilitude be damned, Pierre has created a parallel Texas—and by extension an America—that is immediately recognizeable, and his eponymous narrator’s self-involved commentary on that world is sharp and frustrated and open-hearted and mean and horny and cranky—and just plain fun.

5. A Brief History of the Paradox
Roy Sorensen

OK, here’s why you will never leave the room you are currently occupying: To reach the door you must first make it halfway to the door, right? And to make it that far, you’ll have to cross half that distance, and before that, half that distance, and so on into infinity. So, you’ll spend the rest of eternity crossing ever smaller halves. That’s a paraphrase of Zeno of Elea, a Greek philosopher of the 5th century B.C., who had a million of ’em. Like the famous one about the arrow, which proves that motion is impossible. That’s a rich one. Roy Sorensen, a professor of philosophy at Dartmouth, has put together an enjoyable—if often confounding to this subclassical intellect—study of the device of the paradox in the Western tradition, one that makes the one-hand-clapping thing look like child’s play.

6. A Man, A Can, A Plan
David Joachim and the editors of Men’s Health

Herein you’ll find 50 nouvelle cuisine recipes that can be whipped up in, on average, under 30 minutes—and all out of canned food. That’s right: from apps through entrees and straight through to dessert; in other words, from Hormel chili through Chicken o’ the Sea to Del Monte fruit salad. This is not to mention the chapter on Spaghetti-o’s. And, the thing is, they’re pretty good. Honestly. You laugh, but when the shit really hits the fan and an hour later you run out of Chilean Sea Bass in balsamic demi-glace, you’ll be knocking on my bunker’s reinforced door. And you will not be seated, smart-ass.

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