J. Eric Smith
Never Mind the Pollacks
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.
Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded
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.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at
the Fair That Changed America
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.
Benjamin Franklin: An American Life
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
Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy
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
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
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.
The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World’s Oldest
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.
The Wright Brothers Legacy: Orville and Wilbur Wright and
Their Aeroplanes in Pictures
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.
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
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
The Pythons: An Autobiography by the Pythons
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
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
The Great Fire
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.
Intertwined Lives: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Their
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.
In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History
of American Indians
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.
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.
All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle
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.
The Time Traveler’s Wife
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.
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
The Curious Incident of the Dog in Nighttime
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.
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.
1. World Light
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.
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.
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.
Vernon God Little
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.
A Brief History of the Paradox
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.
A Man, A Can, A Plan
Joachim and the editors of Men’s Health
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.