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Critic: Carlo Wolff

Best of 2004

1. The Last Crossing

Guy Vanderhaeghe

A Western with cosmic overtones, it covers a remarkable amount of territory, both geographical and psychological, without a misstep.

2. Resistance

Barry Lopez

On one level, this is a series of parables. But it’s not wooden or formal, because it’s also pure stories, informed by singular viewpoints, single narrators, a sense of release, and extraordinarily precise writing.

3. In the Shadow of No Towers

Art Spiegelman

This is a cry that would outshout chaos, an attempt to contextualize an event that seems to defy history. No Towers is Spiegelman’s attempt to stand firm against a world that continues to collapse around him. Small but eloquent comfort, it’s original, provocative, and populist art.

4. Killing the Buddha: A Heretic’s Bible

Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau

This book is a mystical soufflé, a sensual, cosmic marinade. It surely stokes the metaphor fire. It’s a spiritual guide for jazzbos, riffers, makers of mix tapes, dub masters and surfers of highways both actual and digital.

5. Conspirators

Michael Andre Bernstein

As detailed as a tapestry and as deep as the Moscow subway system, Conspirators examines the relationships between Gentiles and Jews in the haute bourgeoisie of a rural province between 1912-1914. In so doing, it illuminates the shadows of the fading Austro-Hungarian Empire.

6. Chronicles: Vol. One

Bob Dylan

Chronicles affirms Dylan’s idiosyncrasies and his mastery of the vernacular. As his best songs also show, he’s a great reporter with a talent for vivid detail.

7. The Egyptologist

Arthur Phillips

Resonant and knowing, this comedy of manners and mores attests, above all, to an astonishing imagination. Its many voices, points of view, jokes and puzzles create a layered, multi-perspective book that is literally fabulous

8. Osama: The Making of a Terrorist

Jonathan Randal

Randal is an old, intrepid political hand who suggests in his book about bin Laden that as long as fundamentalism runs the world, be it Muslim or Western, there is little chance that terrorism will be tempered.

9. Clyde Fans, Book One

Seth

This graphic novel is about Abraham and Simon Matchcard, proprietors of Clyde Fans, a business in a small Ontario town. Drawn with deft, knowing grace, it details how Abe guilt-trips shy, dreamy Simon into a business that is dying, like the town. The lunar, rural downtowns of Seth’s richly imagined landscape feel strangely familiar and comforting.

10. Human Capital

Stephen Amidon

Long on character and texture, Human Capital tells of the consequences of divorce, warns of the dangers of marriage and treats adolescence with proper seriousness. It is a kind of morality tale. It’s also expert social commentary.

Critic: Margaret Black

Best of 2004

1. A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier

Diana and Michael Preston

This biography can’t contain itself within the boundaries of the genre. Seventeenth- century William Dampier’s life encompassed adventures that are the stuff of fiction, They enmeshed him in serious accusations of piracy, but his brilliant scientific and social observations won him plaudits from the Royal Academy and the intense admiration of later scientists like Charles Darwin.

2. Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories

Jean M. Humez

Mostly the object of juvenile hagiography as the Moses who led her fellow slaves to freedom, Harriet Tubman suddenly this year received three careful adult assessments. This one by Humez, though doubtless destined to be the least known (it’s from an academic press), is by far the best. It not only incorporates extensive new research and covers Tubman’s fascinating work during and after the Civil War, but it also discusses with great subtlety how different narratives, including Tubman’s own, were carefully structured to forward specific agendas.

3. A Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience

Thai Jones

This highly readable, witty account tells about the experiences of the author’s parents in the Weather Underground in the 1970s and of his grandparents’ very different but equally passionate radicalism a generation earlier. Going well beyond family memoir, the book highlights how strong the desire to right social and economic wrongs can be, how much we take for granted the achievements of past radicals, and how sincere idealists can become compromised as they try to bring about meaningful change.

4. Heaven Lake

John Dalton

In this novel, another idealist, a young missionary, becomes compromised as his densely innocent naiveté runs smack against the richly various, highly complicated cultures of Taiwan and Mainland China in 1989. Although our hero gets pretty much what he deserves, this satirical high comedy masks a serious account of intellectual and spiritual transformation.

5. The Magician’s Study: A Guided Tour of the Life, Times, and Memorabilia of Robert “The Great” Rouncival

Tobias Seamon

A bravura performance with brilliant prose, this novel draws you deep into a fabulous life of illusion, sleight of hand, and scary but luminous magic. Besides recounting the lives of magician Robert Rouncival, his trusty assistant Sherpa the Silent, and their mutual love, the heiress Margaret (Minnie the Pearl), the book also captures the people and the scene of Jazz Age New York City.

6. American Desert

Percival Everett

As this novel opens, the hero loses his head—literally—but then gradually discovers what matters in life, even if finding out takes him through a race riot, a crazy cult, and mysterious government-sponsored clonings of Jesus Christ in Roswell, N.M. Works by Everett are invariably interesting and always different—he’s a greatly underappreciated (if always published) writer.

7. The Jane Austen Book Club

Karen Joy Fowler

It would be hard to find a more masterful comedy than this engaging story about a book club. Yes, you learn a certain amount about Jane Austen, but mostly you get to know the club members, including the one lone male (a sci-fi fan). And, not surprisingly in a book of this wit and intelligence, there’s more depth here than you might expect.

8. The Confessions of Max Tivoli

Andrew Sean Greer

Sci-fi comes up for real in this novel about a man whose body lives backwards from old age to infancy even though his mind and emotional life mature chronologically. Narrative tension comes from the hero’s lifelong attempt to connect with the one true love of his life, but the extraordinary writing is what will seduce most readers.

9. The Madonna of Excelsior

Zakes Mda

This novel uses myth, satire, and realistic social criticism to elaborate the changes in a small South African town from the trials for miscegenation under the Immorality Laws in the 1970s through to the corruption of current politics. The experiences of black Niki and her “coloured” daughter Popi provide the plot, but it is the luminous paintings of an artist-priest that bind this world together.

10. Gilead

Marilynne Robinson

This novel presents a quiet, deceptively simple memoir written by an elderly dying minister for his beloved 7-year-old son. Gilead explores many issues of faith, history, and the complexity of believing in God’s loving providence while simultaneously hating to depart from the extraordinary actuality—good and bad—of existence. The precision of the author’s observations and her intriguing content may distract readers from the fact that the narrative itself is a tour de force.

Critic: David Greenberger

Best of 2004

Considering the books that appeared this year, they’re not as easily corralled as CDs, concerts or movies. They’ve blended into my life in subtler ways, not offering themselves up after the fact as a song can do. The experience of reading them covers a greater period of time than the other arts of which I partake. Temporal in the extreme, they may straddle weeks or even months. In addition, each book influences the one that follows it. Reflecting on highlights of this year’s reading, I was struck by the common thread of mortality that runs through them all:

1. Passionate Spectator

Eric Kraft

There aren’t as many of us out there as there should be to give this man the rewards he deserves, but Kraft’s ongoing explorations of Peter Leroy simply roll with the punches. The latest installment layers multiple fictitious alter egos atop Kraft’s own stand-in, with a hospital and a heart attack giving rise to complex but utterly humane reveries on life.

2. A Seahorse Year

Stacey D’Erasmo

This book is like a beautiful ballad played with unblinking commitment by a quartet of cellos. In this richly voiced work, the unfailing love of parenthood makes its way through a nighttime forest path crisscrossed with nettles and brambles.

3. Queen: The Life and Music of Dinah Washington

Nadine Cohodas

This 500-page biography is so meticulously researched that the unrelenting parade of small details practically overwhelms the dramatic arc of Washington’s life. But then it all suddenly comes to a halt with her early death, its force having slowly built—but with nowhere to go.

4. Sock

Penn Jillette

Penn has put his own voice into a sock monkey named Dickie. While this provides him with a framework to bring out countless pet observations, viewpoints and philosophies, there’s an undeniable emotional life to the book, with the frailty of life and the ties of family and friends being paramount.

5. Everyday Matters

Danny Gregory

Presented in sketchbook form, Gregory’s drawings and writings were his means of making sense of life after it was utterly changed in the moment his wife was hit by a New York City subway, leaving her paralyzed.


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