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The Year in Books

The Cadaver Industry; a Meditation on Race, Music, Family and Postwar America; Growing Up in the Bronx, and More

Posted 12/17/2003


Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach (W.W. Norton) The mere idea behind Stiff carries the book: Mary Roach spends quality time with the dead and with the living who tend to them--plastic surgeons in training, forensic scientists, embalmers, and automotive engineers. But Roach engaged her project with as much glee as one could summon in such clammy company. She's hilarious at the all right moments--often when she's easing the reader's tension during a particularly graphic description. But she handles her subjects with respect as well. A chapter on a researcher who evaluates plane crashes, often by examining wounds on the bodies, conveys the pain of such a job while satisfying our gory curiosity. (Scott Carlson)


The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) By following the lives of the German-Jewish physicist Dale Strom and the African-American singer Delia Daley from their 1939 romance through their three children's diverging adult lives in the 1990s, Richard Powers uses his considerable gifts to weave a probing meditation on music, race, family, and postwar America in The Time of Our Singing. An understated prose idea-juggler, Powers' fearsome intellect often overpowers his characters' flesh and passions; with Singing he seamlessly intertwines his encyclopedic learning (here, a narrative structure equally parts physics and music theory) with a heart-wrenching humanity he's previously page-sprinkled only in carefully doled-out drips and drabs. (Bret McCabe)


Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Scribner) Transcriptions of interviews and government wiretaps, copies of legal documents and medical records, and endless hours of the author's personal involvement with her subjects melt seamlessly in this heartbreakingly true tale of a Bronx drug dealer and the troubled teens pulled into his violent orbit. LeBlanc devoted 11 years of her life to chronicling kids who live in a neighborhood where drugs, sex, and crime are the only available means of survival and self-expression. And while Random Family reads like a novel, its ultimate accomplishment is providing a voice to a class of people who are too often ignored. (Frank Diller)


The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn, Diane Ravitch (Knopf) This book blew the lid off of the biggest crisis in American education that no one knew existed. A former education official for both the Bush I and Clinton administrations, Diane Ravitch explains how the instruction and testing of students in the United States has been all but hijacked by special interests, corporate bottom-liners, and PC thugs. Activists from both the Left and the Right, she explains, have co-opted the process by which textbooks and tests are written, making them so hypersensitive to potentially offensive material that, according to one publisher's guidelines, schoolbooks could no longer contain stories set in the mountains, because they might upset kids in the Midwest. Meanwhile, the number of textbook publishers in recent years has dwindled from dozens to only four, giving our children about as much variety of information as the average TV viewer gets from Fox News. (Blake de Pastino)


Quicksilver: Volume One of the Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson (William Morrow) An intoxicating imagining of the occasionally unreasonable humans of the Age of Reason, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver is the historical novel for information-technology thrill seekers, told through the eyes of 17th-century geek Daniel Waterhouse. But it wouldn't be Stephenson territory if that straightforward idea didn't concatenate into narrative Chinese boxes and circuitous subplots, featuring vagabond Jack Shaftoe grifting his way into politics, Turkish harem escapee Eliza conniving her way into royalty, and thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Samuel Pepys making vivid cameos, while alchemy and rhetorical postulating congeal into science and mathematics in the background. Equal parts William T. Vollmann historical ambition, Umberto Eco epistemological trapdoors, and P.T. Barnum dazzle, this audacious novel is also amazingly readable, living up to the mercurial rush of its name. (BM)


True Notebooks, Mark Salzman (Knopf) Mark Salzman's memoir of teaching writing in a juvenile prison manages to be sympathetic to the teenage figures it profiles without pandering or absolving them of their crimes. It's no small feat. Through Salzman's portrait of these young men, many of whom are murderers, readers will feel revulsion one moment, sympathy the next. The book's climax, centering on the court case of Salzman's best student, evokes a sense of futility about the justice system, even while the growth of the inner lives of the students, and their discovery of vulnerability and expression through writing, provides a bittersweet flavor of hope. (SC)


The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday) Jonathan Lethem fuses pop culture, memoir, and magic realism in the memorable story of a tentative friendship between a white boy and a black boy growing up in 1970s Brooklyn, N.Y. As racism permeates the streets and gentrification looms on the horizon, the teens turn inward, taking pleasure in crisp comic-book pages, dripping graffiti tags, thick clouds of marijuana smoke, and spinning LPs. But such fleeting moments offer little long-term relief as they hurtle toward a tragic event that defines their adult lives and serves as the core of this brilliantly tender book. (FD)


Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Z.Z. Packer (Riverhead) In this wonderful debut short-story collection by Johns Hopkins alumna Z.Z. Packer, characters struggle to define themselves in worlds they don't fully comprehend. The opening tale, "Brownies," sets the book's tone as a scout troop of young, black inner-city girls plans to assault a troop of white girls over an alleged racial slur. But the imagined insult is just one of many misunderstandings that can only be corrected by hindsight. Throughout these eight touching, often comic stories, people of all ages grapple with notions of race, class, religion, and sexuality as Packer presents their personal failures and minor epiphanies in a consistently crisp and confident tone. (FD)


Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese) Margaret Atwood's return to dystopic science fiction is unsettling and memorable. Jimmy, or "Snowman," is the last human on earth, watching over a group of bioengineered humanoids, developed by his genius friend Crake. (They are docile vegetarians, perhaps an improvement on the species.) In a series of flashbacks, he recalls how the world fell apart. Atwood's setting provides a means to satirize current anxieties: global warming, coastal flooding, biotechnology, class war, mass extinction. And the conclusion indicates that even creatures engineered for peace and happiness will find a way to make trouble. (SC)


Where I Was From, Joan Didion (Knopf) It'd put too fine a point on things to say that Joan Didion was merely a chronicler of California. Since her pioneering role in the New Journalism of the 1960s, her work has always been about zeitgeist--the internal logic of politics, show business, hippies, and housewives everywhere--and if her stories happened to be set in her native Golden State, then so be it. But in Where I Was From, Didion finally explores how her home has shaped her own worldview, as both a woman and a writer. Over a series of beautifully wrought discussions about the literature, history, pop life, and political currency of California, she questions her own "confusions about the place and the way in which I grew up, confusions as much about America as about California." The concluding chapters comprise some of the most thoughtful autobiographical writing out there, and the book as a whole is Didion's most cogent and forceful work of nonfiction since 1979's The White Album. (BDP)

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