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Top Ten

The Year in Books

Top Ten 2004

The Year in News “There’s a myth that emanates around some floors in Annapolis,” Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley told... | By Van Smith

The Year in Quotes 1 “The First Amendment doesn’t say you have to be good.” — street-performance advocate Stephen Bair...

The Year in Sports Suffice it to say that 2004 will not go down as a banner year in the annals of Baltimore sports. ... | By Gabriel Wardell

The Year in Film Cheer up: 2004 was a good year—at least for film. While the past 12 months didn’t produce a film as ...

The Year in Television The “moral values” referendum surprised and rebuked lefties in Hollywood and elsewhere. The post-Nip...

The Year in Music Run down the list of recent heavyweights that released albums in 2004 which have moved units but los...

The Year in Local Music Only one local music story really percolated around Baltimore newsrooms this year: Paula Campbell. T... | By Bret McCabe

The Year in Art Sure, 2004 was the year of Baltimore’s very own public art controversy, in the guise of Jonathan Bor...

The Year in Books Yeah, publishers keep telling us that the book business these days really belongs to nonfiction, tha...

The Year on Stage The vamping post-op transsexual of our No. 1 selection notwithstanding, this year’s roster of Baltim...

Posted 12/15/2004

Yeah, publishers keep telling us that the book business these days really belongs to nonfiction, that people don’t read novels anymore, but this year was ridiculous. What with that “long, hard slog” in Mesopotamia that people keep talking about, and a presidential election that, for a while at least, seemed like a fun day at the races, this year’s batch of books was all about the real world. But not in a good way. Many 2004 titles seemed less like collections of essays, or memoirs, or works of journalism than episodes of “reality writing,” books whose subtitles generally fell into two shorthand categories: autobiographies of the “Hey, look at me! I grew up in the Middle East!” variety, or screeds of political analysis-slash-satire (it’s getting harder and harder for us to tell them apart) whose leitmotif was, in so many words, “I think George W. Bush is a stupid chump.”

But, thank God, there was some gold among the dross this year. These trying times have pushed some writers to press themselves in new directions, as in the case of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, while affirming in others the virtues of the comic—in every sense of the word—and all of its concomitant nostalgia. Indeed, graphic novels and comics fared especially well in this year’s Top 10 compendium, as you’ll see, and maybe that says something. Maybe it puts the lie to what those publishers keep telling us. Maybe reality’s not all it’s cracked up to be. (Blake de Pastino)

1

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin)

Philip Roth’s addition to the dystopian canon positions him as the Sinclair Lewis of our time. By turns funny and frightening, warm and implacable, this sharply observed “what if?” novel takes place in the America that may have been—a nightmare bizarro world with a Nazi-sympathizing president and a government made up of fascist goons, with disastrous results for the protagonist’s Jewish family (a family treated with a great deal more care and tenderness than in your average Roth novel). The cool plausibility—especially in such fractious times as these—is enough to give any half-conscious person a serious case of the willies. (Emily Flake)

2

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (Little, Brown)

You have to admire anyone who repeatedly risks his own self-dignity (and increasingly admired public image) for greater understanding. Here’s a man who admits he would have alerted the Gestapo to Anne Frank’s presence just to get the house in which she was secreted. But like Mark Twain, David Sedaris harnesses comedy to convey some pretty unsettling notions. Dress Your Family illustrates the many ways people can be greedy, selfish, ignorant, and hurtful. An NPR commentator, Sedaris has always possessed crisp comedic timing, but these essays show him developing a novelist’s powers of observation as well, able to plumb utterances from strangers or family members for their full psychological horrors. The result is a remarkably strong set of essays that carefully balance mirth and insight. (Joab Jackson)

3

Snow by Orhan Pamuk (Knopf)

Orhan Pamuk injects an excoriating dissection of the conflicts and stakes of religious and secular politics into this poignant, multilayered novel about exiled Turkish poet Kerim Alakusoglu (or, preferably, just “Ka”) returning home for the first time in 12 years. Snow is basically literary European modernism (the character “Orhan Pamuk” tells the story from notes found in Ka’s Frankfurt apartment) turned Rabelaisian phantasmagoric tapestry, and Pamuk somehow uses his beautifully disorienting prose to highlight the historical and modern forces that push together and pull apart contemporary Islamic society. You finish Snow floored by Pamuk’s gift to recognize the epic in the everyday and the imagination invested in realizing that drama through a carousel of characters who, like everybody everywhere, are more interested in living their lives than in hair-splitting the supposedly lofty ideas that govern them. (Bret McCabe)

4

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern No.13 (McSweeney’s)

Stellar contributions from such underground comix A-listers as R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes, Lynda Barry, and especially guest editor Chris Ware (subbing for Dave Eggers) grace this special illustrated fiction issue of McSweeney’s, alongside essays on comicdom by the likes of John Updike and Ira Glass. Meanwhile, Ware converts this hardbound book’s jacket into a poster-sized extravaganza (more comics on one side, artist bios on the other) boasting a pouch in which you’ll find (if previous browsers have been kind) bonus minicomics. Sheer brilliance. (Eric Allen Hatch)

5

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War by Evan Wright (Penguin)

The gift and the curse of Evan Wright’s book, based on the series of Rolling Stone articles he wrote while embedded with soldiers in Iraq, is that desert warfare unfolds far too much like it’s depicted in Three Kings. These grunts are vid-game, internet porn, and pop-cult-nurtured guys wielding weapons (one soldier compares an ambush to Grand Theft Auto). Downtime is more profanely blunt than prison. And it’s often a clusterfuck to sort the friendlies from the hostiles. But the intrepid honesty to portray the Marines in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion with whom he lived as the fearless, fearful, confused, brash young men they are is Wright’s alone, and that frankness sears Generation Kill with brutal, vital intimacy. (BM)

6

Magical Thinking: True Stories by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s Press)

Admittedly narcissistic, insecure, and chock-full of psychological issues, Augusten Burroughs is also incredibly funny, frank, and decent (in his own way). The combination keeps this collection of true-life essays entertaining and surprisingly edifying. Sit back as a Barbizon School graduate shares his insights on steroid use, $1,800 cleaning bills, the sex appeal of undertakers, and the drawbacks of being a celebrated confessional writer (fans share their confessions). Burroughs admits, at one point, to having filed his important financial statements in the oven, making the reader feel, well, better about herself. If he’s OK, we’re all OK. (Nicole Leistikow)

7

Bloodsworth: The True Story of the First Death Row Inmate Exonerated by DNA by Tim Junkin (Algonquin Books)

Tim Junkin has written Maryland’s very own version of A Civil Action. Bloodsworth describes the wrongful arrest, conviction, and capital sentencing of Kirk Bloodsworth, a drug-addled slacker who had been accused of raping and killing a young girl, but who became the first death-row inmate to be exonerated by DNA evidence. (The real killer, who was later himself found through genetic evidence, served time and even lifted weights with Bloodsworth in prison.) The book clips along like any legal thriller, but this is no Grisham—indeed, it is depressingly real. Junkin not only colorfully shows Bloodsworth’s perseverance in the face of incredible odds, he also describes how the zeal to close the file on an outrageous crime can hinder the good sense of law-enforcement officers and prosecutors. (Scott Carlson)

8

The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen (Doubleday)

Kate Christensen’s third novel conjures up a thoroughly unlikable rogue by the name of Hugo Whittier. A gourmand and a crank of the first water, Hugo begins a diary just as his life is ending, prematurely, due to a condition treatable if only he would stop smoking, which he refuses to do. This book about a man’s death is so delightfully cantankerous, sensual, and mean that it has a perversely cheering effect. Christensen’s sweet embrace of vice and flaw while nimbly avoiding cliché is a lovely gift. (EF)

9

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones (Basic Books)

This is the true history that inspired Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay—a story about the guys who came up with the mysterious and fantastic gods of American mythology: Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and other masked men. The mythology rose from the minds of people who were anything but godlike—boyish geeks who channeled their inferiorities through invincible characters, and the calloused businessmen and smut peddlers who ran the comic-book business. And Men of Tomorrow goes on to chart not only the infancy, growth, and maturity of comics, but also the growth of science fiction and fandom in general. (SC)

10

The Complete Peanuts: 1950 to 1952 and 1953 to 1954 by Charles Schulz (Fantagraphics)

The material actually contained within the first two volumes of The Complete Peanuts doesn’t merit Top 10 status—primo Schulz doesn’t start appearing until the late 1950s—but the books’ existence does. Unlike bibliophiles and cineastes, who don’t have to worry about, say, Tolstoy and Hitchcock going out of print, comics buffs do. Even a strip as universally popular and loved as Peanuts—the only comic Grandma, her Republican son, and her art-school-attending granddaughter can all enjoy, completely sincerely—has been reprinted only spottily until now. So we’re quick to grab up and spend way too much money on every available reprint of old comics, no matter how horrible the quality of printing or design. Big hugs, then, to Fantagraphics for this affordable, beautifully designed, definitive series. Now, only if some publisher could do the same for Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy . . . (Christopher Skokna)

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The Year In Tracks (12/15/2009)
. . . just in the case the album really is dead.

The Year in News (12/9/2009)

The Year in Movies (12/9/2009)

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