Saturday, January 01, 2005

Our Year of Books

An epilogue for a year we couldn't put down

Political books drew media attention and deluged bookstores, but the best books of the year are an eclectic mix of memoir, satire, novels and non-fiction. Book critics Bob Minzesheimer, Deirdre Donahue and Carol Memmott weigh in on the year's best and worst:

Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is USA TODAY's book of the year.

The most unlikely best seller of 2004 has nothing to do with sex, sports, politics, dieting, reality TV or any other national obsession. It's about punctuation: commas, semicolons and the elusive and tractable apostrophe.

Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation (Gotham, $17.50) is USA TODAY's book of the year.

It's witty, instructive and, perhaps most surprising, popular. It was a best seller in Britain, where Truss has a lively BBC Radio talk show about punctuation. But she was relatively unknown here when the American edition was published in April. Currently, there are a million copies in print in the USA.

Either every self-respecting English teacher bought multiple copies or punctuation is not yet a hopeless cause.

The book is more an entertaining call to arms than a style guide. It won't replace Strunk and White's The Elements of Style or Fowler's The King's English. Its appeal is the author's passion. Truss is a witty, well-read scold who's outraged by "public illiteracy." The title, says Truss, comes from a joke that illustrates the dangers of one misplaced comma:

A panda walks into a cafe, orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots into the air.

"Why?" the waiter asks.

The panda shows the waiter a badly punctuated wildlife manual. "I'm a panda," he says. "Look it up."

The waiter finds the relevant entry: "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

Best novel

The Darling by Russell Banks (HarperCollins, $25.95) Banks achieves a major literary coup in this magnificent novel. Narrated by a 59-year-old white American woman looking back over her profoundly tragic life, the richly written story pulls the reader into the harsh past and present of Liberia in West Africa.

Best book on politics

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, $26) Never have there been so many political best sellers as there were this election year. But the book most likely to be read decades from now is The Plot Against America. In it, Roth imagines President Charles Lindbergh signing a peace pact with Adolf Hitler. It's a chilling reminder about the price of waging war or peace.

Best history for kids
A Dream of Freedom by Diane McWhorter (Scholastic, $19.95) McWhorter, author of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama The Climatic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution, has written a provocative illustrated civil rights history for children.

Best satire
America (The Book) by Jon Stewart and the staff of The Daily Show (Warner, $24.95) Subtitled A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, this is more than a hilarious sendup of a high school textbook. It targets politicians and the media with the same precision that has made Stewart's show one of the smartest and funniest on TV. Don't miss the foreword by Thomas (TJ) Jefferson.

Best coffee-table book
The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker, edited by Robert Mankoff (Black Dog & Leventhal, $60) If laughter is the best medicine, this compilation of New Yorker cartoons is a huge dose: 68,647 of them every cartoon the magazine has published in its 79-year history. It's cultural history at its wittiest.

Best graphic novel
In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, $19.95) No Towers is the Pulitzer Prize-winning artist's take on grief, politics, war and his own battle to recover from the 9/11 attacks. The painstakingly drawn illustrations have an animation-like liveliness that adds to their political statements and personal drama.

Best self-help book
He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo (S&S, $19.95) Full of straight talk about the boy-meets-girl game, the book delivers sound advice with hefty doses of humor. Two pearls of wisdom-cum-wit: "Your lost self-esteem may take longer to find than a new boyfriend, so prioritize accordingly," and " 'I don't want to be in a serious relationship' truly means 'I don't want to be in a serious relationship with you.' "

Best picture book
Wild About Books by Judy Sierra, illustrated by Marc Brown (Knopf, $16.95) A literary adventure, told in verse, is set off "when the Springfield librarian Molly McGrew/By mistake drives her bookmobile into the zoo." Wild About Books is a delightful celebration of the joys of reading and the free treasures to be discovered in public libraries.

Best young adult novel
Bucking the Sarge by Christopher Paul Curtis (Random House, $15.95) Curtis' tale of a teenage boy and his malevolent mother is poignant and emotional. Pop-culture references and contemporary slang make this story of hope and determination appealing to teens.

Best books about nature
Rats by Robert Sullivan (Bloomsbury, $23.95); The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson (Harper-Collins, $24.95) Rats is an amusing account of an intrepid writer's year of investigating "nature's mobsters, flora and fauna's serial killers." Corson's book tells the fascinating story, blending science, politics and history, about "our favorite crustacean." Don't miss the scenes of lobster sex.

Biggest book that didn't need to be so big
My Life by Bill Clinton (Knopf, $35) Clinton takes 957 pages to tell his life story so far. He writes about his journey from Arkansas to the White House. Along the way, he makes friends and learns valuable lessons. Being concise is not one of them.

Second-biggest book that didn't need to be so big
I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.95) Wolfe fills 676 pages in his campus romp of a novel. There's a lot of sex, even more drinking and some wonderfully descriptive set pieces, but Wolfe spends too many pages belaboring the obvious.

Book most in need of editing
Burning Down My Masters' House by Jayson Blair (New Millennium, $24.95) Blair is the former New York Times reporter caught in a lengthy series of lies and plagiarism last year. Burning Down My Masters' House is almost as much of a mess as the author's life. It's part confession and part revenge on his former bosses.

Most egregious use of innuendo and guilt by association
American Evita: Hillary Clinton's Path to Power by Christopher Anderson (Morrow, $25.95) and The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty by Kitty Kelley (Doubleday, $29.95) The authors make rampant use of rumor and unsubstantiated political attacks. They serve only to feed the pre-existing prejudices of readers who view Hillary Clinton or the entire Bush family as venal.

Biggest disappointment
Citizen Girl by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (Atria, $24.95) This novel about a girl named Girl is the sorry successor to the authors' entertaining 2002 best-selling The Nanny Diaries. One-dimensional characters and stiff, clunky language make this brain-numbing novel the visual equivalent of a chokehold. - An epilogue for a year we couldn't put down

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