Saturday, January 01, 2005


The year's finest

Sunday, December 12, 2004

1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky (Ballantine; 441 pages; $26.95): In this highly readable work by the author of "Cod," Kurlansky undertakes what is essentially the biography of a year unlike any that had come before it, a year in which, as he puts it, "there occurred a spontaneous combustion of rebellious spirits around the world." The book moves from country to country, documenting the histories of political movements and conflicts that were all raging at the same time. It provides not only a useful guide to the not-too-distant past but also a rich perspective on how we got to where we are.

The 9/11 Commission Report (Norton; 567 pages; $10): Turf wars can kill. That's the overriding moral imparted by "The 9/11 Commission Report." The same petty infighting that kept the CIA from talking to the FBI long before the attacks also kept firefighters from talking to cops right after. This is a tremendously helpful document, one with an unquestionable moral authority that the commissioners should ride for all it's worth.

Absolute Friends by John le Carre (Little, Brown; 455 pages; $26.95): "Absolute Friends" again demonstrates that le Carre understands the historical forces that span oceans, and the lonely human gestures that can't even traverse the width of a bed. By comparison, even some Nobel-caliber literature can't help feeling the tiniest bit small.

The Amateur Marriage by Anne Tyler (Knopf; 320 pages; $24.95): In her 16th novel, Tyler has turned the conventional love story on its head, starting with love and marriage and building inexorably toward bitterness and separation. Along the way she illustrates the emotional and psychological costs exacted not by a single event but by a lifetime of miscommunication and muted hostility. "The Amateur Marriage" allows its Pulitzer Prize-winning author to show off her myriad skills as a novelist as she leads the reader to an ending that is both right and irrefutable.

America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction by Jon Stewart, Ben Karlin, David Javerbaum, et. al. (Warner Books; 244 pages; $24. 95): At its frequent best, this ersatz social-studies textbook from the creators of Comedy Central's uproarious, Emmy- and Peabody-winning "Daily Show" defines the reigning house style of American political satire today. Jon Stewart and company have published a wickedly funny civics textbook that could keep even the most attention-deficient class clown from tuning out.

American Desert by Percival Everett (Hyperion; 291 pages; $24.95): A professor whose head is sliced off in a car accident, but who mysteriously comes back to life at his funeral, is the choice setup for satirist Percival Everett's novel. The professor's resurrection lets us have a lot of fun following the quotidian ramifications of an otherwise normal, if well-educated, man as he walks and talks without blood running through his veins, or even air coursing through his lungs. Local news trucks pack into his neighborhood street, his adolescent daughter freaks out, government agencies slaver over the very real possibility of immortality -- but it also opens up a world of ideas to play with: What does it mean to be alive? What is the nature of love? What is the double-edged sword of memory? How do we let ourselves become miserable? How do we make peace with death?

American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush by Kevin Phillips (Viking; 397 pages; $25.95): In his latest book, Kevin Phillips ("Wealth and Democracy") provides a case study of the power wielded by four generations of the Bush family. We are, Phillips suggests, curiously unfamiliar with this family that has produced two of our past three presidents, and such ignorance might ultimately diminish the ability of the American people to remain in control of their political system. "American Dynasty" should be of enormous interest for its expert elucidation of one prominent American family's history in the unfolding of 20th century politics.

American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation by Jonah Raskin (University of California Press; 324 pages; $24.95): Jonah Raskin's "American Scream" seeks successfully, refreshingly to restore attention to Ginsberg's masterwork, "Howl," a 3,600-word three-part salvo that shook the world of poetry (for its language and its innovations in form and content) as well as the world of postwar America. Today, in contrast, it's difficult to imagine a poem having such a widespread impact. A song, a movie - - perhaps. But a poem? Raskin, however, places Ginsberg and the poem in their historical and cultural contexts and in doing so performs an admirable act of literary restoration, crafting a proper appreciation for "Howl" and its placement within the canon of 20th century American literature.

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon S. Wood (Penguin Press; 299 pages; $25.95): Benjamin Franklin, considered one of the most quintessentially American Founding Fathers, was actually an enthusiastic supporter of the British Empire who lived the greater part of his later years in Britain and France. In his latest book, renowned historian Gordon S. Wood (who won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Radicalism of the American Revolution") succeeds in closing the wide gap between the Franklin of popular imagination and the real Franklin. Wood's book is an illuminating, accessible and entertaining contribution to the growing literature about Benjamin Franklin. His incisive portrait of Franklin leaves the Founder more well rounded, more complex in his motivations and hence more human.

Americans in Paris: A Literary Anthology by Adam Gopnik (Library of America; 613 pages; $40): This collection of essays, short stories, novel and memoir excerpts, poems, even songs spans 200 years of American experience in the City of Light, from Benjamin Franklin to James Baldwin. Some well-known figures are here in unusual capacities: e.e. cummings reviews Josephine Baker at the Folies Bergere; humorist Art Buchwald describes sexy, anarchic life in his cheap student hotel in 1950; M.F.K. Fisher's essay on the Belle Epoque restaurant in the Gare de Lyon is as exquisite and personal as her best food writing. Anthologist Adam Gopnik, New Yorker staff writer and author of "Paris to the Moon," does a superb and pithy job of introducing the writers and placing them in the context of their time, expatriate literature or American letters in general. Americans of all stripes have seen Paris as Paradise; for two centuries they have gone there to be happy. So, as Gopnik points out, his book is in part "the history of an illusion."

Among the Bohemians: Experiments in Living 1900-1939 by Virginia Nicholson (Morrow; 384 pages; $25.95): Following family tradition and intrigued about the extraordinary lives of the many people who formed a branching network of friends and acquaintances around her ancestors in Britain during the first few decades of the 20th century -- including the writers Lytton Strachey, H.G. Wells and Evelyn Waugh -- Virginia Nicholson (niece of Virginia Woolf) embarked on a "total immersion course" to explore their lives. "Among the Bohemians" is a wonderfully researched and colorful composite portrait of an enigmatic world whose members, because they lived by no rules, are difficult to characterize.

The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton (Knopf; 336 pages; $26): Paxton, author of a small classic on French collaboration with the Nazis, "Vichy France," dissects and examines the components of fascism in his timely and useful book. Paxton explains fascism as a European movement that spawned few authentic imitators, and refers to fascism in the past tense because he declares that the political movement effectively died with the end of World War II in 1945. Still, he concedes that a resurgence of fascism is possible, even in America, where the obstacles to fascism are many.

Another Bull -- Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn (Norton; 347 pages; $23.95): The premise of poet Nick Flynn's memoir is relatively simple. Flynn worked in a homeless shelter for seven years. His father is homeless, and there comes a point when the father checks into the homeless shelter Flynn works in. It's a good hook, an interesting premise, but "Another" is also a near-perfect work of literature. It succeeds in a way most writers can only dream of: It is intense, lyrical, moving and ultimately enlightening. This is a book about no less than the value of blood and the permanence of familial relations. A strangely poignant meditation on the debt sons owe their fathers, even bad fathers, even fathers who weren't around.

Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing and Havana by Stephanie Elizondo Griest (Villard; 288 pages; $13.95 paperback): At an early age, first- time memoirist Stephanie Elizondo Griest knew she wanted to hightail it out of her hometown, Corpus Christi, Texas. Fortunately for her, she also decided to become a journalist. In high school, she heeded the advice of a CNN correspondent to learn Russian. Thus were born her obsessions with Marxist ideology and Communist bloc countries -- their culture, their politics, their leaders-gone-psychotic -- and what it all means to her personally. A spunky storyteller, Griest has written an extremely readable memoir that educates as well as entertains.

Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug by Diarmuid Jeffreys (Bloomsbury; 335 pages; $25.95): "Take it for pain. Take it for life." We oblige; 20 million Americans down a daily aspirin to stave off heart attacks, strokes, cataracts, migraines, even Alzheimer's. Clearly, in aspirin we trust. In his book on the humble medicine, Diarmuid Jeffreys seamlessly manages his complicated subject, from its ancient days when people chewed willow bark to experience its effects to when it became one of the first drugs to be industrially produced, forever altering the way in which medicines are manufactured, marketed and sold. Throughout, Jeffreys renders an absorbing account of the drug's ride from obscurity to celebrity and around about again to its rebirth as today's wonder drug.

John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes (Knopf; 515 pages; $30): Richard Rhodes tracks French immigrant Audubon's every move, from early struggles through courtship and marriage, his abortive attempts to enter the business world, his later travels through European high society and, of course, his evolving interest in and techniques for more realistically rendering and eventually publishing and selling portraits of birds. Audubon's dauntless energy and ferocious curiosity make his story a prototypical tale of New World self-invention. The cumulative power of all Rhodes' detail is undeniable. His sentences are Mississippian, flowing with an unhurried and irresistible majesty toward their goal. The story he tells is of an immensely inquisitive young man who discovers a vocation by a mixture of chance and choice.

The Beautiful: Collected Poems by Michelle Tea (Manic D Press; 228 pages; $13.95 paperback): Tea is one of the founders of the all-female spoken-word troupe Sister Spit and a self-declared "lesbian feminist radical activist prostitute," best known for her autobiographical novel "Valencia." In "The Beautiful," Tea's wonderfully light and simultaneously deep collection of verse, we follow Tea on her life's journey, from an abusive childhood through prostitution and many failed relationships with women. Bringing to mind the poems of Charles Bukowski, she succeeds in keeping the reader's attention through what is often a tedious day-to-day existence of dating, drinking, smoking and just getting by, little of which she approaches with self-pity. Tea is often angry, but never pathetic.

Better Than Sane: Tales From a Dangling Girl by Alison Rose (Knopf; 226 pages; $23): Presumably without trying very hard, Palo Alto native Alison Rose became a model and later an actress. After her glamour shots had made the rounds in Paris and movie stars had courted her in Los Angeles, she went to New York and wound up as the receptionist in an office full of brilliant, adoring men who happened to be the creative brain trust of the world's most selective magazine, the New Yorker. Rose's delightful memoir of her career as a writer is less bitchy tell-all than patient corrective to the bitchy tell- all trend. The book does have sex and rock 'n' roll from the first page, and drugs eventually, and gossip throughout, but it's important to understand that these are not high priorities. What's important here is care with the written word and the ability to cherish the beauty and mystery in people.

The Big Year: A Tale of Men, Nature and Fowl Obsession by Mark Obmascik (The Free Press; 269 pages; $25): The publication of "The Big Year" by Denver journalist Mark Obmascik should quash once and for all the dusty image of bird- watchers as tweed-skirted Miss Marple types enthralled by a flittering titmouse. Obmascik's hugely entertaining account of a Big Year -- birder- speak for a deadly serious quest to rack up a record number of bird species seen in a single year -- reveals the extreme-sport flip side of a normally meditative pastime. Obmascik cunningly keeps the winner of the 1998 Big Year and his final tally secret until the end of this sprightly account, which he narrates with an omniscient, wry and sympathetic voice.

A Bit on the Side by William Trevor (Viking; 245 pages; $24.95): Often compared to Chekhov, William Trevor has been rightly called by the New Yorker "the greatest living writer of short stories." Trevor's fiction is sad and beautiful; at the same time it is unflinchingly honest. In this story collection, "A Bit on the Side," Trevor seems more willing than ever to forgo the conventions of plot, preferring instead to tack his stories down with possessions, mementos or pawnshop bric-a-brac. These 12 stories seem as if they have been organized by a method more intuitive than plot, as if Trevor weren't so much telling a story as composing a collage of words that record the intersection of a particular insight or realization and its external circumstance. Like James Joyce before him, Trevor specializes in epiphanies, though Trevor's are more subtle, less overtly literary, more appropriate for a contemporary Ireland where characters seek sanctuary in Japanese cafes as often as smoky public houses and cathedrals.

The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer: Close Encounters With Strangers by Eric Hansen (Pantheon; 228 pages; $24): In his collection of travel stories, "The Bird Man and the Lap Dancer," Eric Hansen ascends in fits and starts to the heights of creative nonfiction. Three decades spent crisscrossing the map, mainly on boats, with long layovers in Southeast Asia, New York and San Francisco, have honed in him a meticulous knack for observation and the confidence to describe what he sees in both bold strokes and fine ones. One after another, remarkable figures leap from these pages vibrant and alive, spoiling for sex or a skirmish or a miracle.

Birth of the Chess Queen: A History by Marilyn Yalom (HarperCollins; 276 pages: $24.95): Chess, as any devoted reader of the novels of Vladimir Nabokov knows, is a superb metaphor for life. Now, as it turns out, and as Marilyn Yalom illustrates in a fascinating book, the metaphor works the other way as well. In "Birth of the Chess Queen," Yalom, a senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at Stanford and the author of "A History of the Wife" and "A History of the Breast," has written the rare book that illuminates something that has always been dimly perceived but never articulated, in this case that the power of the chess queen reflects the evolution of female power in the Western world.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant (Random House; 397 pages; $21.95): Corruption snakes through this novel set in Florence at the turn of the 16th century. Sham marriages, "degenerate" art locked away in cabinets, ostentatious sin offerings begrudgingly handed over to authorities, mutilated corpses left to rot inside churches: These are the murky underside of the wonders of gold leaf, marble and lapis- and saffron-saturated plaster usually associated with Renaissance Italy. The artistic marvels of the age are also the passionate concern of the novel's narrator, Alessandra Cecchi, the precocious Latin- and Greek-schooled daughter of an affluent cloth merchant. Dunant's book works as a heady, sensual page-turner. What twists of fate turn the unripe young girl eager to enter the fellowship of art into the stooped, filmy-eyed nun whose habit covers the lewdest of secrets? Dunant's elegant, musical prose and finely wrought characters afford great pleasure, as the novel comes alive with the sights, smells and disputes of early modern Florence.

Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror by Douglas Farah (Broadway; 225 pages; $24.95): Washington Post investigative reporter Douglas Farah draws connections between the diamond trade in collapsed states in West Africa and the terrorist groups of the Middle East. "Overall, West Africa's diamonds make up less than 10 percent of the world's $7 billion diamond trade," he writes. "Most of these are 'blood diamonds,' or stones mined and sold by warring factions in Africa, from Sierra Leone to the Congo to Angola. ... In exchange for diamonds, the terrorists paid cash to some of the most brutal killers in Africa." Farah fortifies his taut, scary book with reporting he did for the Post (he was once the paper's West Africa bureau chief) and testimony from congressional committees, revealing information intelligence agencies should -- and might -- already know.

Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties by Marion Meade (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 352 pages; $26.95): The women profiled by biographer Marion Meade -- Dorothy Parker, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald and Edna Ferber -- used everything from prayer to sex to profanity to humor to bootleg booze to plain old hard work in their attempt to achieve careers as writers. Reading "Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin" is like looking at a photo album while listening to a witty insider reminisce about the images. Her writing is bright, her language charged with gritty details, gossipy tidbits and accomplished one-liners.

Bobby Fischer Goes to War: How the Soviets Lost the Most Extraordinary Chess Match of All Time by David Edmonds and John Eidinow (Ecco/HarperCollins; 342 pages; $25.95): To many observers, the 1972 chess match between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was heavy with symbolic value, matching either individualism against conformity or capitalist greed against communist modesty; it was a clash of civilizations or perhaps a civilizing of international tensions. In their enthralling second book, David Edmonds and John Eidinow ("Wittgenstein's Poker"), without sacrificing intellectual acuity, debunk that championship meeting as much as they celebrate it, stubbornly resisting the temptation to inflate events, serving as ideal guides through the history and psychology of chess, rendering matches and characters vividly.

The Body by Hanif Kureishi (Scribner; 160 pages; $20): When an aging author named Adam learns of a surgical procedure that will allow him to inhabit the body of a younger man for six months, he agrees readily. "The Body" is a slim novel, but Hanif Kureishi's topic is no less than the Cartesian conundrum of the relationship between body and soul. Like the discontented protagonist of his previous novel, "Intimacy," Adam acutely suffers the numbing effects of age on the mind and appetites. He trades in his creaky, malfunctioning body for that of "an Italian footballer: an aggressive, attacking midfielder" 40 years his junior. Of course, returning his rental body proves more difficult than attaining it, and the lessons Adam's new body teach him come at a steep price. Kureishi remains dispassionate throughout his story, presenting Adam and most everyone he meets as tragically self-deluded.

The Book of Proper Names by Amelie Nothomb, translated by Shaun Whiteside (St. Martin's Press; 122 pages; $19.95): Smaller isn't always better, but sometimes power is best contained in miniature. "The Book of Proper Names" is a slim volume packed with wit, imagination and cleverly spun characters. Belgian writer Amelie Nothomb, once deemed France's "literary lioness," captivates with her sharp description and delicate control over the story of Plectrude, a fairy-tale name for an otherworldly girl who doesn't quite belong. Nothomb's portrait of the freedom of childhood and the haunting confusion of adolescence is at once charming and brutal. Plectrude's life is marked by changes in body, soul, connections to friends and parents, and her place in the world, and though she may be unlike us, she struggles and suffers for what is at the core of each of our lives.

The Bride Stripped Bare by Anonymous (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins; 374 pages; $22.95): Australian writer Nikki Gemmell is the "anonymous" author of this willfully titillating novel about a woman in search of sexual freedom who rebels against the confines of marriage. Like an artful striptease, "The Bride Stripped Bare" ensnares us with its rawness, its uncluttered pages as white as sheets, and its 138 short, pointed, simple "Lessons" whose ironic headings are derived from several volumes on domesticity unearthed by the author in the London Library. Although sex steals the spotlight, it's the nakedness of Gemmell's sobering view of female domestication that cuts to the core.

Budapest by Chico Buarque, translated by Alison Entrekin (Grove Press; 183 pages; $19.95): Jose Costa, a rather self-absorbed professional ghostwriter who lives in Brazil, is dropped down into Budapest on an unplanned stopover on his way to a convention, and spends the night in a strange hotel, where, while watching television, he develops a strong, sudden fascination for the sounds of Hungarian. The foreignness of the language compels him: When he gets back to Brazil, he begins to dream of it, and eventually returns to Budapest. With the deft fable-like qualities of a Calvino or Borges tale, the prose in this charming novel by Chico Buarque, Brazil's famed composer and musician, drops into odd scenes, spins odd, stringy sentences and traverses weird slips between bodies and tongues. The strangeness is always to a sly point: Its quasi-allegorical episodes and twists of fate cunningly probe the ways that people and language use each other. At the center of the book is the play of language itself.

Buying a Fishing Rod for My Father by Gao Xingjian, translated by Mabel Lee (HarperCollins; 125 pages; $17.95): This story collection is a slimmed- down version of a much larger original collection of the same name by Chinese Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian. It is a rarefied and sometimes rather beautifully composed series of prose pieces (two of which ran in the New Yorker) that may or may not be stories but certainly fly a flag announcing that China, or at least one self-exiled Chinese fiction writer, can now offer the world a full-fledged modernist worth close attention by any serious reader.

Caramba! A Tale Told in Turns of the Card by Nina Marie Martinez (Knopf; 365 pages; $24.95): This first novel by Santa Cruz author Nina Marie Martinez is a triumph of whimsy and imagination -- Monty Python meets "One Hundred Years of Solitude." A raucous romp through small-town life in the utterly made- up border town of Lava Landing, Calif., Martinez's story mostly follows the adventures of two long-legged young beauties named Natalie and Consuelo. Illustrated and loosely organized by a selection of brightly colored Lotería cards, "Caramba!" is all pure, joyful play, as far as language goes. (If you're not completely bilingual, you'll know a lot more Spanish when you're done with this book than you did when you started.)

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown; 312 pages; $23.95): In her brilliant and engaging novel, prize-winning novelist Kate Atkinson illuminates the lie at the heart of mystery fiction. Ostensibly a book about a series of seemingly unrelated murders, "Case Histories" transcends the limitations of the genre and offers a powerful, dramatic reminder that grief and loss go "on and on and on," even when the mystery is solved and the truth is revealed. The book is also a moving reminder that our capacity for hope, for redemption, is substantial -- that people survive and endure, even in the aftermath of the unthinkable.

A Century of November By W.D. Wetherell (University of Michigan Press; 164 pages; $24): W.D. Wetherell's beautiful "A Century of November" can be read with advantage today by any young man or woman who would enlist in a war, or any older man who would send them. Although it takes up fewer than 200 pages, "A Century of November" possesses a time-bending gravity, like a telegram so heavy it takes two uniformed men to carry. Even in peacetime, Wetherell's novel would stand out as a small classic of graceful language and earned emotion. But to read "A Century of November" now, with the fog of war drifting back our way like mustard gas, only makes it that much more salient.

A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists, 1854- 1967 by Rachel Cohen (Random House; 384 pages; $25.95): A collection of 36 interrelated vignettes from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, this book starts with Matthew Brady photographing the young Henry James and his father, and ends with Norman Mailer and Robert Lowell trying to levitate the Pentagon. In between, American cultural titans and near-titans rise and fall - - some as friends, some as rivals but all as shared influences who wound up enriching the work that followed. Together it adds up to a book that's as addictive as popcorn, as guiltless as cruciferous vegetables. "A Chance Meeting" elevates name-dropping to an art, and transforms literary criticism into a party.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (Random House; 511 pages; $14.95 paperback): David Mitchell's novel is a remarkable achievement, a frightening, beautiful, funny, wildly inventive, elaborately conceived tour de force. It places us not in one intensely imagined world but six: six different time periods, milieus, vocabularies and literary styles, ranging from a dystopian future, where a servant class is genetically manufactured, to the Chatham Islands off of New Zealand during the 19th century, where an American notary keeps a log of his miserable sea journey. Each of these tales more than earns its keep. Collectively, they constitute a work of art.

Coast of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2003 by Kevin Starr (Knopf; 765 pages; $35): In "Coast of Dreams," the here and now finally receives book- length attention from our state's most distinguished historian and op-ed oracle, Kevin Starr. Fittingly for a man who reinvented state librarianship in California, Starr's book resembles a great branch library. It's not a research institution, but it's comprehensive. It's not slanted, but it's got idiosyncrasies to spare. And while outsiders can find whatever information they need, neighborhood regulars will surely park themselves in the stacks and browse till closing time. Do we have to pass a bond issue to get another one soon?

Collected Poems by Donald Justice (Knopf; 289 pages; $25): For the late poet Donald Justice, his writing desk was like a garage where he went to tinker. The Miami-born poet was the motor-head of contemporary poetry. He'd take an idea, put it up on jacks and head off to the slag heap of poems past, returning with just the right form to use. Readers can appreciate the full range of Jus- tice's antic curiosity with his "Collected Poems." What strikes one immediately is how fresh and unsentimental was Justice's sensibility. He was the master of the whippet-fast quip, the wry innuendo, the surprise rhyming couplet. In another life, Justice could have been a stand-up who parlayed wordplay into laughs.

Collected Stories: Volumes I, II, III by Isaac Bashevis Singer, edited by Ilan Stavans (Library of America; $35 each): In order to commemorate the centennial of Isaac Bashevis Singer's birthday, the Library of America -- which is more or less to our literary merit what Hart Shaffner & Marx is to business suits -- has issued a handsome three-volume set of Singer's collected short stories, edited by the Amherst critic and scholar Ilan Stavans. The volumes are packed with exquisite classics such as "The Joke" and "The Cafeteria" -- hilarious prose renderings of the "living ghosts" who lingered at Singer's cafeteria table: displaced, memory-ravaged, Yiddish-speaking survivors of the catastrophe in Europe who found temporary relief from their anguish in pouring out to him their accounts of half-baked intrigues, kooky theories and torrid love affairs. With brilliance, Singer turned them into fiction that will endure forever.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 267 pages; $23): A fable of surpassing gravity and beauty -- a man who grows younger as time goes on -- this gem returns San Francisco writer Andrew Sean Greer to the central concerns of his first novel: how time ravages love, and how love takes its revenge. He's a romantic, unafraid to use words like "heart" and "sad" and mean them.

A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa by Howard W. French (Knopf; 280 pages; $25): New York Times writer and former West Africa bureau chief Howard French delivers an often riveting firsthand account of the chaos enveloping West Africa in the 1990s as he raced from hot spot to hot spot in "A Continent for the Taking." One theme predominates in French's book: Big business doesn't want democracy in Africa. It's easier to pay off a few corrupt officials than to recognize citizens' environmental, cultural and labor rights. Although the West didn't cause the wars, genocide, famine, AIDS and malaria pandemics that have defined Africa since colonialism, French argues that the West has consistently ignored or exploited these crises to gain profit and influence.

Cruel Justice: Three Strikes and the Politics of Crime in America's Golden State by Joe Domanick (University of California Press; 320 pages; $24. 95): Many readers will surely feel bewilderment and shame at "Cruel Justice," a riveting journalistic account of California's "three strikes" legislation. Plenty of us need to remind ourselves, if we ever looked carefully enough in the first place, of how boosters won over the Legislature even when predictions of disastrous consequences came true -- and how the legislation nevertheless stays on the books. Domanick makes a good case (it will not convince disbelievers) that nostalgia for a whiter, as well as safer, California of the 1950s actually powered the evolving bill through the Legislature: one more setup for the culture wars.

Dancing Arabs by Sayed Kashua, translated by Miriam Shlesinger (Grove; 227 pages; $12 paperback): In his first novel, Arab-Israeli author Sayed Kashua goes beyond the front-page headlines and horrific newspaper photos of Middle East violence to show a different view of what being an Arab is all about. In the world of "Dancing Arabs," the color of an ID card or license plate broadcasts whether you are an Arab or Jew, children's play re-enacts war games and bullet holes pockmark homes. Growing up in this environment, Kashua's nameless Arab protagonist attempts to assimilate himself into Jewish society and in doing so, finds himself at odds with everybody, including himself.

Dancing With Cuba by Alma Guillermoprieto (Pantheon; 290 pages; $25): In 1970, 20-year-old Alma Guillermoprieto, a dancer ignorant of politics and pessimistic about her prospects as an artist -- landed in Havana as the entire island prepared to celebrate a momentous victory for Fidel Castro's revolution -- a 10-million-ton sugar harvest. What a disappointment, then, when Castro announced that the effort was a monumental failure. "Dancing With Cuba" is Guillermoprieto's majestic account of the six months she spent teaching modern dance in that year of the failed harvest. Her description of everyday life under the revolution is intimate and poignant, and also tough- minded and shrewd. Guillermoprieto has written widely about Latin America for publications including the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books and in three much-acclaimed books. Her memoir shows how she came to be what she is: one of the most astute and eloquent chroniclers of contemporary Latin America.

Danger on Peaks by Gary Snyder (Shoemaker & Hoard; 128 pages; $22): "Danger on Peaks" shows that poet Gary Snyder has well spent the time since his last book of new poetry was published, back in 1983. Snyder has not only been writing; he has also been tackling new subjects and trying new forms. Unlike many older poets, who eventually run dry of the juice of the new and end up writing the same poems over and over, Snyder's poetry has kept pace with the slow but significant changes in the circumstances of his life. "Danger on Peaks" gives us a changed, more reflective Snyder, one who maintains a core of joyous acceptance but who seems more open than before to grief, regret and, on occasion, fear and dismay.

Dante's Inferno illustrated by Sandow Birk; text adapted by Sandow Birk and Marcus Sanders; preface by Doug Harvey; introduction by Michael Meister (Chronicle Books; 218 pages; $22.95): This version of the "Inferno" is God's face in a Groucho mask, a triumphant cathedral that will bring new readers to Dante, new appreciation for Birk's model here -- the great French illustrator Gustave Doré -- and new converts to the growing church of Sandow Birk. Yet for all its visual splendor, for all its deadpan wit, Birk's "Inferno" is at bottom a work of profound satiric fury.

Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs (Random House; 240 pages; $23.95): There's no writer more lucid than Jane Jacobs, nobody better at using wide-open eyes and clean, courtly prose to decipher the changing world around us. In her latest book, "Dark Age Ahead," Jacobs visits her old thematic haunts -- the way cities work, the way economies work, the shakiness of too much "accepted" wisdom -- to bring back an ominous new message: Lazy thinking and a lack of accountability could combine to unhinge many of the advances that fuel our modern life. The author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," whose observations in that book still resonate, succinct yet dead-on after all these years, Jacobs has a way of snapping our perceptions back into focus. It's a treat to see her do that in this book, even if you don't buy into the overarching theme.

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst (Random House; 256 pages; $24.95): In Furst's novel, which like each of its predecessors takes place in Europe either just before or during the chaotic and devastating days of World War II, he invites us on board a Dutch tramp steamer called the Noordendam. The ship's captain, E. M. DeHaan, is a contemplative old master whose personal onboard library is stocked with Conrad, Stendhal, T.E. Lawrence, Malraux and Tolstoy. The way this book picks up steam, he doesn't have much time for reflection, having been recruited by Dutch Naval Intelligence for a number of secret missions in the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic and the Baltic. With the irresistible combination of DeHaan, the wartime lore of the sea, and the masterly way that Furst creates suspense, whether in battle or in ports of call, "Dark Voyage" is a real victory.

The Daydreaming Boy by Micheline Aharonian Marcom (Riverhead; 224 pages; $23.95): Micheline Aharonian Marcom's second novel focuses on the aftermath of the Armenian genocide and revolves around the experiences of one man: Vahé Tcheubjian, a middle-class Armenian businessman in 1960s Beirut. Tcheubjian and his wife appear to have an idyllic life, soaking up the sophisticated culture that marked the pre-civil war city as the "Paris of the Middle East." But inside, Tcheubjian is an emotional train wreck, racked by memories of escape from the genocide that killed his family and years endured in a brutal Armenian orphanage. Marcom's seamless, ethereal prose is suffused with raw emotion; there is heartbreak on every page, but also hope.

The Devil's Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little, Brown; 256 pages; $24.95): Poet Luis Alberto Urrea's powerful nonfiction book is the story of 26 Mexican men who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in 2001, traveling through a mean stretch of Arizona desert called the Devil's Highway. Only 12 survived. Working with material from numerous interviews with many of the survivors of the ill-fated expedition, their families and the Border Patrol officers, and dramatizing -- which is to say, conjuring and imagining -- the links between the facts he has and the facts he doesn't have, Urrea goes further than most previous attempts by journalists of every level of ability who have tackled this subject before. He describes the history of the region, the nature of the Border Patrol's tracking skills, the hopes and aspirations of the illegal immigrants and their desperate last hours in a serious yet eccentric prose that takes us deep into the heart of life -- and death -- along the Arizona border.

The Dew Breaker by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf; 244 pages; $22): The Haitian American author Edwidge Danticat has won considerable praise for her first two novels -- "Breath, Eyes, Memory" and "The Farming of Bones" -- and "The Dew Breaker," is likely to enhance her already high reputation. In some small part the book's interest lies in an accident of timing. The recent rebellion in Haiti has been a sharp reminder of the country's troubled political past and present, and Danticat's stories of a "dew breaker," a torturer working under the Duvalier regime, throw Haiti's culture and politics into sharp relief. In its varied characters, its descriptive power and its tightly linked images and themes, this book of linked stories is a rewarding and affecting read, rich with insights not just about Haiti but also about the human condition.

Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend by Michael Dregni (Oxford University Press; 326 pages; $35): Only snippets of film of him survive, and he played only a handful of engagements in the United States more than 50 years ago, so firsthand reports are few, but the hundreds of recordings he left behind offer convincing evidence: Django Reinhardt was probably the greatest guitarist ever to pick up the instrument. With his long-overdue biography, "Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend," author Michael Dregni has given us Reinhardt the man -- rascal, scoundrel, transcendent improviser, failed human being -- and an incredible story that stretches over World War II and Europe and America.

The Dog Fighter by Marc Bojanowski (Morrow; 291 pages; $23.95): There are a couple of striking things about Marc Bojanowski's first novel, a blood- sopped, sun-baked coming-of-age story. One is his skillful and career-ensuring use of language. The other is his chosen setting for a tale whose ending is the very terminus of a soul: Years of violence and betrayal -- of all sorts -- leave their mark on the nameless narrator of "The Dog Fighter," as unmistakably as the young man's hands mark the hind legs of the dogs launching at his throat during the sordid battles that give the novel its name. Those battles, waged for the drunk and the rich of a small coastal town in Baja California, are set in a nearly mythical Mexico of just before and after World War II. Bojanowski doesn't settle for tilling an easy patch of soil, and this is partly what makes his novel so enjoyable. Instead, he takes his "wild" Mexico and uses it to explore how language can ennoble and make sense of the many nasty shards of evil scattered in the wake of one man. "The Dog Fighter" is also a well-plotted thriller, a tidy piece of noir, full of lovely ironies.

The Double by Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Costa (Harcourt; 325 pages; $25): In the most recent novel by the Portuguese Nobel laureate Jose Saramago, the protagonist, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, is a divorced, depressed secondary-school history teacher who believes that his subject should be taught from front to back. One night, a video changes his life; he sees his own vulnerability in a man who looks exactly like him playing a bit part in a B movie. Tertuliano begins to pursue his "double" despite common sense, which, we are told, is "just a chapter from a statistics book." In the end, it is this quest for his double that lifts Tertuliano out of his apathy as Saramago's observations, in small bursts, lift themselves up in startling truth and beauty.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips (Random House; 386 pages; $24.95): Arthur Phillips' second novel is a wonder, a work of imaginative prowess that more than fulfills the promise of his first, "Prague." It's ambitious. It's inventive. It's challenging. The title character, Harvard Professor Ralph M. Trilipush, found evidence of the existence of the "apocryphal XIIIth-Dynasty king and erotic poet Atum-hadu" during World War I and returns to Egypt in 1922 to find the king's tomb. However, that narrative, which consists of Trilipush's journals and letters, gets checked and balanced by that of Harold Ferrell, an Australian detective whose telling of the events comes more than 30 years later. Amid the high-wire storytelling, Phillips also explores various thematic concerns, such as issues of identity and how history comes to be told -- or not told. These two entwined narratives and the collage of documents, texts and points of view keep the reader guessing and hungry for the next revelation.

Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (Houghton Mifflin; 336 pages; $24): In China, schoolchildren are taught that Tzu Hsi -- Orchid -- the last empress of China, was "the enemy of the human race," the downfall of an imperial culture that had survived 2,000 years. In her novel, Bay Area author Anchee Min re- evaluates the early life of the empress, from her being selected as one of the emperor's "official wives" to her rise into favor with the emperor to eventual ruler. Min gives us an ambitious, revisionist and fascinating story.

The Empty Room: Surviving the Loss of a Brother or Sister at Any Age by Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn (Scribner; 230 pages; $23): "The Empty Room" is less a memoir than an emotional travelogue, charting an often unexplored landscape of loss. DeVita-Raeburn, whose older brother died when she was 14, looks at the cultural invisibility of sibling grief. She notes that younger children are assumed not to understand at all about the death of a brother or sister, older children see their own grief eclipsed by their parents' loss, and adult siblings find themselves shunted to the side to support spouses and surviving children. Struggling to make sense of a life still defined by her brother's absence, she interviews hundreds of other adult survivors of a sibling's death, piecing together a common experience and a healing process.

The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen (Doubleday; 351 pages; $23.95): Hugo Whittier, the protagonist in Kate Christensen's engaging novel, whiles away his time at his family's ancestral home smoking, drinking and reading Montaigne, when not contemplating how to kill himself or trying to seduce his brother's au pair. Hugo's droll take on life and skewed self-analysis make him an indelible character. Christensen's surprisingly funny novel stays fresh and interesting, and until the very end leaves readers guessing at the outcome of Hugo's many schemes and intrigues.

Every Night Is Ladies' Night by Michael Jaime-Becerra (Rayo/HarperCollins; 288 pages; $23.95): This story collection, a welcome addition to Los Angeles literature, offers readers a rare, rewarding tour of the largely Latino enclave of El Monte. Primarily set in the '80s and presenting a recurring cast of mechanics, fast-food workers, tattoo artists, adolescents, these interconnected stories are gritty Hemingway-Carver-Ford fare with a working- class Latino twist: straight-ahead storytelling, sans linguistic flourishes, documenting sober lives in a sober manner. Yet Jaime-Becerra's great strength as a writer is the passion and genuine tenderness he displays for his characters as they grapple with family, commitment and regrets.

Exuberance: The Passion for Life by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf; 405 pages; $24.95): A professor of psychiatry and writer first known for her books on mood disorders and suicide, Jamison joins a trend toward "positive psychology": of trying to figure out what's right with us as well as what's wrong. In her book, which examines exuberance from all angles, including behavioral and brain studies, Jamison explores the idea and its implications mostly through people. Many of these exuberant achievers are familiar -- Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Winston Churchill -- and they are all appropriately fascinating -- for creating fascination is one of the things that exuberance does. On a subject that invites inflated prose, Jamison maintains a deft but not showy eloquence. She flags the important issues involved, so this book can also serve as an inspiration to more specific studies. "Exuberance" is both trenchant and entertaining.

The Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate; 131 pages; $16.95): In the past few years, Chabon has been conducting his own genre-bending experiments, the latest manifestation of which is "The Final Solution," a novella that first appeared in the Paris Review and is now published in its own slim volume. Set in 1940s rural England, "The Final Solution" revolves around a mute German-Jewish refugee boy whose only friend, a pet gray parrot, squawks out mysterious strings of numbers. Do the numbers hold the key to a top-secret German code? The stakes are raised when a man is murdered in the dead of night as he tries to steal the parrot, and an aging, once-famous detective agrees to take the case. As ever, Chabon's writing here is elegant and limber, and as you might expect from a detective story titled after Hitler's policy to exterminate the Jews, this is a little mystery story with big ideas.

Fogtown by Peter Plate (Seven Stories Press; 161 pages; $13 paperback): You know what you're going to get with a Peter Plate novel: Mission District lowlifes; villains who are real people; a ghost; believable, frumpy women. "Fogtown" is an ethereal structure of ruin. Plate's creation story, the founding of the Mission District, is a genealogy of hopelessness -- from Eastern Europe to Latin America, down-and-out people drift into the Bay Area and fail to do better than their grandparents. Set over a period of 24 hours, Plate's story of a botched robbery of a Brink's armored truck reads as a morality play without morals.

The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongues edited by Wendy Lesser (Pantheon; 241 pages; $23): Intimate, entertaining and thoughtful, the essays in this volume search for "the sources of writing in writers," but elicit the experiences and emotions of bilingual authors who were asked to reflect on the differences between their first languages and English. The writers' native tongues include 15 languages, from Bangla (the language of Bangladesh) to Chinese, and while confronting linguistic and physiological challenges -- whether trying to translate sentence structure or conquer the "th" sound -- they all express the essence that languages form (and reform) an inherent part of themselves.

The Genuine Article: A Historian Looks at Early America by Edmund S. Morgan (Norton; 315 pages; $26.95): Edmund S. Morgan -- Sterling professor emeritus at Yale University and the author of 15 books, among them the 2002 best-seller "Benjamin Franklin" -- is one of our pre-eminent authorities on the American Revolution and the early and late colonial periods. Through his several decades of writing for the New York Review of Books, Morgan has clarified, magnified and sometimes quite usefully criticized the findings of historians and biographers who share his fascination with the United States in embryo. Bundled together in "The Genuine Article," these engaging New York Review essays show how Morgan delights in the telling exceptions that puncture cliches and teach us things genuinely new and interesting about our shared past.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 256 pages; $23): It's been 23 years since Marilynne Robinson published her first novel, "Housekeeping," so it's a delight to report that her latest novel is chock full of the rich, complex language of her past work, as well as plunging into intricate philosophical and spiritual introspections. There's also an intriguing plot turn and characters who harbor beguiling histories in her story of a Midwest minister in his twilight who tries to make sense of the return to his community of a feckless middle-aged man. With her knack for the small detail -- the main character's love of baseball and fried-egg sandwiches, for instance -- Robinson has created a deeply reflective, yet accessible novel.

God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch (Viking Compass; 336 pages; $25.95): This even- handed look at religious persecution by the pagans and the Christians of ancient Rome is a timely tale about the importance of religious tolerance in today's world. Kirsch reminds us that "many of the implements of torture that figure so prominently in the practices of the Holy Office of the Inquisition were first invented and perfected in pagan Rome." Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kirsch writes, "we find ourselves very much at risk from the latest generation of religious zealots who have preserved the oldest traditions of monotheism, including holy war and martyrdom. The new rigorists include Jews, Christians and Muslims." Kirsch, the author of four other fine works of biblical intrigue, by no means portrays his pagans as perfect. But at least he tells us the rest of the story.

The Golden Game: The Story of California Baseball by Kevin Nelson (Heyday Books/California Historical Society; 380 pages; $24.95): No other state has the sun-ripened homegrown baseball talent California has -- and always had, according to Kevin Nelson's "The Golden Game," the rare baseball book that transcends its regional emphasis to earn a place on the shelf of anyone who loves the game. It reads like a core sample of a polar ice cap, with layer upon informative layer the deeper you go.

A Good Forest for Dying: The Tragic Death of a Young Man on the Front Lines of the Environmental Wars by Patrick Beach (Doubleday; 288 pages; $24. 95): In September 1998, a 24-year-old Texan named David Chain walked into a Humboldt County redwood grove with eight other Earth First activists with the aim of halting the felling of timber, only to be killed by a felled tree. In "A Good Forest for Dying," journalist Patrick Beach mines the tensions between forests and forestry jobs, local activism and federal bureaucracy, even democracy and capitalism, as he unearths a morality play in the years-long standoff between the timber industry and environmentalists. Whether dealing with the logistics of a tree sit, the fine points of the California judicial system or the politics of a corporate shareholder meeting, Beach writes with sympathy, humor and one more quality that is too often missing from environmental journalism: objectivity.

GraceLand by Chris Abani (Farrar Straus & Giroux; 321 pages; $24): Chris Abani's vivid, original portrayal of life in Lagos, Nigeria, is the story of Elvis Oke, a sensitive and damaged boy who will do almost anything to escape that city. He is the ambivalent hero of an itchy, organic novel that strikes close to home despite a terrain that might be alien to most American readers. Abani's intensely visual style -- and his sense of humor -- convert the stuff of hopelessness into the stuff of hope.

The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels by Doris Lessing (HarperCollins; 311 pages; $23.95): Going on 85, Doris Lessing shows no sign of running out of steam as a writer of memorable fiction. Described variously by her publisher as novellas, stories and short novels, the four pieces that make up "The Grandmothers" are masterpieces of artistry and intellect. Whether she is describing the London that has been her home for 55 years, a lost civilization that existed 7,000 years ago, a present-day postcolonial beauty spot or World War II in Cape Town (which she experienced as a young woman) and India (which she did not), her touch in all four narratives is sure.

The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History by John Barry (Viking: 546 pages; $29.95): In his latest book, John Barry, author of the acclaimed "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America," tells the expansive tale of both the disease and those who labored against it in the early 20th century. He tracks the flu's murderous path from its likely origins in Kansas across the United States and on to Europe, South America, Asia and Africa. Barry has a gift for evoking the horror of the 1918 pandemic and is equally adept at recognizing the toll the disease -- for which there is still no cure -- took on those who were not physically afflicted but whose job it was to care for those who were.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press; 818 pages; $35): While Jefferson crafted venerable notions about freedom and individuality, where Washington was a beloved war hero, Hamilton gets credit for a central bank. But Hamilton's contributions, though prosaic, were crucial to the founding of the United States. Hamilton, as portrayed by Ron Chernow ("Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller," "The House of Morgan"), is America's first moderate, more an evolutionary than a revolutionary. (Against the backdrop of recent events in Iraq, Hamilton's notions about the need for order as a precondition of democracy are likely to be particularly resonant.) Chernow captures Hamilton's foibles and flaws, but most important, he shows how his lofty vision endured, helping to shape a nation.

Hard Line: Life and Death on the U.S.-Mexico Border by Ken Ellingwood (Pantheon; 256 pages; $25): Ken Ellingwood worked the U.S.-Mexico border for the Los Angeles Times from 1998 to 2002 (he is now the Times' Jerusalem correspondent). In this, his first book, he examines Operation Gatekeeper's impact on the people of the region: the priest who fights the government to put water in the desert, the guards who want the line held but not at the cost of 300 corpses a year, the Arizona rancher-turned-vigilante who captures 2,000 immigrants annually, the pilgrims who flee economic hopelessness for a crack at a bearable life. Throughout, Ellingwood makes clear that Gatekeeper has cut crossings not a whit. Meanwhile, smugglers grow rich, every community between San Diego and El Paso is disrupted, and hundreds of thousands of Latinos are grievously endangered.

The Heart of the World: A Journey to the Last Secret Place by Ian Baker (Penguin; 511 pages; $27.95): Ian Baker, a Kathmandu writer, explorer and Tantric scholar, first learned of beyuls -- "hidden lands" of bliss and nectar deep in the remote region of Tibet -- in 1977, while studying Buddhist scroll painting in Nepal. They quickly became an obsession, and in subsequent audiences with high Buddhist lamas, he refined his understanding of how one might reach them. This book is his account of trying to reach this Shangri-La, suffering through physical and mental trials of all sorts -- torrential rains, treacherous terrains, voracious leeches. "The Heart of the World" will ignite the imagination of anyone who loves to explore and seeks the deeper meaning of his explorations. A fearless adventurer in both body and spirit, Baker has written one for the ages.

Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin; 311 pages; $24): In Cynthia Ozick's novel, she pays homage to George Eliot's "Middlemarch" through her feisty heroine, 18-year-old Rose Meadows. Rose is alone in the world and tack-sharp; and she's a big fan of Eliot's ambitious, sprawling novel. She signs on to be the helper of a scholar who has arrived in New York as a refugee from Hitler's Germany. He's looking for someone who can subdue his manic wife, manage his five children and assist him in his study of the Karaites, an obscure Jewish sect. It's a thankless job, but Rose takes it. "Heir to the Glimmering World" bristles with life, and Ozick displays a light, humorous touch as she depicts her singular characters and the shifting political and social tides of the 1930s.

Hip by John Leland (Ecco/HarperCollins; 405 pages; $26.95): New York Times reporter John Leland, former editor in chief of Details, offers an entertaining and lucid examination of the impossible-to-define phenomenon of hip. Beginning with the slave spirituals of the early 17th century, Leland hunts hip by tracing the evolution of American music through minstrelsy, the blues, bop and finally to jazz, then forging onward through punk, rap and trance. Writers, philosophers, filmmakers, poets, artists, cartoonists, actors, comedians and Internet hackers get name-checked along the way. Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Terry Southern, Mark Twain and Richard Pryor come onstage for extended solos. But music, and specifically the kind made in the middle of the past century by men named Coltrane, Davis, Gillespie, Parker and Monk, is "Hip's" true subject, and the presence of other figures is justified because of the way they either anticipated or were influenced by jazz. Jazz musicians are, for Leland, the alpha and omega of hip.

How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer (HarperCollins; 261 pages; $24.95): In his absorbing attempt to render soccer a (qualified) defense of globalization, Franklin Foer's ample documentation of the thorough, and occasionally ludicrous, entanglement of sports, politics and culture in the rest of the world is stunning. Contrary to polemics about the destruction of indigenous cultures by transnational capitalism, the fundamental problem is that the process simply hasn't gone far enough. Too many unpleasant ethnic traditions survive, despite the pressure an international athletic market exerts to, say, hire the best players, regardless of race or religion, or to modernize and clean up rickety, stampede- producing stadiums to attract a wealthier class of fan. Even if Foer's larger argument remains only sporadically convincing, his vividly reported tableau may well cause American sports fans to breathe a sigh of relief about how little, really, our games matter.

How We Are Hungry by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's; 224 pages; $22): Ranging in settings from Tanzania to Ireland, from Egypt to a long, lonely stretch of Interstate 5, the 15 tales in this collection reinvigorate that staid old form, the short story, with a jittery sense of adventure. All of Dave Eggers' characters are seekers; most of them are confused about what exactly they're seeking. These stories are raw, unfiltered but have the same quivering texture of lived experience. Following Eggers as he tap-dances across continents and genres is a bit like watching a spider walk sideways up a wall: He does things that should be impossible, and he does them gracefully.

Human Amusements by Wayne Johnston (Anchor Original; 328 pages; $13.95 paperback): In his most recent novel, this time about a family at odds -- she's the host of a successful children's program, he's an aspiring novelist, and their son appears on Mom's TV show -- Wayne Johnston demonstrates absolute control over his material, and seamlessly employs often laugh-out- loud humor alongside a sophisticated exploration of television, how we see ourselves and the subtleties of our emotional landscapes. And although his humorous observations on watching -- others, television, oneself -- are enjoyable and thought-provoking, what is equally if not more interesting is how this allows Johnston also to comment on books, readers and writing.

In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon; 36 pages; $19.95): Like the minority still offended by "Maus," his Pulitzer Prize-winning two- volume comics account of the Holocaust, some readers will see disrespect in Art Spiegelman's literally self-centered rendition of the horrors of Sept. 11. Among those horrors, he counts the Bush administration's political exploitation of the calamity. Spiegelman lives a lot closer to the site of the massacre than most of his critics, and he saw it happen. He shifts terrible events into the sometimes outrageous register of comics so we can face the worst without losing our heads, much as fairy tale grotesques let children practice mastering emotions. "Disaster is my muse," Spiegelman admits in his introduction to "In the Shadow of No Towers." Much of the series -- first published in the London Review of Books -- turns on his own incapacity to recover from what he saw and still feels. Spiegelman interweaves pain, sadness, dread, laughter and outrage in this book as perhaps only his medium permits.

The Inner Circle by T. Coraghessan Boyle (Viking; 416 pages; $15.95): "The Inner Circle" may draw readers in because of its sexy subject matter -- after half a century, the story of Alfred C. Kinsey and his Institute for Sex Research still has a whiff of scandal about it -- but they will stay for the emotional punch of T. Coraghessan Boyle's meditations on love, marriage and jealousy. Although this highly readable novel is very much about sex in both its clinical and its private aspects, its deeper subject is love and the challenge that sexual liberation poses to monogamy. Boyle's novel tells Kinsey's story as the intense first-person narrative of his (invented) earliest assistant, John Milk. Sexual relations among the inner circle are more or less mandated by Kinsey, who insists that none of his researchers can be "sex shy." In a memoir he's recording, Milk expresses the tension between defending his mentor, whom he idolizes, and his misgivings about the effect the research has on his marriage. The novel is a captivating and emotionally compelling exploration of a key chapter in American cultural history.

Ishi's Brain: In Search of the Last "Wild" Indian by Orin Starn (Norton; 352 pages; $25.95): Orin Starn, an anthropologist at Duke University, aims to set straight the historical record and strip away the moralistic veneer of the Ishi legend. Told like a detective story, "Ishi's Brain" is a compelling and at times agonizing story of human fallibility, of conflicting good intentions gone awry. It examines what happened to Ishi after he was found in 1911 and brought to San Francisco by anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and the recent struggle by two Indian tribes to get back his brain from the Smithsonian for burial. (It was taken in an autopsy performed against Ishi's wishes after his death in 1916.) By leaving the nuances and complexities in the story, Starn has completed the transformation of Ishi -- from man to legend and now, at last, back into mortal man again.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury; 782 pages; $27.95): Set at the beginning of the 19th century during the Napoleonic Wars, "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" details the rebirth of practical magic in England after years of neglect. Two members of the York Society of Magicians, an august body whose members only study theoretical magic, without actually attempting any spells of their own, set out to find someone with firsthand knowledge of the mystical arts. Their quest leads them to the reclusive Gilbert Norrell, who at first rejects their offer of friendly association and then proceeds to destroy the York society by forcing the members into a wager they cannot win. What distinguishes "Jonathan Strange" more than anything else is its good humor and expansive heart. Susanna Clarke displays her characters' foibles without making fools of them, and if "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" doesn't exactly end happily, it ends fittingly.

Junk Politics: The Trashing of the American Mind by Benjamin DeMott (Nation; 271 pages; $13.95 paperback): One couldn't ask for a more observant and trenchant cultural critic to plow through the morass of hypocrisy than Benjamin DeMott. Whether he is tearing into President Bush's "convert's conviction, bulwarked not only by Republican hostility to big government but by Jesus the Lord" or ridiculing "compassionate" and "sensitive" chief executive officers, DeMott, a professor emeritus of humanities at Amherst College and a contributor to the Atlantic, Harper's and the Nation, is an impassioned, combative contrarian with few peers. "Junk Politics" is a bracing collection of DeMott's essays, written over the past few decades, that boils over with his anger and contempt. DeMott has a gift for digging into our national consciousness and exposing its ugly side.

The Last Crossing by Guy Vanderhaeghe (Atlantic; 391 pages; $24): A best- selling, widely acclaimed and award-winning author in Canada, Guy Vanderhaeghe won last year's Fiction Book of the Year award from the Canadian Booksellers Association for "The Last Crossing." Now U.S. audiences can see how this master of crisp writing and thick description breathes creative, exciting new life into what can be a hackneyed genre -- the Western. Vanderhaeghe's tale of British brothers sent to 19th century North America to find their missing sibling displays a colloquial ease and humor, not to mention mythic and epic scenes and pieces of horrific violence, that bring to mind such literary greats as Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy.

The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (Arcade; 297 pages; $23.95): Siddarth Shanghvi is 26, and his first novel has won the prestigious Betty Trask Award in Britain and has been the talk of the town in his native India. Is he the next Arundhati Roy, or Salman Rushdie version 7.0, or Zadie Smith crossed with Vikram Seth? Shanghvi, who lives half the year in the Bay Area, evokes all those authors in his story of a beautiful arranged-marriage couple, a wicked stepmother-in-law and a fast-living cousin. But in the end, "The Last Song of Dusk" is nobody's love child but Shanghvi's -- lush, witty and eventually achingly sad.

The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes (Knopf; 241 pages; $22.95): Novelist Julian Barnes ("Flaubert's Parrot") set his previous short-story collection, "Cross Channel," in France. In this stunning anthology, there is another story set there, as well as ones in Finland, Russia and Sweden. But the bulk of the pieces in "The Lemon Table" are set in Barnes' native England, and he shows the surest of touches in matters large and small as he explores some fascinating interstices of English life. As he nears his 60th year, his keen imagination is looking ahead toward that liminal period between decrepitude and death. And that is the other country where all these stories are rooted, no matter what their geographical location. Playful, angry, wry or humorous, his tone is right on. Everywhere he ventures, Barnes is sure-footed: Each word, each tone, each nuance of phrase is just right. Every word is the proverbial mot juste. Unsentimental yet full of all manner of sentiment -- sweet, sour, bitter, wistful, ruminative, comic, elegiac -- "The Lemon Table" is an uncommonly satisfying book.

The Life and Times of Mexico by Earl Shorris (Norton; 743 pages; $29.95): San Francisco author Earl Shorris ("In the Language of Kings," "Latinos") shapes the history of Mexico not as a mere chronology of events but as a collective biography of the country's people. The 37 chapters and several prefaces and appendices are crammed with oral histories and character studies of figures ranging from President Vicente Fox to Marta Irene, a bright, impoverished Mazatec girl living in the slums of today's Mexico City. Shorris writes, "To identify an old country is to look at infinity; to write about an old country, not as a tourist but as an old lover, one who knows too much, is to attempt to find order in infinity." But order he finds, in an ingenious thematic structure based on Mayan beliefs.

The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (Bloomsbury; 438 pages; $24.95): Alan Hollinghurst's novel, deservedly winner of the Man Booker Prize this year, is not really a book about people or even about what happens to them over the course of three years in the mid-'80s. What's most important in his best novel to date is the setting itself. The story of Nick Guest, the son of a hinterlands antiques dealer hungry for status and money, may focus on the uneasy coexistence among different classes and races in the middle of the Thatcher era in England, but the times themselves -- characterized by rampant self-satisfaction and voracious acquisitiveness, but also an unconscious time, or so it inevitably looks from our vantage point two decades hence -- are the central character.

Lost in Space: The Fall of NASA and the Dream of a Space Age by Greg Klerkx (Pantheon; 392 pages; $27.95): As a longtime space buff and the first director of development for SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence), Greg Klerkx is a keen observer of whatever humans launch into space. He's also worked for, with and around NASA, so he knows something about the sprawling government agency that has a monopoly on space travel, and he makes it clear in "Lost in Space" that it doesn't impress him much. NASA's failures, according to Klerkx and amply supported by his research, are not due merely to dwindling funds, as NASA would argue, but for a dearth of vision and direction and, moreover, NASA's refusal to work with the private sector.

Loving Che by Ana Menéndez (Atlantic; 229 pages; $22): The pain and loneliness of exile -- surely a cornerstone of Cuban American fiction -- permeates this poetic, fragmentary first novel by Ana Menéndez, a former journalist born in Los Angeles to Cuban emigres and the author of a well- received book of short stories ("In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd," 2001). The story of a young woman abandoned by her mother during the early days of the Cuban revolution, "Loving Che" connects the understandable loss of exile with a much more profound "trauma of separation."

Lust by Simon Blackburn (Oxford University Press; 151 pages; $17.95): Simon Blackburn's wry and learned "Lust" is part of a seven-book series -- one for each of the deadly sins -- that grew from a lecture series co- sponsored by the New York Library and Oxford University Press. In this slim volume, the author seeks to redeem lust from its "bad press" and ultimately enhance its standing with a public fed centuries of propaganda and outright disinformation. Neither prude nor dirty old man, he skillfully filters art, verse and prose through the prism of lust and romantic love and does so in a tone of well-read whimsy.

The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley (Little, Brown; 256 pages; $22. 95): The idea is a delicious one: successful white man filled with guilt locks himself in a cage to be watched over by a penniless African American. "The Man in My Basement" becomes a series of intriguing dialogues between warden and prisoner. Bennet, the white man, who has long operated in the most covert international circles, attempts to educate Blakely, his warden, on many of society's issues, including the always-changing chalk line between good and evil. Not surprisingly, Bennet reveals the world to be a complex place held together by an amorphous moral structure that operates outside geopolitical boundaries.

The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell: Confessions of a Bank Robber by Joe Loya (Rayo/HarperCollins; 351 pages; $24.95): Bay Area writer Joe Loya has done some honest work in his memoir, sourcing the rage that drove his felonious behavior. He describes his life -- a bookish, winningly philosophical Mexican American kid who grows up motherless and under a cruel father and then goes on to make a name for himself as a bank robber in the money-mad 1980s -- with compelling urgency, and with a knack for efficient characterization and setting detailed scenes. He traces his life using grand, biblical language with ambivalence, reverence and often caustic irony. What emerges is a complex temperament, at once writerly and beastly.

The Master by Colm Tóibín (Scribner; 338 pages; $25): Henry James never married, never resolved his sexual identity and always pulled short of intimacy with those who tried to get close to him. Colm Tóibín's feat in "The Master" is to have pulled extremely close to James by making him the subject of his fifth novel. Tóibín apparently has absorbed the entire James oeuvre, including not just the fiction but also letters and journals; R.W.B. Lewis' engaging family history, "The Jameses"; and every word of Leon Edel's definitive five-volume biography. He has funneled it all into a remarkably faithful, omniscient third-person narrative peppered with James quotes. "The Master" is a superbly researched and nuanced portrait that could have the happy effect of sending some of its readers back to the master himself.

The Meat You Eat: How Corporate Farming Has Endangered America's Food Supply by Ken Midkiff (St. Martin's Press; 222 pages; $23.95): Even the most avid meat eaters among us know -- and usually ignore -- that the production of meat is not simple. Or pretty. Or safe. All of which is Ken Midkiff's point in his book "The Meat You Eat." This is not a literary or appetizing read. For more than 200 pages, Midkiff, the Sierra Club's clean water campaign director, pounds home his point with a numbing, acronym-studded blur of statistics and urgency: Corporate control of farming is killing the land, killing communities and, very probably, killing us. Midkiff's book probably offers the best collection of facts and figures about the sorry state of our meat supply in any readable form. In fact, the book is such a good collection of statistics on the state of Big Meat that it will probably be used as a text for reformers -- perhaps the biggest reformers of all, the shopper.

The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer's Block and the Creative Brain by Alice W. Flaherty (Houghton Mifflin; 307 pages; $24): Alice Flaherty is not content with shooting fish in a barrel; her mighty ambition in her subtle and persuasive book is to identify the elusive source that causes people to write -- or at least to get us closer to it than we've ever been. She also aims to provide new insights about writer's block, metaphor, hypergraphia (the maniacal desire to write) and what is variously referred to as creativity, genius, (divine) inspiration and the Muse. Though this book isn't offered as the final word on the matter, Flaherty's argument that the urge to write is directly attributable to functions of the brain is intriguing.

Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life by Steven Johnson (Scribner; 274 pages; $25): Steven Johnson is captivated by the workings of a $2 million magnet, a device that performs "functional magnetic resonance imaging." FMRI is a technique for determining which parts of the brain are activated by various types of physical stimuli, such as sight, sound or other sensations that generate electrical and chemical activity in the brain. In "Mind Wide Open," Johnson's quest is to use FMRI as a way of going beyond the identification of media-hyped "centers" of the brain that are linked in some way to certain traits -- the "speech center" or "jealousy center," for instance -- to see if neuroscience can help one understand something more fundamental about human nature. "Mind Wide Open" is a thought- provoking and engaging book, with very little technical jargon that might discourage lay readers perusing a scientific subject.

Mississippi in Africa: The Saga of the Slaves of Prospect Hill Plantation and Their Legacy in Liberia Today by Alan Huffman (Gotham Books; 328 pages; $27): At first, it sounds like a historical footnote or a piece of trivia: There once was a place in Africa called Mississippi, founded by former black American slaves. In "Mississippi in Africa," Alan Huffman traces this extraordinary yet little-known episode of 19th century history and reveals how events that took place 150 years ago in the American South continue to play out in the troubled West African country of Liberia. A former newspaper reporter, Huffman spent several years researching this saga and in doing so has uncovered a fascinating story that's spent too long in obscurity.

The Moon in Its Flight: Stories by Gilbert Sorrentino (Coffee House; 286 pages; $16 paperback): This collection by American master Gilbert Sorrentino contains 20 stories written between 1971 and this year. Sorrentino spent two decades of that time teaching at Stanford University before recently moving back to his hometown of Brooklyn. The best stories here force us to consider and reconsider how we approach the very act of reading. Amid the characters' anxieties, a kind of narrative playfulness shines through; the narrators frequently butt in to comment on the stories they tell. In bringing down the walls that typically fortify a narrator from his audience, in exposing the artifice behind the art, Sorrentino requires us to extend that healthy distrust not only to what we read but also to the narratives shaping the world around us.

Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years of Life and Death on the American Left By John Ross (Nation Books; 353 pages; $15.95 paperback): The red-diaper baby of a probable FBI informant and a mother who helped organize a Broadway press-agents union, John Ross has survived police nightsticks, amphetamine addiction and an abortive stint as a human shield in Baghdad. Now he's written a ragged but downright glorious memoir, which doubles as a kind of "Spoon River Anthology" for the American left.

The Myth of Moral Justice: Why Our Legal System Fails to Do What's Right by Thane Rosenbaum (HarperCollins; 356 pages; $24.95): "Whatever happened to truth in the criminal-justice system?" asks Thane Rosenbaum in "The Myth of Moral Justice." The answer is that truth plays a very little role in a system that has, as he claims, "completely lost its bearings." It is a system in which lawyers zealously defend clients they know are guilty; defendants avoid deserved punishments by pleading guilty to lesser, fictional crimes; convicted innocents are denied parole for refusing to apologize for crimes they did not commit; and litigants are encouraged to accept cash settlements that allow the responsible parties to walk away with no admission of guilt.

Rosenbaum, a novelist and a law professor, argues for changing the system, and his suggestions are controversial, but they should not keep anyone from reading the book, for there is much of great value here and worthy of debate.

The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith by David Ulin (Viking; 290 pages; $24.95): A transplanted New Yorker who has lived a little more than a decade in the Golden State, Ulin has already eased his transition by editing two anthologies of writing about Los Angeles. In this book, he confronts the very ground Californians walk on and wonders why they feel safe. Ulin does explain a good deal about quakes and attempts at prediction, but his approach is less expository than autobiographical. Nonetheless, the book is not narcissistic.

Ulin presents himself as a representative case, someone simply more in touch with his fears than his apparently carefree peers. Ultimately, he's in pursuit of faith, by which he means not religious belief but the confidence that allows Californians to thrive and be happy while living at the intersection of two tectonic plates.

The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age by Jeffrey Rosen (Random House; 260 pages; $24.95): Rosen, legal affairs editor for the New Republic, explains how the concept of privacy is in grave danger in "The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age." The public commonly makes the assumption that it can give up some civil liberties in order to gain security. The horror that Rosen fears is a world where "people give up liberties without experiencing a corresponding increase in security." Rosen's book will be must reading for those interested in privacy rights and for all policy-makers who deal with the issue.

Namath: A Biography by Mark Kriegel (Viking; 512 pages; $27.95): As Mark Kriegel makes abundantly clear in his punchy, refreshingly gutter-mouthed biography of Joe Namath, the NFL owes the guy plenty -- he gave it a star who brought in a new audience and revitalized the fans already there. But that's also another way of saying that he's culpable for a lot, too -- specifically, for shaping a sport into what is now clearly show business and for finding a way to cram "I" into "team."

Kriegel does a magnificent job of getting across Namath's greatness as a player and his natural capacity as a celebrity. But Namath is also a symbol of a star without a second act, of a sport, as thrilling as it is, that chews up players and whose acronym is often ruefully translated into Not for Long. Like Orson Welles, who helped honor the quarterback at a celebrity roast, Namath was, as Kriegel implies, "another American genius who had peaked at the age of twenty-five."

Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 147 pages; $18): David Bezmozgis' taut, vivid and touching first collection of stories looks at the life of young Mark Berman, a boy growing up in Toronto in the 1980s, helping his Russian Jewish immigrant family navigate a new world that isn't as generous as they might have supposed. Recalling the work of Isaac Babel, Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok, "Natasha" displays such a significant maturity and elegance that it's nothing more than a humble announcement that a new talent with a serious future has come to the fore.

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (The Penguin Press; 160 pages; $21.95): Buruma and Margalit, professors from New York's Bard College and Jerusalem's Hebrew University, take only 160 pages to explain the appeal of certain myths about the Islamic world and point out their dangers. The importance of their book is the deft way the authors shift the debate from a polar discussion of East and West to a more useful discussion of what's really at issue. The question they seek to answer isn't "why they hate us" but what they hate and who "they" are in the first place. Their case is persuasively argued and answers both leftist cant and rightist paranoia about the war on terror. The hatred is for cities and everything they represent, the authors say at the outset. Terrorists acting on that hate are part of a long tradition that goes back not to the Crusades or to an East-West split at all, but rather to Japanese kamikaze pilots, Nazis and the Spanish Inquisition.

One With Nineveh: Politics, Consumption and the Human Future by Paul Ehrlich and Anne Ehrlich (Island Press; 447 pages; $27): Ever since his popular book "The Population Bomb" appeared in 1968, Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich has been the most widely known prophet of population problems -- if not doom. "One With Nineveh," co-written with his wife, Anne, is another warning. Much of the Ehrlichs' book is devoted to demonstrating the many facets of the threat of increased population and over-consumption, especially among the world's rich. Their lens wanders wide through science, history and politics, but rarely does their exploration become too academic. They pull no punches in their attacks on human hubris and greed, with especially cutting and sometimes funny words for some of our current leaders.

Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy by Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 594 pages; $30): When Mexico threw the long- ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party out of office and turned toward liberal democracy in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, culminating with the election of Vicente Fox at the turn of the millennium, it was a major victory for democratic self-determination. But, as "Opening Mexico" reveals, the United States' southern neighbors have as much to teach the world about ousting corrupt, despotic regimes as do the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians: that giving birth to a democracy requires more than economic liberalization. "Opening Mexico" chronicles PRI stalwarts and opposition revolutionaries alike, an approach that stems naturally from the authors' backgrounds: Preston and Dillon ran the New York Times' Mexico bureau from 1995 to 2000.

Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil by David Goodstein (Norton; 140 pages; $21.95): If the developed world keeps consuming certain resources at the present frenzied rate, very soon there will not be any more resources left to consume -- oil, for example, David Goodstein explains in "Out of Gas." The book is written with a lively yet understated tone, and to ease the learning curve or perhaps just to entertain, Goodstein intersperses tiny history lessons between the hard science. The five chapters, which are just long enough to maintain interest without becoming boring, are jam-packed with quality information and flow so well that the book can be read easily in one long afternoon. The author never preaches, and he doesn't pull any punches when it comes to telling the story just the way it is.

The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos and Crime by William Langewiesche (North Point; 239 pages; $23): William Langewiesche's enthralling study of the epidemic disorder of our oceans is hard to put down. His prose flows seamlessly and elegantly, effortlessly integrating investigative reporting, political analysis, travel writing and even film criticism. Studying the shipping industry across the globe -- from the beaches of India where old rusting hulks are torn apart to the waters of the Baltic, where hundreds of people lost their lives in a ferry accident -- the Atlantic writer shows that our great mistake is to assume that modern nations have somehow brought the oceans under the heel of technology and international organization. If anything, the opposite seems to be true.

The Painting by Nina Schuyler (Algonquin Books; 299 pages; $23.95): According to the tenets of Buddhism, life is suffering, and suffering arises inexorably from desire, from the act of wanting. In Nina Schuyler's meditative first novel, "The Painting," the interplay between want and need not only creates the thematic backbone of the book but also drives the story itself -- the tale of the struggles of a young female painter living in Meiji-era Japan, and the life of the illegitimate daughter of a well-heeled Parisian during the Franco-Prussian War. Each of her characters is afflicted with his or her own particular form of suffering, and each, in turn, is likewise afflicted with the hope of bringing that suffering to an end.

The Pearl Diver by Jeff Talarigo (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 237 pages; $18. 95): This original and haunting first novel by Jeff Talarigo follows the life of a Japanese woman whose career of diving into deep waters for pearl-carrying oysters is cut short after she contracts leprosy. Set in the '40s, Talarigo's story mostly takes place in the leprosarium to where his protagonist is banished and where she tries to create a life for herself, despite the despair that surrounds her. "The Pearl Diver" explores the question of what a person becomes after having been stripped of everything: name, family and function, privacy and freedom. Talarigo's answer seems to be that we are saved not by what we are but by who we are, the part of us that exists within the flesh, that is capable of transcendence through love.

The Perfect Mile: Three Athletes, One Goal and Less Than Four Minutes to Achieve It by Neal Bascomb (Houghton Mifflin; 322 pages; $24): In our era of televised sports extravaganzas, doped performances, celebrity agents and multimillionaire competitors, what happened in the world of racing in the early 1950s seems almost quaint. But it is quaint in the way great myths are quaint: simply structured, resonant with implication, ageless and universal. In his book on the three men who vied against one another to be the first person to run the mile in less than four minutes, Bascomb captures the fervor and excitement leading up to Roger Bannister's record-shattering performance, and then the track meet that was to produce a showdown among all three athletes.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon; 187 pages; $17.95): "Persepolis 2" picks up where Marjane Satrapi's first graphic- novel memoir, "Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood," ended. Fourteen-year-old Satrapi has fled the Islamic regime in Tehran in 1984 and landed by herself in Vienna, armed only with a little French and images of Heidi. She is, as always, brutally honest, whether it's talking about her first encounter with the thick blandness of Knorr cream of mushroom soup or becoming the school's hash dealer or rooting in trash cans for food.

But it's only when she returns to Iran after her life implodes in Vienna that the story really picks up. Her return to Iran, which looks like a cemetery after its years of war with Iraq, exposes Satrapi to a sense of dislocation that she is wholly unprepared for. What is astonishing about Satrapi's work is that with evocative drawings and minimal use of words, it creates immensely sympathetic and real characters.

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin; 391 pages; $26): In his new novel, Roth imagines an alternate U.S. history in which Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the presidency to Charles Lindbergh, with disastrous results for Roth's family and the rest of the country. Like all great allegories, however, "The Plot Against America" offers no easy answer to the noxious quandaries of either the 1940s or the present day. Even at the novel's close, when a sort of order is restored, there's little comfort to be found. What readers will discover, however, is Roth's most powerful work to date. Confounding and illuminating, enraging and discomfiting, imaginative and utterly -- terrifyingly -- believable, "The Plot Against America" is an exercise in speculative history that becomes speculation itself.

Poet of the Appetites: The Lives and Loves of M.F.K. Fisher by Joan Reardon (North Point Press; 509 pages; $27.50): Reardon's book won't do much for readers who don't already know Fisher's wonderful work, but that's a standard hardly any literary biography can satisfy. Instead, it does the next best thing: It reminds M.F.K. Fisher's acolytes why they fell in love with the author of "Consider the Oyster" and "A Considerable Town" in the first place. With "Poet of the Appetites," Reardon does Fisher herself the honor of clear- eyed, smitten but unswooning consideration.

Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats by Helen Vendler (Harvard University Press; 142 pages; $19.95): Some people seem surprised by the idea that poets do any thinking at all. There is a popular image of the poet as a wild, inspired, untutored and half-mad figure striding across the heath. Helen Vendler's book, "Poets Thinking," if it is read as widely as it ought to be, will help considerably to correct this misperception. Her thoughtful and insightful readings of poems by Alexander Pope, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats demonstrate the central and essential role of sophisticated thinking in the poetic enterprise. Indeed, if Vendler is right, we simply cannot understand poetry without understanding the thinking that goes on in it.

Politics: Observations and Arguments, 1966-2004 by Hendrik Hertzberg (Penguin Press; 683 pages; $29.95): Hendrik Hertzberg is a master of the short form of political and cultural commentary. As a staff writer at the New Yorker in the early '70s (coming back to stay in 1992), reporting for Newsweek, serving as a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter and logging two stints as the editor of the New Republic, he has come as close as possible to perfecting the literary sprint, packing his observations on the grand topics of our age into just a few hundred words. Hertzberg's gift is the turn of phrase and the sly dig at his targets, on the right as well as on the left. Taken as a whole, as a walk through both the profound moments of American life and the baser forms of political mudslinging that combine to form our national political life, one can scarcely do better than to read this book.

Project X (Knopf; 164 pages; $20) and Love and Hydrogen (Vintage; 340 pages; $13 paperback) by Jim Shepard: Nihilistic at its heart, Shepard's vision is confident and impenetrable. In "Love and Hydrogen," a collection of old and recent stories, and "Project X," a brief but intense novel about two troubled eighth-graders, Shepard shows that he is just as comfortable writing from a satirist's distance as he is from right in the center of a character's gut.

If Shepard, for whatever reason, is not on your radar, he probably should be. The voice he brings to these stories is subtle and genuine but also quite mutable. You will believe him when he puts a strange spin on a beloved old horror movie, when he describes the inner life of a crewman on the Hindenburg (as he does in "Love and Hydrogen"), and when he gives us a peek into the mind of an aimlessly angry adolescent.

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934 by Bryan Burrough (Penguin; 593 pages; $29.95): The early 1930s were a golden age for bank robbers and kidnappers -- John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, the Barkers, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and others roamed the national landscape creating mayhem and making headlines. Inexperienced FBI agents were matched against experienced criminals who were masters at handling both an automobile and a Thompson machine gun.

Burrough's engaging account, which follows the two-year crime wave, gang by gang, as they careen across the country, is filled with car chases, gunfights, jailbreaks, heists, kidnappings and stakeouts. "Public Enemies" will make excellent reading for fans of American history and true crime.

Queen of Dreams by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (Doubleday; 340 pages; $21. 95): In her magical novel, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni portrays the complex relationship between a mother and daughter struggling with their identities as artists, mothers and women of South Asian origin living in Berkeley. Rakhi has spent her life craving her mother's intimacy, wanting to know her secrets. After her mother's sudden death in a car accident, the dream journals she leaves behind provide Rakhi with a way of finally knowing her mother and also her father, who translates them into English, leaving a sheet on her pillow each night. After she is a victim of hate crime the night of Sept. 11, Rakhi completes her first painting after her mother's death. In lyrical, poetic prose, Divakaruni shows how identity -- both individual and communal -- is equally shaped by loss and creation.

The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble (Harcourt; 352 pages; $24): Drabble describes her ingeniously constructed book as a novel "of a kind." It is certainly one of the most inventive works of fiction in recent memory. The heroine of the story, an English academic who is just finishing a sabbatical at Oxford University, receives an unexpected gift, though she doesn't know from whom: the memoirs of a Korean crown princess written more than 200 years ago. From this unusual premise, we eagerly dip into a deliciously evocative tale of palace intrigue, violent deaths, phobias, treachery and madness. Drabble has written a moving tale of fate, moral responsibility and love.

Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class by Larry Tye (Henry Holt; 315 pages; $26): Rescuing an icon from the edge of oblivion is no easy task; making room for him in the collective memory is harder still. But revealing his profound influence on our social and cultural institutions today requires insight and imagination. Tye has both.

He succeeds in explaining how, in the late 19th through the early 20th century, the young African American laborer who, while working as a porter (but also as a dining car waiter, fireman, brakeman, maid or cook) for the Pullman Rail Car Co. was the true harbinger of the civil rights movement and the precursor to today's black middle class.

Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance by Deborah Jowitt (Simon & Schuster; 619 pages; $40): The great, endlessly intriguing glory of Deborah Jowitt's exhaustively researched and beautifully written biography is its clarity in describing and critiquing Jerome Robbins' long and remarkably varied career. Jowitt uses everything from extensive interviews with many of the participants to entries from Robbins' journals, letters and notes for a planned autobiography to provide fly-on-the-wall looks at the making of "West Side Story," "Fiddler," "Gypsy" and every one of the many short and long works he created with American Ballet Theatre, Ballets: USA and the New York City Ballet. A longtime dance critic for the Village Voice, Jowitt also excels at descriptions that bring the dances vividly to life.

Runaway by Alice Munro (Knopf; 335 pages; $25): For more than 30 years, the rituals of flight have been the obsessive theme of many of Alice Munro's short stories. Munro's characters habitually leave their pasts behind for new territories, only to discover that they have come back full circle to origins they cannot escape. On the other hand, they can also flee by simply staying put, by refusing to acknowledge change or opportunities. Those themes fill her latest collection of stories, which also displays the clear and unobtrusive prose (which at times has an intricate and demanding beauty) she's admired for.

The Sea Ranch by Donlyn Lyndon and Jim Alinder (Princeton Architectural Press; 304 pages; $65): At the midway point between Point Reyes and Mendocino, the fabled and ever-controversial Sea Ranch -- 4,000 acres of coastline that contains 1,600 homes of sadly varying quality -- is built on the premise that development and nature can coexist. While Sea Ranch has been written about often, this book by one of the principal architects is unlikely to be surpassed in how thoughtfully it explores both the architecture of the homes and the shaping of the place.

A Seahorse Year by Stacey D'Erasmo (Houghton Mifflin; 368 pages; $24): What happens to a family when it falls apart? This is the complicated question Stacey D'Erasmo tackles in her second novel, "A Seahorse Year," and her psychologically complex and lyrical exploration of the surrounding concerns yields (thankfully) no easy answers. Instead, we gain access into a strikingly contemporary family whose cohesiveness is tested by unexpected adversity. Christopher, Nan and Hal's teenage son, is missing. Nan and Hal are gay and live separately, but Hal's reluctant sperm donation has since evolved into an equal division of parental responsibilities. Chris' disappearance from his and Nan's San Francisco home casts a spotlight on the struggles of this family.

Throughout, the author is skillfully unobtrusive; the result is a wedge of existence that suggests a story continuing outside the margins of the novel.

The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution & Why We Need It More Than Ever by Cass Sunstein (Basic Books; 304 pages; $25): Sunstein, a distinguished law professor at the University of Chicago School of Law, believes that a cultural transformation took place during the New Deal that altered our perception of legal rights and our common understanding of what a just society should provide for its citizens in order for citizenship to have meaning. The problem, as he contends in his engaging, thoughtful and original book, "The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution & Why We Need It More Than Ever," is that we didn't go far enough, and an opportunity was lost to extend our notion of rights to include social, cultural and economic entitlements, to go alongside the more conventional civil and political freedoms that Americans otherwise enjoy.

With this important and timely book, Sunstein has reminded us how a shift in public will and a realignment of the Supreme Court might one day result in the realization of Roosevelt's unfulfilled vision.

The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright by Jean Nathan (Henry Holt; 309 pages; $25): Nathan's biography of "The Lonely Doll" author Dare Wright is thoroughly engrossing, and fans of the series will want to read her terrific -- and terrifically disturbing -- life story. While her books were a success, Wright is revealed to have been a tormented woman who spent her life yearning for the father and brother she lost at an early age. Wright's weak spot was reality; having never experienced a normal life, she seemed unable to break away from the surreal, abusive world created by her mother, Edie.

Nathan chronicles Wright's progressive self-destruction: After Edie died in 1975, Wright descended into alcoholism, roaming the streets and setting herself deliberately in harm's way. Readers of this dark and haunting biography will never be able to look at the "Lonely Doll" books, or their author, in quite the same way again.

Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival by Dean King (Little, Brown; 353 pages; $24.95): In this marvelous account of fortitude and faith, Dean King brings to life Capt. James Riley and his crew, whose merchant ship Commerce was wrecked off the northwest coast of Africa in 1815. They survived captivity at the hands of Muslim slave traders and endured the hardships of a lengthy trek across that most inhospitable of terrains, the Zahara -- or as we know it today, Sahara -- Desert.

"Skeletons" also examines the various desert folk who enslaved and tormented the sailors and in one case ultimately saved some of their lives. From the opening sequence, a memorable description of a failed caravan traveling south across the desert to Timbuktu in western Africa, the reader will sense being in the hands of a masterly guide.

Snakepit by Moses Isegawa (Knopf; 259 pages; $24): Set in late 1970s Uganda at the chaotic end of Idi Amin's rule, "Snakepit" is a devastating portrait of a country at the brink of implosion. The story follows Bat Katanga, a Cambridge-educated Ugandan who returns home with the dream of improving his country's fortunes along with his own. Anything is possible in Amin's Uganda, and Bat soon lands a top government job, a mansion and a glamorous girlfriend. But there's a price tag attached. Full of visceral, graphic language and acts of premeditated violence, "Snakepit" offers a dark vision of a country hijacked by greed and megalomania, though Isegawa allows for a glimmer of hope, a suggestion that the cycle of violence can end and that better instincts can prevail over reckless self-interest.

Snow by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely (Knopf; 426 pages; $26): Orhan Pamuk ("My Name Is Red"), has written a novel that's part Eastern/Western philosophical discourse, part love story, part literary thriller. Ka, an expat Turkish poet from Frankfurt, comes to the provincial city of Kars in a snowfall and examines the city as if it were a cabinet of curiosities -- doors leading to fascinating things. Ka finds everything from Islamic fundamentalism to Muslim women's rights to holdover communists. He comes to write about why so many girls, upset that the head scarf has been banned in school, commit suicide. But his real mission is to court the beautiful Ipek. And Ipek's sister, Kadife, leads the head-scarf girls.

Pamuk's book will make readers uncomfortable on both sides of the Bosphorus. "Snow" will make you feel the arguments surrounding fundamentalism as a situation of murky grays, where the only thing black is the night, and the only thing white is the snow.

Someone Not Really Her Mother by Harriet Scott Chessman (Dutton; 162 pages; $21.95): The aging protagonist of Harriet Scott Chessman's third and most powerful novel is slightly more than "a tattered coat upon a stick," but things are going downhill fast. A resident in an assisted living facility, Hannah finds the world a jumble of French and English, and lines of poems are now clearer to her than her relatives' names.

In this narrow setting, Chessman explores some major themes: memory, family history, personal identity and the redemptive power of art. (These will be familiar concerns for fans of Chessman's earlier novels, in which the present is often dwarfed by the remembered past.) Though a slim volume, "Someone Not Really Her Mother" is a haunting one, and a pleasure to remember.

Someone to Run With by David Grossman, translated by Vered Almog and Maya Gurantz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 343 pages; $24): Grossman's sixth novel reveals again that he is one of contemporary literature's most versatile and absorbing writers. Originally published in Israel in 2000, the book builds an almost unbearably suspenseful narrative around two teenagers, Assaf and Tamar. Assaf, working at city hall in Jerusalem during his summer vacation, must locate a stray dog's owner: Tamar. As the dog leads Assaf through the streets of Jerusalem, Assaf encounters various friends of Tamar. Assaf, intrigued by what he learns, is determined to find Tamar. Grossman creates a fascinatingly off-center portrait of Jerusalem in this novel and shows he is a master at creating a sense that something marvelous and magical is right in front of us if we only take the opportunity to look.

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic by Chalmers Johnson (Metropolitan/Henry Holt; 312 pages; $25): American imperialism and militarism took a serious turn for the worse at the end of the Cold War, argues Chalmers Johnson in his superbly researched book. He devotes most of "The Sorrows of Empire" to examining the numerous foreign bases (which have proliferated since the end of the Cold War), the often legitimate reasons for their initial establishment, the outrages that American servicemen perpetrate on their hosts, as well as the comforts and benefits of empire and militarism that prevent their abandonment. This "military imperialism," he argues, has undermined international law and organizations, weakened democracy at home, replaced truth with propaganda and courted financial ruin.

Spice: The History of Temptation by Jack Turner (Knopf; 352 pages; $26. 95): In his first book, Jack Turner dips into spices' history, which he measures from 1720 B.C., the date assigned to cloves unearthed in the Syrian desert and the first proof of trade with the Far East, to the present day, concentrating mostly on ancient Rome and the Middle Ages, spices' golden ages. The author's touch is about as light as can be hoped for in a work that surveys nearly 4,000 years of civilization, and he impressively weaves a tremendous amount of information into a narrative that offers a fascinating window into the complexity of spices' allure and its affect upon cultures.

The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong (Knopf; 306 pages; $24): This enjoyable and deeply interesting autobiography is the story of the making of a writer. "The Spiral Staircase" picks up where her first book, "Through the Narrow Gate," leaves off: in 1969, when Karen Armstrong ended her seven-year stint as a nun and attempted to re-enter the secular world. It is the story of her struggle to find a place in that world, to come to terms with the damages inflicted by seven years in an oppressively structured environment, to deal with illnesses and disabilities including eating disorders, depression and epilepsy-induced blackouts, and to sort out her religious views. Armstrong is, by her own account, exceedingly solitary. The one relationship that matters is her relationship with God. What is particularly fascinating -- and, for some, problematic -- is that this is a relationship with someone who, in Armstrong's view, probably does not exist.

Spirit and Flesh: Life in a Fundamentalist Baptist Church by James Ault Jr. (Knopf; 435 pages; $27.95): This intimate look into the lives of fundamentalist families at a Massachusetts church and Christian school goes far beyond sound bites and stereotypes. Twenty years in the making, this ethnographic study of working-class Christians is not just a first-rate piece of sociological journalism. James Ault Jr. weaves his own story into the book, and the gradual coming together of the Harvard graduate and his fundamentalist research subjects gives "Spirit and Flesh" a warmth and humanity that set it apart.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton (Pantheon; 306 pages; $24): The increasing importance of status and the paradoxes that come with it are spelled out concisely and convincingly in Alain de Botton's "Status Anxiety," a readable, edifying exploration of our fears about where we stand in society and how we can best mitigate our concerns. The author of "How Proust Can Change Your Life" and "The Art of Travel," de Botton steers clear of an angry polemic that simply accuses people of being full of envy. Instead, he has written a generous and humane book that offers thought-provoking solutions to status anxiety, a worry he says is "so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives."

The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro and Other Stories by Paul Theroux (Houghton Mifflin; 296 pages; $25): Men's weaknesses and vulnerabilities fascinate Theroux the way cleavage shots fascinate pubescent boys. In this collection of stories, the author looks at the problems that arise for 60-year- old men living by the trinity of sex, secrecy and strangers. Readers can be grateful that Theroux has once again channeled some of his energy and sensibility into yet another stimulating volume in his impressive canon.

Strangers: Homosexual Love in the 19th Century by Graham Robb (Norton; 342 pages; $26.95): Today often we look to the classical Greeks as the golden age of homosexual expression, or date the Stonewall riots in America as the beginning of homosexuals proclaiming their mark. But before gay pride, gay culture was more than a mere "lifestyle," it was a profound legacy beginning to take its rightful place in modern life, as Robb shows in "Strangers." He elegantly details the astounding contribution made by homosexuals to the arts, religion and modern beliefs in the 1800s and delves into the actual lives and loves of homosexuals of the era.

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, translated by John Cullen (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; 195 pages; $18.95): Mohammed Moulessehoul, writing under a female nom de plume, Yasmina Khadra, to get around censors, presents in vivid detail in his novel the sickening barbarity encompassed by the Taliban during their reign in Afghanistan. Following the tragic trajectory of two couples living in a city shattered and wasted by war, "The Swallows of Kabul" is the tale of a hellish existence under a merciless regime. Life under the Taliban is a complex nightmare of rigid codes and violence, and its laws take their brutal toll on everyone, especially the story's couples. Disturbing and mesmerizing, the beautifully written "Swallows" puts a human face on the suffering inflicted by the Taliban.

A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman (The Penguin Press; 256 pages; $23.95): The best-selling author of "The Soul Code" and "The Force of Character," Hillman has never been one for therapeutic bromides or blanket comfort. But his most recent book -- among his most accessible -- is his most devastating. This uncompromising examination of war illustrates war's gripping mythic power, which Hillman insists we recognize and acknowledge. But reader beware: There is nothing pacifist about Hillman's approach. He agrees with political philosophers who say war is inherent in the existence of states.

They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague by Slavenka Drakulic (Viking; 209 pages; $22.95): Any author who purports to provide definitive answers on why seemingly ordinary human beings become mass- murdering war criminals is probably a fool. Drakulic, Croatian novelist and journalist, is no fool. But in "They Would Never Hurt a Fly," she is a directly affected, keen observer who asks the right questions on the path to plausible, though not definitive, answers. Covering the trials of various defendants accused of heinous crimes during the bloody fighting that tore apart the former Yugoslavia, Drakulic focuses on individual defendants, witnesses and victims, chapter after chapter, trying to make sense of the senseless.

To the Mountaintop: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sacred Mission to Save America by Stewart Burns (HarperSanFrancisco; 512 pages; $27.95): Burns was one of four co-editors of a volume of King's writings, so he knows his facts, and his admiration for his subject in this biography is beyond question. Burns' book distinguishes itself from past biographies by focusing on religion and examining one fundamental insight: King truly believed that there were forces both of good and evil and that evil would triumph if the good stood idly by. Along these lines, he saw the history of the United States as an unfulfilled promissory note.

The Tree Bride by Bharati Mukherjee (Theia/Hyperion; 293 pages; $23.95): In this second book of a trilogy (following "Desirable Daughters"), the narrator, Tara, is pregnant and taking care of her computer-whiz ex-husband, Bish, who is in a wheelchair, recovering from their home being firebombed. She is scouring her past to learn about another Tara, an ancestor who was married off to a tree at age 5 to avoid a life of widowhood when her betrothed died on their wedding day. Bharati Mukherjee fleshes out the modern Tara's evolution from a society-page wife to a divorcee struggling to forge her own identity both as an Indian and an American as the brashly hopeful young Silicon Valley around her fades. In America, the place of reinvention, when Tara dreams, she dreams of the past though she carries the future in her womb. She is looking for the story that runs through her blood. Yet nothing is as it seems, and Mukherjee turns assumptions upside down.

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett (HarperCollins; 257 pages; $23.95): Ann Patchett's memoir about her intense friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, who died of a heroin overdose in 2002, is a portrait of addictive devotion. "If Lucy couldn't give up heroin, I could not give up Lucy, " Patchett writes toward the end of this moving book that chronicles the two writers' 20 years of interdependency. The relationship was as lopsided as Lucy's jawline, which had been ravaged by the cancer and aggressive radiation she suffered as a child. Just as Grealy's celebrated 1994 memoir, "Autobiography of a Face," probed standard notions of beauty, Patchett's paean to her lamented friend raises searching questions about the ties that bind.

Vermeer in Bosnia: Cultural Comedies and Political Tragedies by Lawrence Weschler (Pantheon; 415 pages; $26): Lawrence Weschler has been writing lambent dispatches on Eastern Europe for more than 20 years. He also has been busy writing essays on Los Angeles and Holland, filmmakers and painters, musicians and cartoonists, odd fellows and misfits, many of which are found in "Vermeer in Bosnia," his collection of 22 vivid pieces.

Weschler brings coherence to an obscured slice of the world. At the start of this book, we will find him in the Hague, covering the war crimes tribunal of a lesser Serbian mass murder, and it is to a museum that one of the judges and Weschler repair from the madness to find serenity and equipoise regarding Johannes Vermeer's art. Weschler, a native of Los Angeles, also explores Los Angeles' extravagant light -- rufous gold, then stone-dry champagne, then a white light, particles reflecting sunlight like "a billion tiny suns," says a friend; and he even experiences a major earthquake there.

The Whale and the Supercomputer: On the Northern Front of Climate Change by Charles Wohlforth (North Point Press; 322 pages; $25): Wohlforth, a longtime Alaska resident and writer, approaches weighty topics in a wonderfully readable manner, interweaving his journalistic accounts of native whalers and scientific researchers in a method reminiscent of books like Peter Steinhart's "The Company of Wolves." In this remarkable book on climate change and the Arctic, Wohlforth observes the Inupiat of Barrow, Alaska, and the researchers stationed up there in the northernmost town in the United States, to look at how we grapple and live with climate changes and how much is at stake in our need to understand the vast complexities of climate change.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt (Norton; 430 pages; $26.95): Stephen Greenblatt's remarkably readable biography is drawn from intensely close readings -- of the works, the available Shakespearean documents and, most significantly, of the times. True to his subtitle, Greenblatt isn't looking so much for clues to Shakespeare's character as for evidence of what shaped the writer, tracing the influence of various events and people on his plays. It's an exceptionally well-told tale, an engrossing page-turner enriched by the author's wide knowledge of the period. But given that we really don't know exactly what Shakespeare wrote, it's not so much a biography of Shakespeare as of one of many possible Shakespeares.

Without Blood by Alessandro Baricco, translated by Ann Goldstein (Knopf; 97 pages; $18): Baricco is, as the saying goes, very big in Europe. Now America has another chance to catch on with the U.S. publication of "Without Blood," the 97-page "novel," which appeared almost in its entirety in the New Yorker.

Here Baricco continues to blend the best elements of cinema and poetry in his story about the late meeting between a woman whose life was destroyed when she was a child and one of the men who had a hand in that destruction. "Without Blood" applies the delicacy of Baricco's style to dark territory: war, human cruelty and revenge.

Wolves Eat Dogs by Martin Cruz Smith (Simon & Schuster; 336 pages; $25. 95): Smith's "Gorky Park," in which some of us first met Moscow police investigator Arkady Renko, has been in print in one edition or another for more than 20 years, and has spawned a small number of sequels. "Wolves Eat Dogs" is the latest of these, another novel with the canny senior Detective Renko at the center. This time, Renko is investigating the suicide of a former scientist turned billionaire -- a so-called New Russia entrepreneur -- following a trail that leads him to the wastelands of Chernobyl. Along the way, Smith shows us a modern Russian world in which it's a struggle to bring about a small bit of justice.

Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman by Zac Unger (Penguin; 262 pages; $24.95): In this entertaining memoir, Berkeley resident Zac Unger describes his motivation for the job, the training he endured and his first few years rotating through various stations.

In fluid prose, he writes of his initiation into the Oakland Fire Department and his early experiences among its ranks, providing a behind-the- scenes look at a big-city operation. He also successfully re-creates intense experiences, showing us what he and his crew are often up against.

The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler (Knopf; 319 pages; $25): Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David K. Shipler ("Arab and Jew: A Country of Strangers") claims that neither liberal nor conservative analysis adequately addresses the complexities of poverty today. His sprawling, compassionate take on the situation of the country's 35 million working poor describes with clear-eyed sympathy the individuals and families who sustain the seemingly limitless appetite for low-wage work and should provide ammunition to policy-makers -- if there are any -- who wish to seriously engage the project of eliminating poverty in America.

The Yellow Rain by Julio Llamazares, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (Harcourt; 130 pages; $22): Though he lives in Madrid, Llamazares was born in the now-vanished town of Vegémian, a heritage that probably spawned the intense emotion that pours from "The Yellow Rain." In this profoundly somber but moving elegy for a time past, he explores the last days of a ruined, deserted village high in the Spanish Pyrenees. Like the refrain of a song, the novel steadily establishes thematic repetitions of solitude and loneliness, building momentum in stanza-like paragraphs that recount the experiences of the town's last surviving man.

You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon (Ballantine; 356 pages; $24.95): Dan Chaon's meticulous and insightful first novel is a riddle about connections, and it begins in four apparently disparate directions. A 6-year-old gets mauled by a dog in South Dakota, a 10-year-old boy's parents are getting divorced in Nebraska, a pregnant teen is living in a house for unwed mothers, and a child disappears from his grandmother's backyard. The plot lines eventually come together with an unsettling and heart-rending unity. As impressive a work as his story collection "Among the Missing," Chaon's novel reminds us how many of life's choices are out of our control, and how large a say we have in making sense of the story of our lives.

The year's finest / BEST BOOKS OF 2004

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