Saturday, December 31, 2005

'Magical' writing outshines the mundane

A non-fiction title about Chairman Mao was strangely compelling. But did anyone really read all the way through the novel that won the National Book Award? USA TODAY's book reviewers look at what they loved — or loved to hate — this year.

USA TODAY's book of the year

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The ultimate test of any book is whether it will endure. Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, $23.95) will be read as long as people look for ways to deal with the loss of a loved one. Written after the death of Didion's husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, and the critical illness of their only child, the book is a poignant, candid and heartbreaking account of grief, loss and love. In a year of notable non-fiction and several outstanding novels, it stands out above all other books.

And the rest of the top 10...

2. The March by E.L. Doctorow

3. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

4. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman

5. The City of Falling Angels by John Berendt

6. The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer

7. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

8. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

9. French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure by Mireille Guiliano

10. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt'sDarkest Journey by Candice Millard

Best book by a celebrity

My Life So Far by Jane Fonda. Well-crafted, thorough, suitably regretful about that trip to Vietnam and her lack of parenting skills as a young mother. Tantalizing without being tawdry.

Worst book by a celebrity

Goldie: A Lotus Grows in the Mud by Goldie Hawn. Tame, tiresome and self-congratulatory, a tell-nothing that makes little mention of her divorce from Bill Hudson, glosses over her relationship with Kurt Russell and repeatedly salutes her own achievements.

Best book for kids not yet ready for Harry Potter

Leonardo, the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems. A picture book with simple drawings about a lonely boy who scares easily and a monster who can't scare anyone.

Best example of fair and balanced reporting

Sorry, Fox News, but the award goes to John Harris' The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House, the best book yet on the president and the person, his successes and failures, impressive talents and equally notable flaws.

Best proof that comic books aren't just for kids anymore

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Andy Kubert. An exotically beautiful graphic novel, out in paperback, set in the England of Queen Elizabeth I and starring variations of the X-Men, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four.

Best unmasking of a historical monster

Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday. The authors write that the Chairman was responsible for killing more than 70 million of his fellow citizens. And that was in peacetime.

Best second act

A decade after Wicked, which imagined a misunderstood, not-so-wicked Witch of the West, Gregory Maguire revisited Oz in his equally imaginative Son of a Witch.

Most disappointing second act

Two years after her debut best seller, The Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger's Everyone Worth Knowing was really not worth knowing at all.

Most overstated title

A tie between Bill Press' How the Republicans Stole Christmas and Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America (and Al Franken Is #37)

Biggest disappointment

Bob Woodward's The Secret Man, which revealed few secrets about the man who was Deep Throat, Woodward's key source during the Watergate scandal.

Most dubious best seller

Kevin Trudeau's Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About, best-selling health advice for readers afflicted with conspiracy theories.

Most overrated novel

William Vollmann's Europe Central. Upon receiving the National Book Award for fiction, Vollmann said of his 800-page opus of intertwined stories about World War II: "I'm very happy it's over, and I don't have to think about it anymore." So are we (and we didn't get past page 200).

Book most in need of an editor

Until I Find You, the seemingly endless 820-page novel by John Irving. Even the subplots had subplots.

Best whodunit

Michael Connelly's The Lincoln Lawyer. Best known for his L.A. cop dramas, Connelly has written his first legal thriller, and it's one heck of a ride.

Best reminder that history could have turned out differently

David McCullough's 1776, page-turning history about how close Americans came to losing the American Revolution.

Best barroom reading

J.R. Moehringer's The Tender Bar, a bittersweet memoir about coming of age in a barroom full of surrogate fathers.

Most scurrilous book

Ed Klein's The Truth About Hillary, an unflattering portrait of Sen. Clinton that relied so heavily on anonymous sources that even political conservatives, no fans of Hillary, questioned its value.

Best title not printable in a family newspaper

On Bull ————by Harry G. Frankfurt, a Princeton philosophy professor, who, in his 67-page best seller, argues that bull ———— is more dangerous than lying.

Biggest (literally) best seller

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. It weighs in at 23 pounds and has every cartoon (all 3,160) in the series.

Goodbye and hello

Light from Heaven, ninth and last in Jan Karon's popular Mitford series, came out in November. Not to worry, Mitford maniacs: The Father Tim novels launch in fall 2007. - 'Magical' writing outshines the mundane

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