Thursday, January 01, 2004

Books are back, and their pages are filled with politics, biography, and history
By David Mehegan, Boston Globe Staff, 1/1/2004

Like a battleship, book publishing doesn't turn on a dime, so the old year's trends don't usually determine a new year's books. However, conversations with literary agents, who are always trying to sniff out what publishers want, turn up a few trends in publishing that may affect our reading in 2004 and beyond.

The readers are back. Book publishing and selling were hit hard by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, says Ted Weinstein, a San Francisco agent. But people still want to read, and they still want books. And publishers have regained their confidence.

Weinstein says: "People have looked up and said, `The world is not coming to an end.' There's a real feeling, if not of optimism, at least of aggressiveness. Publishers are saying, `If we don't get out there and sign up books, there won't be anything to read in 2005.' "

Extremely partisan political books. Such books as Ann Coulter's "Treason," Al Franken's "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country?," and Bill O'Reilly's "Who's Looking Out for You?" dominated the nonfiction bestseller lists for 2003.

"The big surprise is the polarization of politics," says Boston agent John Taylor Williams. "It's all `go for the jugular.' People believe so strongly about their team, the left or right, that they're willing to spend $30 to read about it."

More Founding Fathers. Three years after David McCullough's "John Adams," Walter Isaacson struck it big with "Benjamin Franklin: An American Life." Below bestsellerdom, but widely reviewed, were several books about -- or partly about -- Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, or John Adams. This year's lineup has a biography of Alexander Hamilton, and several books about Abraham Lincoln are on the way.

Book clubs. People may be bowling alone, but increasingly they're reading in groups, which is giving word of mouth more power in making bestsellers. Publishers' websites now have instructions on starting book clubs, and of course they also have books to recommend.

"I keep meeting people who say about a particular new book, `Oh, my wife's reading group is reading that,' " says New York literary agent Philip Spitzer. "It's one of the most positive trends."

The bust of e-publishing. Two years ago, there were widespread predictions that the printed book might go the way of the dinosaur, as more people did their reading on electronic devices. Not so. In 2003, the giant Barnes & Noble stopped selling e-books through its website, while both Palm Digital Media and Gemstar dumped their e-book businesses. It seems that people still want to read an old-fashioned book the old-fashioned way.

As for the books themselves, 2004 looks like a bigger year for nonfiction than fiction, at least through summer. There are plenty of books by hot younger writers but relatively few from marquee names. As befits an election year, there are both contentious and lighthearted books on politics, and lovers of biography won't be disappointed.

In literary fiction, the biggest name in the year's first half may be Anne Tyler, with a January novel called "The Amateur Marriage," from Knopf. The author of "The Accidental Tourist" and "Saint Maybe" writes about a Baltimore couple who copes for decades with the consequences of a hasty World War II marriage. Kids, grandkids, money woes, yet they keep at it. Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat also has a new book coming out, in March, "The Dew Breaker."

One of the hottest Massachusetts writers is Sabina Murray of Amherst, whose short-story collection, "The Caprices," won the 2003 PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Her new novel, coming in July from Grove/Atlantic, is "A Carnivore's Inquiry." A young woman, newly arrived in the United States from Italy, travels about the country. Horrifying murders seem to happen wherever she goes, as she reflects on cannibalism in life and literature.

Other Bay State writers with new novels this year are Ward Just of Martha's Vineyard ("An Unfinished Season") and Dennis McFarland of Cambridge ("Prince Edward"). Both novels concern young men struggling with conflicting cultural forces involving their parents -- Just's on the North Shore of Chicago, McFarland's in a small Virginia town in 1959.

Alice Randall rocked the publishing world two years ago with "The Wind Done Gone," her satire of Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," which the Mitchell estate tried unsuccessfully to stop. Randall returns in May with "Pushkin and the Queen of Spades," a novel about an accomplished African-American mother who is appalled when her son becomes engaged to a Russian lap dancer.

Chang-Rae Lee's new novel, "Aloft," appears in March from Putnam. Lee's first novel, "Native Speaker," won the PEN/Hemingway award. The new novel concerns a middle-class Long Island man whose small plane flying becomes a metaphor for his approach to life's puzzles and challenges.

Literary fiction will reach bestseller lists, as Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Namesake" and Toni Morrison's "Love" did in 2003. But thrills and suspense, in books disdained by critics, will doubtless dominate the lists, as they always do. New books are on the schedule this year by John Grisham, Catherine Coulter, Dean Koontz, Clive Cussler, Danielle Steel, and Mary Higgins Clark. More-literary mystery writers with books on tap are Robert Parker, Rita Mae Brown, and Walter Mosley.

It's an election year; that mandates a bumper crop of books on politics and policy. John Kenneth Galbraith, professor of economics emeritus at Harvard, weighs in with "The Economics of Innocent Fraud," from Houghton Mifflin. We expect household names will be mentioned.

President George W. Bush comes in for tough treatment at the hands of Kevin Phillips and John Dean. Phillips roughs up the president in "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush," from Viking in January. Dean chimes in with "Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush," from Little, Brown in April.

For the defense, there's "The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty," by Peter Schweizer and Rochelle Schweizer, from Doubleday in January, which is described as "the complete, unvarnished story of the Bush family from its humble origins in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to George W.'s tenancy in the White House."

Local writers show up in this year's nonfiction lineup. In January from Random House, there's "The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness," by Harvard Medical School professor and New Yorker essayist Jerome Groopman. From Somerville-based psychologist and writer Lauren Slater, author of an acclaimed book about her struggle with depression, comes "Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century," from Norton in January. Former Globe reporter Larry Tye offers "Rising From the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class," from Henry Holt in July. It's the tale of a brotherhood that became the first black trade union and the core of a more prosperous black America.

Atlantic Monthly staff writer William Langewiesche, a hot property since his bestseller "Uncommon Ground: The Unbuilding of the World Trade Center," has a book about the use and misuse of the oceans called "The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime," from Farrar Straus & Giroux in May. In biography, Ed Cray writes of the legendary singer-songwriter Woody Guthrie in "Ramblin' Man: The Life and Times of Woody Guthrie," published by Norton in February. Among other modern icons, there's Gavin Lambert's "Natalie Wood: A Life," from Knopf in February, and "Somewhere: A Life of Jerome Robbins," the famed choreographer, from Broadway Books in March. The author is Amanda Vaill, who has written a best-selling biography of Sara and Gerald Murphy.

Former Boston Globe sports columnist Leigh Montville's biography of the Kid appears in March from Doubleday, titled "Ted Williams: The Biography of an American Hero." Not only the story of origins and the great Red Sox years, the book is said to recount the Williams family's quarrel over the decision to turn the Splendid Splinter into the Splendid Icicle.

One of the oddities of the history lineup is the profusion of books about Lincoln. Only a few weeks ago, David Herbert Donald published "We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends," from Simon & Schuster. The theme continues in the first few months of 2004, and if it continues through the year, Lincoln buffs will need to buy new bookcases. From Ballantine in February, there's "Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington," by Daniel Mark Epstein, described as a portrait of "two great men and the era they shaped through their common vision." Also in February, Simon & Schuster publishes "Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America," by Allen C. Guelzo. March brings "Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War," published by Norton, by Colby College historian Elizabeth D. Leonard. From Random House in April comes "Lincoln's War: The Untold Story of America's Greatest President as Commander in Chief," by Geoffrey Perret. Also in April, political commentator and former conservative Michael Lind offers "What Lincoln Believed: The Values and Convictions of America's Greatest President," published by Doubleday. Ron Chernow looks back a few administrations and gives us "Alexander Hamilton," from Penguin Press.

The truth about publishing, of course, is that no amount of tea-leaf reading will tell which, if any, of these books will hit the bestseller lists. Every year, there are improbable hits, such as Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code," Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit," and former president Jimmy Carter's first novel, "The Hornet's Nest." Some book none of us has heard of -- and might laugh at now -- could well be the blockbuster of 2004. People love to read; that much is clear. But as to what they will want to read this year, even they don't yet know.

David Mehegan can be reached at

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company. / A&E / Books / Books are back, and their pages are filled with politics, biography, and history

The Fab Five of Words
A Man of My Words by Richard Lederer
The Cunning Linguist by Richard Lederer
A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict by John Baxter
So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading by Sara Nelson
Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason by Nancy Pearl

Five terrific titles await those who love language and books as I do. A Man of My Words is a collection of essays on language, including sections entitled “The Glamour of Grammar,” “The Romance of Words” and “It’s a Punderful Life,” among others. Lederer takes the subject of our language and turns it into grist for his humor mill. He gets down to specifics in The Cunning Linguist, a collection of “Ribald Riddles, Lascivious Limericks, Carnal Corn, and Other Good, Clean Dirty Fun!” This is the type of book you can open to any page and be guaranteed a laugh. On a slightly more serious note is Baxter's A Pound of Paper, another collection of essays but these are about book collecting. Both humorous and educational for anyone who has an interest in books and their value – monetary value - and it's a fast, fascinating read. Sara Nelson is determined to read a book a week, and So Many Books, So Little Time charts her progress. Her insights are always intuitive and interesting. Finally, Nancy Pearl has delivered a booklover's best friend in Book Lust. Loaded with suggested reading based on using careful reader's advisory strategies, this book is sure to unearth books to try that you never would have thought of. And she should know; the Librarian Action Figure is based on this librarian extraordinaire.

Monday, December 29, 2003

Best mysteries of 2003
Oline H. Cogdill

December 21, 2003

1) Shutter Island. Dennis Lehane. (Morrow). Shutter Island is the home of a foreboding federal institution for the criminally insane where, in 1954, two U.S. marshals are assigned to hunt for a female patient who has done the impossible -- disappeared from a prison from which there is no escape. Twists, secret codes, an off-limits hospital ward and a creepy lighthouse lead to a logical, yet totally surprising ending.

2) No Second Chance. Harlan Coben. (Dutton). Coben has become one of the top thriller writers with his emotional, harrowing plots as realistic as your daily routine. In his 10th novel, a doctor's search for his missing infant, kidnapped when his wife was murdered, centers on the foundation of bonds between parents and children, lovers and friends and the consequences of one's actions.

3) Every Secret Thing. Laura Lippman. (Morrow). The death of a child at the hands of two 11-year-old girls launches this tale about how this horrific event could have happened to normal families and how it defines lives. A disturbing subject explored with depth, compassion, heartfelt sincerity and with little violence.

4) Close to Home. Peter Robinson. (Morrow). Teenage memories abound as Yorkshire Detective Inspector Alan Banks realizes just how little of his world he knew when skeletal remains are identified as a friend who disappeared more than 35 years ago. This series keeps getting fresher.

5) The Distant Echo. Val McDermid. (St. Martin's Press). Four British college students are forever tainted when they are falsely accused of murder in this elegantly plotted look at the bonds of friendship and the insidiousness of revenge.

6) Resurrection Men. Ian Rankin. (Little, Brown). Edinburgh detective John Rebus is assigned to The Resurrection Men -- a group of Scottish cops with a propensity for bucking authority -- as this police procedural focuses on the politics and corruption that have seeped into the detective squad.

7) Off the Chart. James W. Hall. (St. Martin's Press). Long considered a leader in the "Florida School of Mystery Writing," Hall delivers a rousing tale of modern-day pirates while excavating the depths of personal change of his singularly named hero, Thorn. A fine addition to the author's superior body of work.

8) The White Road. John Connolly. (Atria Books). Irish author Connolly superbly combines crime fiction with the supernatural for a thoroughly American darker-than-noir series. The White Road leads private investigator Charlie Parker to South Carolina, where a young black man is accused of murder.

9) Winterkill. C.J. Box. (Putnam). Few mystery authors who use the environment as a plot foundation are as even-handed and clear-eyed as Box. In his third novel, Box blends the hot-button issue of survivalists, the FBI interventions at Waco and Ruby Ridge and personal freedom into a thrilling and heart-wrenching plot.

10) Dead Famous. Carol O'Connell. (G.P. Putnam). NYPD Detective Kathy Mallory, a sociopath who's a hard-as-nails cop, navigates the harsh spotlight on shock radio, reality shows and celebrity trials gone terribly awry. Dead Famous pulls together far-flung, often incongruous, story threads that have been finely kneaded into a cohesive plot.

11) Lost Light. Michael Connelly. (Little, Brown). Connelly continues as his generation's answer to Raymond Chandler. Rogue LAPD detective Harry Bosch's career -- and life -- take a drastic turn when he investigates a 4-year-old, once-high-profile case.

12) The Last Detective. Robert Crais. Doubleday. Robert Crais theme of family has never been more evident than in The Last Detective in which the L.A.-based Elvis Cole makes a much welcome return investigating a kidnapping.

13) Done for a Dime. David Corbett. (Ballantine). The murder of an aged black saxophonist who used to play with the greats of blues music lays the foundation for a look at a community under siege, family ties, greed and lost ambitions in Done for a Dime.

14) Man Eater. Ray Shannon. (Putnam); and Scavenger Hunt. Robert Ferrigno. (Pantheon). The cliche of Hollywood as a vapid, back-stabbing, ruthless industry gets fresh turns in these two novels. Each channels Elmore Leonard with realistic characters, snappy dialogue and wry looks at criminals and moviemakers. Sometimes, there's no difference between the two. (Ray Shannon is the pseudonym for Gar Anthony Haywood).

15) Scaredy Cat. Mark Billingham. (Morrow). Heady psychological suspense runs through this flawlessly plotted police procedural in which a squad of dysfunctional London cops hunt a serial killer. British writer Billingham again creates a contemporary twilight zone that feels all too real.

16) Mr. Timothy. Louis Bayard. (HarperCollins). In his mystery debut, novelist and critic Bayard delivers an enthralling, dark thriller that is also full of optimism and the strength of the human heart featuring the iconic characters of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The hero in Mr. Timothy is "mostly able-bodied" Timothy Cratchit, all grown up at age 23, living in a brothel, teaching its madam to read and, with Christmas nearing, dealing with quite a few ghosts of his own.

17) Blood Is the Sky. Steve Hamilton. (St. Martin's Press). A tale about a missing person ratchets up into a complex novel about friendship, betrayal, hate, heritage and the coldness of revenge.

18) A Faint Cold Fear. Karin Slaughter. (Morrow). The alleged suicide of a student at the local college catapults the residents of a small Georgia town into a tension-laden, often grisly tale about the vagaries of family, the psychology of abuse and the treatment of victims.

19) Dirty Laundry. Paula L. Woods. Ballantine Books. A campaign strategist's murder sets the stage for Paula Wood's continued, forceful look inside Los Angeles' ethnic enclaves.

20) The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown (Doubleday) This best seller about a symbologist on the trail of a secret society is like a potato chip -- 10 minutes after finishing it I couldn't tell you any plot details. But the pacing, the energy and the characters sure were enjoyable.

Best debuts

Haunted Ground. Erin Hart. (Scribner). The body of a young woman, buried for centuries in Ireland's peat bogs, intensifies the search for a young wife and her infant son who disappeared two years ago. This highly atmospheric mystery is complete with a creepy castle, Irish history and realistic characters.

Rendezvous Eighteenth. Jake Lamar. (St. Martin's Press). Ricky Jenks found a home and a cobbled-together family among other black Americans living in Paris until his arrogant cousin arrives.

Judgment Calls. Alafair Burke. (Henry Holt). Portland, Ore., deputy district attorney Samantha Kincaid is pulled into a swamp of office and sexual politics as she investigates the beating of a teenager. A personal story wrapped around a likable heroine also dives into the ethics of law.

Mystery Columnist Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at
Copyright © 2003, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Sun-Sentinel: Books

Sunday, December 28, 2003

From the Los Angeles Times

Book marketing campaigns borrow glitz from TV, movies
As book sales slip, publishers turn up the hype with Hollywood-style events, toy tie-ins and contests.
By Renee Tawa
Times Staff Writer

December 28, 2003

Meet Stephen King! Put your beagle on the cover of a best-selling book! Win $4,000 (and a free paperback)!

Ah, the gentle art of book-ish persuasion. This was a year in which the publishing industry kept its literati tendencies in check and infused a Hollywood-style razzle-dazzle into contests and other promotions intended to nudge books into at least a glimmer of the popular culture spotlight. With book sales down from last year, publishers are being forced to abandon their high-brow position above the fray and dive right in with movies, TV and other competing forms of popular culture.

"Publishing for so many years was viewed as a fussy gentleman's business, as an academic corner," said Jacqueline Deval, publisher of Hearst Books and author of this year's Publicize Your Book (Perigree). "That hasn't completely gone away, but it's certainly attenuated. Publishers are becoming more slick and savvy on reaching potential audiences."

The hype doesn't take the shine off books, doesn't diminish the importance of literature in our culture, she said. "It's a mistake to treat books as precious things, as part of that rarefied academic realm of the world. That's the kind of thinking that makes books feel inaccessible."

Who says new books aren't fun in a movie premiere kind of way?

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) promoted her memoir, Living History (Simon & Schuster), on a Barbara Walters TV special this year. In November, Madonna talked up her second children's book, Mr. Peabody's Apples (Callaway), on Late Show With David Letterman.

There also were troubling signs that a book alone, minus the celebrity, isn't sexy enough to turn a consumer's head. In June, after Oprah Winfrey featured John Steinbeck's East of Eden on her show, for instance, Penguin released a new edition of the classic with this plug: "The book that brought Oprah's Book Club back."

Even publishers with sure-fire hits on their hands tried to come up with new ways to cannonball their books into the public consciousness.

In June, a moving billboard on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood and an electronic sign on Times Square in New York were timed to mark the exact moment that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Scholastic) was released. It's impossible to say whether the marketing of J.K. Rowling's latest added to the novel's star power, but it didn't hurt -- and more than 11 million copies have been sold in the United States.

Largely, though, big-splash publicity campaigns didn't pay off. In the first 10 months of the year, for instance, sales of adult hardcover books were down 5.8 percent, to $965 million, compared with the same period last year, according to the Association of American Publishers.

In this uneven economy, consumers consider new books to be luxury items, noted Robert Baensch, director of New York University's Center for Publishing.

As a result, major publishers are forced to think globally, Baensch said. "The big guys are taking the lead of saying, 'I'm not just publishing a book. I can have a miniseries [tie-in] on TV, a mega-event with movies, plastic figures at McDonald's or Burger King, and the fluffy toys at Toys R Us.' "

In the past few years, the industry's expansion has perpetuated the frenzy. Last year, U.S. publishers released 150,000 new books, up 5.86 percent, according to a recent study.

Publishers are taking no chances with even brand-name authors, designing marketing campaigns to build and sustain buzz.

In a contest promoting the latest volume in The Dark Tower, the series of novels by Stephen King, Simon & Schuster and Penguin invited readers to submit videotapes dramatizing an excerpt from one of the books. The winner will meet King in New York next year -- travel expenses are not included -- have one photograph taken with him and can ask "one or two questions."

Dan Brown's colossal bestseller The Da Vinci Code (Doubleday) already is on its second contest since its publication in March. In the first one, participants worldwide had to solve a complicated puzzle based on the book's plot. Brown will name a character in his next novel after the winner. The second contest is offering a three-night stay in Paris.

Books with lower profiles got into the game too. The winner of an online sweepstakes for This Book Will Change Your Life (Plume) by Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag will receive $4,000 and a copy of the book.

In time for the holidays, DK Publishing is offering to put readers' snapshots on the cover of America 24/7, a photography book put together by the team behind A Day in the Life of America. Submit a digital photo to a DK Publishing Web page, and the publisher will send America 24/7 with a custom jacket for about $6 extra.

DK Publishing calls the offer "the first mass-customization of a best-selling book."

Renee Tawa is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.
Copyright © 2003, The Los Angeles Times Business

Best In fiction
By David Abrams
Long Island Press

It was a great year for fiction.

It was also a good year for truth-is-stranger-than-fiction. Ten months ago, if you'd told me that Stephen King would be hobbling up to the podium to receive a Distinguished Contribution To American Letters medal at the National Book Awards in November, I'd probably have said, "Yeah, right. Next, you're gonna tell me aliens have landed and unleashed a killer flu virus on our unsuspecting population."

But there was Steverino in his tuxedo standing at the microphone, chastising literary snobs for not reading more chunky mass-market paperback novels by his pals Koontz, Clancy and Grisham. "What do you think?" King scolded. "You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?"

A day later, he came down with the flu. Coincidence? I think not.

King's cultural pot-stirring was trivial compared to the Paris Hilton sex video, but at least it got literature in the headlines for a couple of hours. It also got me thinking about the books I read this year—only one of them by a King-approved author (Peter Straub). Still, it's a big world out there, and I believe there's room for both Camus and Clancy.

Here, then, is a list of the best novels of the year. By the way, each of these novels can be redeemed for 10 brownie points.

1. The Clearing, Tim Gautreaux

This is the kind of novel that so completely transports us to another time, another place—the cypress forests of Louisiana in the 1920s—that we emerge on the other side of the story blinking and not quite sure of our surroundings. The story and characters—a man tries to redeem his brother from a swamp of corruption and finds himself getting pulled into the mire as well—will be familiar to readers of Dostoevsky, Steinbeck, Faulkner and countless others who've brought us tales of sibling salvation. In Gautreaux's hands, however, the plot transforms into a lyric, epic experience, and we feel as if we're hearing it for the first time. The best book of 2003.

2. The Time of Our Singing, Richard Powers

My year began with a symphonic cymbal crash when I cracked open Powers' massive portrait of one family coming of age in the mid-20th century. The patriarch is a German Jewish refugee physicist, the mother is a young black woman studying classical music; together, they raise prodigal children and teach them the ways of the world. Using classical music as a springboard, Powers surgically dissects America's race relations.

3. Wonder When You'll Miss Me, Amanda Davis

Perhaps the saddest literary news story of the year came when 32-year-old Davis died in a plane crash while on tour promoting her first novel, a tender story about Faith Duckle, an overweight teenager who's assaulted during her school's Homecoming game then later runs away to join the circus. Just as the Big Top transforms Faith into a girl with a sequin-speckled future, Davis turns her descriptions of circus life into parables about how it's possible to find beauty, even among the sawdust and elephant dung.

4. The Mammoth Cheese, Sheri Holman

Who knew that the story of a 1,200-pound wheel of cheese could be such a funny, moving and accurate portrait of American life? In order to revitalize their local economy, the residents of a small Virginia town decide to deliver a giant hunk of cheese to the President. As she demonstrated in her previous novels, Holman has a keen eye for detail, and even though she's painting on a big canvas here, she never loses sight of the value of the smallest brushstroke.

5. Old School, Tobias Wolff

After a distinguished career in short fiction and memoir, Wolff finally delivers his first novel. The wait was well worth it. Thinly-veiled autobiography, Old School (no relation to the movie) may well be the author's crowning achievement. In his story of a boy's life at prep school, Wolff gently instructs us on how to be better writers and better people.

6. The Time Traveler's Wife, Audrey Niffenegger

Niffenegger's debut novel bends a traditional love story into new and unusual shapes. Henry is a time-traveler who drops in and out of various moments in his life; Clare leads a chronologically-normal life. The two of them intersect, in "real time," when Clare is 20 and Henry is 28. Their relationship turns as sweet and tragic as an Emily Dickinson poem.

7. In Open Spaces, Russell Rowland

I'm cheating a bit here, since Rowland's book was published in 2002, but I didn't discover it until this year. Covering one Montana family's story across a broad swath of years, this novel is filled with smothered dreams and unrequited longing. It's a big, potentially messy plot, but Rowland never lets the reins slip from his hands.

8. Slow Monkeys and Other Stories, Jim Nichols

Another cheat with a 2002 book, but I'm willing to bet Nichols' collection had an even smaller audience than Rowland's novel. Nichols' characters inhabit a world of hard reality—the losers, loners and loafers you might find in trailer parks, soup kitchens or even caves. But these people aren't just bums and dregs—they're characters the author invests with compassion, even love. Nichols writes about the sweat-drenched, beard-stubbled, stinking mass of humanity and manages to find a glimmer of beauty in even the worst situations.

9. "Train Dreams" (from the 2003 O. Henry Prize Stories collection), Denis Johnson

The end of every year always brings a small battalion of "Best of" anthologies, and while most of the stories have the too-polished sheen of New Yorker fiction, it's possible to find gems in these collections. This year, Johnson's 52-page novella, "Train Dreams," sparkled like a miniature masterpiece. Grainier, a laborer on a railroad crew in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s, suffers Job-like catastrophes as he tries to eke a living from the unforgiving land. The story unspools with slow, deliberate precision, climaxing with a devastating sentence that tells us what we've just read is really about the loss of an era: "And that time was gone forever."

10. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, ZZ Packer

These eight short stories arrived on the already-crowded short fiction market with all the fiery energy of Flannery O'Connor on a good day. Nothing is wasted in a ZZ Packer story; every word relentlessly moves the reader forward to climaxes that pierce our hearts.

Long Island Press:

A few of their favourite things
National Post
December 27, 2003
We asked some of Canada's best writers to tell us which book they enjoyed the most this year. Here's what they had to say.


J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (Secker & Warburg/Random House) is more and less than a typical novel. Its unadorned but seductive prose draws you easily into complex ideas, even as it paints a sympathetic and complex character, and as usual with Coetzee, leaves you thinking, if not reeling.


I was most moved, this year, by The Romantic, by Barbara Gowdy (HarperCollins), a story of serious adolescent romance and tragedy told -- often with humour as well as pathos -- by a life-enhancing, unselfconscious narrator who, as the book progresses, the reader cannot help but come to love.


I would have to pick Distance, by Jack Hodgins (McClelland & Stewart) -- a glorious, funny, redemptive look at the losses of faith we all suffer as we grow older and our need to still try to hold on to what matters.


One of my favourite books of the year was Maneater, by Gigi Levangie Grazer (Simon and Schuster). It was certainly not the deepest book I have read this year, but it's been a long time since I laughed out loud as frequently (almost every page) as I did while reading that book. I brought it to Italy with me and it was the perfect travel read.


Barbara Gowdy's The Romantic (HarperCollins), because of the fine way it balances the folly and beauty of the topic. And Jose Saramago's The Cave (Harvest Books), which will haunt anyone who enters its pages because of its stunning depiction of what happens when the corporate world and government become one and the same, and for its extraordinary portrayal of the quality of one family's love.


My discovery of the year was John Bemrose's The Island Walkers (McClelland & Stewart), a work written with such assurance and felicity that it is hard to believe it is a first novel.


W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction (Knopf). Sebald is an archivist of dispossession, all his work is elegiac, deeply provocative, humane, haunted by history and by all the grief of the last century. And Alberto Manguel's Stevenson Under the Palm Trees (Thomas Allen) -- also concerned with wounds of dispossession, but very different -- a novella of beautiful restraint and insight.


My favourite book of the year was Paris 1919, by Margaret MacMillan (Random House). I'm fascinated by the period.


Michael Redhill's book of stories, Fidelity (Anchor Canada), is, without a doubt, the best book I've read this year. These stories resonate. They are rich and complicated and funny, but most of all, they are wise. When you read Fidelity, you feel like you're reading something great. Something that will stick to your guts. Something that will make a difference in your life. Something that will tell you a little bit more about humans ... and frogs and gambling and ex-husbands and old university roommates and sperm banks and ...


Jim Harrison's Off to the Side (Atlantic Monthly Press), a memoir. Brilliant, brilliantly funny and profoundly sad, this poet, novelist and food critic is a compassionate iconoclast with world-class appetites. His style is disarmingly casual and you are made to feel intimate with his engrossing life.


Ignorance, by Milan Kundera (HarperCollins). A profound reflection on exile. Do you have the right to find a new life? For the people who stayed, you may become a traitor even if it took courage to leave, even if the whole country wanted to leave.You did it, they did not. And now they judge you.


My choice is my friend Alberto Manguel's novella, Stevenson under the Palm Trees (Thomas Allen), about the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson in Tahiti. It's an elegy, spare and haunting, on the subject of the creative demons that drive a writer, with the eerie suggestion that the emotional boundaries between life and art are more blurred than we think. It's always inspiring to see a colleague do masterful work and Manguel's book is proof that the novella form can do the novel's job and then some.


Sitting Practice, by Caroline Adderson (Thomas Allen), is about tragedy and how we deal with it -- in this case, a young woman thrust into a wheelchair by a car accident weeks into her marriage. What no one would ever guess is what a richly humorous, sexy and emotionally rewarding novel Adderson finds in this material. And Twenty-Six, by Leo McKay Jr. (McClelland & Stewart), is about a coal mine disaster in a Nova Scotia town, the 1992 Westray mine disaster in thin disguise. McKay does a compelling job of mapping the calamity not just after, but before the methane and coal dust ignite.


My pick is John Updike: The Early Stories, 1953-1975 (Knopf). I cut my literary teeth on Updike and his early work is still the best. A wonderful collection that includes "Pigeon Feathers", "A&P" and "Lifeguard." Updike writes about women and God and sex and death and he succeeds in giving "the mundane its beautiful due." The introduction to the collection is worth the price.


The Cave by Jose Saramago (Harvest Books) is unquestionably the best book I have read in the last year. It may be one of the best books I have ever read. Nothing could be more timely -- nor more timeless. And it is suffused with love. We need it.


My choice is La Heronniere, by Lise Tremblay (Lemeac Editeur). It's a magnificent collection of news, moving and funny, describing the life of a little island in Quebec. Pertinent, caustic, surprising.


A character in my next novel is thinking a lot about God, so I read John Horgan's Rational Mysticism (Houghton Mifflin). Horgan's search for mystical reality encompasses meditating nuns, psychedelic gurus and scientists measuring where in the brain visions arise. While the religious impulse is near-universal and as varied as we are, whether God is delusion or the truth behind illusion remains unanswered. We might be better off exercising our free will and embracing the wonder of this world, which is as mystical and extraordinary as anyone could possibly desire.


I felt deep respect for T.J. Binyon's biography of Pushkin (HarperCollins). The book is all that biography should be: restrained, fairly impartial, told by a writer with a fine eye for an anecdote, and above all, restorative -- in the sense that it brings a human being (a peculiar one) into closer view and drags his time and place back with him. I envied, while reading Pushkin: A Biography, all those who can read Pushkin in the original, and all who know St. Petersburg.


My favourite book this year was Cosmopolis, by Don Delillo (Simon & Schuster). I loved it because it was magical, unpredictable and desperate and had the best, funniest, sexiest sex scene -- without any actual touching -- that I've ever read, ever, ever, ever.


My choice is Tobias Wolff's Old School (Knopf). It's about a prep-school boy and the trouble he gets into so that he can meet Ernest Hemingway. A contemporary master of the short story, Wolff has written a gem of a novel about truth and deception in life and letters.


Chester Brown's graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Drawn and Quarterly) is an overwhelming, eye-boggling achievement, my favourite book of the year. What you have here is Brown at the height of his abilities as an artist, his handling of line and composition is absolutely beautiful, and he's made a fascinating and intelligent portrait of one of Canada's most controversial historical figures. To me, this isn't just the best book of the year, it's one of the most important graphic novels ever published.


I've always heard that Charles Ritchie's diaries (McClelland & Stewart) are wonderful and this year, I finally got around to reading his account of his boyhood in Nova Scotia, his time in England at Oxford and then again in London as a young Canadian diplomat during the Second World War. And, yes, the diaries are wonderful -- witty, perceptive and quite moving. My other best book of the year is quite different -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore's Stalin (McArthur & Co.). It uses the new material that has come out since 1989 to paint a grisly picture of the tyrant and his court of sycophants and murderers. A compelling and deeply depressing read.


My favourite book of the year is a book of poems called Persuasion for a Mathematician, by Joanne Page (Pedlar Press). It's a book with fabulous reach and the poems argue life or death with passion, wisdom, and honesty.


My favourite book of the year was Waiting for an Angel, by Helon Habila (Norton). Set in 1990s Nigeria, this memorable first novel by a young Nigerian writer now resident in England tells the story of a journalist and sometime novelist who gets caught up in a demonstration and jailed by the dictatorship. A vivid, compelling portrait of one man's resistance of oppression, but beyond the politics and serious theme it is marked by sparkling, often funny dialogue and precise character portraits.


Against Love: a Polemic, by Laura Kipnis (Pantheon). I loved this skinny diatribe against the pat notions of everyday monogamy and the modern relationship. It was funny, smart and shocking. And unfortunately, probably true.

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