Saturday, January 01, 2005

Best books 2004: A year enriched by gifted writers

By Mary Ann Gwinn
Seattle Times book editor

This list of the 25 best books of 2004 was assembled with the aid of cutting-edge polling techniques. We assigned weights for the various components of our readership, zoned choices by neighborhood, socioeconomic and demographic sectors, and (it goes without saying) assembled the final version with input from our marketing department.

I'm kidding.

What really happened is ... I asked reviewers (or those I could get to before my e-mail collapsed on deadline) for their best-book nomination. Because book critic Michael Upchurch and crime fiction reviewer Adam Woog will just never shut up about the good books they've read, I caved in and let them assemble their own lists, also included in this week's books section.

If you can't find a book you want to read here, you tell me the best book you read in 2004, and we may just print your suggestion in the future. Thanks for reading.


"Arc of Justice" by Kevin Boyle (Henry Holt). John Freeman said that author Boyle, "using the gifts of a fiction writer and the gumshoe research of a reporter, conjures the year 1925 in Detroit, when one brave family decided they were going to cross the color line, no matter what the consequences." Winner of this year's National Book Award in nonfiction.

"Alexander Hamilton" by Ron Chernow (Penguin Press). This biography of one of America's most influential Founding Fathers "was the most thorough, detailed, interesting and complete biography I've read, this year or any other," said Steve Raymond.

"Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother" by Lesley Hazleton (Bloomsbury). Wingate Packard said she admired the way Seattle author Hazleton "draws on a wealth of information about the societies, cultures and religions of the Middle East of 2,000 years ago" in drawing a speculative portrait of the life of Jesus' mother.

"Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib" by Seymour M. Hersh (HarperCollins). John Hartl called this book "a remarkable expansion of Hersh's New Yorker stories about the prison scandals at Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib — and the official disregard for the Geneva Conventions that allowed them to happen."

"Exuberance" by Kay Redfield Jamison (Knopf). An examination of what causes life's highs, by the noted psychiatrist-author ("An Unquiet Mind"). Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett remarked, "This fascinating and original study of the capacity for joyousness is a showcase of Jamison's strengths."

"The Genius of Language: Fifteen Writers Reflect on Their Mother Tongue" by Wendy Lesser (Pantheon). This collection, by writers who now work in English but grew up speaking another language, features essays by Amy Tan, Ariel Dorfman and Gary Shteyngart. Bharti Kirchner said that "being bilingual (and a writer) myself, I laughed and cried over this collection of stories about embracing the English language."

"Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found" by Suketu Mehta (Knopf). David Takami described this portrait of Bombay as being "like the city itself, sprawling and epic, a nonfiction thriller that revealed Bombay from the inside out — complete with gangland assassins, exotic dancers and Bollywood dreamers."

"Evolution's Captain: The Story of the Kidnapping That Led to Charles Darwin's Voyage Aboard the Beagle" by Peter Nichols (HarperPerennial). David B. Williams said that "Nichols thoughtfully and sympathetically tells the life story of the captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, a man who lived a tragic life in the shadow of Charles Darwin."

"Body Politic: The Great American Sports Machine" by David Shields (Simon & Schuster). Steve Weinberg praised Seattle author Shields for the way he "pulls together seemingly disparate strands of thought about the role of organized sports in American society, then uses his considerable writing talent to give those strands shape."

"Now Go Home: Wilderness, Belonging, and the Crosscut Saw" by Ana Maria Spagna (Oregon State University Press). Irene Wanner said that Spagna, a Stehekin resident, "offers 18 excellent essays about life, work and finding a home in Washington's wildernesses."

"Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class" by Larry Tye (Henry Holt). Bruce Ramsey described this book as "simultaneously a business and social history of the Pullman car and the story of black economic development in an America much more race-conscious than today."

"Unforgivable Blackness" by Geoffrey C. Ward (Knopf). John C. Walter said that this biography of boxer Jack Johnson highlighted "in stunning detail the desperate struggle of the black athlete and of African Americans, despite superior skills, to obtain equal opportunity in the era of near-total hostility to black people between 1900 and World War II."

Fiction and poetry

"Remember Me" by Trezza Azzopardi (Grove Press). This unsettling fictional account of the life of a 72-year-old homeless woman was nominated by Robert Allen Papinchak, who said that "the sure and steady narrative works through an intriguing plot which resolves itself in a jaw-dropping conclusion."

"You Remind Me of Me" by Dan Chaon (Ballantine). Set in two small Midwestern towns, Chaon's first novel is a tale of two sons, one given up for adoption by his mother, while the other, born five years later, is raised by her and eventually seeks out his "lost" brother. Barbara Lloyd McMichael said, "Chaon crafts a mosaic of shattered relationships and cobbled-together alliances in this story of two half-brothers and others on the margins of society in the rural Midwest who persevere."

"Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell" by Susanna Clarke (Bloomsbury). This moody, whimsical saga of two magicians vying for fame and glory in 19th-century England was one of the most original books I've read in a long time, by an author with a sly sense of humor, a fecund imagination and a beautiful gift for mimicry of the literary traditions she borrows from (such as Jane Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle).

"Birds Without Wings" by Louis de Bernières (Knopf). De Bernières views the mass slaughter that attended the breakup of the Ottoman Empire through the eyes of the citizens of one small village, in a novel described by Deloris Tarzan Ament as "intelligent and poetic — it is a book that could well become a classic."

"Any Place I Hang My Hat" by Susan Isaacs (Simon & Schuster). Melinda Bargreen, an omnivorous devourer of fiction, said this story of an up-and-coming political reporter who searches for her long-lost mother and maternal grandparents is "the most enjoyable novel" she read this year.

"Life" by Gwyneth Jones (Aqueduct Press). Nisi Shawl said this speculative-fiction title, about the exploits of a brilliant molecular biologist, "beautifully illustrates the impact of science on human existence at all levels, with vividly sensual personal details and a driving quest for forbidden knowledge."

"Transmission" by Hari Kunzru (Dutton). Richard Wallace declared this book, about an East Indian computer programmer and a U.K. "paper millionaire" caught in the afterburn of the dot-com bust, to be a "brilliantly witty social satire, a truly global novel."

"Aloft" by Chang-Rae Lee (Riverhead). Valerie Ryan remarked on this novel's protagonist, a widower mired in life's complications, saying: "Jerry Battle strives to remain above the messiness of life, but confronts his disaffection with humor, poignancy and love when his ethnically diverse family starts circling the drain."

"Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell (Random House). A Man Booker Prize finalist, this novel, which interweaves six different narrative strands in locales ranging from New Zealand to Korea, provoked reviewer Betsy Aoki to declare that Mitchell "does what Neal Stephenson tries to do, only better."

"The Falls" by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco). A turbulent story, set in the Niagara Falls region, that begins with the suicide of a young minister on his wedding night and ripples outward. "It may not be a perfect book — Oates doesn't seem like someone who dinks around, looking for perfection — but it was big in theme and ambition, with all of Oates' usual expressive energy," Ellen Emry Heltzel enthused.

"Little Children" by Tom Perrotta (St. Martin's Press). Mark Lindquist felt that this book, a tale of two suburban couples and their dysfunctional neighbors, "made sport of a lot of new parents I know, and was both satirical and affectionate."

"The Virtues of War" by Steven Pressfield (Doubleday). Bill Dietrich said that "this vivid and brutal evocation of ancient warfare succeeds by focusing our view like the visor of a helmet," concentrating on Alexander the Great's military exploits and "effectively transporting us to his arena of dust, blood and glory."

"Collected Poems: 1943-2004" by Richard Wilbur (Harcourt). Richard Wakefield declared that "a big slice of the best poetry written in the second half of the 20th century is in this one book by this one author." (Reviewed above.)

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or She has been the Seattle Times book editor since 1998.

The Seattle Times: Arts & Entertainment: Best books 2004: A year enriched by gifted writers

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