Hippo Manchester
December 29, 2005

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Books: Best of books in 2005

Our many faves in non-fiction and fewer fiction faves

NONFICTION

• The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 496 pages) Sorry, Christopher Columbus, it turns out the world is flat after all. Or it’s in the process of becoming so, anyway. The economic advantages enjoyed by the United States for these many years are coming to end, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues in his latest tome. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and other forms of cheap telecommunication, the challenges faced by many Third World countries — but especially India and China — in the marketplace are finally disappearing. Or in other words, the world is flattening and if we want to keep our place on top we need to recognize this fact and adapt. —Will Stewart

• Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (William Morrow, 256 pages) Who knew economics could be interesting? In this short read, University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt shows how seemingly unsolvable everyday mysteries can be figured out easily if one only asks the right questions. Case in point is the dramatic drop in crime in the ’90s. Responsible for the decline, Levitt says, was not putting more cops on the streets or instituting new policing methods. Instead it was legalized abortion, which negated the existence of many would-be criminals. His explanations might not all be politically correct, but they are thought-provoking, and isn’t that what books should be? —W.S.

• God’s Politics, by Jim Wallis (HarperSanFrancisco, 416 pages) Despite what those on the Right might like to believe, the Almighty and His offspring, the late Jesus Christ, are not, in fact, Republicans.

Indeed, if one reads the Bible, Jesus seems to have been more about promoting peace and helping the less fortunate than He would be about promoting war and tax cuts for the rich. But while His message seems to be more in line with the that of the Left, it is the Right that has co-opted the language of religion and morals, a practice it has used to corner the market on values issues. In reality, no political party owns God, says Rev. Jim Wallis. Nevertheless, he argues, if the Left ever wants to get back into power they could stand to invoke the Almighty themselves. —W.S.

• The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion (Knopf, 240 pages) The Year of Magical Thinking is some of the sharpest writing ever on personal and family relationships. Didion lays out the facts of her life, both interior and exterior, after the sudden death of her husband and throughout the ultimately fatal illness of their daughter. It’s her clear thinking, her reporter’s eye turned inward, that makes this book so stunning. —Amy Diaz

• 1776, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 400 pages) And you think you have no idea what you’re doing at work; consider George Washington. Hired to lead the Continental army, Washington pretty much spent his first year on the job, 1776, totally screwing it up. Did you just lose the big account? Well, Washington lost New York, so hang in there, kitty. In addition to recounting Washington’s blunders, miscalculations and misfortunes (he was, after all, the general of an army made of regular Joes; consider what kind of an army you’d have if every Blockbuster clerk, accountant and mid-level tech guy suddenly took up arms with no training), 1776 is just a corker of a tale about the first shaky year of our country and the egos and accidents that kept us together. —A.D.

• Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell (Little, Brown, 320 pages) A secretary from Queens is what Julie Powell calls herself when, at 29-years-old, she realizes that she’ll never be a New York actress and that her temp job has become permanent. Her husband, in an attempt to keep her from losing her mind, suggests she start a blog. After briefly considering killing him for offering such a flip remedy to her existential crisis, Julie decides to take him up on it and starts the Julie/Julia project. She vows to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and documents it on the blog. The book takes from the blog and adds more on Julie’s home and work life and gives you an entertaining look at one girl’s response to a quarterlife crisis. A quick, fun read, Julie and Julia is smarter than it seems, with plenty that both foodie and cubicle jockey will find engaging. —A.D.

• The Elements of Style: Illustrated, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, illustrated by Maira Kalman (Penguin Press, more than 147 glorious pages) Behold, God gave us the Word and Maira Kalman illustrated it. —A.D.

• Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, By Amy Krouse Rosenthal (Crown Publishers, 220 pages) Rosenthal puts her life in alphabetic order, everything from first crushes to the unexamined joy of Q-Tips. It’s the non-confessional confessional. Rosenthal herself points out that she neither overcame nor committed any great wrong nor created or witnessed any great good. She simply exists, lives a normal life and is able to express it with wit and grace in a way that shines light on the little things and allows you to recognize yourself in her trivialities. Though that is all more fun than it sounds. —A.D.

• Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, by Anne Lamott (Riverhead Books, 320 pages) Anne Lamott, who characterizes herself as a “scruffy aging Birkenstock type,” is a fervent liberal and a devout Christian. As you read, you can feel her feeling her way around life; she admits to her resentments, her judgmentalness, wanting to hit something or yell at someone and finding it barely possible to love thine enemy. But she keeps putting one foot in front of the other on the path she discerns via her spiritual faith, a faith that invokes Jesus a lot but is quite roomy, as in “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” If nothing else, every parent should read her hilarious essay “Heat,” which sublimely addresses Being A Parent—and Being A Child. —Lisa Parsons

• Paths of Desire: The Passions of a Suburban Gardener, by Dominique Browning (Scribner, 237 pages) “I wanted sidewalks and neighbors close enough by for security. I wanted shops within walking distance. But I also wanted a retreat, a place that could cast a spell of quiet peace.” Paths of Desire is Dominique Browning’s account of her successful efforts to build that retreat at her suburban New York home. It’s a cozy read, a semi-rambling, semi-structured (like her garden) account of backyard varmints and troublesome trees and months spent planning, imagining, before finally breaking dirt. She muses that suburban gardening is a matter of erasing the landscape that’s there and then putting it back in a controlled fashion you can live with. —L.P.

• Souled American, by Kevin Phinney (Billboard Books, 368 pages) Souled American is nothing less than the story of 200 years of American history and race relations, as seen through the focusing lens of music, spanning all genres. Along the way Phinney checks in with musical luminaries like Ray Charles, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, David Byrne, Sly Stone, Donna Summer and Bonnie Raitt to see how they view the issue, which, he says, is not black and white. Historically, black artists have been innovators in American music; white artists have been enormously successful in adapting black music for their own use; but black artists, including rock icon Little Richard, freely admit that they would not have been successful had white artists like Pat Boone not brought the music to the mainstream. Still, Phinney says, at best black artists are getting sloppy seconds. Phinney’s writing is concise and detailed, yet lively. For fans of music, history, social issues, pop culture and good writing, Souled American is a must. — Robert Greene

FICTION

• The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, by Bill Watterson (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 1,440 pages) Rivaled only by The Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes was easily the best strip on the comics page during its 10-year run spanning from 1985 to 1995. This hardcover, three-volume edition includes all 3,160 strips penned by Bill Watterson that follow Calvin, a precocious, egotistical 6-year-old with a vivid imagination and his stuffed animal/best friend Hobbes, a wiser, more level-headed tiger with a penchant for tuna fish sandwiches. While expensive ($150 retail) and heavy (23 pounds) this collection is a must for any Calvin and Hobbes fan and a great way to relive the magic that was once on the comics page. —W.S.

• A Man Without a Country, by Kurt Vonnegut (Seven Stories Press, 192 pages)

Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions this is not. Instead, Kurt Vonnegut gives us a collection of articles he has written over the past five years, on subjects ranging from the war in Iraq to the absurdity of humans to the hereafter. The articles, with their sharp wit and stinging criticism, are pure Vonnegut and will be most appreciated by seasoned Vonnegut fans and newbies alike. There is also the distinct possibility that this work could be Vonnegut’s last, a fact which makes it all the more special. This book was his first since 1999 and as a chain-smoking 82-year-old, Vonnegut’s not likely to produce many more. —W.S.

• Chuck Dugan is AWOL, by Eric Chase Anderson (Chronicle Books, 223 pages)

Chuck Dugan: is he a wily kid playing a giant game of cops and robbers? Or is he really a respectable young naval officer? Doesn’t matter. With real, subtle humor, this top-notch adventure story offers sunken treasure off the coast of Maine, TOP SECRET U.S. Navy files, a powered submersible bicycle and characters with names like Joe Quartermaster, Harry Aloha and Sally Wisebadger. Anderson drew his own color illustrations, in the form of engrossing maps and diagrams sprinkled throughout the book. This is readable by mature-enough children, but not aimed especially at them. —L.P.