Narrowing a year's best reading to a mere 10 titles is always a tough task, especially when there wasn't one standout like 2003's "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones to serve as...
Narrowing a year’s best reading to a mere 10 titles is always a tough task, especially when there wasn’t one standout like 2003’s “The Known World” by Edward P. Jones to serve as a kind of lodestar to lead the pack. What I found instead in 2004 were good, solid books by familiar and unfamiliar names, all so close in accomplishment that it would have been much easier to pick a top 20 than a top 10.
This year’s story collections by A.S. Byatt, Doris Lessing, Alice Munro, Annie Proulx and Paul Theroux, for instance, were excellent reads that gave you all that you expect from these writers.
The reason they’re not listed below is that, as always, I was on the hunt for something unexpected, something that was either a breakthrough book by a renowned author or a dazzling calling card from a little-known writer. Here are 10 that stuck with me, in alphabetical order by author:
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“A Thousand Sighs, A Thousand Revolts: Journeys into Kurdistan”
by Christiane Bird (Ballantine). An indispensable look at pre-Iraq-war Kurdistan, a country that exists only in name as regions of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Bird cuts through all cant and news-filtered perception by staying in people’s homes, winning their confidence, noting down all they say, then moving on, creating in her wake a contradiction-filled portrait of a proud and divided people split among three countries.
by Alain de Botton (Pantheon). The British writer (“How Proust Can Change Your Life”) outdoes himself with this history of how humans have traditionally accrued status over the centuries. De Botton also offers tips on how we can evade the contemporary materialist status standards imposed on us, by answering them with the subversive powers of philosophy, art, religion, politics and “Bohemia.”
“The Line of Beauty”
by Alan Hollinghurst (Bloomsbury). This year’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel offers sensual, formal and satirical pleasures as it follows the attempts of a young gay social-climber to enter Tory circles during Margaret Thatcher’s heyday. What he finds is a 1980s London about to succumb to financial scandals and the scourge of AIDS.
by Moses Isegawa (Knopf). A terse, charged tale by the Amsterdam-based Ugandan novelist (“The Abysinnian Chronicles”), about a Cambridge graduate who comes home to Idi Amin’s Uganda thinking he’ll have great job prospects there, now that all the Asians have been kicked out. The story of his downfall twists, turns, then snaps back into focus with an almost sadistic aplomb.
by Wayne Johnston (Anchor). This 1994 novel by the Canadian writer (“The Colony of Unrequited Dreams”) made its first U.S. appearance this year far too long to wait for this tangy, rueful tale about a Toronto kid who grows up on his mother’s “Romper Room”-like children’s television show, while his bemused, highbrow and supposedly novel-writing father skeptically watches from the sidelines.
“Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of the Seattle Public Library”
by John Douglas Marshall (University of Washington Press). I’ve got to hand it to my competitor across town. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer book critic put together a terrific history of our local library, covering everything from fire to Red scares to fiscal crises. This page-turner turns out to be, not so coincidentally, a history of Seattle.
“Heir to the Glimmering World”
by Cynthia Ozick (Houghton Mifflin). This sly and light-footed novel by the author of “The Puttermesser Papers” plunks down an oddball assortment of refugees in the Bronx of the 1930s, all haunted by heritages that don’t remotely match their desires or their present-day circumstances. The result is a cerebral screwball comedy that may be Ozick’s finest achievement.
“The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America”
by Russell Shorto (Doubleday). A lively account of New York City in its 17th-century “New Amsterdam” incarnation. Shorto makes clear it was Dutch influence more than New England Puritan theocracy that gave rise to the bustling crazy-quilt of people and cultures we called the United States. And his visions of a pre-European Manhattan are magnificent.
“Caliban’s Shore: The Wreck of the Grosvenor and the Strange Fate of Her Survivors”
by Stephen Taylor (Norton). Another fascinating history, this one about a 1782 shipwreck on the coast of South Africa. The castaways’ attitudes toward the local population determined in part whether they would survive. With this book and his earlier “Livingston’s Tribe,” Taylor, a white South African living in England, confirms himself to be frank and gifted analyst of white-black relationships and encounters in Africa.
by Colm Tóibín (Scribner). Nominated for the Man Booker Prize (and just as fine as Hollinghurst’s prize-winning “The Line of Beauty”), this novel about Henry James creates an illusion of getting under the novelist’s skin that even James’ best biographers haven’t quite managed. Tóibín delivers a James who is hyper-observant and kindly, yet just a little creepy in the way he manipulates his circumstances in order to ensure that nothing really touches him.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998, and has also published four novels.