Best Books of 2005

Perowne plays squash and visits his aging mother—“Once they’re established together, face to face, with their cups of brown tea, the tragedy of the situation will be obscured behind the banality of detail”—but his night features a less routine encounter, a moment of terror that actually hits close to home.


This brief Swiss-authored novel is one of quiet power and understated tension. In a small Norwegian fishing village, a young woman named Kathrine inspects border-crossing boats and passively floats through a love life that’s produced two marriages, one young son, and no love. The novel’s atmosphere is a product of the natural world, in which snow and darkness and wind need not be detailed, only named; they stand for themselves. Like the heroine of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film Blue—which this novel brings to mind—Kathrine departs from her known life, seeking a soloist’s liberty. There is a trip to Paris, a potential lover, a funeral, and the meeting of new people. This includes, of course, slivers of herself. “She got dressed, and went to the washroom,” goes one passage of the journey. “She was astonished to see herself in the mirror. When she looked in her eyes, she saw the fear she had almost forgotten she had.”


In this entertaining vocational memoir, Navasky provides a tour through his enviably interesting career, from his first days editing the satiric magazine Monocle, to working for The New York Times Magazine, to settling into his longtime role as editor and then publisher at America’s oldest weekly magazine, The Nation. The book is funny and lively, and carries a flavor of distinguished irreverence throughout. Though rubbing elbows with a colorful cast of characters (Hugh Hefner, Nora Ephron, Ralph Nadar, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Kissinger), Navasky steers clear of self-importance, opting instead for wry humor and self-deprecation.


Did I just dream this slim, shady novel? “The road black in the wet in the sudden thaw in the steam that dipped and gathered grown so thick to squat upon our pond that it seemed not our rooster there but the air itself yet crowing.” Umm. “This that I felt backed into my throat was the body shoved into the cage of my ribs, brief, and how surprising: the rest had seemed so distant: a ditch cut into a distant slab, spongy and geologic, marsh, a bowl of softened bone. Then the baby, the bawling sight of him; then the staples driven in.” Yikes. “It’s like a knife at your throat, to love them. It is like gathering leaves in the wind.” Damn. I can’t explain Holland’s spooky, beautiful, original book. I can’t reshelve it, either. (I fear it will swallow the books beside it.) But I can point you to its murky, marshy waters. And say: I dare you to.


This inventive breakout novel blends playfulness and gloom. Some pages are set in three columns, with the prose under the characters’ names as if it were dialogue in a play, and others have full-ink circles and holes where a character’s name would’ve been. What begins as a fantastical story of a father and daughter immigrating to California—encountering gangs of carnation pickers and a baby Nostradamus—becomes an authorial self-crucifixion over the loss of a girl. The novel’s characters—I imagine them as little paper Smurfs—grow resentful, and do their best to revolt. Told in rich, chewy prose—“Carmen Cansino shed syllables from her name and velvet curtains from her stage, rising, leaving a trail of draperies and scraps of paper cut from her birth certificate, to emerge as a star”—it’s a revolution worth wanting.


In this substantial, satisfying comic novel of 50 years in an American family, Hribal chronicles the “grand, misguided” dreams of oversized patriarch Wally Czabek and the effects of the dreams’ disintegration on his wife and kids. Hribal’s a very funny storyteller (he’s also, in full disclosure, a former professor and mentor of mine), and the novel’s “great rat hunt of 1967”—with team Czabek circled around a bonfire, firing guns at the circle’s center—is worth the price of admission. But despite the humor throughout, the story never shakes off its shades of blue. “He took us in,” the narrator says of his father, “a slow, sad sweep of his head, full of the grandeur of disappointment.”


Written over five years and exploring more than three decades of social and cultural change, Can’t Stop is an impressive, informative, and important book. Chang acutely defines hip-hop’s relationship to the economic environment that produced it (“If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work”); chronicles how technological advancements changed the game (“The sound systems democratized pleasure and leisure by making dance entertainment available to the downtown sufferers and strivers”); and illustrates how other cultural products—reggae and Spike Lee joints, Enter the Dragon and Beat Street, b-boy dancing and train art—shaped hip-hop’s growth. Stocked with juicy quotes from hip hop’s major players (Chuck D: “Our interviews were better than most people’s shows”), Can’t Stop is fascinating reading that illustrates how hip-hop’s international rise mirrors other stories of artistic creation: scrappy, outsider artists trying to handle their entry into the system; the public’s screw-that reaction to new styles (it happened to Stravinsky and Grandmaster Flash); and the artists themselves trying to play the game but still stay true to themselves.



McEwan’s crisp and current novel follows 48-year-old London neurosurgeon Henry Perowne through a single dawn-to-dawn day in February 2003. Though he’s a man of wealth and ostensible comfort, Perowne’s times are ours—“baffled and fearful” (“The nineties are looking like an innocent decade, and who would have thought that at the time?”), with warm wife-nuzzles veering to thoughts of Sadaam, lovely talks with newly adult children torpedoed by arguments about the then-imminent war in Iraq. “His nerves, like tautened strings, vibrate obediently with each news ‘release,’” McEwan writes of his hero. “He’s lost the habits of skepticism, he’s becoming dim with contradictory opinion, he isn’t thinking clearly, and just as bad, he senses he isn’t thinking independently.” Perowne plays squash and visits his aging mother—“Once they’re established together, face to face, with their cups of brown tea, the tragedy of the situation will be obscured behind the banality of detail”—but his night features a less routine encounter, a moment of terror that actually hits close to home.


“John was talking, then he wasn’t.” Didion’s longtime husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died at the dinner table, in an instant. (Their daughter, Quintana, had already been gravely ill and hospitalized.) In this fearless, direct, and searching memoir, Didion documents grief’s persuasive powers of derangement—“I remember thinking,” she says shortly after his death, “that I needed to discuss this with John.” Grief itself—real grief, not imagined—is described as “the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.” Didion’s determination to name and record her unsettling realizations—like the “the shallowness of sanity”—provides her readers with meaning itself.


There’s simply no one like him. No other writer would cover the beyond salacious Adult Video News awards and bestow one of his greatest lines on a conference room. (“This facility is an enormous windowless all-cement space that during show hours manages to induce both agoraphobia and claustrophobia.”) No one else would turn a review of a new dictionary into a 60-page essay of fretful self-confessions and verbatim memories of familial sing-song games promoting good usage. No one else would gain a week’s access to the McCain2000 campaign bus and spend three and a half pages of the resulting article documenting the new vocab words learned on board (“Weasel = The weird gray fuzzy thing that sound techs put over their sticks’ mikes at scrums to keep annoying wind-noise off the audio”). But these are more or less silly, almost incidental things I happen to love about Wallace’s writing. There’s great meaning here, too: perceptive, thoughtful explorations of Kafka and Dostoevsky, talk radio and conservatism, lobster-boiling and 9/11. Wallace’s essays should be read for the ideas they present, the questions they raise. (Wallace raises hundreds here, including this one of McCain: “What’s the difference between hypocrisy and paradox?”) The million little observational details—which few others would have noticed, and no one else would’ve thought to share—are the reader’s rewards for showing up, and the incentives to turn the page.


In Smith’s smart, witty, and thoroughly pleasurable third novel, the English-born art-history professor Howard Belsey, his African-American wife Kiki, and their three teenagers bend and break in a New England college town. Howard’s now-public affair with a perky poet-peer, the arrival on campus of right-wing rival Monty Kipps, and various developments of the kids have upped the drama in the Belsey household. The unquestionably talented Smith nails an impressive number of things here: the speech of a scrappy young rapper (“When I be rhyming I’m like BAM. I hit it on the nail, through the wood and out the other side. Believe. Talkin?”); the self-absorbed sparring of academics (Howard “caught sight of Monty, who was smiling and nodding, like a king at a fool who has come to entertain him”); a child’s momentary disgust of a parent (“Zora looked at her mother with wonder. ‘I’m trying to eat?’”); and the world as it momentarily appears to her characters (“As the Belsey taxi passed by a nightclub, Jerome squinted after the many girls in few clothes lining up before it, like the tail of something marvelous that did not exist”). On Beauty is about class, desire, shame, growth, family, and foolishness, though it’s not defined by those but by its story and Smith’s skill in telling it. The reader feels at all times that Smith knows her characters—every one—and that she has great feeling for them, and thus great feeling for us, her readers. “And so it happened again,” Smith writes of young Zora Belsey, smoking and clicking with classmates, “the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people. Neither as hard as she had thought it might be nor as easy as it appeared.”

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