The top 10 books of the year

Magic is afoot in England, white slaves are held captive in the Sahara, sisters are haunted by a lost sibling -- and more literary feasts.

Published December 7, 2004 11:35PM (EST)

This year, nonfiction books captured the bestseller lists and the headlines, but a particular kind of nonfiction. As urgent and necessary as those political titles felt -- and often were -- at the time, it's hard to imagine them seeming quite so important in a year or two. In the meantime, almost underground, publishers big and small continued to put out books that we eagerly recommend to you, even if you happen to be reading these words months or years from now, at the end of a meandering Web search.

The 10 books listed here were chosen from lists recommended by Salon staffers and friends, stumbled over in teetering stacks of review copies or pressed into our hands by persons with motives unknown. What we do know is that once we started reading them, the real world tended to fall away, the phone went unanswered, magazines and newspapers piled up and our TiVo queues overflowed. That's our first criterion for selection: These books made us want to put everything else on hold.

Though we read some splendid polemics (Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter With Kansas" springs to mind), we were more taken with books whose authors were willing to tell us things we, and even they, might not want to hear. "The 9/11 Commission Report," surely among the best-written government documents in American history, is as riveting as they say, but in the end its official status gave it strengths (and weaknesses) that made it impossible to compare to other nonfiction books -- if we had a special awards category, that's where we'd put it. Instead, we found ourselves taken with the work of an innovative, independent scholar who shed new light on a much-documented crime and a historian who unearthed a forgotten courtroom drama, among others.

It was not a particularly strong year for American fiction -- some of the most celebrated titles didn't make our list. Fortunately, Brits and other foreigners helped pick up the slack, in novels that leap over boundaries of genre and nationality as well as more intimate divides. The ostensibly serious books on this list are more fun than we anticipated, and the fun ones turned out to rest on unexpected reservoirs of wisdom and emotion. We couldn't ask for anything more, and hope that you'll agree. Happy reading.

Best Books, 2004: Fiction

"Case Histories"
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown
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One difference between genre crime fiction and literary fiction is that the first kind of book is usually concerned with what happens to the people who commit crimes while the second cares more about the people they hurt. Although Kate Atkinson's addictive "Case Histories" has three murders and a detective in it, it's really an exploration of the loss, grief and misplaced guilt that torment three clients who hire Jackson Brodie, an irresistibly grumpy divorced father working as a private investigator in Cambridge, England. Two middle-aged sisters who can't forget the toddler sibling who disappeared decades ago; a father haunted by the possibility that the maniac who killed his daughter might have been after him; a woman in search of the niece she adopted after the girl's mother went to jail for killing her father -- all three case histories are heartbreaking, and sometimes Atkinson's novel is, too. Then, a few pages later, some very funny observation about contemporary life or an expertly drawn (and entirely believable) minor character will make you laugh. Atkinson writes such fluid, sparkling prose that an ingenious plot almost seems too much to ask, but we get it anyway. If Lorrie Moore decided to write a genre-busting detective novel it might resemble "Case Histories," a book in which people take precedence over puzzles and there's no greater mystery than the resurrection of hope.

"Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell"
By Susanna Clarke
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Susanna Clarke's capacious, digressive, amply footnoted and very original "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" is a classic historical novel -- only the history it's based on just happens to be entirely fantastic. Set in the early 19th century, it describes a Britain where magic was once a fairly common practice and is still the subject of serious scholarly study. The two eponymous master magicians start out as conservative teacher and dashing pupil intent on reviving English magic, but eventually they become rivals. They meddle in politics and the Napoleonic Wars, run afoul of a high-spirited "gentleman" with sinister powers and quarrel over the reputation of a mysterious Medieval monarch, the Raven King, who was either the fountainhead of English magic (says Jonathan Strange) or the cause of its downfall (according to Mr. Norrell). Unlike most fantasy novels, this isn't about a quest, and it's not really a love story, either. "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," like all good epics is really about the psyche of a nation. Though Clarke has been compared to Jane Austen, the inspiration for her elegant, imperturbable wit is clearly several centuries of superb English historians and biographers, from Gibbon to Lytton Strachey. As for her wondrous, image-rich depictions of her heroes' spells (ships made of rain, a twilight land accessible only through mirrors), that's nothing less than pure sorcery.

"Happy Baby"
By Stephen Elliott
McSweeney's/MacAdam Cage
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Most fiction about petty criminals, lowlifes, drug users and sexual deviants is so pleased with itself for depicting such people that it never gets around to saying anything interesting about them. Stephen Elliott's "Happy Baby" brings a rare degree of intelligence and literary accomplishment to the story of Theo, a veteran of brutal Chicago group homes, hopelessly mangled relationships and random violence. When we first meet him, he's sporting cigarette burns on his hands courtesy of a sadomasochistic relationship with a married woman, and he briefly entertains fantasies of killing an ex-girlfriend's coddled infant son out of sheer envy. Each subsequent chapter jumps backward in time, depicting a raw, often sexually explicit sliver of Theo's life by way of showing us how this essentially sympathetic man wound up in such a wretched state. "Happy Baby," though fiction, is told in the lean, emotionally terse language of the contemporary trauma memoir, but there's not a speck of self-pity here, just a wincing, dogged search for the truth. What's brave about Theo isn't his willingness to examine and detail his own sufferings; it's his determination to understand how they have shaped him and his refusal to allow them to define him.

"The Line of Beauty"
By Alan Hollinghurst
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Although it's about a gay man living in Margaret Thatcher's England, Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty" is an old-fashioned psychological novel of manners in the best sense of the term. Of this year's several novels preoccupied with Henry James, Hollinghurst's is the only one that attempts the Master's literary specialty: the dissection of the layered ironies that result when people of exquisite sensibility harbor desires in direct conflict with their cherished morals. The novel is the story of middle-class Nick Guest, the epitome of the young man from the provinces, who attaches himself to the upper-class family of a Tory politician. Nick is infatuated with the Feddens' easy, aristocratic style, their beautiful old houses and their ready access to power and glamour. He's also on a path of sexual discovery that will eventually lead him into direct conflict with the coldblooded ideology and social policies of Thatcherism. The encroaching tragedy of the AIDS crisis, a distant menace at first, but one that eventually swells to blot out the novel's horizon, ups the stakes to an almost unbearable degree. The pursuit of the beautiful and the fine often exacts an ugly price, but readers of Hollinghurst's novel will find that with this book, at least, magnificence is here for the taking.

By Orhan Pamuk
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What's it like for a disillusioned secular idealist to witness his nation losing faith in the future and sliding back into the rigidity of religious fundamentalism? American readers with a new appreciation for such quandaries will find a kindred spirit in Turkeys most celebrated novelist, Orhan Pamuk. In "Snow," perhaps Pamuk's most accessible book to date, a Turkish poet returns to his homeland after over a decade of living in Germany. (He fled fearing government reprisals for his leftist activism). Ka (the poet's pen name -- and the Ancient Egyptian word for the soul) visits a mountain town near the Russian border, ostensibly to cover the mayoral election and a rash of suicides by young girls, but mostly to persuade a long-lost love to marry him. In this snowed-in backwater, Ka encounters a microcosm of Turkey's social malaise: separatist Kurds, homicidal jihadists, paralyzed intellectuals, conflicted secular authorities, cronyism, corruption and a kind of free-floating despair. Most of the town's residents ransack their lives in an increasingly frenzied search for meaning. Others just succumb to the snow. For a novel full of sadness and wisdom, "Snow" has a remarkable amount of energy. If Pamuk can't supply his countrymen with a purpose, he brings a great novelist's enthusiasm to describing their struggle, and to letting the world see just how universal it is.

Best Books of 2004: Nonfiction

"Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age"
By Kevin Boyle
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The case of Ossian Sweet -- an African-American physician who moved into a house in a white neighborhood in Detroit in 1925, and found himself fighting for his life and property against a mob of locals -- had been nearly forgotten before historian Kevin Boyle unearthed it to write "Arc of Justice," a masterly narrative history. This despite the fact that Sweet, his wife and the friends who took up arms to help protect his home became the center of a sensational trial and were defended by America's most famous and eloquent lawyer, Clarence Darrow. Perhaps that obscurity is deplorable, but it's a boon to the readers of "Arc of Justice," who will find themselves awaiting the verdict just as breathlessly as those who followed the trial at the time. Would Darrow, capable of bringing grown men -- even judges -- to tears, persuade the white jury to confront the manifest cruelty and injustice of their own social order? Sweet's daring in confronting those inequities, Boyle explains, arose from his difficult history; the grandson of a slave and a member of W.E.B. Du Bois' "talented tenth," the African-American elite, he had seen the advance of civil rights ebb and flow in his 30 years. His story reminds us that even before the famous activism of the '50s and '60s, blacks were battling fiercely for their place at the table, but as to whether Sweet won his own battle, you'll have to read the book to find out.

"Nightingales: The Extraordinary Upbringing and Curious Life of Miss Florence Nightingale"
By Gillian Gill
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Florence Nightingale usually gets depicted as a secular saint (in biographies written for children) or a proto-feminist rebeling against her stultifying Victorian family. Gillian Gill gives us a more complicated, prickly and mysterious woman, and a more fascinating, iconoclastic family. She argues that Florence, far from springing fully formed and utterly original from the frowning brow of bourgeois small-mindedness, was really one in a long line of English radicals, freethinkers and even bohemians -- the same world-changing crowd that produced Virginia Woolf and Charles Darwin. "Nightingales" supplies most of the satisfactions you expect to get from the great 19th century novels, beginning with a troublesome inheritance problem (right out of "Pride and Prejudice"), a teeming clan of minor characters including a wayward uncle with a brood of illegitimate children, a tyrannical governess and several spurned marriage proposals. And this is all before Gill gets around to the Tolstoyan horrors of the Crimean War, where Nightingale essentially invented modern nursing while tangling with the army brass. Best of all, Gill is no slavering Anglophile (she grew up in Wales and knows better), so the whole saga is delivered with a mercilessly skeptical eye to the pettiness and absurdities of the English class system.

"American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies"
By Michael W. Kauffman
Random House
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Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a crowded theater in a Washington, D.C. still thronged and giddy after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. The shooting, and the soon-discovered simultaneous stabbing of Secretary of State William H. Seward, threw the city into temporary chaos. Mobs swarmed the Ford Theater and the house where Lincoln lay mortally wounded, searching for souvenirs and suspects, and threatening to lynch several key witnesses. Evidence was lost, or found and then lost later on. Eyewitnesses contradicted each other, rumors spread, myths were hatched and misconceptions spawned. It was a detective's nightmare, even in the low-tech days before "CSI"-style forensics. The truth about who was involved in the assassination conspiracy and why became the mother of endless confusion. Michael W. Kauffman's "American Brutus" is several unlikely combinations rolled into one: a meticulous history with propulsive narrative power, a fresh take on one of the most examined events in American history, and the eminently rational and convincing product of a raging obsession. Kauffman is an independent scholar who designed an unusual database to sort, search and reorganize the vast amount of contradictory and often dubious data about the Lincoln conspiracies. The new light this information shed on the lives and schemes of John Wilkes Booth and his cronies showed him a Booth who was far more cunning, manipulative and talented than conventional wisdom would have us believe. It also helped him write an astonishingly lucid re-creation of the night of the assassination, and the subsequent hunt for the culprits is as suspenseful as it is enlightening.

"Skeletons on the Zahara: A True Story of Survival"
By Dean King
Little, Brown
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Just when you think the true adventure story is an exhausted genre, Dean King comes along to prove that all it needs is a little sand. Well, make that a lot of sand, and a whole lot of sun to go with it. In 1815, the crew of a Connecticut-based merchant ship were stranded on the very inhospitable northwestern coast of Africa. Near-death in a long boat is followed by near-death on a shore that's really just the edge of the Sahara Desert. Then the men are captured and enslaved by nomads. They survive nightmarish ordeals: days of forced marches on bleeding bare feet under the scorching sun (naked), starvation, thirst, beatings, sandstorms, even plagues of locusts. They see fabled cities and try to fathom their captors' language and customs. One Muslim trader even seems to sympathize with the emaciated infidels, and a scheme involving ransom money, treachery and escape takes form. Based on the written accounts of survivors, "Skeletons on the Zahara" is a little bit H. Rider Haggard, a little bit Jon Krakauer, a little bit Nathaniel Philbrick and a whole lot of gruesome fun.

"The Working Poor: Invisible in America"
By David K. Shipler
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This year was ripe with books about what's wrong with America, most of them one-sided polemics with a limited shelf life. By comparison, David K. Shipler's "The Working Poor" has an old-fashioned commitment to telling the whole story -- in this case the reality that millions of Americans who work hard, full-time if not more, can't keep their heads above water. Shipler, a former New York Times reporter, includes some statistics and some exposés (H & R Block's exploitative "rapid refund" offers, for example, designed to siphon off a whopping portion of poor workers' tax refunds), but the heart and soul of the book are the stories of the people Shipler met. They are trapped in the kind of life Barbara Ehrenreich visited in her bestseller "Nickel and Dimed." Shipler freely admits that few of the poor people he met while researching this book are victims, pure and simple; the great strength of "The Working Poor" is that, while sympathetic, it refuses to sentimentalize or idealize its subjects. But he also demonstrates how one mistake can land an otherwise well-intentioned person in an inescapable swamp of debt and dead-end jobs: Crappy dental work costs one woman all her teeth and, unable to wear Medicaid dentures or to afford better ones, she is continually passed over again and again for a job promotion, no matter how diligently she works. It's impossible not to root for these folks, to want to shake the ones who sabotage their own chances, or to cheer on the few who gain a foothold against all the odds.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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