Top 10 books of the year

From a coming-of-age story set in Japan to the biography of a legendary crooner, we pick the most pleasurable reading experiences of 2005.

By Laura Miller - Hillary Frey

Published December 19, 2005 12:20PM (EST)

This was the year that Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, at the urging of the New York Times Book Review, declared that fiction is dead. And we must admit that at the beginning of the eye-blearing process of picking the year's 10 best books we were almost inclined to agree. Late releases and previously overlooked gems renewed our faith, though, and in the end we decided to do something we've never done before: let two short story collections -- one by a young writer with a cult following and the other by an unjustly under-celebrated veteran -- tie for the fifth fiction slot. The two collections struck us as remarkably similar in spirit and impeccable in craft and  well, we just couldn't make up our minds.

We must admit, though, that when we closed the door behind the final 11 titles, there was a lot of great nonfiction left clamoring outside. Our criteria in choosing our five favorite nonfiction titles have always been a little idiosyncratic. Instead of "definitive" doorstops, we prefer to single out the kind of books we can't wait to get back to -- the ones we schlep into the kitchen with us so we can keep reading while we brew that fourth pot of coffee. The titles on our nonfiction lists often deal with weighty historical subjects and urgent issues, but first and foremost they're the books that kept us up all night instead of lulling us to sleep.

This year saw the publication of many stellar memoirs, but in the end we only picked one (and not the one you're thinking of, either). History, especially American history, captivated us in 2005, and we couldn't help noticing that the most horrifying, inspiring and fascinating American stories often center around race. It was only by the thinnest of hairs that two outstanding 2005 titles -- "Bury the Chains," Adam Hochschild's account of the intellectual origins of abolitionism, and "Bound for Canaan," Fergus M. Bordewich's history of the Underground Railroad (the first book of its kind devoted to the subject) -- didn't make our top five. We still recommend that you check them out.

As for fiction, it's certainly not dead, but it has undergone a sea change since the days when Naipaul was coming up. This year's crop impresses us with its breadth of imagination and close attention to emotional truths. These books took us to places and showed us things no nonfiction title ever could. We're grateful for the trip, and hope that you will be, too.

Best books, 2005: Fiction

By Mary Gaitskill
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Gaitskill's fans have waited for eight years for "Veronica," and this novel is her best book yet. It comes as a marked departure for the author, in terms of both content and form. Until now, Gaitskill has chronicled the darker side of desire: the lure of S/M, the allure of same-sex sex, the scary -- and often all-consuming -- need for physical connection inside all of us, and her best work was found in her short story collections. Alison, the narrator of "Veronica," has a fluorescent, dirty past as a model in Paris and in New York; now she's a decrepit nobody with hepatitis who cleans offices for cash and rides the bus. But the novel is less about Alison's gray present than her memories of her unlikely relationship with Veronica, an older, coarse, loud and unfashionable woman who died of AIDS. "Veronica" isn't a happy story; there's nothing feel-good about it. But it is a novel so streaked with colors and spiked with sharp edges that reading it is almost a tactile experience. Gaitskill's perfect, slicing descriptions of the people who drift in and out of Alison's life, and her unsparing portrait of a sad, once-beautiful woman who doesn't want -- or deserve -- our pity, makes "Veronica" one of the most original and moving books of this year.

"Never Let Me Go"
By Kazuo Ishiguro
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By some uncanny sorcery, Ishiguro has written a novel redolent with all the aching mysteries of existence and yet told in the voice of an average, unimaginative English schoolgirl. Well, not quite average. Kath, along with her friends Tom and Ruth, has a peculiar destiny, one that an astute reader will figure out in the first chapter or so (still, you'll find no spoilers here). They go to a special boarding school where they are groomed for their special fate, and despite it all they still manage to enjoy and suffer the ordinary loves and betrayals that come to young people everywhere. Almost. This odd, heartbreaking novel isn't (as some have claimed) a cautionary tale about science and ethics, and it's not really an experiment in genre-bending. Instead, modestly but inexorably, in commonplace prose, it unfurls age-old conundrums about what it means to be human; about the grievous sin of treating any person, however unexceptional, as the means to an end, and about the unfathomable future that awaits each and every one of us.

"Kafka on the Shore"
By Haruki Murakami
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The latest dispatch from the epic, entrancing dream world of Japan's best-known contemporary novelist explores new territory. This time out, Murakami veers away from the Raymond-Chandler-inspired intrigues and hard-boiled ruminations of his earlier books. Instead, he invokes another literary touchstone -- J.D. Salinger -- in telling a bruised, if also tender, coming-of-age story. Fifteen-year-old Kafka (not his real name) flees his brutal, secretive father and holes up in a private library tucked away in a sleepy seaside town. Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, a simple-minded old man with the power to talk to cats has a disturbing encounter with the living, speaking, cat-killing embodiment of a popular whiskey's brand mascot. Gradually, their paths converge in wooded village without a past or a future. Does all of this make sense? Not strictly, but that's hardly the point. Like all of Murakami's best fiction (especially his own favorite, "Hard-Boiled Wonderland," to which this novel is a companion), "Kafka on the Shore" has a hypnotic power that's positively addictive and the ability to satisfy even when it doesn't explain. Murakami is one of the world's most adventurous and innovative novelists. He may play by his own rules, but his readers are the ones who win.

"On Beauty"
By Zadie Smith
Penguin Press
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Like Smith's reputation-making debut novel, "White Teeth," this tale of two families explodes with vitality, curiosity, sympathy and enthusiasm for human beings and the perplexing situations they get into. The Belseys are a leftish mixed-race family living in an East Coast college town. The Kipps are conservative black Brits of Caribbean descent who move in down the street. The patriarchs of both clans are academics and professional rivals. Loosely based on E.M. Forster's "Howards End," "On Beauty" is a less disciplined but more exuberant comedy of manners, an exploration of the often hilarious collisions of values and desires that result when the Belseys meet the Kipps. Pretentious undergraduates, wannabe gangstas, hypocritical moralists, burnt-out radicals -- none of these are new fodder for the campus novel, but in Smith's hands the stuff of routine satire becomes miraculously endearing and sympathetic. She is that very rare breed of author who can make us laugh at her characters even as she envelops them (and by extension, us) in her fierce, radiant and irresistible love.

"Magic for Beginners"
By Kelly Link
Small Beer Press
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"Times Like These"
By Rachel Ingalls
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Two masters of the short story, one young, the other seasoned, both with a mordant view of human nature, a dark sense of humor and a commitment to telling tales in which something actually happens. Link dabbles in the supernatural, writing about lonely zombies, villagers who live inside a purse, and even a haunting (not of a house, but of the objects inside it). Ingalls dwells on thwarted love, poisonous secrets and people who meddle in each other's lives with a calculated cold-bloodness that's at once thrilling and horrific. Link's writing shimmers with imagination without ever turning flowery or fussy; Ingalls' has the matter-of-fact cadences of a timeless storyteller. These two collections bristle with delights and surprises; in fact, the one thing they both do consistently is catch you off-guard. At a time when most short stories are little more than exquisite little mood or chamber pieces, Link and Ingalls remind us of just how dangerous and exciting the form can be.

Best books, 2005: Nonfiction

"Tulia: Race, Cocaine and Corruption in a Small Texas Town"
By Nate Blakeslee
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In 1999, the sheriff of the tiny west Texas town of Tulia arrested over 40 people, among them a good 20 percent of Tulia's black population. The charges: selling cocaine; the evidence: little more than the spotty testimony of a single undercover officer, Tom Coleman -- a man with a secret history of lying, corruption, paranoia and racism. Most were convicted and sentenced to whopping prison terms (one man got over 300 years) as part of the get-tough policies of America's misbegotten War on Drugs. Blakeslee's book, based on his reporting for the Texas Observer magazine, is a gripping, plain-spoken and meticulous account of the campaign to expose Coleman and free Tulia's unjustly imprisoned citizens. The prejudice and hysteria the incident uncovered is countered by the unlikely band of neighbors who united to set right Coleman's wrongs -- led by an overall-clad white farmer who disconcerted the media by using the N-word while waging his indefatigable and locally unpopular crusade. "It doesn't matter what I call 'em," he said. "What matters is that they didn't get a fair trial."

"Them: A Memoir of Parents"
By Francine du Plessix Gray
Penguin Press
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We were as impressed as everyone else by Joan Didion's memoir, "The Year of Magical Thinking," but rather than add our voice to that chorus, we invite you to savor Gray's witty, subtle and sumptuously written account of growing up in the shadow of two remarkable adults. Gray's mother, the elegant Tatiana, was a white Russian imigri who claimed descent from Genghis Kahn, a beauty who was the great, lost love of the Soviet poet Mayakovsky, a fearless protector when the family fled Paris before the advancing Nazis and a celebrated arbiter on all matters stylish in postwar New York. Her suave, dapper stepfather, Alexander Liberman, became the editorial director of the swank Condé Nast publishing empire. Together, they cut glamorous figures, but in private they often failed at parenting's most basic responsibilities. Tatiana asked a relative to tell Francine that her father had been killed in the war, and neither noticed when the little girl stopped eating. Gray's memoir hovers exquisitely between two viewpoints: the adoring but neglected daughter and the skeptical but forgiving adult. Hers is a fabulous tale, but the splendor is really in the telling.

"Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke"
By Peter Guralnick
Little, Brown
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Brilliant, charming and defiant, Sam Cooke had a voice that could melt an iceberg and a face that lifted many a good girl's skirt. Guralnick, American popular culture's most passionate, rigorous and eloquent biographer, chronicles Cooke's life and career, from his boyhood as the son of an upright but wandering minister who inculcated his children with an indomitable self-respect, to his years as a star in the 1950s gospel circuit, to his transformation into one of the giants of '60s pop and soul. Cooke's restless, omnivorous mind made him an astute businessman -- he set up his own publishing company and record label -- and gave him an amazingly prescient ear that instantly recognized the coming impact of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Cooke was complicated; his powers of seduction were matched by his ability to walk away from anything or anyone who hampered his ambition, and he had a reckless temper, especially when confronted with the racial arrogance of Southern whites. His untimely death -- in a sordid and confused incident involving a hooker at a motel -- is just one of the many delicate aspects of Cooke's story that Guralnick handles with the grace and consideration that his subject so richly deserves.

"1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus"
By Charles C. Mann
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If, like most people outside the fields of archaeology and anthropology, you're under the impression that before the arrival of Europeans, the Americas were sparsely populated continents inhabited by people who lived in small nomadic communities that barely affected the natural environment, guess again. Mann's account of pre-Colombian life ranges far and wide, from South American cities that were more populous than their European counterparts to North American rivers lined with wall-to-wall agricultural settlements. A series of discoveries have led scientists to conclude that humankind first reached the Americas far earlier than we once thought and that sophisticated civilizations flourished in the South before the Egyptians built the pyramids; some have only recently been discovered using aerial photography and have yet to be excavated. Particularly intriguing is the opportunity to see early contacts from the Indians' perspective; European colonists struck North American natives as stunted, appallingly hairy and disgustingly unwashed. Europe, they reasonably concluded, couldn't be any great shakes if all these people were so keen to leave it. Mann also reveals that behind the "good Indian/bad Indian" stories told by the colonists (remember Thanksgiving's Squanto?) lay individuals scheming to embroil the Europeans in the intricate politic rivalries among Indian nations. To judge from this fascinating survey, the New World is being discovered all over again.

"The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq"
By George Packer
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
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In today's inflamed and polarized political atmosphere, it would seem impossible for any journalist to produce a measured, thoughtful and self-examining account of that hottest of buttons, the Iraq war -- but Packer has done just that. A political liberal covering the war for the New Yorker, Packer initially supported the invasion as a way to rid the world of a bloody dictator but later came to view it as a wasted opportunity. Because ideology has played such a decisive role in this war, Packer's book is particularly valuable for its lucid and judicious analysis of the intellectuals and politicians who cobbled together the rationale behind it; there's forest here as well as trees. It was a strange brew of idealism, self-interest and ambition that brought U.S. troops to Iraq's shores in 2003 -- the product of a profound realignment of America's political ecology. But this is not just a wonk's-eye view of the conflict; Packer also reports on the war and occupation as endured by inexperienced soldiers, frustrated reformers, the worried and grieving home front and ordinary Iraqis. Obviously, the full story of the current war cannot yet be told, but anyone looking for a better, deeper, broader understanding of it right now will find it in "The Assassins' Gate."

Laura Miller

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

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Hillary Frey

Hillary Frey is the Books editor at Salon.

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