Monday, December 13, 2004

The Best Books Of 2004

Collating ten books out of the numerous excellent ones published each year is not easy, and books always seem to improve in the re-reading. For now, the books I have found most interesting this year include:

1. The Rule Of Four: Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason weave an interesting and rich tale around an actual fifteenth century Renaissance manuscript, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The setting in Princeton enables disquisitions on a wide variety of topics from eating clubs to riddles, but the inner theme of the book is the value of friendship. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my local library, the Milwaukee Library, held a copy of the actual manuscript, finely illustrated and beautifully dense.

2. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell: Susanna Clarke weaves a world of intellectual and magical wonder with her detailed depiction of nineteenth century England that might have been, if only magic were real. No suspension of disbelief is required here - the author's copious detail enables us to actively realize her world. The characters are multi-faceted and complex, and the humor subtle and deep. This is the kind of book that Jane Austen might have written were she alive today.

3. The Song Of Susannah: Stephen King's sixth Volume in his septet is actually better than his last, possibly because it was an obvious cliffhanger to a much-awaited finale. Motherhood, magic and the relationship between the two permeate this alti-world, with a surprising unity of time, if not place. The meta-fiction that surrounds the seventh volume is built up here, not yet nauseating.

3. The Birth Of Venus: Sarah Dunant recreates 15-century Florence with verve and detail. The very real threats to Florentine society from fundamentalism, war, disease and social corruption are coupled with a young woman's coming of age tale, and embracing of her passions, artistic temperament and family identity. The visual richness of the writing is powerful enough to make you believe you are reading the backstory of a Renaissance-era painting, perhaps by Titian.

4.House Of Bush, House Of Saud: Craig Unger's detail-oriented look at the close relationship between two power-wealthy families. The controversial relationship between the two dynasties is explored in relation to its impact on foreign policy and business relations. The writing is journalistic, logical and replete with ancedotes, high-level interviews and statistics. Like all filters, the book suffers only by exclusion of other relevant facts, and thus should be treated as a piece of, not the whole of the puzzle

5. Going Postal: Terry Pratchett continues his alti-verse tales of the Discworld with this poke at bureaucratic organizations, globalization and privatization. The humor is deathless, as always, and the characters very urbane. Lord Vetinari seems even more in control of events, and reminiscent perhaps of real-world manipulators. Postmen the world over will rejoice in their new hero, Moist von Lipwig.

6. America (The Book): Jon Stewart and his writers bring their visual and narrative talents to this depiction of American society that entertains, enlightens and amuses. The deconstruction of popular ideas is done in a pleasant manner, and the subtext allows for deeper analysis of what is wrong and how it can be fixed with public institutions. For the well-read, this book may seem old hat, but a better way of reading it may be as "Politics For Dummies" or "George Carlin Does Athens".

7. The Well Of Lost Plots: Although two books were published by Jasper Fforde in 2004 featuring Thursday Next, Jurisfiction Agent, I chose this one for it's memorable depiction of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations as well as it's personally relevant reminder that software upgrades never go quite as planned. Meta-fiction done right, Thursday Next is tasked with correcting infractions of the code of fiction as a agent of SpecOps in a world from where our books come. Sinister machinations are underway to take over the machines of imaginotransference that create fiction, and Thursday must stop them while dealing with her own personal challenges. Guaranteed to turn any bibliophobe into a confirmed bibliophile, and a good introduction to an interesting series. (Note: This is volume 3 of the series)

8. Return Engagement: Considering the excellence of this book, and the depth of the new trilogy featuring Jake Featherstone, a thinly disguised Adolf Hitler in 1930s Confederate America, one wonders why Harry Turtledove distracted faithful readers with Days Of Infamy, also released this year. While his usual character elements and plot constrcutions are present, this book allows us to imagine a terrible might-have-been world, one where Confederate "population reductions" are told to a socialist North by Louis Armstrong, and the USA is vertically divided. The next book in the trilogy,"Homeward Bound" will be released in a week or so, and is avidly awaited.

9. An Empire Of Wealth: This economic history of America is much more than a dry collection of facts. The book's landscape covers much new ground, providing detail on little-known as well as popular but poorly understood elements of modern history. Relatively unbiased, the book is valuable reading and helps provide context to modern realities.

10. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found: This sprawling, dense tale of Bombay is more film than book, with it's documentary style depiction of the depths of the uber-metropolis of Bombay, India. The story builds on the personal tale of the author to explore the labyrinth of the city's good, bad and ugly facets, and barely scratches the surface.

Also Rans:
The Wisdom Of Crowds,
Chasing Vermeer,
Eastern Standard Tribe,
The Zero Game,
My Life,
Engaging India.

One has fallen further behind in one's reading than one would have liked to, and it possible the unread are capable of displacing any number of the above. Time will tell, perhaps.

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Time traveler, world traveler, book reader