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Sunday, December 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Mary Ann Gwinn / Seattle Times book editor
Best books 2003: Portals into other worlds, keen insights into our own


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Here's a fact: Every year sees the publication of more books. And here's an opinion: Every year they get both better and worse.

Here at the books department, we sort through a lot of, ah ... dreck, manuscripts that needed far more attention than they got before being bound between two covers. But we discover ever more masterful volumes by authors at the height of their powers.

So the search goes on, and this year yielded a sterling set of discoveries. This best-of-2003 list, compiled from suggestions by our reviewers, is generous — 14 fiction titles, 13 nonfiction. (Book critic Michael Upchurch and crime-fiction reviewer Adam Woog present their "best of" picks inside today's section).

Thanks to these authors, who presented us with a year's worth of fine reading, and thanks to the reviewers who helped us find them.

Fiction

"Drop City" by T.C. Boyle (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Naked flower power (hippie commune) meets the raw muscle of Alaska's backwoods. Finely drawn characters, a big serio-comic story and descriptions of the natural world that shimmer on the page. (Richard Wallace)

"One-Way" by Didier van Cauwelaert (Other Press). This wily comic novel features an absurd plot critical of France's treatment of illegal immigrants, through the eyes of two characters who borrow each other's stories. The newly translated novel won the 1994 Prix Goncourt, France's highest literary award. (Wingate Packard)

"Prairie Nocturne" by Ivan Doig (Simon & Schuster). Set at the close of the Montana homesteading epoch, its characters are thrown against the hardened edge of the modern West. Doig is at his finest here, weaving history, landscape and passion into a compelling tale of hardship, hope and transcendence. (Tim McNulty)

"Pattern Recognition" by William Gibson (Putnam's) Cayce Pollard, a corporate consultant who pinpoints trend sources, searches for the source of a mysterious film as a way of dealing with the psychic fallout from 9-11. Cayce handles baddies like a grimly humorous thirtysomething Girl Scout, using lessons from old James Bond movies and her father's inappropriate bedtime stories. This realistic crossover is science-fiction superstar Gibson at his best. (Nisi Shawl)

"Our Lady of the Forest" by David Guterson (Knopf). Bainbridge Island's Guterson is a writer who is willing to take chances. His fable of an itinerant mushroom picker who sees visions of the Virgin Mary in the Olympic Peninsula's woods wrestles mightily with issues of faith and doubt. It's unparalleled in its evocation of the ominous splendor of the rain forest, and is the best portrayal of out-of-work-logger rage I've ever read. (Mary Ann Gwinn)

"The Great Fire" by Shirley Hazzard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The pain, disruption and loss caused by World War I is explored in the lives of Hazzard's characters. The chaste, poignant beauty of the love story between Aldred, a former war hero, and 17-year-old Helen is the true heart of the novel, as these good people try to make a life in an uncertain, quixotic and dangerous world. Hazzard's command of her material is masterful; her style is compelling and the story she tells limns the interior and exterior landscape as few writers can. (Valerie Ryan)

"The Probable Future" by Alice Hoffman (Doubleday). This book, about a clan of Massachusetts women with unusual powers, was hands-down the most enjoyable read of the year. It is one of those uncommon novels that instantly takes you into an imagined world. (Robert Allen Papinchak)

"The Speed of Dark" by Elizabeth Moon (Ballantine). Science-fiction author Moon draws upon her own experience in raising an autistic teenager to create a powerful portrait of a gifted, autistic man in his 40s. So many literary novels stretch us to embrace negative consequences, whereas Moon's novel gets us to see the possibilities. (David Flood)

"Four Spirits" by Sena Jeter Naslund (Morrow). This novel focuses on the awakening conscience of the South following the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which resulted in the death of four young girls. It wonderfully conveys a sense of place. (Barbara Lloyd McMichael)

"How to Breathe Underwater" by Julie Orringer (Knopf). The world of Orringer's nine short stories is a tough and unrelenting place, in which young girls — often the stories' first-person narrators — struggle to grow up amid scenes of devastating loss and trauma. Yet for all their gloom and doom, these stories have a curious power. Orringer's ear for dialogue never fails her as her characters traverse the roadblocks of growing up. (Melinda Bargreen)

"Waxwings" by Jonathan Raban (Pantheon). British-born Raban is a keen and quirky observer of America who brings journalistic punch to his story in ways reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities." The plot is no thriller, but I found the author's gifted descriptions of dot-com boom-and-bust Seattle — even when I didn't entirely agree with them — stuck with me long after I'd closed the covers. This one will make locals think. (William Dietrich)

"Bay of Souls" by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin). A professor at a small Midwestern college dabbles in sin and soon finds himself in over his head, quite literally. The woman with whom he becomes involved takes him to a small Caribbean island where religion, politics, occult practices, sex and contraband are all merely expressions of a single dark craving. His descent into this bay of souls is both allegorical and utterly realistic. (Richard Wakefield)

"Almost French — Love and a New Life in Paris" by Sarah Turnbull (Gotham Books). A delightful primer on how to survive in France, written by a former TV journalist from Australia. (Irene Wanner)

"Still Holding" by Bruce Wagner (Simon & Schuster). Wagner's panoramic view of the denizens of Los Angeles exposes their neuroses, delusions, dysfunction, hypocrisy and endless neediness. It completes a Hollywood trilogy that includes, "Force Majeure," 1991, and "I'm Losing You," 1996. I found his latest satire especially welcome in our increasingly celebrity-revering culture. (Mark Lindquist)

Nonfiction

"My Invented Country" by Isabel Allende (HarperCollins). More than a recollection of an individual's angst, this memoir focuses on an entire nation — its history, geography, politics and cultural values — and in the process illuminates the person. (Bharti Kirchner)

"Gulag: A History" by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday). Here in one volume is a history of the Soviet labor camps. Solzhenitsyn did it first but in an impressionistic and anecdotal way. Applebaum had the use of official archives as well as the stories of survivors, and she presents an organized, thorough account. (Bruce Ramsey)

"The Emperor of Scent" by Chandler Burr (Random House). This book offers a fascinating insight into both the olfactory scientific community and the billion-dollar scent business. It also presents the story of Luca Turin, the perfume-collecting scientist who just might have answered the age-old question of how our noses work. (D.J. Morel)

"Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster). Isaacson's portrait of this civic-minded founding father is as fresh and entertaining as it is intellectually rigorous. Franklin brimmed with humor, energy and ideas that we take for granted now, like the lending library and matching fund-raising concept. (David Takami)

"Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption" by Randall Kennedy (Pantheon). In dealing with interracial marriage, identity, adoption and sex, it probes areas of American life where taboos are breaking down due to the unyielding humanity of ordinary people against institutional and individual prejudices. This is a most timely book, a must-read for all Americans if we wish not to repeat the wounding mistakes of the 20th century. (John C. Walter)

"A Wilderness So Immense" by Jon Kukla (Knopf). A well-written (if rather complex) history of the Louisiana Purchase and how the many implications of that event are still unfolding. (Steve Raymond)

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson (Crown). Seattle's Larson did a masterful job of bringing history to life in his recreation of Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, and the book's parallel story of serial killer H.H. Holmes is scary, chilling and sad. (Mary Ann Gwinn)

"Living to Tell the Tale," by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Knopf). When he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer four years ago, Marquez amazingly declared the disease an "enormous stroke of luck," claiming it forced him to finally write his memoirs (he's healthy today). Full of richly researched anecdotes from the writer's childhood in a small Colombian village, this book has all the weight and exquisite storytelling prowess of his masterpieces, "Love in the Time of Cholera" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude." (John Freeman)

"The Colonel: The Extraordinary Story of Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis Presley" by Alanna Nash (Simon & Schuster). Colonel Tom Parker was Elvis' manager and the person most Elvis fans blame for the singer's demise. But Nash's fascinating portrait goes beyond the rest of the Elvis bookshelf, and her meticulous research into Park's dark past is scholarly and revelatory. "The Colonel" reads at times like a murder mystery, and Parker comes across as an Iago-like character, forever doomed to be a villain of Judas proportions. (Charles R. Cross)

"Visible Bones" by Jack Nisbet (Sasquatch). Nisbet makes the landscape come alive on many levels, historical, biological and cultural. The writing is high quality and engaging. It is clear he cares for and knows the place he writes about, goals we all can shoot for. (David B. Williams)

"Lost in America: A Journey with My Father" by Sherwin B. Nuland (Knopf). Nuland, the Yale professor/physician who wrote "How We Die," set out to exorcise his own demons and make peace with his late father, and the result is this very personal, beautifully crafted book. In placing his family life in historical context, Nuland also confronts the challenges faced by immigrants who arrive in America expecting a golden land of equal opportunity. (Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett)

"In Search of King Solomon's Mines" by Tahir Shah (Arcade). Shah treats his near-mythical subject, and his own trek to find it, with candor and wit. The fact that the search for King Solomon's mines is a tradition in his family adds credibility to this otherwise whacked-out search. No one writes travel books with more honesty and greater warmth than Shah. (Deloris Tarzan Ament)

"Khrushchev: The Man and His Era" by William Taubman (Norton). Even if you lived through the 1950s, you're likely to be surprised by many of the revelations in Taubman's thought-provoking biography of a brutal leader who nevertheless represented anti-Stalinist reform. Drawing from fresh interviews and recently unearthed Soviet archives, Taubman proposes that "Khrushchev's stunning blend of deception and self-deception is not so much an obstacle to understanding as itself the main point to be understood." (John Hartl)

"Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" by Mary Roach (Norton). Roach examines the many roles that cadavers play in society, from the 19th-century vogue for paint made from mummies to their uses today (as measuring tools for automobile safety, practice models for plastic surgeons and more). The author is consistently authoritative, endlessly curious, drolly funny and notably unsqueamish. (Adam Woog)

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or mgwinn@seattletimes.com


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