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The Best Books Of 2004

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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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  • ClubhouseCancer

    I too loved the Susanna Clarke novel. I think pop-lit novels about old magicians is now a full-fledged genre. And all three books I can think of (Kavelier and Clay, Carter Beats the Devil, and this) are terrific. I think the poster’s jane Austen comment is right on. This is like a comedy of manners, except with actual magic.

    The jon Stewart book is funny, but I don’t think it’s really a Ten Best kind of thing for some reason. I loved the Wisdom of Crowds, and the Birth of Venus was nice, too, if a little staid and at times obvious.

    Sorry, but to me The Rule of Four is sub-DaVinci code crap. I’ll never have the 2 hours back I spent reading the first half of this novel.

  • ClubhouseCancer

    There really were a lot of great books this year, and thanks to Aaman for pointing some of them out! I hope everyone shares their own top ten list. Strange and Norrell will be on mine.

  • A great list, and it was a good year for books.

    I would toss in “Magical Thinking” by Augusten Burroughs that I’m reading right now. He’s the author of “Running With Scissors” from a couple of years back. Hilarious growing up and coming of age essays with a poignant touch…somewhat similar to David Sedaris, but as hysterically funny as Sedaris is, I would have to say Burroughs is the better writer. The picture in your mind is crystal clear when you read “Magical Thinking.”

  • I just want to add a book I have not yet read to the list above, perhaps as a “Notable Mention” – “I Am Charlotte Simmons” by Tom Wolfe. It promises to be a fine read, from the first few pages and captures the theme well.

  • Shark

    I’d like to add:

    The Poet & the Murderer (about emily dickenson forgery and the ‘mormon murderer’) – by Simon Worrall

    *Washington’s Crossing – David Hackett Fischer

    *This was also on the NY Times best of 04 list on Sunday

  • Lucine Kasbarian

    Thanks for these great recommendations!

    Here are my top five:

    1) Voices of a People’s History of the United States, Edited by Howard Zinn and Anthony Arnove

    2) The New Media Monopoly, by Ben Bagdikian

    3) Bush in Babylon: Recolonizing Iraq, by Tariq Ali

    4) The Exception to the Rulers: Exposing Oily Politicians, War Profiteers and the Media that Loves Them, by Amy Goodman with David Goodman

    5) The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, Conversations with Arundhati Roy, by David Barsamian

  • Hi all. I am a virgin blogger so forgive me if this is a highly unconventional posting. You all seem very savvy and opinionated, so I’m going to chance it.

    I am a Hollywood producer looking for under-the-radar books that you would like to see adapted for the silver screen. What fiction novel have you read that is visual and exciting and touching? I’m looking for something that nobody knows about. Thanks.

  • Eric Olsen

    ooh, great question – reply to the woman, people

    for my part I am unclear as to whether Agnes is a virgin to blogging, or is a virgin who is blogging

  • Sorry to disappoint you, Eric: the former.

    I should also note that if you are replying to this posting, you are relinquishing any credit or monetary compensation on the project. I only want people to respond because they sincerely want the book to be made into a film, not because they want a finder’s fee for the book. Hope you all understand.

  • Agnes,

    Where can we reach you.


    Eric Berlin
    Dumpster Bust: Miracles from Mind Trash

  • Agnes,

    One has a variety of ideas for you.
    Eric, since it would be a bad idea for Agnes to post her contact info on the public bc site – could you or the bc yahoo group act a clearinghouse? Alternatively, Agnes, please contact me/people who respond here via my email address/blog

  • Eric Olsen

    Aaman, you should be able to get her email internally by opening her comment in MT.

    Yes, I checked, it’s there

  • Agnes

    Eric- I was not aware that my email address was available to the masses. Can you please remove my posting or make my email address invisible. Thanks.

  • Agnes

    In lieu of my previous posting, I created an email account especially for this endeavor. Please send any book ideas (text only, no attachments) to agnesprod@hotmail.com . Please do not send any original screenplay ideas, as they will not be considered. Thanks for your help!

  • Eric Olsen

    Agnes, it is only visible to the author of the post and to the editors

  • Patlamish

    No finder’s fee, no deal!

  • Patlamish

    Oh ya, best book of the year?

    Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture by Juliet Schor.



  • Sounds good, Pat – Thanks for the reference. Amazon link – worthy of review

  • Did anyone come up with any books for the virgin?