This is one of those years where choosing books for our year-end gift guide was downright difficult. In addition to the things we've reviewed over the past year -- and can highly recommend -- bookstores were getting deliveries of fresh product as recent as two weeks ago. Here are a few of our favorites from among the new releases:
The Best American Non-Required Reading 2002, edited by Dave Eggers -- The newest addition to the Best American Series of annual lit anthologies is a well-considered departure. The Best American Non-Required Reading 2002 presents the best genre-shucking literature from the alternative and mainstream presses, all aimed at readers 25 and under. With a guest editor like Dave Eggers, you know ahead of time what to expect, and even the cover, designed by Mr. Lunch's J. Otto Seibold, practically yelps "Hip! Hip!" Here you'll find Eric Schlosser's explanation of why French fries taste so good, The Onion piece "Marilyn Manson Now Going Door to Door Trying to Shock People," and the hilarious diary of a guy who spends 17 days pretending to be an employee in a vast cubicle warren. We also appreciated Adrian Tomine's graphic novelette and Seaton Smith's "Jiving With Your Teen." And trust us, you don't have to be as young as Generation Y or Z to dig this collection.
Photobooth collected, by Babette Hines -- In the introduction to Babette Hines' Photobooth, Lawrence Weschler writes that as a young child, photobooths felt to him like what the inside of H.G. Wells' Time Machine must have felt like. This book, comprised of eight decades of photobooth self-portraiture, is itself like a time machine, taking us back to the eras of elaborate pin-curl hairdos, porkpie hats and sailors enjoying a day on the boardwalk. While there is little text, the photos offer a curious narrative. The reader wonders who was the sober black man gazing out ruefully from a background emblazoned with the sentiment "To the One I Love." Who is this 1950s Doris Day look-alike who models various magazine poses with her polyester collar? Hines, a collector of vintage photography, typifies the subjects as archetypes -- the Flirt, the Hood, the Kid, the Sailor and his Buddy, the Lovers, Pals -- but maintains that each has a distinct individuality. It's especially true in the case of a wry woman who smirks out from under her hat and writes on the back "aren't these pictures dreadful. 8 for .25. They look it!"
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed, by Patricia Cornwell -- Both history buffs and mystery aficionados will appreciate Patricia Cornwell's much-buzzed Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed. Cornwell, already the bestselling author of the Kay Scarpetta mysteries, reportedly spent more than $6 million of her own money tracing the existing Ripper evidence and supporting her own theory, that the murders were committed by an accomplished and enigmatic English artist, Walter Sickert. Although writer Caleb Carr (The Alienist) blasted Cornwell's detective work in a recent piece for The New York Times, she nevertheless seems to make a pretty compelling case. Here, she cites medical records that follow Sickert's numerous childhood genital surgeries, compares his letters to those of the Ripper, and perhaps most disturbingly, finds visual similarities between Sickert's paintings and the Ripper's crime scenes. It's also worth mentioning that she refuses to romanticize the Ripper's gruesome legacy at the expense of the five or more victims, whose lives as prostitutes in London's seamy East End were difficult and tragic long before their brutal ends.
Jump the Shark, by Jon Hein -- There always seems to be that moment when you're watching your favorite TV show and you realize it's beginning to suck. On Northern Exposure, it was one too many "singing" episodes. On the X-Files, things started to go south long before David Duchovny's enormous ego made Fox Mulder as big a mystery to the show as Sasquatch and UFOs. In response, computer geek Jon Hein launched his Web site www.jumptheshark.com in 1997 in order to let people sound off about the phenomena of good TV going bad. And now there's a book. The title of Jump the Shark comes from the infamous and inexplicable Happy Days episode in which the whole gang travels to Hollywood and Fonzie, on water skis, jumps across a stretch of Pacific Ocean with a hungry shark in it. Far from being just another pop culture tome of the moment, Jump the Shark offers some pleasingly crisp prose and hilariously astute social observations. Not surprisingly, music, celebrities, sports figures and politicians are all just as capable of jumping the shark as was Gilligan's Island when the Harlem Globetrotters washed up on shore.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martell -- It seems an unlikely premise -- a boy and his tiger drift all over the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat -- but the Life of Pi is one of this year's most enjoyable literary treasures. Yann Martell pens an imaginative and lengthy fable about a precocious young boy whose father, a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India, decides to move the whole family (and, of course, the zoo) to Canada. A harrowing shipwreck leaves only the boy, Pi, a wounded zebra, a hyena, a seasick orangutan and the tiger, whose full name is Richard Parker. Through various circumstances, only the boy and tiger are left, drifting through shark-infested waters and uneasily eyeing one another from their respective ends of a 27-foot lifeboat. At turns despairing, hallucinatory, comic and numinous, Life of Pi is one of those philosophical novels one savors.
How to Become a Dinner Party Legend and Avoid Crippling Psychological Damage, by Ziggy Zen -- How to Become a Dinner Party Legend... is a handy little reference for the kitchen, as well as a lively little read. The recipes include such standards as Bechamel Sauce, Warm Potato Salad and Vichysoisse, and also, more adventurous fare along the lines of Steak Tartare and Prawn, Mud Crab and Mango. There's no advice on how to set a table or what kind of coffee to offer with dessert, but we like the book's many asides, such as "Always lock your dog outside the house. Dogs are unreliable at dinner parties," and knowing you can always rocket launch a dinner party conversation with the non-sequitur "Did you know that Kevin is a serial killer?"
The Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith -- The Autograph Man is Zadie Smith's highly ambitious second novel, and fans of her first book White Teeth will not be disappointed. This broadly plotted, free-wheeling farce follows the adventures of Alex-Li Tandem, a man whose business is tracking down rare autographs. While pursuing the autograph of '40s movie siren Kitty Alexander, Alex-Li wavers on the brink of an existential crisis. An acid trip has decimated his life, his half-Chinese, half-Jewish selves are warring and whether he likes it or not, the principles of Zen and the Kabbalah appear to be fighting for his soul.
Fruits, by Shoich Aoki -- East meets West in Shoich Aoki's portraits of Tokyo street fashion, first documented in his magazine Fruits and now collected in this vibrant book from Phaidon Press. Fruits shows how Japanese youth culture has exploded in the past decade as the previously passive acceptance of Western clothing has morphed into a dazzling mixture of traditional Japanese elements, Western influences and a strong sense of playful invention. Enormous platform boots are paired with Raggedy Ann hair; a Punk Hell T-shirt belies the fluffy effect of a big pink hairdo. More than an oversized fashion magazine, Fruits effectively documents the creativity, innovation and urban sophistication of Tokyo's youth, complete with answers to the question "Current Obsession" that range from "milk shakes" to "fishing." Perfect for the hip, young and fashion-forward.