Conditions are right for Smithy, the novel's narrator, to drown his sadness in more beer and sausages, then drown himself like the hapless 279-pound puppy he is.
And reaching for another 12-pack is exactly what he does -- until, stupefied one night, he stumbles across the cherry red Raleigh bicycle that he had a kid, back when he was skinny and ma de beelines everywhere. He climbs on and weaves drunkenly down a Rhode Island highway until he falls asleep in a field. And then rides a bit more, and a bit more, until his journey across America becomes a lesson in how to savor small victories and encapsulate grief.
For using simple language to juxtapose despair and silliness, this is the best novel I have read in a long time. -- Michael Bowen
Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Johnson & r & Steven Johnson turns on its head the prevailing notion that popular culture is getting progressively stupider as it panders to the simple-minded masses. Hawking a theory he calls the "Sleeper Curve" (the title refers to a scene from Woody Allen's 1973 comedy, Sleeper) Johnson argues that not only is pop culture getting smarter and more complicated -- responding to a demand for increased stimuli from an increasingly sophisticated audience -- it's also making people smarter.
That's not a popular argument, but Johnson pulls it off with aplomb, focusing especially on video games and the ways in which they develop strategic thinking skills in their players. He also traces the increasing sophistication in television shows from Hill Street Blues to the Sopranos, from All in the Family to Seinfeld, all the while deftly avoiding the moral arguments and never going so far as to suggest an exclusive diet of pop culture. Contrarian but well-balanced, you'll be thinking about this one for weeks afterward. -- Joel Smith
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott & r & Anne Lamott's irreverent yet faith-filled voice is back in this new collection of essays, most of which began as columns on & lt;a href="http://www.salon.com" & Salon & lt;/a & . Six years have passed since 1999's bestselling Traveling Mercies; since then, Lamott turned 50, her mother died from Alzheimer's and her son grew into a brooding teenager. And then there are little things like war and terrorism and death to consider.
In Plan B, her essays brim with straight-on honesty and drop-dead humor that is both disarming and engaging, leaving readers unsure whether to laugh or cry or both. Her unconventional Christian faith grounds her and enables her to respond to the world out of love rather than fear most of the time. While Traveling Mercies was a story of conversion, Plan B shows Lamott persevering through everyday moments that challenge her faith and conviction. She's able to find transcendent notes of grace in those moments, and that's as good a testament to faith as one can hope for. -- Ann M. Colford
Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America by Chris Hedges & r & This provocative book by the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning slipped in under the radar, thanks perhaps to its vague, somewhat misleading title and a scathing review by Hedges' former employers at the New York Times. It has nothing to do with recent controversies about the posting of the commandments in public spaces; rather, Hedges examines the universality of the commandments and similar injunctions across cultures, concluding that the commandments are the basic guideposts for a civil society.
Far from being relics, the commandments speak to us of the human condition, he argues. Each chapter is a story by the former seminarian and war correspondent examining the deeper meaning behind the Old Testament words and looking at what happens to people -- including the author himself -- who break or ignore the rules.
His stories will make a lot of people, liberals and conservatives alike, uncomfortable. But in the end, he concludes that the commandments offer a covenant of love and life, rather than one of fear and death, a covenant "that recognizes that all life is sacred and love is the force that makes life together possible." -- Ann M. Colford
On Beauty by Zadie Smith & r & Set on a liberal-arts campus near Boston, Smith's novel tells the tale of art history professor Howard Belsey, who is British and white. His nerdy mixed-race son, Jerome, has had his first (failed) love affair with the ravishing daughter of his academic rival, black conservative Monty Kipps. Belsey's wife Kiki, a black former activist turned faculty wife, has discovered that he's had an affair with a colleague and family friend, the slim and WASPishly attractive poet Claire Malcolm. Meanwhile, almost by accident, Kiki rediscovers friendship with Kipps' ailing wife, Carlene, who has the free spirit of a natural aristocrat.
Howard and Kiki's marital precariousness forms the backbone of the novel. All of Smith's characters unfold through encounters -- often collisions -- with beauty. Inhabiting the beautiful human form -- or not -- offers opportunities for both grace and corruption, and in Smith's handling, we are rarely innocent of the power of either. By exploring the ways beauty moves us to act, Smith has written a social novel that rings true. -- Catherine Tumber
Collapse by Jared Diamond & r & Relying on mind-boggling advances in archaeology (including the dating of pollen traces), UCLA professor Jared Diamond tours the failures of the world in this book that came out in the last week of 2004. His groundbreaking research adds up to a very sobering tome of cautionary tales. Will we learn from these forgotten peoples' mistakes, Diamond asks, or simply repeat them?
The Easter Island case study is the book's most compelling -- and fascinating -- because, as Diamond writes, "Polynesian Easter Island was as isolated in the Pacific Ocean as the Earth is today in space."
Ultimately, Diamond comes to our current problems, declaring unequivocally that, "Our world society is presently on a non-sustainable course." His message is hopeful but not at all sugar-coated: The world must learn to live within its means. And like Guns, Germs and Steel, his previous book, this one is changing the way people see the world. -- Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Freakonomics bySteven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner & r & Surprisingly enough, one of the year's best-selling books is based on the art of economics. But University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt isn't your garden-variety economist; he's the rock star of the field, having taken on some topics way outside the norm.
Levitt and writing partner Stephen Dubner see the world through a lens that reduces everything down to how humans respond to incentives. And rather than dissecting pork belly futures, he tackles much more interesting topics, like how parents choose names for their children, why some sumo wrestlers cheat, why swimming pools are more dangerous to children than guns, why the Ku Klux Klan failed to thrive after World War II and why the crime rate plummeted in the 1990s. The answers are almost always counterintuitive -- on the crime rate question, Levitt proves that the drop, in large part, can be traced to the legalization of abortion. Now there's a hot potato.
The world is awash in statistics, and if nothing else, Freakonomics proves that any raw number you hear quoted on the evening news is only the tip of the iceberg. -- Ted S. McGregor Jr.
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami & r & Turning the pages of Japanese novelist Murakami's latest book to be translated into English, the eye runs across dialogue about mundane objects ("since we only rent Mazdas, we don't have a single car that stands out. So rest assured.") Boldface type highlights what seem to medical or military reports riddled with "application numbers" and mentions of poison gas and wars. Elaborate explanations are given by the narrator -- a young adolescent -- about bus schedules and diet plans. Then every so often a cat has a conversation with a madman.
Anchoring his imagination to the details of today, the world's greatest living fabulist fills the gaps between the hard-edged facts of life with a tenuous fantasy that reveals the spiritual shortcomings and opportunities of this age. Murakami's characters speak with honesty, coming from pasts and proceeding into futures. His world, meanwhile, teems with recognizable, realistic mystery. For American readers, there is also the accuracy with which Murakami presents everyday life in contemporary Japan; it is brilliantly done, and makes the blending between the incredible and the believable even more enchanting. The translation, by Philip Gabriel, conveys both Murakami's mastery of voice and exquisitely refined style. -- Marty Demarest
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson & r & If anything's become anachronistic to our 21st-century, technology-and-youth obsessed minds, it's life in the country. The pace, we argue, is too slow, the people there (we secretly think) hopelessly dull. It's a testament to Robinson's skill, then, that Gilead -- the retrospective ruminations of an aging Iowa preacher -- is so completely engrossing.
After a lifetime spent preaching in the tiny town of Gilead, Iowa, 76-year-old John Ames sums up his affairs in a series of letters to his young son. John looks back on his first marriage and his second (to a much younger woman) and muses about the contentious relationship between his father and his grandfather. The intimacy of letter-writing draws the reader into John's concerns -- even lengthy musings on religion and family dynamics become fascinating plot points.
Robinson's prose is steady and elegant; when conflict comes, her treatment of it is humorous yet full of pathos. Far more than a literary "drive in the country," Gilead is an intriguing and original exploration of a passing way of life. -- Sheri Boggs
The History of Love by Nicole Krauss & r & I don't like to think about getting old. And yet, this mysterious, sweetly humorous tale of emptiness and loss -- whose main character is obsessed with his own death -- remains one of my favorites this year. Old and alone, Leo Gursky muses on what his obituary might say. "Leo Gursky," he decides, "is survived by an apartment full of shit."
Looking for opportunities to be "seen," Leo drops handfuls of change at the corner coffee shop and even volunteers to model nude for a life drawing class. The worst thing that could happen, he reasons, would be to die without anyone noticing. With only his memories for company, Leo remembers the woman he loved (and lost when war separated them) and wonders what became of the unpublished novel he wrote decades ago.
At the same time, young Alma Singer worries about her widowed mother while grieving the father struck down by pancreatic cancer. Like Leo, Alma wonders not only "why" but "how" -- how she's going to construct a life with what's left of her broken heart.
Krauss creates a deftly constructed novel with overlapping, hidden and interwoven parts. At times stretching plot credibility, The History of Love is nevertheless dead-on true when it comes to the cravings and empty places of the human heart. -- Sheri Boggs