Our 25 Favorite Books of 2001

The Lit Parade

LONDON: THE BIOGRAPHY
by Peter Ackroyd
NAN A. TALESE/DOUBLEDAY, 801 PP., $45
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All the superlatives applied to New York—biggest, grimiest, noisiest, liveliest, most treacherous, most resilient in a crisis—were applied to London first, and Ackroyd makes you believe London deserves them. He gallops through chapters on the city's music halls and prostitutes, its crime and its fog, stopping to consider a crossroads and an ancient tree. But the voices of other Londoners predominate: Wordsworth, Dickens, Woolf, the brewers who dubbed their products Lift Leg and Stride Wide, the Quaker who well before the Great Fire predicted that "as for the city herself, and her suburbs, and all that belonged to her, a fire was kindled therein." Ackroyd makes omniscience look easy; this big book is effortlessly enjoyable reading.

VIEWS FROM THE SOUTH: THE EFFECTS OF GLOBALIZATION AND THE WTO ON THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES
edited by Sarah Anderson
FOOD FIRST BOOKS, 195 PP., $12.95 PAPER
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Views From the South, a splendidly constructed anthology of essays by leading third-world critics of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, is a book to break your heart. You want to cry when you read about the feisty tools the United Nations' poor majority forged for themselves in the '60s and '70s to achieve record levels of economic growth, only to see them crushed as "protectionist" by nations superciliously demand-ing a "level playing field" for first-world products. Learning how the WTO makes its rules, by a process it calls "census"—which better resembles the techniques of a street-side bunco artist—a sensitive soul might just blubber uncontrollably.

ANTEBELLUM DREAM BOOK
by Elizabeth Alexander
GRAYWOLF, 92 PP., $14 PAPER
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For her third collection of poems, Elizabeth Alexander uses her dreams as a recuperative reflection of a racially tense reality. In the post-Baraka, post-Baldwin, post-black power years, Alexander is surefootedly treading more complicated territories related to race. The book begins with a series of narrative poems that pay homage to the civil rights movement. She also uses her dream poems as a filter to contemplate the public's scrutiny of the black female body, and to grapple with tropes of race and beauty. Alexander's poems are deftly pared down, engagingly readable, and impressively generous in their coverage of historical and popular figures—from Nat Turner to Mick Jagger.

OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE
by Michael Azerrad
LITTLE BROWN, 522 PP., $25.95
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In 13 fast-moving, searchingly interviewed band profiles, Our Band Could Be Your Life chronicles a bohemia: the postpunk indie-rock subculture that took shape in the '80s and continues to this day even if Azerrad averts his eyes before the scene-shifting advent of Nirvana. Anyone who thinks voluntary poverty is a lark should check out the travails of Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers, and anyone who thinks music is for soothing breasts or beasts should ponder Ian MacKaye's fight record and Steve Albini's grudge against the world. Whatever Azerrad lacks in overview, he makes up in rich behavioral and musical detail.

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ISAAC BABEL
W.W. NORTON, 1072 PP., $39.95
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This superbly laconic writer and devastating observer of extreme situations (Jewish Odessa, the 1920 Soviet-Polish War) was first silenced, then shot by Stalin's secret police. Babel's atrocious fate can't be separated from his meticulous art; he's a cult figure to bracket with two other doomed European Jewish modernists, Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, and his oeuvre gets the full cult treatment—everything newly translated, annotated, and assembled in one sveltely deluxe 1000-page volume. All extant stories are supplemented by Babel's journals, journalism, plays, and screenplays—some previously untranslated, among them his adaptation of Sholem Aleichem's comic novel of the Yiddish theater.

NON NO. 5
edited by Jordan Crane
RED INK, 474 PP., $28 PAPER
Jordan Crane's anthology Non is to young experimental cartoonists what Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's Raw was in the '80s—rule-free turf to find their voices, sometimes explosively. This volume features a couple of creative breakthroughs—Megan Kelso's sly, tender "Retreat" and Brian Chippendale's ferociously surreal "Program,"—as well as solid shorter work from Greg Cook, Ron Regé Jr., and others. It's inventive and gorgeous as a design object, too, from its hand-screened cover to the two smaller books tipped into the package: a collection of Crane's own Col-Dee mini-comics and a freewheeling, wordless piece by Kurt Wolfgang, "Where Hats Go."

SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT
by Lydia Davis
MCSWEENEY'S BOOKS, 201 PP., $17
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In her latest collection of stories, Davis deploys her gift for verbal clarity to draw up intricate guides through experiences of bemusement, annoyance, and high anxiety. A wordplaying crank rails against over-groomed lawns; a woman makes a Zen-influenced New Year's resolution to "see myself as nothing," but then wonders if she has set her goals too high. Many of these stories portray hyperanalytic isolation, but Davis's work is too well-modulated, hilarious, and well-meaning to drift into simplistic cul-de-sacs of dreary solitude. Her characters question everything, especially themselves, and they wonder, obsessively, how to act. Like verbal accuracy, perfect behavior is an impossible dream, but Davis always converts her characters' complex ruminations into narratives full of insight and pleasure.

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