Our 25 Favorite Books of 2001

The Lit Parade

EPIC ENCOUNTERS: CULTURE, MEDIA, AND U.S. INTERESTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1945-2000
by Melani McAlister
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 373 PP., $19.95 PAPER
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Raised a Southern Baptist, Melani McAlister is uniquely placed to reveal what she calls "the often invisible significance of the Middle East to Americans." Through the Ten Commandments, Exodus, the King Tut exhibit, the Nation of Islam, the rise of white evangelicals and their support for Israel, the hostage crisis, or the "military multiculturalism" of the Gulf War, McAlister reconfigures American investment in the Middle East as a central element of our own national, racial, and sexual identities. One gets the sense that had September 11 not happened, it would have to be invented as a logical continuation of the narrative she constructs.

ANNETTE MESSAGER
by Catherine Grenier, translated by David Radzinowicz Howell
FLAMMARION, 191 PP., $35
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Over her 30-year career, the French artist Annette Messager has fabricated a fantasy world that is equal parts enchanting and creepy. She specializes in making the familiar seem strange: One of her earliest projects involved displaying tiny dead sparrows in wool cardigans she'd knit for them, while a much more recent work suspended a forest of stuffed animals from the ceiling—she described them as "little corpses from childhood to which people remain strongly attached." Her work thrives on ritual and repetition, nostalgia and disorientation. This first major book on the French artist, with extensive text by Parisian curator Catherine Grenier, gracefully leads the reader through the maze of Messager's trickster universe.

OUR WORD IS OUR WEAPON
by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
SEVEN STORIES PRESS, 456 PP., $27.95
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"The flower of the word will never die," writes our hero. A poet with political theory is an ideologue; with a gun, a revolutionary; with both, a culture star. Potentially insufferable, but in the case of Zapatista spokesmodel Marcos we get a folksily articulate charmer as wittily self-deprecating with a moral tale as he is satirically ferocious with a press release posted from the Lacandon jungle. Come for the limning of the indigenous uprising that remains the landmark critique of global corporatism; stay for the sweetness, remarkable shifting modes, and magical realist yarns about Durito the bug and a certain big-nosed subcomandante.

Detail from Annette Messager's My Jealousies (1972).
Detail from Annette Messager's My Jealousies (1972).

MY NAME IS RED
by Orhan Pamuk
KNOPF, 417 PP., $25.95
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My Name Is Red is a breathless, philosophical whodunit set in 1591 when the brutal murder of a gilder threatens to expose a blasphemy that has infected Master Oman's Ottoman court painters. The story is told in the first person from the point of view of a dozen narrators, not all of them human. Pamuk, a writer of intellectual thrillers and a sophisticated provocateur who raises questions about the things that matter—love, death, art, politics—has been compared to García Márquez, Borges, Calvino, Nabokov, and DeLillo. His writing is erudite and magically real, funny and sexy, terrifying and thrilling, taking the reader back and forth across the hazy and dangerous terrain where the Koran clashes with the Bible. The novel is Shakespearean in its grandeur, as well as delightfully sinful, guilty of blasphemy by 16th-century fundamentalist standards (if not 21st as well).

BEFORE THE STORM: BARRY GOLDWATER AND THE UNMAKING OF THE AMERICAN CONSENSUS
by Rick Perlstein
HILL AND WANG, 671 PP., $30
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When Rick Perlstein sat down to tell the secret history of modern conservatism, he mastered the politics, the ideologies, the personalities. Then he absorbed enough period detail to sink most historians; instead, it makes Before the Storm one of the most stylish, riveting debuts in narrative history in years. Barry Goldwater, the daredevil senator from Arizona, was the early '60s' anti-JFK. Swooping down in his private plane, tanned and fearless, he asked not what your country could do for you, but how you could get out from under your country. Perlstein paints a broad canvas, against which his hero self-destructs with the most inept presidential campaign of modern times. Pundits will argue the politics, but the sheer comedy and tragedy of it are too good to ignore.

EVERYBODY WAS KUNG FU FIGHTING: AFRO-ASIAN CONNECTIONS AND THE MYTH OF CULTURAL PURITY
by Vijay Prashad
BEACON, 216 PP., $25
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Pity Nathan Glazer and his ilk. Not long after the neoconservative concedes that We Are All Multiculturalists Now, Vijay Prashad arrives to demolish multiculturalism as a complacent theme park of self-enclosed heritages. Instead, Prashad suggests polyculturalism, the recognition of "our mulatto histories." This slim book spans five centuries to plumb Afro-Asian affairs, from the pre-capitalist mix of the Indian Ocean cosmos to the multinational travels (and fan base) of Bruce Lee. Whether locating both Ho Chi Minh and Elijah Muhammad in Marcus Garvey's audiences or ruminating on the Asian roots of Rastafarianism, Kung Fu is a treasury of hidden histories and startling solidarities. But Prashad is not simply celebratory: He also takes on the "primordialism" of Afrocentrists and Asian nationalists in a book that is both unapologetically radical and alive to paradox.

FAST FOOD NATION
by Eric Schlosser
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN CO., 228 PP., $25
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Fast Food Nation illustrates how America's billion-dollar, cholesterol-laden industry has entrenched itself into our diet—capturing everything from the school lunchroom (90 percent of American children also eat at McDonald's every month) to engineering the national palate. Schlosser's examination of working conditions in the meatpacking industry and its hazardous impact on public health quashes even the most red-blooded of appetites. Schlosser includes stomach-churning data such as a USDA probe that proved companies knowingly shipped contaminated meat. Schlosser's primary point: What the food giants do affects everyone, because we've all got to eat. Rather than lining their pockets, he suggests, just "turn and walk out the door."

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