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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2002

 After Nature
Random House, 116 pp., $21.95
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The late maestro's initial act of literary imagination, only post-humously Englished, now stands as his accidental summa, a crepuscular blank-verse triptych that ranges across centuries and latitudes before arriving at his own coordinates. Alert to history, alchemically mingling the jumbled symbols of an optician's chart with the name of an African freighter, After Nature shares with his later prose creations the serene terror of the inevitable.

Get "Heppy": George Herriman
illustration: from Krazy & Ignatz, 1927–1928, Fantagraphics Books
Get "Heppy": George Herriman

After the Quake
Knopf, 181 pp., $21
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Murakami's six buoyant stories map the landscape of disaster following the 1995 Kobe earthquake, as the rest of Japan reels from the tragedy. The breezy tone is a disarming way of handling trauma, while the seismic activity amplifies the psychological devastation that lies just under the surface of his characters, who spend their days absorbed in numbing TV news coverage. Though personal isolation becomes even more pronounced against the backdrop of collapsed apartment buildings, Murakami reveals the transcendence that follows emotional upheaval.

Doubleday, 351 pp., $26
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A summer day brims with trysts and purloined letters, mysterious visitors, and even more mysterious bruises. McEwan perfects an atmosphere of impeccable menace and (via authorial stand-in Briony, age 13 at start) a word-enraptured style capable of deconstruction without tears. Atonement richly imagines that fateful day's fallout, and constitutes an object lesson in what the novel—and only the novel—is still capable of. At the end, the reader may feel as Briony does upon completing a juvenile effort: "The pages of a recently finished story vibrated in her hand with all the life they contained."

Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity
MIT, 534 pp., $39.95
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Baroness Elsa showed up at the end of the 19th century with her antennae tuned to some distant future and made her life into an anarchic performance. Irene Gammel's biography mounts an enthusiastic case for her as a great unsung modernist, admired by Duchamp, Pound, and Hemingway. The book traces her influence on the avant-garde, posing questions about authorship and modern art. Elsa's originality is largely rooted in the way she lived her life, which now looks like a precursor to performance artists from Carolee Schneeman to Vanessa Beecroft. Dada's mission, according to Hugo Ball, was to "conceive everyday life in such a way as to retrieve it from its modern state of colonization by the commodity form"; Elsa lived this sentiment.

The Captain Lands in Paradise
Alice James, 55 pp., $12.95

Revelation arrives in Manguso's first book of poems, but never as expected—deflating when it seems nearest ("So come O clarity and bear me away on your silver arms! Come out and teach me stuff!"), then appearing "bright and unthought and before you expect it." "Every word was once an animal," Emerson said, and that much abused animal "love" scratches at the door of these poems. Over the whole fantastic, funny, ever shifting landscape hangs the head of Wallace Stevens, aureoled like the baby deity of the Teletubbies, cooing ambiguous approval—either before or after language.

Cards of Identity
Dalkey Archive, 302 pp., $14.95
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A brainwashing tale reshuffled through The Pickwick Papers, capped by a Shakespeare pastiche to beat Beerbohm's Savonarola, this astonishing 1955 satire is a draught of merciless drollery. Just listen: "Outside these walls, in the open air, many of you may feel a certain sense of exposure. The best answer to that is pipes, cigars and cigarettes which leave a familiar mark upon the void. The wearing of a hat is also helpful: I do not have to remind you of the late Dr Black Planorbis's superb paper on the relation between modern hatlessness and loss of identity. But the greatest help of all is the handling of strictly contemporary objects, such as ration-books, identity-cards, very small pieces of meat and butter, and objects that have been obtained a little dishonestly." Now go and read.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film
Knopf, 339 pp., $35
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More one-sided than the title suggests, the limber Q&As in this enthralling, generously illustrated volume allow Murch, virtuoso film and sound editor, to demystify his craft (perhaps the most unfathomed and invisible of all art forms) while holding forth on a dizzying range of pet topics, from musique concrète to Italian writer Curzio Malaparte. Ondaatje plays the role of rapt, inquisitive listener, as well he might—Murch, as eccentric a polymath as Hollywood has ever seen, identifies Edison, Flaubert, and Beethoven as the three fathers of cinema; offers dish on résumé highlights like The Godfather; and theorizes that the key to a notational system for film might lie in the hexagrams of the I Ching.

Dear Mr. President
Knopf, 155 pp., $19
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An infantryman learns that his bones are disintegrating; a zealous marine tells the former president Bush of the third ear growing on his stomach; and in a remote desert bunker, a soldier disillusioned with America seeks clarity through yoga. Compared with the remorseful fervor surrounding Vietnam, the 1991 Gulf War was a brief, distant scramble, marked chiefly by technology and precision. But its lingering mysteries and paranoias, particularly those of the enigmatic Gulf War Syndrome, are the foundation of Gabe Hudson's debut collection of seductively hallucinatory, comically subversive, and ultimately prescient short stories.

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