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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2002

 After Nature
BY W.G. SEBALD
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
BY HARUKI MURAKAMI
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.


Atonement
BY IAN MCEWAN
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
BY IRENE GAMMEL
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
BY SARAH MANGUSO
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
BY NIGEL DENNIS
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
BY MICHAEL ONDAATJE
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
BY GABE HUDSON
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.


Depraved Indifference
BY GARY INDIANA
HarperCollins, 319 pp., $24.95
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Loosely based on a real-life mother-son grifter team, the final installment of Indiana's American crime trilogy takes the get-ahead aspirations of a corrupt family to hilarious and dark extremes. In the opening section, dying dipsomaniac Warren recalls seedy cohorts and scams he concocted with his ruthless, manipulative wife, Evangeline. The latter half follows Evangeline and her son in their absurd social-climbing scheme of identity theft and murder. Indiana consistently crafts his brutal observations into lucid, rhythmic sentences. All the while, a hint of tragedy courses underneath, bringing a compelling tone to this commentary on class, family, and crime in America.


Color commentary: Nathan Fox
from Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism (ReganBooks)


Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism
BY SACHA JENKINS, ELLIOTT WILSON, CHAIRMAN JEFFERSON MAO, GABRIEL ALVAREZ, AND BRENT ROLLINS
ReganBooks, 292 pp., $22.95
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If the problem of the 20th century was that of the color line, perhaps our biggest problem today is that we're terminally uncomfortable talking about race. The second book from the smart, wry, and sadly defunct hip-hop magazine Ego Trip exists to annoy and provoke—"We just hate everybody," the dedication half-jokes—but it does so with a furtive sense of hope. Consisting of hundreds of crass-but-true lists ("Top 10 Blacks According to Whites," "Top 10 Tragic Mulattos") and staggering, often bizarre anecdotes of racism, Ego Trip's cunning and playfully confrontational book reminds us that sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.


Globalization and Its Discontents
BY JOSEPH STIGLITZ
Norton, 282 pp., $24.95
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With this book, Clinton adviser, former World Bank chief, and Nobel laureate (Economics, 2001) Stiglitz officially declares that the emperor has no clothes. Defecting from the "Washington Consensus" (the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury), he delivers an account of the failure of market fundamentalism, the belief that a country's economic development rests solely on market forces. It's a war story from the corridors of power, the staggering confession of a financial insider with a political conscience and a healthy degree of common sense.


Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal
BY JOHN M. MACGREGOR
D.G.E., 720 pp., $85
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Outsider art historian MacGregor devoted 12 years to this study of Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago janitor whose beautiful, sometimes disturbing watercolors (illustrating his 15,145-page fantasia) only filtered to the public after death, thanks to a perceptive landlord. MacGregor is the ideal guide to the often infernal realms of Dargeriana, piecing together the sad life and the singular art, bravely addressing the violence welling in the labyrinth's darker corners. He brings to the task an uncanny sympathy and an audacious but necessary psychoanalytic approach. This is the best book we will ever have on the most important artist we almost never had.


Krazy & Ignatz
BY GEORGE HERRIMAN
Fantagraphics, 2 vols. (1925-1926 and 1927-1928), 118 pp. each, $14.95
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If only our world were more like that of Krazy and Ignatz. These new collections of George Herriman's Krazy Kat cartoon strips from 1925 through 1928 (the strip originally ran from 1913 to the mid 1940s) follows the peculiar love triangle between androgynous Krazy, scheming brick-thrower Ignatz Mouse, and sentimental but officious Offisa Pupp. Set against a surreal Southwest landscape of cacti, cabbages, and precariously stacked cliffs, there's poetry in Krazy's absurd phrases and magic in the image of a hero(ine?) so unselfconscious that a brick to the head becomes a sublime symbol of love. Per Krazy, "There is a heppy lend—furfur awaay!"


Lullaby
BY CHUCK PALAHNIUK
Doubleday, 260 pp., $24.95
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William Burroughs's word virus in a Buffy scenario, Chuck Palahniuk's latest pop-nihilist tract wonders if the end of mass media would be such a bad thing. When a reporter on the sudden-infant-death beat finds the same children's anthology at each cribside, open to the same ancient lullaby, he turns ambivalent serial killer, a lethal mantra in his brain ready to uncoil at any moment. Climaxing in spellbook one-upmanship, the novel itself becomes an incantation—or an arena anthem. Lullaby hones its shut-the-fuck-up misanthropy into something like poignant despair: a plea to reclaim language from the perverting miasma of white noise.


The Mount
BY CAROL EMSHWILLER
Small Beer Press, 238 pp., $16
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Charley's an engaging, smart, and very athletic 12-year-old. In fact, he's such a prime specimen that he's the racing steed for the infantile future leader of the Hoots, a cuddly alien species who came to Earth to breed wild humans as show horses. Octogenarian Emshwiller's fourth novel is a potent allegory about trading freedom for a soul-killing security, but it's most affecting as the story of a boy who'd rather live in comfort with a friendly owner on his back than face his barely civilized father and his weird ideas about living in caves, and in a democracy.


My Loose Thread
BY DENNIS COOPER
Canongate, 121 pp., $18
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Not for the fainthearted, My Loose Thread charts the nervous breakdown of Larry, a teen so tortured by the terrible things he thinks he's done that he eventually commits real atrocities. Larry's narrative is laconic and mysterious—even his pronouns are cryptic. But as he questions his memory, others' perceptions, and language itself, his ruminations become a rich glimpse into a youth's short-circuited worldview. Cooper takes on button-pushing topics with seriousness and raw intelligence; though he responsibly refuses to justify his protagonist's behavior, he also makes Larry too thoughtful, inquisitive, and of the moment to write off as a simple embodiment of evil.


A New Kind of Science
BY STEPHEN WOLFRAM
Wolfram Media, 1197 pp., $44.95
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Do the 250,000-odd words of Wolfram's self-published magnum opus really offer "a fundamentally new intellectual structure" for understanding the world? The insight that drives the book, that simple rules can, at times, produce extremely complex behaviors, is perhaps not as unprecedented as the author would have us believe. Nonetheless Wolfram's persistence in applying his ideas to all branches of human knowledge, from the growth of plants to whale songs and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, gives the book—and especially its 348 pages of notes—a kind of encyclopedic bewitchment. Wolfram may not be the next Einstein, but he is at least a modern Aristotle.


Niagara
BY MARY WORONOV
Serpent's Tail, 216 pp., $14
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Woronov's novel peers into the broken-down life of drunk housewife Molly, who spends her days in an embarrassing stupor, blaming her shambled present on her past (domineering mother, lost brother, hapless father). Molly's bitter recollections sting, but what really drives this novel is a later realization that her ideas about childhood have little to do with what really happened. Is it too late for this woman to benefit from her new knowledge? Woronov captures Molly's doomed attempt to free herself from her own destructive notions with exposed-nerve prose and painstaking clarity.


Nowhere Man
BY ALEKSANDAR HEMON
Doubleday, 256 pp., $23.95
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In Hemon's hands, a would-be simple tale of immigrant dislocation and coming-of-age becomes a purposefully existential meditation on evil, longing, and the weird and luminous texture of everyday life. His fascinated and witty prose makes even the most despairing inquiries into the state of the human soul read like love stories. His world, like ours, is incredible and mundane: Humdrum characters reappear in crucial global plots, everyone falls for the same two Beatles songs, a tiny mouse can undo you like a knife to the throat.


The Portable Promised Land
BY TOURÉ
Little, Brown, 256 pp., $23.95
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The stories in Touré's first outing—all flip-o'-the-script comeuppances and Technicolor folly—are morality tales of a sort, but ones in which judgment and superiority get tossed on their butts by the vibrant, the messy, the absurd. Populated by characters like the Rev. Dr. Bernard Z. LeBub, this Promised Land is Soul City by way of Calvino, where grasping identity is a layered operation.


State of Siege
BY JUAN GOYTISOLO
City Lights, 158 pp., $13.95
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Goytisolo's latest novel comes out of his visits to Sarajevo in the early '90s, but it's hardly journalistic. An attempt "to oppose the truth of fiction to the lies of propaganda," the slippery, labyrinthine plot—about the mysterious disappearance of a foreigner's body in a Sarajevo-like city under siege—holds dream narratives, fragments of homoerotic, mystical poetry, and fantasies of a Parisian neighborhood's collapse. Goytisolo strives for a unity of politics and form, trapping his readers and characters alike in an epistemological purgatory in which "Reality has been transmuted into fiction: the horror tale of our daily existence!"


This Is Not It
BY LYNNE TILLMAN
D.A.P., 288 pp., $27.50
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This beautifully designed book gathers 20 years' worth of Tillman's prose inspired by the work of such artists as Kiki Smith, Juan Muñoz, and Jeff Koons. Many of the pieces appeared originally in limited-edition artist portfolios; Madame Realism, Tillman's alter ego, appears in six of the stories—as artist and sybarite, thrill seeker and voyeur. Tillman mines unhappiness for insight and distills prose to its unapologetic essence, allowing her hard-earned wisdom to hit all that much harder. What remains is a seductive voice entirely her own.


Under Radar
BY MICHAEL TOLKIN
Atlantic Monthly, 256 pp., $23
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Tom Levy, an American lawyer vacationing in Jamaica with his family, sulks about tourism, his all-too-tame life. His sour self-satisfaction and above-the-law private fantasies suddenly shift to outward violence and downfall: He commits a horrific murder, gets sentenced to life, and loses all contact with his wife and daughters. Trauma turns his hair white and renders him mute. When Levy regains his senses, he recites a mysterious religious parable, which sets him and his fellow inmates free, and then embarks on a strange sea journey of continued personal transformation. No matter how intriguing and mythical the book becomes, Tolkin anchors it throughout with rigorous intelligence and reflections on tragedy and self-reckoning.


You Are Not a Stranger Here
BY ADAM HASLETT
Doubleday, 240 pp., $21.95
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The stories in Haslett's debut explore the desolate geography of depression and mental illness, a world in which people, like similarly charged magnets, repel one another even as they are drawn together. A husband plots suicide behind his caring wife's back; a young orphan punishes his body through self-annihilating love; a psychiatrist desperately seeks absolution from a bereaved mother. But even in these hollow intimacies, Haslett offers glimpses of transcendence—not the least of which is the haunting wisdom of his own lucid prose.


You Shall Know Our Velocity
BY DAVE EGGERS
McSweeney's, 371 pp., $22
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Dave Eggers's first novel spins its reality-show premise (give away 32-large while circumnavigating the globe in one week) topsy-turvy, admitting huge emotion, special effects: grief and first-world guilt, Faulknerian interiority and pocket fabulism, plus the best deployment of the Scorpions we will likely see. If the heroes' quest is quixotic, it's no fluke that the last of the money goes to a Mexican youngster named Cervantes; if the staggering finale coaxes us that life is beautiful, we need only return to Y.S.K.O.V.'s Sunset Boulevard opener, engraved on the concrete-gray cardboard cover and bordered with black. Eggers gives us the mausoleum of all hope and desire.

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