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1. The Master by Colm Tóibín

Reading The Master was an unexpected pleasure. I was not particularly attached to Henry James (though this novel has provoked a renewed interest), nor am I often fond of historical or biographical fiction. The Master surpasses such stereotypes. Tóibín's depiction of James is a nuanced, emotional portrait of an almost unknowable figure — the artist in a life more imagined than lived. Tóibín's pacing and prose are exquisite; his novel is a graceful, thoughtful meditation on writing and philosophy, as well as an astute exercise in psychology. Its resonance has continued all year long.

  1. Snow by Orhan Pamuk
  2. The Eye Like a Strange Balloon by Mary Jo Bang
  3. The Working Poor by David K. Shipler
  4. A Bit on the Side by William Trevor


1. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

While it was hard to narrow down my list to just five"best of" picks, I didn't have to think twice about what would be my favorite book of the year. In Cloud Atlas Mitchell again uses the format of connecting short stories with recurring motifs into a larger, almost epic narrative that spans the globe and centuries of human history. Filled with wonderful characters, effortless shifts in style, and more imagination than you can shake a stick at, Cloud Atlas will be a tough book for its author to top. Personally, I cannot wait to see him try.

  1. Ends of Our Tethers by Alasdair Gray
  2. Love All the People by Bill Hicks
  3. Hip: The History by John Leland
  4. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón


1. The Plot against America by Philip Roth

I have very little to add to the praise that has already been heaped on The Plot against America. That most esteemed critic, Harold Bloom, has already called it a wise and fascinating book. Why do you need my opinion? Still, with a new Roth novel hitting the shelves every year, it's impossible to keep up. Readers must be asking themselves, why read this one? The answer is that Philip Roth's twenty-seventh book is different from anything he's published before.

  1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
  2. Chain of Command by Seymour M. Hersh
  3. The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans
  4. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst


1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I know you shouldn't recommend books that you are only halfway through, but this is such a lush tapestry of a book I can't resist. Like a moist, rich chocolate torte, Strange and Norrell is the sort of book you ration out to avoid finishing it too soon. If you need more convincing, Neil Gaiman calls it "unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years."

  1. The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard J. Evans
  2. The Agile Gene by Matt Ridley
  3. Travels with Barley by Ken Wells
  4. The New Physics and Cosmology by Arthur Zajonc

Carla M.

1. Dragon Rider by Cornelia Funke

Since I found Funke's work two years ago, she has become one of my favorite children's fantasy writers. Her award-winning debut novel (in English translation), The Thief Lord, was followed by Inkheart and even a children's picture book, Princess Knight — each story very different but equally very good. One reason: Cornelia Funke never talks down to her target audience, using agile language and a breadth of vocabulary (a success partly due to her excellent translator). Dragon Rider is no exception to the rule — it's a fast and exceptionally fun read, and comes highly recommended by both my son and me.


1. A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

Sharp and often howlingly funny — but insistently generous — A Complicated Kindness introduces sixteen-year-old Nomi Nickel, straining under the pressure of family, boys, and authority, common enough conflicts drawn here in extravagant, heartrending detail.

  1. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
  2. Harbor by Lorraine Adams
  3. Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller
  4. Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan

David H.

1. Hash by Torgny Lindgren

One of Sweden's most revered authors, Torgny Lindgren takes you places you would never have expected to go. Startling black humor abounds in this novel about two men's countryside search for the perfect serving of hash. Including characters such as a voyeur with an absolutely symmetrical physique and an amnesiac Nazi war criminal, Lindgren's imagination is its own universe. Book lovers should take note of his amazing (and underappreciated) talents.

  1. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
  2. Light by M. John Harrison
  3. The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
  4. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke


1. Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles Cookbook by Anthony Bourdain

This book is all about demystifying classic bistro cooking — with the right direction, you can do as well as any newbie-professional cook working in Tony's kitchen for the first time. If you've ever had reservations about cooking foie gras aux pruneaux or wanted a fun lesson in preparing escargots aux noix, this is the book for you.


1. When the Nines Roll Over by David Benioff

This was a close one. However, as hugely engrossing and wildly entertaining as Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and Little Children were, the book that affected me most in 2004 was David Benioff's first-rate collection. I'm not generally inclined toward short stories, but Benioff's are beautifully, concisely written, and he manages to keep his characters alive and his emotions resonant. His stories have stayed with me months later. A must-read, especially for those who believe the short story form is dead and irrelevant.

  1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  2. Little Children by Tom Perrotta
  3. Down and Dirty Pictures by Peter Biskind
  4. Carnet de Voyage by Craig Thompson

Chris S.

1. Full Spectrum Disorder by Stan Goff

This is an amazing distillation of Retired Special Forces Officer Stan Goff's experiences and insights on foreign policy and revolution. He pulls no punches when exposing the fact that the American standard of living comes at the expense of exploited peoples around the globe. He is equally ruthless when declaring that the American Empire is nearing collapse.

  1. Generation Kill by Evan Wright
  2. Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand
  3. The Art of Modern Rock: The Poster Explosion by Paul Gruskin and Dennis King
  4. Rhythm Science by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky)


1. An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman writes with grace and wisdom. Her prose is lyrical, sensuous, and utterly charming. I've never been disappointed in a work by Ackerman, but Alchemy of Mind takes the cake. Here she covers neurochemistry and -physiology and the concept of mind spanning more than just gray matter. With her trademark personal style, one that is wrought with broad experience and knowledge, Ackerman writes about the very nature of our deepest selves and all of the daily realities that go along with "owning" a human brain.

  1. About Grace by Anthony Doerr
  2. Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Donald Goldsmith
  3. The Laments by George Hagen
  4. Wild Mushrooms by Cynthia Nims

Because twenty Top 50 lists would be too much eye strain for even the most dedicated book lover, we've whittled our favorites down to five apiece*. Take a look at the year's top books and find some excellent recommendations for gifts or your own library.

See also: Staff Top 5s from 2003

*Except for Georgie, who used vague threats involving vegemite and sharp-clawed koalas to foist her "extras" onto the lists of kinder coworkers.

Mike H.

1. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

When you start a novel with a protagonist selecting any book they want from a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, you're going to get a bookseller's attention. Ruiz Zafón's novel works on so many levels for me. As a story, it resonates emotionally, with strong characters that I always looked forward to returning to. On another level, it makes me want to visit Barcelona, where much of the book is set. This one's a keeper!


1. Barefoot in Paris by Ina Garten

I love all of Ina Garten's cookbooks but this one changed my holiday life this year. Hollandaise over asparagus is a family Thanksgiving must and for years I've made it just like my mother did — copper bottomed pan, wooden spoon, and what seemed like hours stirring, stirring, stirring, very cold butter into the pan to get just the right consistency of buttery-lemony goodness. Ina Garten's recipe for hollandaise takes minutes, throws my whole sense of how to make a good hollandaise on its head, and is divine (as are all the other recipes of hers I've ever tried)! Plus, there's something about her style that makes you wish she were one of your best friends — truly the sign of a great cookbook writer.


1. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

What makes Atkinson's award-winning debut and her subsequent writing so beguiling is her ability to delicately measure humor and pathos — always a tricky balance. Her language is so playful and inventive that when we are suddenly spun around to view a bloody death, or to peek at the despair of loneliness there is a jolt — a sudden intake of breath....You will never want this book to end, yet, like the best mystery novel, you'll stay up all night to find out exactly how it does.

  1. How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff
  2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  3. Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames
  4. Exception to the Rulers by Amy Goodman and David Goodman


1. This Is Not Civilization by Robert Rosenberg

Feeding into my gnawing pondering of Istanbul and abounding with fun in Kyrgyzstan, the lively characters and engaging journeys inhabiting Robert Rosenberg's autobiographical debut novel make up the only "read-straight-though" fiction that I have come across this year.

  1. Defining the Wind by Scott Huler
  2. The Double by José Saramago
  3. Waiting for Teddy Williams by Howard Frank Mosher
  4. Fluoride Deception by Christopher Bryson


1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

A story about faith, love, history, and growing old, this book is poignant and lovely. It is a long letter from a father who thinks he is soon to die to his seven-year-old son. Robinson's command of language, her deep understanding of humanity, and her own religious study come together in this outstanding novel. It was worth the twenty-year wait.

  1. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
  3. Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
  4. Animal Crackers by Hannah Tinti

Amy A.

1. Chris Ware by Daniel Raeburn

Similar in sentiment to artist Joseph Cornell's three-dimensional work, Chris Ware's drawings and sculpture remind me of enchanting collections of objects lost and found. In this new monograph, Daniel Raeburn closely examine's Ware's work methods and innovations and discusses the connections between Ware's most well-known character, Jimmy Corrigan, and that of his creator. Check out The Acme Novelty Datebook for more personal insight into his talent and history.

  1. Vinyl Will Kill by Idn Pro
  2. Dumb Luck by Gary Baseman
  3. House Industries by House Industries
  4. Cheap Laffs: The Art of the Novelty Item by Mark Newgarden

Steven F.

1. The Italian Boy by Sarah Wise

The story of the"Italian boy" murder case was fodder for many of the lurid body-snatching tales that later emerged from the pens of Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, and Bram Stoker. This absorbing narrative evokes Fagin and Bill Sykes, the charred alleys, tottering hovels, droves of beggars, prostitutes, and low drinking dives of Oliver Twist or Bleak House. Snappy writing, excellent research, and vivid descriptions make this an extremely engrossing book.

  1. Father Joe by Tony Hendra
  2. In Praise of Slowness by Carl Honoré
  3. Ballad of the Whiskey Robber by Julian Rubinstein
  4. Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward


1. Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson

Readers energized by the suspense and adventure of The Perfect Storm and Into Thin Air will be captivated by this remarkable account of wreck diving and discovery. Interweaving the excitement of locating a previously undiscovered WWII German submarine wreck off the coast of New Jersey, the dangers of deep-sea diving, and the sleuthing undertaken by two divers to discover the U-boat's identity, Kurson narrates a compelling story in which lives are lost and history is rewritten.


1. The Confusion by Neal Stephenson

The Confusion was my favorite tome of the Baroque Cycle. Who wouldn't love a 17th-century story that features powerful women, preeminent natural philosophers, Louis XIV, and of course, The King of the Vagabonds?


1. Nightingales by Gillian Gill

An absolutely fascinating biography of a brilliant Victorian woman, her times, and her hugely interesting family. Florence struggled successfully against all the conventions of her time and Gill tells her story with nuance, skill, and empathy. This is one of the best biographies of 2004.

  1. The Master by Colm Tóibín
  2. Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  3. Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
  4. Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley

Mary Jo

1. Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Patchett's eloquent prose gives a vivid portrait of the friendship that she and Lucy Grealy shared. I applaud Patchett's honesty and her refusal to gloss over the difficulties of their friendship. When I found out that Lucy Grealy had died, I was stunned and saddened. She was so full of genius and passionate beauty. I am grateful Patchett chose to give the world this book.

  1. Spiral Staircase by Karen Armstrong
  2. Eventide by Kent Haruf
  3. Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos
  4. Sunshine by Robin McKinley
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