Book Article

The Best and Worst Books

The best books of 2000 -- From Dave Eggers' ''A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius'' to Mary Karr's ''Cherry,'' Karen Valby tells us what she feels are the year's best reads

The best books of 2000

NON-FICTION

1. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing
Ted Conover
Nonfiction Book Of The Year
George Orwell, you have a godson. Upton Sinclair, you've been one-upped. True investigative reporting should be neither watered-down nor witness-protected, as renegade journalist Ted Conover well knows. When he set his keen eyes on prison, still a mysterious frontier even though the author says one out of every 140 Americans calls it home, his requests for interviews were turned down cold. So he went undercover, training and then getting hired as a guard in New York's notorious Sing Sing. ''You're the zookeeper now,'' an officer says. ''Go run the zoo.'' During Conover's eight months as a ''newjack'' (rookie), self-preservation trumps voyeurism, liberal assumptions fly out the window, his home life suffers, and an easygoing intellectual morphs into a nerve-racked man astounded by the crushing stress and his crumbling sanity. In this mind-blowing example of journalism at its most authentic, Conover discovers that prison can bring out the animal in any man, and even the zookeeper has to protect his soul.

2. A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius
Dave Eggers
He was hailed as a hip ironist, a master satirist, a memoirist who wrote an inside-out anthem for a self-absorbed and scared generation. But forget all the froufrou talk about form and its function. Eggers' book, about the back-to-back deaths of both of his parents and the sudden responsibility for his 8-year-old brother (the sweet, unforgettable Toph), is honest and heroic and flawed and furious. He claims he hates himself for writing it and hates us more for eating it up. Yet he couldn't stop the words, and we can't stop reading them.

3. Cherry
Mary Karr
Her first memoir, The Liars' Club (one of EW's Best Books of 1995), was a triumphant trendsetter that helped usher in ''me lit.'' Her childhood made us laugh and ache as we tasted the dusty grit of life in a West Texas town. That her follow-up, Cherry, isn't a dud by comparison is amazing. That it can stand alone, proud and obstinate and demanding, like the teenage years of awakening it chronicles, is a credit to this hear me now, my life matters writer.

4. In The Heart Of The Sea: The Tragedy Of The Whaleship Essex
Nathaniel Philbrick
The Nantucket, Mass., historian, the son of a maritime literature expert, combines his knowledge and kinship in a stirring sea yarn that won the 2000 National Book Award for nonfiction. The Essex, a 19th-century ship sunk by a sperm whale in the South Pacific, inspired the climax of Moby-Dick. Philbrick's account of the 20-man crew left bobbing on the rough seas in three tiny boats doesn't disappear within the daunting shadow of Melville's classic but fits neatly beside it as a fascinating companion piece.

5. Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir
Lauren Slater
''I exaggerate,'' shrugs the author on the first page. Her terse admission opens this bizarre memoir with a metaphorical thrust. She presents the reader with a choice: Accept at face value that her severe epilepsy shaped her entire sense of self, or suspect her of being so desperate for attention that she'll skirt all truths, fudge any facts, to keep you reading. You'll waffle between both possibilities as the unsettling, exasperating, undeniably gifted narrator dives headfirst into the murkiness that swirls beneath any ''true'' story.

6. From Dawn To Decadence: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life, 1500 To The Present
Jacques Barzun
In a year when wrestlers and business wunderkinds dominated the charts, an unrivaled, unbelievably comprehensive survey of five centuries' worth of Western culture still made the most surprising splash. The nonagenarian Barzun, who taught at Columbia University for 50 years, throws more than 800 pages at our vulgar society. Bless our crass hearts, we bought his book. And bless him, he managed to make the 10-pound tome near effortless reading.

7. The Last River Todd Balf
The Ice Master Jennifer Niven
These adventure reads prove the genre can accommodate more than Into Thin Air and The Endurance. Balf's breathless account of an ill-fated 1998 Tibetan kayaking expedition and Niven's page-turner about a tragic 1913 Arctic voyage both leap off their scrupulously researched pages while confronting the question of what makes one crave the risk and rush of extreme adventure.

8. Ghost Light
Frank Rich
The former New York Times drama critic revisits his childhood years in Washington, D.C., where his love of the stage was born. When his parents divorce and a violent, manic stepfather assumes the spotlight, Rich makes Washington's National Theatre his childhood sanctuary. His memoir, every bit as perceptive as his criticism, is a sincere note of gratitude to the stage he reveres.

9. Driving Mr. Albert
Michael Paterniti
Paterniti recounts his road trip across America in a Buick Skylark with Albert Einstein's brain in the trunk and the pathologist who removed it in 1955 riding shotgun. Their journey, first recounted in the journalist's award-winning Harper's magazine article, is both a glorified travelogue and a moving testament to the relationship between two men, one young and one old, both enchanted by the symbol of brilliance and possibility riding behind them in tightly sealed Tupperware.

10. Paris To The Moon
Adam Gopnik
Gopnik, his wife, and infant son moved to the City of Light in 1995 in search of a ''sentimental reeducation.'' But don't be intimidated by the chic locale; Gopnik wallows in the realm of the middle-class mundane, exploring the wonders of ''children and cooking and spectator sports, including the spectator sport of shopping.'' We believe Gopnik, a prose master, could write as acutely about life in Poughkeepsie as he has about Paris.


FICTION

1. White Teeth
Zadie Smith
Fiction Book Of The Year
Oh, kid, show us how it's done, how a 24-year-old can turn the world of the literati on its been-there-done-that head with one astonishing display of uncorrupted literary instinct. We tripped over ourselves to read this sprawling novel, set in Smith's native London, about very British Archie Jones and Bengali Muslim Samad Iqbal, longtime friends despite the cultural chasm that separates them and their families. Smith's voice is confident, compassionate, and archly comic to boot. Sure, the beguiling author photo often dominated reviews, but it was simply irresistible. So surprise us again soon, and forgive us for falling in love with you. We swear we loved your book more.

2. Afterburn
Colin Harrison
Charlie Ravich, a Vietnam POW survivor, lost a son to leukemia, learns his daughter can't bear a child, and accepts that his wife wages an unwinnable battle with Alzheimer's. Enter a suspicious sexpot who can bear his third child and secure his dying legacy. As the suspense escalates, Afterburn takes readers on a blurry ride through the underbelly of New York's mean streets and the high-voltage center of Hong Kong. But Harrison raises the kind of philosophical questions not typically posed by a crime novelist — and in doing so, he sets the bar a little higher for all future high-stakes thrillers.

3. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth
Chris Ware
Think comic books are for kids? You'll put to rest such childish notions after reading, nay, soaking in this wondrous creation from cartoon genius Ware. In his graphic novella, filled with simple, lovely language and an astonishing array of exquisite panels, Jimmy tries to make contact with the father who long ago abandoned him. Weighty themes of alienation and longing are gracefully explored in one of the very rare books that truly merits the contradiction in terms ''instant classic.''

4. The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier & Clay
Michael Chabon
The author of 1995's Wonder Boys spent more than four years on this labor of love. It was worth the wait. Sam Clay, ne Klayman, is a 17-year-old Jew with a passion for pulps. His cousin, Josef Kavalier, studied drawing before fleeing Nazi-occupied Prague. Together they create the Escapist, a masked comic-book hero, whose popularity thrusts the unlikely duo into the spotlight. This big bang of a novel delights, amazes, and raises the deserving Chabon another rung on the ladder of great young American novelists.

5. The Blind Assassin
Margaret Atwood
''Ten years after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge,'' begins Iris, the mysterious protagonist in the 2000 Booker winner by the ever-dependable Atwood. This bewitching, skillfully layered book seamlessly accommodates three mesmerizing plotlines, including excerpts from Laura's posthumous sci-fi novel. Suspense builds and secrets unravel as the true legacy of one family's saga emerges. Atwood, gleefully experimenting with structure and style, is in magisterial form.

6. Lightening On The Sun
Robert Bingham
Pure Slaughter Value, Bingham's 1997 story collection, garnered lavish praise: Here was a writer, a sly, witty, original talent to watch out for. His brilliant first novel, about a nihilistic slacker-cum-drug smuggler in Cambodia and his Stateside ex-girlfriend, an antiheroic partner in crime, proved the early buzz had serious bite. Bingham, whose fast, privileged lifestyle often mirrored his characters', died of a heroin overdose months before his book was published. Oh, the places he could have gone.

7. Rope Bunrs: Stories From The Corner
F.X. Toole
Boxing is as much about beauty as it is brutality. Unconvinced? Take a crack at this magnificent debut collection of short stories written by 70-year-old trainer F.X. Toole, whose years of ringside experience fuel his mighty pen. ''But it's also magic to see a fight you're winning end in the time it takes to blink, when a left hook cranks your boy's jaw into the second balcony.'' He tempers such moments of awe with knowing scenes of an oft-corrupt game. In his vernacular (and ours), a knockout.

8. Fiona Range
Mary McGarry Morris
Fiona, a 30-year-old waitress in a diner, is promiscuous and sarcastic — in short, the ideal scapegoat for the populace of a claustrophobic small town like Dearborn, Mass. With a troubling knack for confusing lust for love and a healthy helping of old family wounds, she's easily the year's most complicated heroine. Be forewarned: Morris will squeeze a couple of tears out of you, but she does so without a hint of manipulation. It's her sympathetic exploration of how family and community expectations can damn a person that earns this talented writer her berth here.

9. Girl With A Pearl Earring
Tracy Chevalier
A 16-year-old girl is hired as the fictional servant of Johannes Vermeer, the great and elusive 17th-century Dutch painter. To the consternation of the artist's family, she becomes the object of his desire and the subject of his famed portrait Girl With a Pearl Earring. You'd be half right if this sounded like a steamy bodice ripper. But the other half is a beautiful look at the domestic life that inspired some of the world's greatest paintings. Chevalier artfully balances the two, managing to create something fine and enduring herself.

10. The Very Persistant Gappers Of Frip George Saunders
Pastoralia George Saunders
Whoa, this guy is good. A bit strange and subversive but good. In one funny fable for kids (marvelously aided by illustrator Lane Smith), he describes gappers — orange, burr-like, rascally devils that cling to goats and bring out the selfishness in the fantasy society of Frip. In his collection of six absurdly wonderful short stories for grown-ups, he imagines loved ones who communicate solely by fax and a male stripper plagued by his bullying dead aunt. Funny and off-kilter? Sure. But it's Saunders' poignant, profound style that lifts both books from the zone of the merely weird into some kind of wonderful.

Originally posted Dec 22, 2000 Published in issue #574-575 Dec 22, 2000 Order article reprints
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