DANIEL HANDLER (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events)
Peter Rock’s The Bewildered (MacAdam/Cage) is a book that took me for a walk around my neighborhood, pointed out nineteen things I’d never noticed, led me to a bar with a great jukebox, listened while I blabbed all my secrets, got me into a fight, let me sleep it off on the lawn, put a slab of meat on my black eye, made me a big, greasy breakfast and sent me on my merry, bleary way. If you want anything more from a writer than Peter Rock gives you, you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
STEPHEN ELLIOTT (author of Happy Baby and other novels)
There is zero doubt for me that the best book I read in 2005 was The Assassins’ Gate by George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Packer is the New Yorker correspondent in Iraq and his book traces the war from its ideological beginnings (when he was a supporter) to its current manifestation as the disaster of our time. His writing combines a nuanced understanding of the most obscure foreign-policy journals along with heart-racing narratives based on his own experiences in country. The two threads combine to form the most unlikely bond, as if Packer were the love child of Janet Malcolm and Ryszard Kapuscinski, with the notable difference that he’s writing about Iraq and Iraq is happening now.
EVAN WRIGHT (author of Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America, and the New Face of American War)
Tokyo housewives armed with power saws and flesh-chopping shears are the heroines of Out, the thriller by Japan’s Natsuo Kirino (Vintage International), and a book that does more than its share to dispel the myth of the submissive Asian housewife. Kirino’s award-winning novel achieves a tight balance between creepy noir and bitter commentary on working women stuck beyond the fringes of Japan’s postindustrial affluence.
PETER GADOL (author of the novels Light At Dusk and The Long Rain)
It takes a great writer to connect the events of September 11 with the Dresden firebombing without reducing historical moments to facile metaphors, one for the other, but in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Houghton Mifflin), Jonathan Safran Foer does just that, translating public catastrophes into private affairs of love and loss. In Foer’s novel about a brainiac boy-picaro wandering New York City in an extravagant attempt figuratively and literally to unlock a mystery about his lost father, everyone is always writing — notes pressed against windows, unread letters, desperate posters, scrapbooks, tattoos, scribbling when speech fails — as if narrative itself is the searched-for thing, narrative as rich and transient as life, narrative as redemption. Against a century of mourning, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close remains, in the end, deeply affirmative.
MIKE DAVIS (author of, most recently, The Monster At Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu)
Okay, I am fudging dates by a few months, but Don West’s No Lonesome Road: Selected Prose and Poems (Univ. of Illinois Press) is the most unfashionable, soul-stirring, and brave book that I have read in years. The radical “voice of the Southern Cracker,” West was a hillbilly preacher and communist labor organizer whose lean and aching poetry — “the child of hope and hurt and solidarity” — spoke for generations of forgotten toil and struggle. The cover photo shows the young West — more fiercely handsome than Brando — mounted on the famous Indian motorcycle that kept him one step ahead of lynch mobs and KKK posses.
JOHN POWERS (Weekly columnist and author of Sore Winners: American Idols, Patriotic Shoppers, and Other Strange Species in George Bush’s America)
Perhaps the least heralded of great novels (I’d never even heard of it until my friend Tom Carson recommended it), Jean Dutourd’s 1963 tour de force, The Horrors of Love (Greenwood Press), is a dialogue that runs 665 enthralling pages. Two middle-aged men spend a day wandering around Paris and discussing the story of a French politician whose life was destroyed by a very peculiar case of l’amour fou. As they ramble, eat and anatomize almost everything — sex, politics, the conventions of storytelling — their conversation offers one of modernity’s wittiest and most worldly portraits of a love affair. (Out of print, but widely available, used, on the Internet.)
GEOFF NICHOLSON (author of The Hollywood Dodo: A Novel)
Some people still insist that Los Angeles needs “explaining.” My own feeling is that if you don’t basically “get” the place, no amount of scholarly exegesis will help, but a book of photographs like Looking at Los Angeles (edited by Marla Hamburg Kennedy and Ben Stiller, Metropolis Books) just might bring enlightenment to anyone. Most of the usual suspects are represented: Ruscha, Winogrand, Shulman, Claxton, Baldessari, et al, and between them they succeed in making the city look infinitely familiar and infinitely alien, showing that Los Angeles remains utterly photogenic, even when it isn’t exactly pretty.
BRENDAN BERNHARD (Weekly critic and author of the forthcoming White Muslim: From L.A. to New York . . . to Jihad?)
Tom Bissell’s God Lives in St. Petersburg (Pantheon) was a stunningly sharp fiction debut by one of the best young writers in America. Channeling everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Paul Bowles, he produced a series of portraits of Americans abroad in high-risk neighborhoods that were topical without being trendy, and funny without being crass. Whether writing about foreign correspondents in Afghanistan, an ecological scientist by the Aral Sea, or a spoiled American ambassador’s son in an ex-Soviet backwater, Bissell registers all the right details and describes the world with both head and heart.
BEN EHRENREICH (Weekly contributor whose first novel, The Suitors, will be published in April by Counterpoint)
Only one book this year had me laughing for a good half hour at the image of naked Joseph Goebbels, 400 pounds when emptied of entrails, bouncing down the steps of the Pyramid of the Sun. Leave room for multiple realities, yakuza-cholo warriors, a bad case of the Farmer John’s blues. Did I mention that Sesshu Foster can make words slice like an obsidian blade? His Atomik Aztex (City Lights) takes it.
WESLEY STACE (author of the novel Misfortune, and, as John Wesley Harding, several CDs)
How To Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward (Ballantine Books), about a family torn apart by the disappearance of a child, is an unpretentious novel with more than its fair share of charming and sympathetic narrators. It’s also extremely funny — the kind of book, because it has sneaked up on you, that you are not at all embarrassed to be moved by. The letters from a romantically hopeful librarian (who, when asked her favorite sport, asks: “Is reading a sport?”) are particularly good. Also recommended: Ward’s other novel, Sleep Toward Heaven.
MICHELLE HUNEVEN (author of the novels Jamesland and Round Rock)
I read somewhere that Haruki Murakami swims several hours a day to train for his writing — and, indeed, his remarkable last novel, Kafka on the Shore (Vintage), is like an exhilarating dive into the wild and woolly collective unconscious. At one point, I couldn’t bear to read another word, and, simultaneously, couldn’t bear not to.
JUDITH FREEMAN (author of Red Water and other novels)
Mary Gaitskill’s Veronica (Pantheon) is a harrowing, moving novel about a once-beautiful ex-model and her friendship with an older woman dying of AIDS. Youth and beauty, death and disease, friendship and its sometimes strange pairings. Gaitskill is brilliant at many things. Edgy, disturbing, powerful — Veronica is Gaitskill’s best thus far.
JERRY STAHL (author of, most recently, I, Fatty)
John Albert’s Wrecking Crew: The Really Bad News Griffith Park Pirates (Scribner) is not the kind of substance-abuse saga that gets a kiss on the cheek from Oprah, or a genteel visit to KCRW. It is, instead, as raw, real, nasty and full of heart as the unlikely genius who wrote it. You don’t have to give a shit about baseball — or hard narcotics — to love this book. You just have to have a taste for brutal humor, unflinching truth, smack-in-the-face prose and a story so American the cover should have shown a red, white and blue syringe.
JUDITH LEWIS (Weekly staff writer and environmental protection agent)
In his Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking), Jared Diamond constructed stories about politics, environment and social survival without inflamed rhetoric or partisanship, and he laid out his argument as cleanly as a math problem: Destroy your forests, squander your water and alienate your neighbors, he warned, and you’ll watch your hard-won world disintegrate around you; manage your resources wisely and run your politics fairly, and you may instead hand down the legacy of survival to your heirs.
JONATHAN GOLD (author of Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles)
Monologue of a Dog by Wislawa Szymborska (Harcourt). Fragments of time pinned wriggling like live butterflies under glass; easy philosophical conversation compressed to the density of single points in space, Szymborska poems are like nothing else in nature or in art.