The Year in Books

Slate picks the best books of 2005.

Emily Bazelon, senior editor and legal writer
My favorite new nonfiction book this year is Tulia, by Nate Blakeslee. It’s the story of the wrongful prosecution of 47 residents of the town of Tulia, Tex.—38 of them black—based on the made-up testimony of one rogue cop. Some of the defendants got virtual life sentences before the case unraveled. Blakeslee broke the story for the Texas Observer. His book has movie deal written all over it. There’s a rich and unlikely mix of characters—devious bad guys, likable victims, and valiant lawyer-heroes who wield their briefcases to save the day. It all makes for a satisfying tale about fighting the good fight.

Bryan Curtis, deputy culture editor and “Middlebrow” columnist Best drug book of the year: Juiced, by Jose Canseco. In the noble tradition of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, Jose Canseco wrote a book-length valentine to his favorite performance-enhancing drugs, steroids. “I needed steroids and growth hormone just to live,” the former major-leaguer confided while downplaying the annoying side effects, such as the “atrophying of the testicles.” The book spawned a congressional hearing in which one of the players Canseco accused of using steroids, Rafael Palmeiro, said, “I have never used steroids. Period.” A few months later, Palmeiro tested positive for steroids. Juiced is a sweeping indictment, a how-to guide, and a real scream.

David Greenberg, “History Lesson” columnist The best book of “recent history” this year is Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore, by James T. Patterson. After his 1996 Bancroft Prize-winning tour de force Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974, what does the Brown University historian do for an encore? Turn out an equally readable, smart, and fair-minded history of the last century’s final quarter. A book like Restless Giant must be impossibly hard to write, since you need to keep in focus both yesterday’s news, which lies so close to our present gaze, and events that have already receded into the historical distance. Patterson pulls it off—and in the process mounts a quietly persuasive defense of the “right revolution” that he argues has been central to American politics and society in recent times.

Ann Hulbert, contributing editor and “Sandbox” columnist The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall is the best kind of biography, blending subtle psychological portraiture with astute intellectual history. It’s a fascinating story, too, not just of two sisters vying for the love of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but of a period when a front parlor in New England presided over by women was the site of some of the most exciting exchanges of ideas going on in early 19th-century America.

This year’s other literary high point was rereading a book that came out a century after the Peabody sisters were born, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth(1905).For a psychologically compelling portrait of one of the most unforgettable protagonists in American literature, you can hardly do better than Lily Bart. It came as something of a jolt to be reminded of the chasm between the stifling, ruthless New York society world in which women like Lily were trapped and the transcendentalist circles in which the Peabody sisters had traveled.

Fred Kaplan, “War Stories” columnist The best book about the Iraq war is Assassins’ Gate by George Packer. It doesn’t deal much with military matters, but there isn’t likely to be a better account, anytime soon, of how Bush & Co. got into the war and how they screwed it all up after Saddam’s statue was toppled. As his dispatches in The New Yorker have long shown, Packer is that rare writer who combines journalistic enterprise with analytic rigor, and his book adds to this mix a compelling narrative, whose protagonist is Packer himself. Come with me, he seems to be saying, as I go to Cambridge coffee shops and London conclaves, where Iraqi exiles dream of liberation; to Washington think tanks, where the plot takes hold; to the inner councils of Bush’s government, where theory becomes policy; then across the landscape of Iraq, where reality shatters illusion. Packer lets us see the good intentions, as well as the brutish tactics, that entwined us in this mess. Throughout, he reveals and examines his own ambivalences. The story—his, ours, and the Iraqis’—is one not of conspiracy but of tragedy.

Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal writer
My favorite legal book of the year was probably Cass Sunstein’s Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts Are Wrong for America. He offers a thoughtful and really cogent articulation of the dangers of this big national love affair we’re having with originalism. As the perennially weary mother of a 2-year-old and a 7-month-old, I also offer this somewhat embarrassing submission for a really helpful child-rearing book, suggested in turn (and with some embarrassment) by our pediatrician but truly full of tremendous insight: The Happiest Toddler on the Block. One other favorite book that I reread and loved all over again this past year: Joseph Telushkin’s Words That Hurt, Words That Heal. It’s always useful, but especially for anyone who bends and twists words for a living, to think about how powerful language can be.

Stephen Metcalf, book critic My favorite book of 2005 was Ian McEwan’s Saturday, for introducing me (I’m ashamed to admit) to McEwan’s writing, which is so cool and phlegmatic and precise, but also for the attitude of suspicion it directs at the entire literary enterprise. McEwan’s Henry Perowne isn’t a Babbitt, an aesthete, or a hotshot libertine snorting his way through the advertising world. Instead, as a basically decent man of remarkable intellectual but only average imaginary endowments, and not prone to adultery, he is the sort of dull haute bobo hero who probably doesn’t deserve his own novel. The one he gets isn’t flawless, but it is animated by a steady and gripping sang-froid, and it got me to read Atonement, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Amsterdam. My runner-up is Walter Kirn’s very fine and genuinely funny Mission to America.

The two books I enjoyed reading most in ‘05, but not of ‘05, were Lolita, on my third go-through, and some combination of Enduring Love and Black Dogs.

Timothy Noah, “Chatterbox” columnist Forty-three years after Philip Roth’s first full-length novel was published, Letting Go resurfaced this fall in the first of two Roth volumes published by the Library of America—eight are planned, though the way Roth has been going lately they may need to add a ninth—where it is once again being dismissed as a lesser work. The standard critical construct is that Roth didn’t really achieve greatness until he stopped wrestling with respectability and instead spurned it, ‘60s-style, with Portnoy’s Complaint. Thus Gary Shteyngart in the New York Times Book Review:

When I polled my writer friends—prodigious Roth-worshippers all—about, say, the nearly 700-page-long novel Letting Go, I was not surprised to hear that not one of them had read it. … While reading this overdrawn tale of two young couples struggling to come alive against a flat Midwestern backdrop, you feel like telling Roth: ”Forget the Henry James route and take the Sam Clemens way out! Lose the earnestness. …”

I couldn’t disagree more. Wonderful though Portnoy is, I think wrestling with respectability is actually what Roth does best. It’s certainly the preoccupation of Roth’s much-praised late period— American Pastoral, The Human Stain, I Married a Communist, The Plot Against America. These novels, though justly praised (except maybe The Plot Against America, which is a little pedestrian; I found Charles Peters’ recent nonfiction treatment of the same material, Five Days in Philadelphia, more compelling), lack the sweep and energy of Letting Go. James Atlas pointed out in an evangelizing introduction to a paperback reissue in 1982—as best I can make out, I was Atlas’ only convert, though I’ve since passed the word on to a few friends—that Letting Go possesses an old-fashioned narrative richness that can’t be found in any of Roth’s subsequent novels. The book overflows with vivid characters, settings, and points of view, and the deft manner in which they crisscross establishes the novel’s theme that to behave too decently can put your soul in mortal peril. In Letting Go, unlike Portnoy, morality and autonomy are evenly matched; it’s a fair fight that goes into overtime. I believe that Letting Go, which I reread for the third or fourth time this year, is Roth’s best novel. If a better one was published in 2005, I’d like to see it.

Meghan O’Rourke, culture editor and “Highbrow” columnist A favorite of 2005 is Peter Green’s translation The Poems of Catullus. Green is a celebrated classicist and his boyish enthusiasm is a perfect match for the bawdy ferocity of Catullus, the Roman poet best known for his ribald poems of sex and satire. Green takes plenty of liberties (he tries to replicate Catullus’ original meter, with mixed results), but he perfectly captures Catullus’ voice—whose outrageousness may shock even the most jaded sophisticate. You don’t have to be a regular reader of poetry to like these poems.

My runner-up is Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, which I still find myself thinking about some nine months after reading it in one sitting. Didion’s taxonomy of grief is one that we all can relate to, and at the same time it’s a truly strange one, because she explores the ravages of loss in her trademark clinical—and even detached—prose. The result is a book that invites you in and remains obdurately distant at the same time, like so many relationships. But the book I most loved this year (though it wasn’t of this year) was Denis Johnson’s Angels, one of the most stunningly luminous novels I’ve ever read.

David Plotz, deputy editor Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is chilling and incredibly sad. I don’t really know how to explain it without giving too much away. It is the story of three children at a bizarre boarding school in a dystopian England who are preparing for a mysterious and apparently terrible future. The book is at once a great boarding-school book—it captures the psychodynamics of teenagers as well as Prep does—and an unsettling vision of our future. The best horror movies recognize that nothing is scarier than the unseen fright. Never Let Me Go is like that. Ishiguro doesn’t give readers the comfort of knowing exactly what is happening, and that makes it utterly terrifying.

Lee Siegel, art critic My favorite book this year happened to be one that I reviewed. What thrilled me about Ian McEwan’s Saturday were qualities that would have been taken for granted in a work of fiction 30 or 40 years ago: plausible characters with complex psychologies, a story that held you spellbound, unselfconscious language in which words were put into the service of meaning, an intellectual framework that rose organically from the characters and the action. Predictably, there was a backlash against the sensationally successful McEwan, with a few critics complaining, not without some justification, that his plots consisted of mechanically connected set pieces. But this is like dying of thirst in the desert and complaining, when you stumble upon an oasis, that the water is warm. Bravo to this last powerful gasp of a dying artistic form. I also reread The Odyssey this year. Homer’s tale is the only book I know—maybe War and Peace is the other one—whose reality is more substantial than anything life has to offer.

Dana Stevens, TV critic Though it technically came out in late 2004, I spent the first two months of this year struggling with David Thomson’s The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. But it was a passionate, engaging struggle, like an argument with a brilliant, impossible friend. I’d abandon the book for a week in disgust (for example, after reading Thomson’s bizarre assertion that, before the advent of sound, film was only a “half-made medium”), then sneak back to it for the sheer pleasure of Thomson’s lush, erudite prose. If this book’s title is misleading, its subtitle is an outright lie; this is no more a history of Hollywood than Thomson’s rambling, libidinal New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a straightforward film reference work. For Thomson, movies are always and foremost about desire, and his description of the glories of Technicolor could easily stand for what there is to love in his own work: “its expressiveness, its warm aliveness, its damson and crème brûlée mix as lipstick meets cheek, and its passion.”

And rereleased this year in paperback after eight years out of print: Pamela Des Barres’$2 1987 classic I’m With the Band, the slutty mother of all rock-groupie memoirs. I’ve somehow failed to snag a copy of this at tag sales, so it was a great pleasure to buy it (in an edition illustrated with appropriately cheap-looking photo spreads) and inhale great drafts of Des Barres’ sunny, uninhibited prose as deeply as the author herself once inhaled an industrial solvent called Trimar: “When I came back to my extremely sensual senses, I was in the middle of a perfect backbend on Jim Morrison’s tatty Oriental rug, my purple velvet minidress completely over my head, his redheaded girlfriend glaring down at me.” Only a party pooper would question how Des Barres saw the redhead through the velvet.

Julia Turner, associate editor I loved Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. I picked it up expecting a thin campus farce and found instead an uncannily honest—and deliciously readable—portrait of boarding school, and adolescence generally. Sittenfeld nails the details: plastic toiletry buckets; idle common-room rounds of kick-the-pizza box; one queen bee’s impossibly perfect white cotton underwear; that new lacrosse stick smell. She also draws a wonderful portrait of her insecure protagonist, Lee Fiora. Sittenfeld skewers Lee’s perverse social logic—at one point Lee, fantasizing about an attainably geeky boy performing at a talent show, thinks: “He understood sadness, clearly, because who could choose to perform ‘Fire and Rain’ without understanding sadness?”—but she also gets down how terribly important high school feels to those who are still in it.

June Thomas, foreign editor
In a year of wonderful books, the one that affected me most was “I Didn’t Do It for You”: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, Michela Wrong’s history of Eritrea. It managed to make me feel ashamed of my ignorance and simultaneously thrilled to have it dispelled in such an entertaining fashion. The release of Invasion of the Dykes To Watch Out For, the 11th compilation of Alison Bechdel’s beautifully drawn, perfectly observed cartoons, drove me to reread the entire series. Almost 20 years into the strip, it’s still the story of my life, even though I’m more conservative than Mo and Co. these days.

Jacob Weisberg, editor
I read some wonderful novels in 2005, including Never Let Me Go, Mission to America, Gilead, and   The Known World, but the one I most enjoyed was Ian McEwan’s Saturday. I feel silly recommending it, because it’s such an obvious choice, but nothing else I read this year thrilled me half as much. In his last two novels, McEwan has outgrown his juvenile macabre without sacrificing any of his gift for suspense or clinical description. In Saturday, he puts all of that virtuosity in service of examining the moral and political questions of our day: terrorism, the Iraq war, and medical ethics. It’s a meditation on the modern condition that crackles with energy, intelligence, and insight.

Blake Wilson, editorial assistant Uzodinma Iweala’s novella Beasts of No Nation is the best debut fiction I’ve read in a long time. Narrated by a boy kidnapped into child-soldiering in a West African civil war, it is an unsparing chronicle of his transformation from model student to rapist and killer. I’ve read so much journalism about the brutality of life in parts of Africa, but the huge distance between that reality and my own experience always made it difficult to think of the genocides and child armies as much more than social and political problems. This book closes that gap and makes those tragedies immediate. The passages describing battle and murder are excruciating, but more devastating is the cumulative picture of a life without family, morality, or culture, in a place without any functioning society, where the only stimulus and point of existence is animal violence. It is amazing to me that anyone could bear this. But Iweala has imagined a convincing character that did bear it and retained his humanity. This is no small thing for any writer to do, and from a 22-year-old just out of Harvard, it is a breathtaking accomplishment.

And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers: The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank, by David Plotz; The Woman at the Washington Zoo: Writings on Politics, Family, and Fate, by Marjorie Williams and edited by Timothy Noah; and What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner, by Emily Yoffe. Click here to see a complete list of recent books by Slatesters.