The Best Books of 2003










The Best American Crime Writing 2003, guest editor John Berendt; edited by Otto Penzler and Thomas H. Cook (Vintage Books)

Truth is stranger than fiction, claims the cliché. In this substantial anthology of non-fiction pieces taken from a number of American magazines (including Vanity Fair, GQ, Esquire and Texas Monthly), true-crime writing proves if not stranger, then at least as compelling as its fictional counterpart. There are 20 feature articles collected here, and each is a standout -- from Jeff Tietz's sad but fascinating account of "The Boy Who Loved Transit" and spent years of his life pretending (successfully) to be an employee of the New York City Transit Authority; to Marie Brenner's inside-scoop coverage of the financial skullduggery behind "The Enron Wars." From schoolyard bullies to international terrorists, these profiles hop sub-genres and span the globe -- and never fail to absorb the reader. -- Tom Nolan

The Clinton Wars by Sidney Blumenthal (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Journalist Sidney Blumenthal, who covered politics for The Washington Post and The New Yorker before signing on as a senior advisor to U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1997, is that rare and refreshing sort of liberal: unapologetic in his viewpoints and unintimidated by blustering right-wingers, who launch into frothing diatribes about vague lefty bias in the media, while simultaneously ignoring the overt conservative predilections of The Washington Times, the Fox News Channel and other Republican partisans. He makes no excuses, either, for venerating Clinton, a charismatic and extraordinarily well-prepared politician whose eight years in the White House brought record national prosperity, crucial environmental protections, and a dramatic expansion of health and education programs for the middle class and working poor, but also unleashed a flood of factional vitriol. Readers of The Hunting of the President, by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, will find the first quarter of Blumenthal's 822-page work more of a recap than a revelation. Beyond that, however, The Clinton Wars becomes equal parts memoir and political analysis, with Blumenthal offering his insider's perspective on one of the most influential American administrations of our time. -- J. Kingston Pierce

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson (Crown Publishers)

American star journalist Richard Harding Davis called the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 "the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War," and Chicagoans didn't disagree. Their city, anxious to shed its second-class, slaughter-town image, had fought to host this international fair celebrating (if a year late) the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' landing in the New World, and then poured every dollar and dream into making it a can't-miss spectacle. And spectacular it was, according to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City. With its neoclassical architecture, extravagant lighting displays, whole villages imported from Africa and first-ever Ferris wheel, the fair operated for only six months -- in the middle of the worst U.S. economic depression to date. Yet it drew a whopping 27.5 million visitors, at a time when the nation's population was only 65 million. People came to sample a new snack called Cracker Jack; they watched the earliest moving pictures on Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope; they were introduced to ginseng root from Korea and betel-nut dishes from Siam, and they escaped their quotidian woes amid the pistol-cracking excitement of Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West show. Some visitors, though -- primarily women -- never returned to their raucous, smoke-choked hometowns. Not because they were seduced by the Windy City's charms, but because they were victimized by one of America's first and most prolific urban serial killers, H.H. Holmes, a doctor-turned-hotelier who claimed, "I was born with the devil in me." Don't bother double-checking that this volume is nonfiction -- it is. But Larson (Issac's Storm, 1999) employs fictive techniques, complex character studies and cliffhangers to turn what might have been a parched account of architectural ambition and convergent malevolence into a historical thrill ride. Devil tells two principal, parallel stories. The first follows leading Chicago designer Daniel H. Burnham, who convinced America's foremost architects of that era to help create this fair's Brobdingnagian but impermanent structures, all of which were painted white, to contrast with the messy city that lay beyond the fairgrounds. For the "decisive, blunt, and cordial" Burnham, this endeavor was more than just another job; failure would be a crushing blow to his firm and his city, while success could win him entry into professional circles to which his lack of an Ivy League education had previously denied him. Meanwhile, in the fair's long shadow, Holmes' grimmer vision took shape. The demented doctor (born Herman Webster Mudgett) moved to Chicago's Englewood area in 1886 and raised a quirky building -- complete with a gas chamber among its secret horrors -- that he'd eventually rechristen as the World's Fair Hotel. Handsome, with mesmeric blue eyes, Holmes was an charming con man who made his fortune as a psychopathic Bluebeard, marrying and murdering inexperienced young women. Others he killed simply for pleasure, reducing their corpses to skeletons for medical-school use. (Finally caught two years after the fair closed, Holmes admitted to slaying 27 people.) Although Larson explains that these two men never met formally, they were linked by the fair, by their abilities to present fantasy as reality and by the sheer boldness of their respective acts. Burnham's vision was rewarded through imitation, his idealistic "White City" on Lake Michigan inspiring a nationwide movement toward coherent, landscaped urbanism. Holmes' only reward was a hangman's rope, yet the American archetype he embodies -- the suave serial killer -- may have more potency today than the civic dreamer Burnham represents. -- J. Kingston Pierce

Edenbank: The History of a Canadian Pioneer Farm by Oliver N. Wells (Harbour Publishing)

Edenbank Farm was founded in the middle part of the 19th century. Allen Casey Wells passed through the Fraser Valley on his way to the Cariboo goldfields and noted the lush, natural meadows near what is now Chilliwack, British Columbia. In Edenbank the farm's story is told by Oliver Wells, who died in 1970. The work was edited to its present, luscious form by Wells' daughter Marie Weeden and her husband Richard. Though Edenbank is a regional story, the book has a far wider appeal outlining as it does pioneer struggles and challenges that were, at the time, being faced throughout all of the West. One of the things that sets the Wells family apart is the very contemporary practices that guided their stewardship of the land. The author established a bird sanctuary at Edenbank long before thoughts of conservancy were given much thought. Oliver Wells and his wife, Sara helped revive local Salish weaving techniques. The epilogue of Edenbank, written by the Weedens, is tragic. After learning so much about four generations of Wells' and the legacy they built on the banks of the Luckakuck Creek, it's sad to discover that the farm hasn't remained intact. Various plans to keep Edenbank whole -- as a designated heritage site and the campus of a local college -- were thwarted by the provincial government. The family home is still standing: used as a clubhouse for the residents of the subdivision that now covers much of Edenbanks original acres. A sad outcome to an otherwise wonderful story, beautifully presented and illustrated by many historic photos. -- Linda Richards

Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883 by Simon Winchester (HarperCollins)

"I am convinced that the Day of Judgment has come." So fretted a British naval captain in the summer of 1883, as he and his ship, surprised off the coast of Sumatra, sought to ride out monstrous sea waves -- some more than 100 feet high -- produced by volcanic eruptions on the island of Krakatoa, less than 50 miles to the south. As Simon Winchester records in his captivating history, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, over the course of 21 hours, that previously benign upthrust of jungled real estate in Indonesia's Sunda Strait, between Sumatra and Java (in other words, west of Java -- no matter what the 1969 Maximilian Schell/Brian Keith movie insisted), exploded with a violence that hurled most of its 15 square miles of rock, including its 2,600-foot main peak, higher than 20 miles into the sky. More than 36,000 people were killed, mostly by the subsequent tsunamis. The sounds of Krakatoa's death throes were heard almost 3,000 miles away, and the ash cloud it produced enriched the color of sunsets and lowered temperatures around the world. It was, writes Winchester, "the most devastating volcanic event in modern recorded human history." That this blast was recorded is significant. Although Winchester, a geologist and journalist best known for his 1998 book, The Professor and the Madman, devotes much of this work to the attention-grabbing pyrotechnics that reduced Krakatoa to a 1,000-foot hole in the ocean floor, he first addresses Indonesian history, the science of plate tectonics and the development of news-delivery services that could quickly spread word of the catastrophe far and wide. It was partly as a result of this coverage that the eruption of Krakatoa (its name bastardized from the original "Krakatau" by deadline-crazed reporters) is so familiar, even 120 years later, while those of much larger but earlier volcanoes have become the principle province of Jeopardy! contestants. What's more, Krakatoa's history isn't over: Another volcanic island is now growing in exactly the same spot, at 20 feet a year. The explosion that occurred in 1883 will, Winchester writes, "one day repeat itself, and in precisely the same way." -- J. Kingston Pierce

Journeyman: Travels of A Writer by Timothy Findley, edited and introduced by William Whitehead (HarperCollins)

When Timothy Irving Frederick Findley -- Tiff to all who knew him -- died in June of 2002, Canada lost one of her most beloved writers. Author of such celebrated novels as The Wars, Not Wanted on the Voyage and Pilgrim, Findley -- who early in his life was an actor -- also wrote noteworthy plays, including the Governor General's Award-winning Elizabeth Rex and The Stillborn Lover. Journeyman, part memoir, part writer's notebook, part travel journal, is a book that Findley had been working on for a long time. According to Findley's long time partner, William Whitehead -- who edited and introduces Journeyman -- the book started to take shape not long after the publication of Findley's memoirs, Inside Memory, published in 1990. Whitehead writes that "we began to build up on the computer another collection of articles, speeches and journal entries -- this time on the subject of travel." Four of the pieces are date-stamped 2003 and were written by Whitehead and "consist of stories from our travels that I have heard Tiff tell privately. ... For that reason, I have written them in his voice, since the act of writing them was akin to taking dictation from memory." Journeyman is beautifully edited. A gift, I suspect, from a bereft friend and partner to the readers Tiff loved. This is Findley at his most personal, musing on death, 9-11, the theatre and, as promised, his thoughts on both travel and writing. Most poignant are the sharp observations and elegant, poetic thoughts for which he was so well known. For example, a two-line journal entry from 1994: "Q: If you cut the wings from angels, what are you left with then? A: Same as would cut the wings of songbirds: men." -- Linda Richards


The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage by Paul Elie (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Social activist Dorothy Day. Contemplative monk Thomas Merton. Southern Gothic fiction writer Flannery O'Connor. Nineteen-sixties novelist Walker Percy. These four authors seem, at least on the surface, dissimilar. What they had in common was their Catholic faith, which informed their work and lives in unpredictable ways. Paul Elie's interestingly conceived and well-written book traces the connections between this quartet of characters, and finds how each influenced (sometimes tangentially, sometimes clearly) the others. All also had in common a surprising pilgrimage, as Elie's subtitle underscores. Day, a 1920s bohemian and contemporary of Eugene O'Neill's, came to found the activist Catholic Worker movement, which helped inspire would-be novelist Thomas Merton to abandon hedonistic pursuits and join the church. O'Connor, a child of privilege, "devoted her life to the aesthetic contemplation of the grotesque." Percy, who started out to be a doctor, ended up charting the existential illnesses of modern America. A group biography is a special challenge, and Paul Elie has met this one with skill and considerable grace. -- Tom Nolan

The Lord Is My Shepherd by Harold S. Kushner (Knopf)

For anyone who sits through religious services waiting to hear the 23rd Psalm (as I do), this is the book for you. In this charming volume, Rabbi Kushner examines one line of the famous psalm at a time. What do the lines mean? What's their historic significance? What life lessons does each contain? Using concise, easily-accessible language, Kushner brings you insight into one of the most famous prayers in the history of prayer. This useful, inspiring book won't take up much room on the shelf, but its big ideas will set up camp for good in your psyche. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Moneyball by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton)

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, author of Liar's Poker, The New New Thing and Next, wrote this captivating glance at the machinations behind the scenes of a major league baseball team. The author studied the processes of Billy Beane, former player and current general manager of the Oakland Athletics, one of the smaller-market teams in the major leagues. Using lots of numbers-crunching, Beane spearheads a group of forward-thinkers in a revolutionary way of scouting and choosing young players. He prefers college athletes to high school and concentrates on their ability to get on base over rather than slugging the ball out of sight. This goes against the old boys' wisdom, as represented by the brethren of crew cut, tobacco-chewing radar gun-toting scouts. Moneyball has shaken up the philosophies of many fans and decision-makers within the game. Lewis breaks down the process of analyzing players with information that is neither too technical nor too simple to follow. He humanizes the seldom-written-about people in the front office who put the teams together like jigsaw puzzles. In reality, it is more like a chess game, trying to think several moves ahead of the rival ball clubs. Moneyball cracked several bestseller lists in 2003, including The New York Times non-fiction and business lists. -- Ron Kaplan

My Last Sigh by Luis Buñuel (University of Minnesota Press)

Considered by many to be the 20th century's greatest filmmaker, Luis Buñuel begins his "semi-autobiography" with a story about his mother, a woman who, though "in perfect physical health and remarkably agile for her age... no longer recognized her children." The possibility of losing his own memory plagued him throughout the last part of his life. "So far," he writes in My Last Sigh, "I've managed to keep this final darkness at bay." He keeps it at bay throughout, recounting stories from his childhood in Spain, through his memories of Paris in the mid-1920s, his Surrealist period in the early 30s, his adventures in America, then back home in time for the Spanish Civil War and on: making movies throughout. His first film, Un Chien andalou, which he conceived with sometime friend Salvadore Dali, was made in the 1920s. His final film, That Obscure Object of Desire was made in 1977. Between films -- there were 32 in all -- he made adventures and the stories fascinate, even 20 years after his death. "I remember one day in Madrid when Lorca asked Dali to go across the street and buy us tickets for a zarzuela at the Apollo." The story is really about how useless Dali was at anything to do with the real world -- he didn't manage to even get the tickets -- but one can't help saying: That Lorca? That Dali? And, of course, he does in fact mean Garcia Lorca and Salvadore Dali. There is a very filmic quality to My Last Sigh that can't help delight, considering its author: a very talented and very old man when he wrote the book, determined, it seems, to bid his audience adieu in a proper fashion. He did. My Last Sigh is unforgettable: funny, wise, enlightening. Just, I think, what Buñuel was shooting at with this final project. My Last Sigh was originally published in 1983 by Alfred A. Knopf. The University of Minnesota Press has reissued the book in paperback on the 20th anniversary of Buñuel's death. -- Linda Richards

Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image by David Greenberg (W.W. Norton)

David Greenberg's Nixon's Shadow doesn't dwell on the usual stuff of biography. Nor does it attempt an historical reclamation of Nixon's policies, nor is it a revisionist tract that examines Nixon from the privileged vantage point of hindsight. So what exactly is it? In every way, Greenberg's book is one of the most original, and ambitious, books of political analysis to come along in recent years. As the title suggests, it is not a history of Richard Nixon, but a history of his image, both during his political career and after. As an intellectual cultural history of mid-century America, the book succeeds in exposing how Nixon was an early master at political image manipulation, and how the American intellectual and political establishment grappled with the new medium of television and image politics in the 1950s and 60s. Greenberg makes no judgments about Nixon's policies, but illuminates the stagecraft he employed at every step of the way to reinvent himself and play on the fears of the middle class. We see a Nixon who understood the importance of connecting with the first wave of suburbanites in the 1950s; a Nixon who took advantage of the power of television well before many of his contemporaries, and a Nixon who used his family as props in a constantly evolving political game. "Through debates about Nixon's image," Greenberg says, "Americans awakened to the centrality of image making in politics, and this awakening proved to be among his most lasting legacies." What Greenberg picks apart, in impressive detail, are the ways in which people such as the Washington press corps, the New Left, historians, the foreign policy establishment and Nixon's supporters reacted to both the man and the politician. By mining newspapers, journals, diaries, books, magazines, films and television sketches, Greenberg captures the mood of the country at vital points in the 20th century, showing not only how much Nixon got right or wrong, but also showing how the country -- and the chattering classes on the left and right who purport to speak for its citizens -- misunderstood the burgeoning craft of political image making. More importantly, he shows how they misunderstood Nixon himself. -- Paul McLeary

President Kennedy Has Been Shot by The Newseum (Sourcebooks)

This past November 22nd marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. President Kennedy Has Been Shot tackles the event from the point of view of journalists, using interviews, memoirs, and more. The book is filled with sometimes chilling archival black-and-white photographs and includes a fascinating CD -- narrated by Dan Rather -- that captures all the drama and tragedy of that day. For those who were alive then, the moment is frozen in time. For those born since, this book is a document of monumental importance, gathering recollections of those who were there, the human conduits who suppressed their own emotions to channel information to a world that was holding its breath. No matter which group you belong to, this is a must-have. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Quirky Qwerty by Torbjorn Lundmark (Penguin)

This charming book is the most fascinating book of the year. This examination of the typewriter's keys is essentially a biography of the modern keyboard. The etymology of all the letters and symbols illuminate nothing less than a kind of world history contained in those many buttons laid out in front of millions of the computer screens all over the world. That the keyboard is ubiquitous these days comes to seem almost miraculous, given its own history as well as that of the keys that comprise it. Lundmark provides humorous and deeply involving (not to mention addictive) mini-essays on every key. Where the did the F come from? Or the umlaut? Why are the upper- and lower-case letters known as they are? And why are they drawn as they are? Buy this book, and within an hour you'll find yourself looking with a new appreciation at that keyboard you've been taking for granted. -- Tony Buchsbaum


Rising Up, Rising Down by William Vollman (McSweeney's)

Kicking off Rising Up, Rising Down with a walk through the Catacombs of Paris and a graphic visit to a San Francisco morgue, Vollman wastes no time in launching into a grim cataloging of the seemingly endless ways in which we'll wind up pushing up daisies. But this is merely a taste of what is in store in this rambling, far-flung examination of the causes of violence, including his own moral calculus as to what forms of violence are justified, and which fail the ethical standards which history, philosophy and law have set over the ages. The first four volumes of the project comprise the "theoretical" part of the study, and make up an incredibly circular -- and dialectical -- work. Vollman tackles topics such as "Defense of Creed," "Defense of the Self," "Defense of the Homeland," and "Defense of Race," weighing the historical examples of Christ, Ghandi, Cortez, Joan of Arc, Clausewitz, Julius Caesar and Hitler, among other, less famous examples, to derive the justifiability of their actions to either abjure violence, or take up violence's means, to achieve their ends. To try and balance his historical analysis with some more contemporary citations, Volumes five and six are Vollman's own contribution to war journalism, and are thoughtful, harrowing walks through the author's travels through Afghanistan, Yemen, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia, California, Iraq and Columbine, showing that violence exists in many forms, with no one culture or ideology owning a patent on its means and ends. -- Paul McLeary


The Roaring Nineties: A New History of the World's Most Prosperous Decade by Joseph E. Stiglitz (W.W. Norton)

Despite the volume of punditry on the legacy of the Clinton presidency, little of substance has been written about his economic policies. As publishers surely know, Monica moves more units than a study of banking regulation reform. Joseph Stiglitz is a different kind of politico, though, and The Roaring Nineties is a sober look at the economic policies of the Clinton administration from a man who served as chairman of the administration's Council of Economic Advisors, before moving on to become senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank and winning a Nobel Prize in Economics in 2001. The problem in the 90s, Stiglitz says, was an overeager reliance on the market to solve market inequality, leading to a rash of ill-advised deregulation schemes, particularly in the telecom sector, which led directly to the Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia and Anderson debacles. Stiglitz feels that we must reconfirm government's role in managing the economy, while leaving the market enough room to make its own decisions. This way, the marriage of democracy and free markets, which has served the United States so well up to this point, will be strengthened. Our economy is strong not because the government stays out of the market, but because the government takes a role in it. If we are to encourage growth, protect consumers, ensure social justice both at home and abroad and continue our lead in technological innovation, we must remember that both democracy and capitalism require work, and that for both to function properly, corporations must be accountable citizens, the government must operate with long term goals in mind, and the citizenry must act as a watchdog to ensure that the interplay between public and private remains strong. -- Paul McLeary


Schott's Original Miscellany by Ben Schott (Bloomsbury)

American Dinner Slang. OPEC Members. Oft Confused Words. These are three of the many categories found in this charming reference book. First published in England, it appeared in the U.S. earlier this year and caused a sensation -- in my mind. I was taken with its collection of not-at-all useless information right away. It's not so much a book you read as one you flip through, and you'll find something new to amaze you on every page. What are the Classical Column Types? Here you'll find their names and simple line drawings, lest you find yourself confused. What's the recipe for a Martini? Which countries have compulsory voting? What are the names of the various types of murders? What must you know about caviar? Who owned some of the world's most famous horses? What blood types are compatible with others? (You'll find all this on pages 26 and 27.) Schott's Original Miscellany is unlike any book you own. It's part encyclopedia, part random-access dictionary, part book-of-lists, and all absolutely essential. -- Tony Buchsbaum

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach (W.W. Norton & Company)

So, I'm sitting in my doctor's office reading this book about cadavers. And I'm laughing. I find myself looking around, hoping that no one notices. Then, I hope someone does, for it would allow me the opportunity to yap about Stiff, a book filled with the most arcane, yet fascinating information about putrification, cannibalism and the marvels of entomology. After reading Stiff, I now look at the world in a slightly different way, and am thankful for all those anonymous folk who have donated their bodies to medical research. Mary Roach, a columnist for Salon and Reader's Digest, tells a fascinating tale about what happens behind closed coffin lids, employing black humor to make approachable a subject that most of us wouldn't go near without the excuse of a funeral. Her introductory line sets the tone: "The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent on your back." And the fun doesn't stop there. We're brought up to date on car collision studies, offered startling insights into the history of cadaver research, and told about organ transplants and plastic surgery seminars in which face-lift techniques are demonstrated on severed heads. Roach leaves no gravestone unturned. She asks the sort of questions that the rest of us would want to, but wouldn't dare. Her descriptions are thorough, but not necessarily graphic or gruesome. The author treats her subject with respect and curiosity, even as her tongue is planted firmly in her cheek. Two of the most riveting chapters concern the ethics of cadaver and crucifixion research, each comparing modern and historical perspectives on the scruples of death. Wrapping up with a focus on "life" after cremation, Roach introduces readers to the diametrically opposed alternatives of plastification and composting. This author's ability to humanely, yet humorously, describe the macabre is oddly appealing. I'd picked up Stiff, expecting a dry tome. Instead, I found a compulsive read, a book about death that is rampant with life. -- Jennifer Jordan


The Teammates by David Halberstam (W.W. Norton)

David Halberstam's nostalgic book, The Teammates, shared the spotlight with Moneyball on the Times' non-fiction bestseller list for a few weeks. (In fact, the June 29 list featured four sports titles in the top ten, including Me and My Dad, by former New York Yankees star Paul O'Neill, and Who's Your Caddy? By Rick Reilly, a columnist for Sports Illustrated.) Halberstam wrote about four alumni of the Boston Red Sox -- Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky -- whose friendship endured long after their playing days ended, despite Williams' prickly personality. As Williams' life was drawing to an end in 2002, DiMaggio and Pesky made the cross-country drive from the West Coast to say good-bye. Doerr, unable to leave his ailing wife, accompanied them in spirit. The author of eloquent volumes on matters important (The Best and the Brightest; The Children) and comparatively trivial (Summer of '49 and Breaks of the Game) brings his readers to misty eyes as he intermingles the past glories of youth with the realities of advanced age. Together, Moneyball and The Teammates helped make baseball more accessible to those who aren't obsessed with statistics, but love the game for its human side. -- Ron Kaplan

True Notebooks: A Writer's Year at Juvenile Hall by Mark Salzman (Alfred A. Knopf)

The non-fiction True Notebooks seems like a grim idea for a book: Accomplished novelist and memoirist Mark Salzman (Lying Awake, Iron and Silk) documents a year spent visiting a Southern California holding jail, conducting a writers' workshop for often-violent youthful offenders. What makes True Notebooks not at all a dreary work, though, but instead a thoughtful, funny, even joyous one, are Salzman's formidable skills as a storyteller, and the people (prisoners, guards and a caring nun) with whom he interacts. The reader comes to know Salzman's students as he did: in classroom encounters and through their written assignments (many of which are printed throughout the book). Those students emerge as troubled but worthwhile individuals. Only later, after a court visit, does the full seriousness of their crimes become clear to Salzman (and to us). By then it's too late to write them off as irredeemable sociopaths. True Notebooks -- thanks to its skillful, caring author and its surprising subjects -- is an extraordinary and unforgettable book. -- Tom Nolan

What's A Black Critic to Do? by Donna Bailey Nurse (Insomniac Press)

"I never set out to be a critic," writes Donna Bailey Nurse in the introduction to her first book, What's A Black Critic to Do? "although now it seems like the only thing I was ever meant to be." She's good at it, too. Even if her book wasn't themed around the work of black writers, it would be worthwhile. Bailey Nurse's observations are sharp and keen, her humor ready, her claws mostly sheathed, but happily available when necessary. The theme, however, sets it apart. Has anyone sliced a book in quite this way before? If so, certainly not in Canada, where Bailey Nurse writes and lives. And she is, in her own words, "a black woman writer. If race makes its way into a discussion, this is the position I take." What's A Black Critic to Do? anthologizes the reviews and profiles Bailey Nurse has done with black writers -- mostly Canadian -- over the last decade. Profiles and interviews with Austin Clarke, Toni Morrison, George Elliot Clarke, Cecil Foster, Lawrence Hill, Andre Alexis, Jamaica Kincaid, Dionne Brand, Ken Burns and others. Reviews of books by Hannah Crafts, Nalo Hopkinson, David Odhiambo, Sybil Seaforth, Alice Walker and more. What emerges is a frank conversation about literature, writing and the role race plays in those things and beyond. What's A Black Critic to Do? is an important book. -- Linda Richards

When the Body Says No by Gabor Maté (Knopf Canada)

One of the best non-fiction titles I have ever encountered, and certainly the most insightful and human medical book. Gabor Maté is a physician with definite opinions on social ills, particularly the chronic stress which he fees is rampant in our culture today. He sees this grinding force as a prime underpinning of such immune-related diseases as ALS, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer. Maté argues convincingly and with great passion that repressed emotion (particularly anger, which he feels is necessary to protect personal boundaries) plays havoc with the immune system and can erupt through the body in organic disease. His interviews with people struggling with illness brim with compassion and a kind of professional tenderness, yet he is also a hard-nosed man of medicine who backs up his beliefs with evidence from the burgeoning field of psychoneuroimmunology. Maté is convinced that if you can't say no to the inordinate demands of the world and the people in it, your body will say no for you in the form of chronic illness. Even if you don't buy his basic premise, When the Body Says No is written with such grace and elegance that it is hard to put down. This book was an epiphany for me and illuminated the kind of ingrained generational patterns of stress that can lead to serious illness. It has the potential to change and even save lives. -- Margaret Gunning

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