Side dishes that attracted notice this year
The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton, by Jane Smiley
Random House, $26
Jane Smiley has written an alternative to "Huckleberry Finn," focusing the discussion of slavery in a way Huck never does. Lidie marries an activist in the abolition movement and finds herself in the Kansas Territory on the eve of the Civil War. The tale is full of remarkable characters, particularly the narrator, whose descriptions of life strip away romantic notions of simpler times.
By Ron Charles
BLACK AND BLUE, by Anna Quindlen
Random House, $22.50
Through the story of a courageous woman who flees her abusive husband, Anna Quindlen deftly explores the rocky emotional terrain of love and marriage, choices and consequences. With the help of an underground network, Fran secretly takes her 10-year-old son to a small Florida town, where she gradually learns to overcome the isolation of her new fugitive life. Its aching sadness is redeemed in part by its tender portrait of indomitable maternal love.
By Marilyn Gardner
BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY, by Helen Fielding Viking, $22.95
Thirtysomething Londoner Bridget Jones is desperate to lose weight, stop smoking, and find a man. A year of dryly witty diary entries follow her through a series of disastrous dates, family crises, and work fiascos. This is light satire at its best. Bridget's diary lets us into the head of a self-obsessed yet appealing woman and her struggle to be self-confident and independent.
By Susan Llewelyn Leach
CHARMING BILLY, by Alice McDermott
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22
This National Book Award winner takes place around the funeral of an affable Irishman who spent 30 years drowning his pain in alcohol after his love, Eva, died. Herein lies the tragedy: Eva's death was concocted by a cousin who must consider whether he was trying to protect Billy or sustain his own fantasies of romance. The narrator struggles to divine the true substance of an unrealized dream or a lifetime of grief based on a false report.
By Ron Charles
CITIES OF THE PLAIN, by Cormac McCarthy Alfred A. Knopf, $25
Actions speak louder than words. Protagonists John Grady Cole and Billy Parham, from the first two books of Cormac McCarthy's "Border Trilogy," don't talk much about friendship, honesty, love, and fate, but their actions show what those words mean as they work a ranch destined for nuclear testing. McCarthy's detailed descriptions of the world make this book so much more than just a western.
By Phelippe Salazar
DAMASCUS GATE, by Robert Stone
Houghton Mifflin, $26
Christopher Lucas is an American journalist on assignment in Jerusalem to investigate religious fanatics in the early 1990s. The city, replete with its ancient mysteries, engulfs him, and before long he finds himself enmeshed in an intricate web of eclectic personalities, many of whom intersect as part of a plot to bomb the sacred Temple Mount.
By Kerry A. Flatley
I KNOW THIS MUCH IS TRUE, by Wally Lamb HarperCollins, $28.50
Meet Dominick, an emotionally troubled man, who's trying to save his paranoid-schizophrenic twin from both himself and the state. His family history is a catalog of every horror known to postwar America. While the sheer volume of catastrophes strains credibility, Wally Lamb's thoughtful writing and the exploration of family and redemption lifts the novel above a Jerry Springer-like baseness. Contains much physical abuse, rape, and profanity.
By Yvonne Zipp
I MARRIED A COMMUNIST, by Philip Roth Houghton Mifflin, $26
Ira emerges from World War II as a radical Marxist and America's greatest radio star. Even as the "red scare" grips the US, he remains oblivious to how precarious his position is. The story should be pathetic melodrama, but the telling by Ira's angry brother makes it fascinating. Philip Roth suggests that the process of being taken in and disappointed by some radical idea is a necessary step toward maturity.
By Ron Charles
AN INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST
By Iain Pears, Putnam, $27
Iain Pears gives readers the enjoyable task of sorting out just how far they can trust the testimony of four witnesses to a murder in 17th-century England. An Oxford professor has been poisoned. His servant confesses to the crime. The underlying tangle involves conspiracies reaching back a decade to Cromwell, and unraveling the puzzle involves cryptography, rudimentary forensic science, obscure Christian theory, and a distinguished cast.
By Yvonne Zipp
THE LAST FULL MEASURE, by Jeffrey M. Shaara Ballantine, $25
This is the final chapter in a series about the Civil War begun by Jeffrey Shaara's father, Michael, author of "The Killer Angels." Here, the author addresses how the country survived the conflict, taking the story to its end: Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Shaara artfully blends novelistic license with a reverence for history. The chapters swing from gray to blue, with emphasis on Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant.
By Keith Henderson
Paradise, by Toni Morrison, Alfred A. Knopf, $25
Toni Morrison tells the story of a remote, all-black Oklahoma town founded in 1949 as a "paradise" of stability and safety. But the effects of racism on relationships among blacks warp values and stir paranoia, leading to the grisly murder in 1976 of women in a commune on the outskirts of town. The irony in the book's title finds expression in the complications of returning to paradise through a history of strife.
By Ron Charles
A PATCHWORK PLANET, by Anne Tyler
Barnaby, a rebellious and crime-ridden teenager, is now an adult working for "Rent-a-Back," doing chores for elderly and disabled clients. Despite the work's charitable nature, Barnaby receives only criticism from his unforgiving parents who believe his employment should have more of a reputation and permanent significance. Tyler is a specialist at portraying the pain of middle-class misfits and a master at bitter-sweet comedy.
By Ron Charles
A WIDOW FOR ONE YEAR, by John Irving
Random House, $27.95
In three episodes, this story recounts Ruth Coles's struggle to grow out of an emotionally neglected childhood. Irving is a master at crafting convincing, complex, comic characters and turning them loose in outrageous situations. An additional treat is that all the characters are writers, and Irving shares what are surely some of his own views on writing.
By Tom Toth
THE 20TH CENTURY CHILDREN'S BOOK TREASURY, edited by Janet Schulman
Flipping through this book is like perusing a well-stocked library shelf. It's a collection of more than 40 tales, from old favorites like "Make Way for Ducklings" to modern choices like "Stellaluna." Fortunately, this is not a volume of abridged retellings. In all but a few cases, it offers complete stories and illustrations from original books.
By Karen Carden
The New How Things Work
By David Macaulay, Houghton Mifflin, $35
A decade after the original "The Way Things Work," David Macaulay and his wooly mammoth character are back. This expanded and revised edition takes on the digital domain of technology. In addition to the levers, pulleys, and inclined planes of the earlier book, readers can now learn about scanners, modems, and the Internet.
By Karen Carden
CITIZEN SOLDIERS, by Stephen E. Ambrose Simon & Schuster, $27.50
Stephen Ambrose has written another superb book that weaves World War II history into compelling human drama. The front-line soldier tells the story here. His heroism and the brutality of his fox-hole-bound existence are unstintingly portrayed. So are the sometimes shocking failings of his superior officers. It's an eye-opener, showing the heights of character forged by war and war's depths.
By Keith Henderson
THE GIFT OF THE JEWS, by Thomas Cahill Doubleday, $23.50
In this second book of his "Hinges of History" series, Thomas Cahill argues that the seeds of almost all the ideas we hold dear and sometimes even fear (freedom, individuality, justice, compassion, capitalism, communism) are in the story of the Jews in the Old Testament. It's this story that set Western civilization on its unique path.
By Tom Regan
IS THE TEMPERATURE RISING? THE UNCERTAIN SCIENCE OF GLOBAL WARMING, by S. George Philander,
Princeton U. Press, $29.95
Understanding the answers to simple questions like "where do clouds come from" is essential to confronting the biggest atmospheric question of all: Is human activity causing undesirable climate change? Philander guides us through this learning experience with wit and clarity, explaining the science without being nerdish.
By Robert Cowen
LEANING INTO THE WIND: WOMEN WRITE FROM THE HEART OF THE WEST
Edited by Nancy Curtis, Linda Hasselstrom and Gaydell Collier, Houghton Mifflin, $25
Three Wyoming ranch women have put together a compelling anthology of farm women's stories.Written simply and honestly by women who grew up farmers or those who moved from the city, their stories take us into the hearts, barns, and kitchens of more than 200 women from six Western states.
By Elizabeth Brown
News is a Verb: Journalism At the End of The Twentieth Century
By Pete Hamill, Ballantine, $8.95
This book is all Pete Hamill, which means lots of punch but no sourness after 40 years in journalism. It's a scattered gush of ideas rooted in the conviction that better newspapers are needed. Hamill aims this position paper in two directions: back to the old-fashioned tabloid values and fun that shaped him, and forward to what newspapers ought to do now.
By David Holmstrom
THE RAPE OF NANKING, by Iris Chang Basic Books, $25
This account of the "forgotten holocaust" covers a six-week period in 1937 in which genocide was committed against Chinese citizens by the Japanese Imperial Army. It tells the story from the perspective of three groups: the Japanese soldiers, the Chinese, and the Americans and Europeans who helped save many lives. Contains graphic depictions of brutality.
By Leigh Montgomery
SECRECY: The American Experience, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan Yale U. Press, $22.50
Sen. Daniel Moynihan explains how secrecy has come to be a culture of its own in United States government. Tracing its roots back to World War I, he describes how secrecy has injured the nation and explores options for what to do about it.
By Stansfield Turner
SHAKESPEARE: The invention of the human, by Harold Bloom Riverhead Books, $35
This study grew out of the lifetime work of Harold Bloom, a supernova of American literary criticism. Here, he brings in heavyweights from Western literature, philosophy, religion, and psychology - and lays them to the measure of Shakespeare's sublime transcendence. In the professional sense, this isn't a scholarly work. It's congenial to the nonscholar.
By Norman Anderson
T.R.: THE LAST ROMANTIC
By H.W. Brands, Basic Books, $35
H.W. Brands' biography of Teddy Roosevelt reveals no hidden dark sides. He does suggest that T.R.'s "romantic" views let him see his life as a clear-cut battle between good and evil. Arguably the most famous American on earth when he left the White House, Roosevelt still belongs in august company, as this engaging book amply shows.
By Greg Lamb
TITAN: THE LIFE OF JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER SR., by Ron Chernow Random House, $30
Everything you ever wanted to know about John D. Rockefeller Sr. and then some. Ron Chernow details the environment, opportunity, and personality that combined to make an ambitious young man into an icon of capitalism. In doing so, he also makes the icon a human being.
By Phelippe Salazar
WAGING PEACE: HOW EISENHOWER SHAPED AN ENDURING COLD WAR
STRATEGY, by Robert R. Bowie and Richard H. Immerman, Oxford U. Press, $49.95
This book is a detailed account of the American role in the middle phase of the cold war, taking the story to 1960 when containment is set as the basic strategy for US policy against Soviet communism. But what comes out most clearly is the firmness of Eisenhower's control and his own conviction that the worst thing that could happen would be a nuclear war.
By Joseph Harsch
A WALK IN THE WOODS, by Bill Bryson Doubleday, $25
Take a verbal romp over hill and dale on the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. Bill Bryson has one of the wryest senses of humor of any current American writer. His self-mocking rendition of spending a small fortune on the "necessary" high-tech camping gear is hilarious. Hype about potential catastrophes encountered on the hike makes the point that only the well-conditioned or foolhardy tackle this trail.
By Jim Bencivenga
A WORLD TRANSFORMED
by George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, Knopf, $30
The Bush administration witnessed profound global changes - the dissolution of communism, the Soviet Union, and the cold war. This is a behind-the-scenes look at the US role during these events and a rare insight into the mechanics of an administration that lived through an epochal period.
By Seth Jones
WHY CHRISTIANITY MUST CHANGE OR DIE, by John S. Spong, Harper, $24
A self-described "believer in exile," John Spong is no stranger to theological controversy. He reexamines Christian creeds to strip away what he sees as outmoded, exclusive dogma and tradition. His journey includes redefining God, heaven, ethics, prayer, worship, and the distinction between Jesus and the Christ. By Valerie Parrott