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A book end to the year

A personal, idiosyncratic list of notable books

By Todd Leopold

Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America": A fever dream that lingers, and one of the best books of 2004.
"Eye on Entertainment" talks about the weekend's happenings on CNN's "Live Today" between 10 a.m. and noon ET Thursday.
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(CNN) -- I'm in a monthly face-to-face book club. I post to an Internet book group. I try to read, on average, a book a week, and if I don't have a book in my hand while I'm waiting in line or seated in a doctor's office, I get antsy.

So I love books. Indeed, I can imagine few things better to do during a lazy day than sit in the chair by the bay window in my house and read for an hour -- or four.

What have I been reading? Glad you asked. Following is an unabashedly self-indulgent list of the 10 (OK, 12) best books I read from 2004 -- or in 2004. (Much to my surprise, with only one exception all are from the last three years. So much for the classics this year.) I've ranked them, roughly, from my favorites on down.

  • "Empire Falls" by Richard Russo (Vintage paper, 2002): I don't know how Russo does it, managing to straddle the line between farcical comedy and brutal tragedy with a deceiving lightness. Moreover, the guy evokes his broken-down Northeastern towns and gritty, all-too-real characters -- in this case, a Maine diner owner, his desperate ex-wife, layabout father and various family and friends -- with a precision that one can only admire ... and envy. (I can't wait for the movie, due next year on HBO.)
  • "Middlesex" by Jeffrey Eugenides (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002): Eugenides' tale of a hermaphrodite and his family mixes a history of modern Detroit, questions of sexual identity and a colorful coming-of-age story into a beautifully written novel.
  • "America: The Book" by Jon Stewart and the staff of "The Daily Show" (Warner, 2004): Like the old "Saturday Night Live" ad that raved about "a floor wax and a dessert topping!", this is a civics book -- and a sharp parody of a civics book! Clever, hilarious and -- underneath it all -- surprisingly true.
  • "A Prayer for the City" by Buzz Bissinger (Vintage paper, 1998): I'm a sucker for books about cities and their personalities, and Bissinger's book about Ed Rendell's first term as mayor of Philadelphia is one of the best -- right up there with Robert Caro's monumental "The Power Broker." (See story about Bissinger and the movie version of his "Friday Night Lights." )
  • "Old School" by Tobias Wolff (Knopf, 2003): A novel of slim, well-crafted chapters -- so distinct they read like short stories -- about a year at boarding school, alternately funny, heartbreaking and wistful.
  • "Getting Personal" (Basic, 2003) and "Waterfront" (Crown, 2004) by Phillip Lopate: The master of the personal essay offers a collection of his work through the years and a series of articles about a walk around Manhattan. Reading them is like taking a course in writing honestly and well. (Read a story about Lopate.)
  • "Jarhead" by Anthony Swofford (Scribner, 2003): Swofford, a Marine sniper during the first Gulf War, pulls no punches in this brutal picture of life during wartime. Hell, indeed. (Read a story about Swofford.)
  • "Chronicles, Volume One" by Bob Dylan (Simon & Schuster, 2004): Who knew that Bob Dylan was once a human being, who really lived in northern Minnesota, was awed by Greenwich Village musicians and liked to take motorcycle rides into small-town Louisiana? Thank goodness Bob did.
  • "How Israel Lost" by Richard Ben Cramer (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and "Still Life with Bombers" by David Horovitz (Knopf, 2004): Events appear to have overtaken these two books, written -- by an American and Israeli journalist, respectively -- during the worst of the recent intifada. But Cramer's impressionistic outsider's view and Horovitz's clear-eyed insider's take should be required reading for anyone who wants to know the truth about the Middle East.
  • "The Plot Against America" by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, 2004): At first, I really struggled with Roth's book, an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 and anti-Semitism takes hold. There are times in which his reality collides with historical deus ex machina. But looked at as a fever dream, which is finally how it feels, the book lingers for a long time after the cover is closed. (Read a column about Roth.)
  • Honorable mention: "Tobacco Road" (1932), Erskine Caldwell; "The Numbers Game" (2004), Alan Schwarz; "Mother Tongue" (1990), Bill Bryson; "Nixon's Shadow" (2003), David Greenberg; "In the Shadow of No Towers" (2004), Art Spiegelman.
  • Now, Eye on Entertainment looks forward to next year.


    And like most avid readers, I've got several books lined up to go -- and some I'd like to add to my never-decreasing pile.

    Top of that list is Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," which led the recent New York Times Book Review's top 10 and has earned nothing but raves everywhere I've looked. Robinson's first novel in more than 20 years is told through the diary of a Midwestern clergyman and has been called "luminously spiritual."

    Already in my pile is Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons," about a naive girl and her college experience, which has not gotten good reviews -- but it's Wolfe, and I've read almost everything he's written, going back to "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby."

    And I'm intrigued by Kevin Starr's 1989 book "Material Dreams," one of his series on the history of California -- this particular volume dealing with the 1920s, the era in which William Mulholland's Owens Valley water grab, Aimee Semple McPherson's Foursquare Gospel and the movie business' excess all dominated.

    And then there was the big news of the week -- and likely to be the big news through next summer: the word that J.K. Rowling had finished Book VI in the Harry Potter series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince." (See story.)

    The new book is slated for release July 16, and is already No. 1 on both's and's best-seller lists, thanks to advance orders. If you're buying at a bookstore, I'd suggest getting in line sometime in late May.

    In the meantime, I'll be in my chair. Or somewhere else with a book.

    On screen

  • Ben Stiller can't hide his embarrassment when he brings his soon-to-be in-laws -- played by Robert De Niro and Blythe Danner -- to "Meet the Fockers," his parents, played by Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand. The film opened Wednesday. (See Paul Clinton's review.)
  • Personally, I can't think of two names that fill me with more fear than "Joel Schumacher" and "Andrew Lloyd Webber." Which means that "Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera" would likely scare the bejabbers out of me -- though not for the right reasons. The film version of the popular musical stars Emily Rossum and opened Wednesday. (See review.)
  • If watching classic Saturday morning cartoon characters come to life is your thing, then you won't want to miss "Fat Albert," which opens Christmas Day. Hey, hey, hey.
  • Director Wes Anderson's dollhouse-careful films are either just darling or too precious, depending on your view. His latest, "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," stars Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum and Cate Blanchett. It opens wide Christmas Day.
  • On the tube

  • "I love you, old building and loan!" "Mary!" "Get me. I'm givin' out wings." The annual celebration of how one man stared down a big ol' bank run by Mr. Burns -- uh, Mr. Potter -- and discovered the true meaning of Christmas, "It's a Wonderful Life," has its network airing 8 p.m. Christmas Day on NBC.
  • Over on ABC, the story of the singing Von Trapp family, "The Sound of Money" -- uh, "Music" -- airs at the same time. I'm backing Jimmy Stewart.
  • Sound waves

  • "The Singles 1984-2004" by a-Ha (WEA) comes out Tuesday. Make your own joke here.
  • Video center

  • "Garden State," Zach Braff's film about a shattered actor who comes home for his mother's funeral, is out Tuesday.
  • "Anchorman," starring Will Ferrell as a '70s San Diego news king, comes out Tuesday.

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