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Best In Books 

CL reviewers revisit some of their favorite reads of 2005

Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by Anthony Shadid (Henry Holt hardback). In Night Draws Near, Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Arab-American reporter of Lebanese descent, presents a poignant corrective to our ignorance. He uses his fluency in Arabic and cultural empathy to get closer to real Iraqis than literally any other American reporter in the region. Shadid entered Iraq before the 2003 invasion and made numerous contacts among the people. He experienced the invasion and war in their midst, followed their fortunes, and documented their observations in the year that followed. Consequently, we get a ground-level view of the Iraqi people.­ -- Bruce Nims

American Dreaming and Other Stories by Doris Iarovici (Novello Festival hardback). The winner of NFP's 2005 Literary Award for this sterling collection, Iarovici has created an exciting look at the ironies of modern American life and immigrant experience. Iarovici is, as Chekhov was, a physician. The economy of a short story has suited her busy life, and she rides the unforgiving form for all it's worth. Iarovici delivers fully loaded, carefully described characters and creates mood by attention to the most telling collections of inanimate objects. Her mastery of dialogue seems enriched by insights that could only stem from observing and treating patients. -- Melinda Farbman

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami (Knopf paperback). If Murakami had simply imported the Western bildungsroman, or novel of growth and maturation, to Japan in the person of Kafka Tamura, he wouldn't have accomplished anything original, but Murakami's plot transcends narrative cliché in spectacular fashion. Kafka's adventures bring to life a distinctive, post-modern environment where the spiritual, psychological and objective components of reality merge to an amazing degree. Kafka on the Shore is not a book for readers who like their mysteries solved on the last page. Instead, it uses mystery as the raw material for the experiences it depicts. -- Bruce Nims

St. Dale by Sharyn McCrumb (Kensington hardback). St. Dale is a rollicking tale about a group of people on a bus embarking on a Dale Earnhardt Memorial Tour to leave a wreath at every track between Bristol and Daytona in memory of The Intimidator. McCrumb modeled the form for this narrative after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. "I thought you could update this story if you could just decide who the saint would be. And I thought, right, if you had the Canterbury pilgrims in the Southeast US heading for a shrine, the homeboy saint would be Dale," said McCrumb. St. Dale might not be for every Intimidator fan. It's not a down and dirty racing story or an "in-the-pits-with-the-crew" kind of thing. This is a story about personal relationships and how those friendships make little everyday miracles we sometimes take for granted. -- Ann Wicker

Pride of Carthage by David Anthony Durham (Anchor paperback). Hurry. Quick -- before Hollywood decides to let Ron Howard or Oliver Stone ruin another epic story -- grab a copy of David Anthony Durham's fizzy account of Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca's blood-soaked military marches. In Pride of Carthage, the young novelist conjures a cinematic vision of ancient warfare, tribal feuds, violence, cruelty, crushing homesickness and infinite suffering all around. Alternating between scenes of domestic melancholy and roiling military engagements, Pride of Carthage presents Hannibal as an insatiable warrior, a restless but dedicated family man, and an aggrieved believer in destiny. -- Erik Spanberg

The Evil B.B. Chow & Other Stories by Steve Almond (Algonquin hardback). Almond deals with sex and the sticky complications of human intimacy in a similarly explicit and adult (as in grown-up, not porno) manner, but what makes his latest collection so impressive is that he's broadened his emotional palette and craftsmanship to the point where mention of his name alongside our best contemporary short story writers -- Tobias Wolff, Tim O'Brien, Lorrie Moore -- seems equally sensible. ­-- John Schacht

A Sudden Country by Karen Fisher (Random House paperback). Karen Fisher has written the kind of debut novel that makes you wonder how many other brilliant writers are out there being farmers, wranglers, teachers, carpenters or parents. Fisher is all those things and, luckily for us, has written about them -- well enough to get published to rave reviews. Her language is poetic: spare and graceful, the dialogue serving characters only when their rich internal words must meet in an exchange, and then the spoken language carries only the essence of evolving relationships. -- Melinda Farbman

Spanking the Donkey: Dispatches from the Dumb Season by Matt Taibbi (New Press hardback). Muckraking Taibbi took acid during debates, donned a gorilla costume to question John Kerry, and sought out real people instead of settling for scripted photo-ops. The result is a hilariously acerbic take on the made-for-TV candidates and the media who create them. ­-- Karen Shugart

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