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Crummy Year, Great Books 

2001 offered lots of good reading

For such a lousy year (terrorist attacks, war, stolen election, recession, you name it), last year sure delivered a bumper crop of good reading. Even in a time when book publishers are being swallowed left and right by giant, roster-clearing conglomerates, the power of the word triumphed. Locally, our own library system became the first in the nation to start its own in-house press. Nationwide, book sales were up even in the midst of the economic downturn, and surveys showed more people are spending part of their spare time with a book. Plus, when's the last year a literary controversy was big news? The Oprah Winfrey/Jonathan Franzen dust-up that followed Franzen's lukewarm reaction to his novel The Corrections being chosen for the talk show queen's book club may have been more dissed-celebrity news than a lit debate, but the tiff served the purpose of airing out some of the divisions among American readers. In the end, Franzen went on to (deservedly) win the National Book Award, and public awareness of books was raised. Following is a list, in no particular order, of some of CL critics' favorite books of 2001, not including the already-mentioned The Corrections.

Fiction

True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. The astonishing Carey, author of Oscar and Lucinda, won his second Booker Prize by putting himself in the place of notorious Australian Victorian-era bandit Ned Kelly and tells the complex, chilling, and hilarious story of his life as a rogue, freedom fighter, and folk hero.

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey. A book to raise the hair on the back of your neck, this is the story of Scottish girl Eva McEwen whose big secret is the presence of her "companions," a woman and a young girl who are invisible to everyone else, but who advise her, for good and bad, throughout her life.

Paradise Park by Allegra Goodman. Goofy yet true to life, wonderful yet nerve-wracking, this novel tells the story of a young Jewish woman in search of religious ecstasy who tries everything from strict fundamentalism to New Age fantasies to, well, just being herself. Oh, and it takes place in Hawaii.

John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead. An ambitious novel set around an annual celebration of John Henry, the legendary black railroad worker, this book features a fascinating lead character whose immersion in shallow, contemporary PR and America's voracious consumer culture is the perfect counterpoint to Henry's (and his era's) authenticity.

Yonder Stands Your Orphan by Barry Hannah. A master of darkly hilarious, though occasionally disjointed, Southern fiction, Hannah brings to life a cast of characters that serves as a kind of hallucinatory reflection of our culture's own warped values.

Niagara Falls All Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken. A fast-moving, funny novel about a vaudeville and film comedy duo, from the author of The Giant's House. McCracken's tale turns into an astute story about human relationships of all kinds, while laying on the dark humor pretty thick, all tied up by a galloping, imaginative narrative.

The Savage Girl by Alex Shakar. A wild satire of our hot, crazed pursuit of trends, The Savage Girl is about a young woman who moves to Middle City and goes to work as a "trendspotter" for a demonic marketing genius. Tragic, hilarious, innovative, and eye-opening, as well as one hell of a ride.

Martyr's Crossing by Amy Wilentz. This tense, well-crafted novel takes place in Israel, where a tragic, unintended incident at a highway checkpoint leads to a moving, unsentimental look at the lives of a Palestinian mother and an Israeli soldier.

The Practical Heart by Allan Gurganus. Four novellas by one of the state's finest writers, this book takes place in Gurganus' favorite fictional town, Falls, NC. He sidesteps cliched Southernisms and tells compelling stories about people who are largely impractical dreamers who make the decision to live their lives over the edge of the norm.

Non-Fiction

Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama: The Climactic Battle of the Civil Rights Revolution by Diane McWhorter. A daughter of "Bombingham's" white elite, McWhorter wrote an exhaustive history of her hometown's almost unbearably intense civil rights struggles, while revealing how this pivotal era affected the lives of its citizens including her own contentious family.

Jack Cole and Plastic Man by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd. Spiegelman, creator of the acclaimed Maus, and Kidd, the hotshot book designer of the moment, team up to pay tribute to Jack Cole, a wildly imaginative cartoonist who created the tongue-in-cheek, surreal crimefighter Plastic Man in the 1940s, -- and was one of the artists responsible for provoking the 50s' anti-comics hysteria via his work for EC Comics. His proto-psychedelic work is generously reprinted here, along with Spiegelman's loving tribute.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. One of America's most engaging political writers joined the ranks of the working poor in various jobs to explore the possibility of working oneself out of poverty in today's economy. An eye-opener in both social and political senses, Ehrenreich's book should be required reading for politicians (and those who believe them) who make a career out of bashing the poor.

Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981-1991 by Michael Azerrad. Good cultural journalism that offers a rich look into the indie rock scene that developed in the 80s and died out after it finally gained mainstream success.

Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden. Another fast-paced reads-like-a-novel work of journalism from the author of Black Hawk Down. Bowden tells the amazing story of the American government's deep (and patently illegal) involvement in the long, ultimately successful hunt for Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cocaine cartel in Colombia.

On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles. A splendid biography that also serves as a moving social history of the early 20th century. Walker, an African American woman born to a poor family, earned an immense fortune -- and her independence -- with a line of hair-straightening products and became a heroine to the country's black population as well as a leading philanthropist and an advocate of women's rights.

Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco. A powerful book, in comic-book format, that takes place in Bosnia, offering sobering and illuminating insights into the nature of humans' experience of war.

Ava's Man by Rick Bragg. The author of the acclaimed All Over But The Shoutin' has written another family saga, this time about his Appalachian rounder of a grandfather. A compelling look at a forgotten time and place, and wonderful tales that, as in Bragg's previous book, show the implicit worth of ordinary people's lives.

River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. A compelling memoir by a man who taught English in Fuling, China, a city scheduled to be deluged by a new dam. A vivid, enthralling examination of the often frustrated attempts of members of each culture to understand the other. *

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