The Free-Times didn't post my Top Five of 2003 on-line, so here it is:
Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles -- This fantastically readable history places the famous outlaw in glaring perspective: as a kind of fundamentalist terrorist with a raw political talent both for exploiting Southern fears and capitalizing on publicity. Besides telling a riveting story, Stiles debunks the James myth, such as it is: by hitting banks and railroads, James and his fellow thugs didn’t do much more than wreck the economic interests of the farmers they claimed to be helping.
Reporting Civil Rights (Library of America) -- Monumental two-volume collection of reportage of the Civil Rights Movement, stretching from before World War II to the early 1970s. Includes terrific on-the-spot reports, first-person encounters, and brilliant profiles of key players, both by the best writers of the era and many who are less well-known but who speak just as strongly. Whether you were there or not, this compilation is an education: an infuriating, heart-breaking and overwhelming story about race in 20th-Century America, and the personal costs involved in breaking an evil system.
Best Friends by Thomas Berger -- With his 22nd novel, Thomas Berger is in top comic form with this story of two friends -- and complete opposites -- whose lives turn into a brutal game of oneupmanship. Berger delivers a deceptively light read that sneaks up on you; nearing 80, he can still nail the passive-aggressiveness of modern life like no other writer alive.
The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri -- I liked this book so much I bought it for someone for Christmas. As was true in her Pulitzer-Prize story collection Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri’s debut novel follows the lives of Indian- American emigres with intelligence and sympathy and total narrative drive. The story of a young man struggling under the weight of his name is the story of a family struggling to fit in to their opposing cultural worlds. Lahiri traces the shape that lives acquire with admirable ease.
Shakey: Neil Young’s Biography by Jimmy McDonough -- Actually, this came out in 2002, but I didn’t get to review it until this year. Better late than never, because it’s a terrific biography of one of the last true rock icons. McDonough combines detailed reportage, generous interviews with everyone involved — including a few obsessive fans — as well as Young himself. Best of all, the book is charged with McDonough’s own very personal, feisty voice: the voice of a fan who has always been obsessed and mystified by this particular star. I might also add that the experience of reading the book is only enhanced by playing the recent reissues of Young’s superb On the Beach and his spotty but interesting American Star ‘N Bars, both from the mid-1970s -- as well as his recent Greendale, easily one of the best discs of the year.
Honorable Mention: Mortals -- Any consideration of Norman Rush’s novel brings to mind its third-act flaws as well as its virtues. Although not the triumph its predecessor, Mating, was, Norman Rush’s messy, massive new work-- which follows a Milton scholar and part-time CIA agent on a kamikaze mission into the heart of Botswana -- makes for absorbing reading, at least up to a point. The concluding events evolve neither naturally nor credibly, and the book is often talky, sentimental and self-consciously “literary.” Still, it’s a fascinating failure; the work of a potentially great writer who has simply bitten off far more than he can chew.