12/27/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
Witty stories and wicked humor—the year's top reads are irresistible
America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction
By Jon Stewart
A hilarious book infused with a distinct liberal bias, this wicked parody of an American-history text by Stewart and writers on The Daily Show is way too dangerous to read in public. Try, just try, to look at the (doctored) photo of a naked, wattle-heavy Supreme Court without erupting into gut-busting laughter. Whether it's the perverse "Classroom Activities" boxes or the deliciously juvenile blurbs on the back of the book ("So informative, I even found out who I was."—Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury, 1801-1814), this book is rude, crude and utterly delightful.
By Alice Munro
Quietly brilliant, Munro's short stories focus on the intertwined fates of characters who are so satisfyingly complex that they seem to have a life of their own. Three of the tales center on Juliet, a classics scholar whose daughter disappears into a cult and reappears as a married mom at a mall. Telling moments spring up on every page; read Runaway slowly, then read it all over again.
The Plot Against America
By Philip Roth
One of his best, a fantasy that imagines the country heading toward World War II with aviator Charles Lindbergh instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt in the White House. The isolationist Lindbergh signs a non-aggression pact with Hitler while embarking on a benignly sinister program of assimilation for America's Jews. How this bears out—and down—on one family is the novel's feverishly beating narrative heart.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
By Susanna Clarke
A deeper, darker, more literary and entirely adult visit to Harry Potter land, Clarke's mammoth and magical novel, set in 1806 England, combines beautifully evocative prose and abundant period research in the story of two magicians, a teacher and his student, who dabble with the dark side of the art.
By Marilynne Robinson
The long-awaited followup to Robinson's 1981 Housekeeping, her second novel is a gorgeously crafted tale about the life and times of John Ames, an Iowa preacher. Ames's voice is vibrant, and Robinson's prose is a thing of beauty: Here is an epic tale, writ small, of love, faith and human drama.
By Arthur Phillips
Phillips's witty, cracked detective story skips between 1922, when an English fop named Ralph Trilipush brags that he is about to discover the treasure of a pharaoh only he believes existed, and 1954, when a P.I. uncovers his lies and maybe tells a few of his own.
Name All the Animals
By Alison Smith
When Smith's beloved older brother is killed, her insular and devoutly Catholic world is shattered. This piercing memoir chronicles her adolescent struggles with faith, anorexia and the befuddled sisters at Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls. Understated and beautifully written, Smith's debut is a moving portrait of grief and redemption.
Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War
By Evan Wright
An intimate account of the invasion of Iraq with the Marines' "First Suicide Battalion," this is a corking real-life thriller: Fueled by fear, giddiness and gallows humor, Wright's squad makes the treacherous journey seem like an antic, bullet-riddled road trip straight into the jaws of hell. Full of indelible characters, it's an addictive read.
By Tom Perrotta
Todd is a chiseled ex-jock married to the perfect wafer-thin wife. So why is he the one staying home raising their son? And why does he begin an affair with a bored and plain-looking mom? Perrotta's suburban satire is funny and real—the scenes of middle-aged middle managers tearing it up on the football field are priceless—but also deeply human. You'll even sympathize with the child molester who can't find a date.
Chronicles, Vol. I
By Bob Dylan
In visionary, haunting language, Dylan tells little about what he did (he doesn't even mention the names of his wives) and everything about what he felt, saw and read, especially in his early years in Greenwich Village. If there weren't already a church of Dylan, this memoir would have built it.