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2003 Lit Roundup

Our favorite books of the year

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So many books, so little time -- the true book hound's lament. Such was the case in 2003 when, even though recent years' flood of slop from major publishers continued, enough good books were still published every week to make a reader weep for lack of time to digest them all. Following is a list of some of our favorite books of the year, most of which were reviewed in Creative Loafing. Now, if only we all had time to peruse every single one. . .


Leaving Maggie Hope By Tony Abbott (Novello Festival Press). The winner of the annual Novello Press Award, poet and former Davidson prof Abbott produced a gem of a debut novel. Abbott based the story on his own life, and the strength of his memories breathes real life into the fictional story of David Johnson Lear, his fragmented family, and his boarding school experiences. Author Lee Smith says the book is "the most moving coming-of-age story I have read in many years."

Jennifer Government by Max Barry (Doubleday). This over-the-top satirical crime novel about the takeover of everything by multi-national corporations is oddly delightful. People's last names are now the same as the name of the company they work for and government is a for-profit business. When Jennifer Government investigates a murder that implicates Nike in a homicidal conspiracy, all hell breaks loose between the two "superpowers." This is hilariously creative satire that, like all good satire, is uncomfortably close to where we stand today.

Blacklist by Sara Paretsky (Putnam). This mystery with Paretsky's popular detective V.I. Warshawski is a penetrating look at 1950s blacklists and current attacks on our civil liberties through the Patriot Act. The story involves secrets from the 1950s Communist witch hunts and reactions and overreactions to September 11. Fueled in part by Paretsky's own reaction to the aftermath of 9/11, this is a terrific example of how passion and dedication can contribute to the development of a great novel.

Our Lady of the Forest By David Guterson (Knopf). When a scruffy teenage runaway has visions of the Virgin Mary, she unleashes reactions inside and outside her ragged little logging town. Guterson lets loose with examinations of how religion gives hope to, and perverts, people's lives. More than that, the novel is a good albeit rambling story about the roles of women and the commercialization of just about everything.

Great Neck by Jay Cantor (Knopf). This 700-page epic about growing up in the 60s and 70s is almost an old-fashioned "big novel," filled with chutzpah, wide scope and grand themes, covering just about anything you can think of that happened during those two pivotal decades: first love, Civil Rights, guilt, murder, comic books, drugs, Warhol, radical politics, psychiatry, mysticism. . . all of them, and more, blended into a literary concoction of history, fantasy, comedy and social reality. It doesn't always work, but it works often enough.

Video by Meera Nair (Anchor). The latest in the wave of Indian writers reaching our shores is also one of the liveliest. The usual Western Influence On The East & Vice Versa theme is here in these short stories, but the cultural cross-references are treated with a ruthless honesty that creates a uniquely hardboiled but humorous mix of the two cultures. Not real easy going down, but somehow enchanting.

Judge by Dwight Allen (Algonquin). At the center of this imaginative, skillful novel is the late William "Bill" Dupree: Louisville Republican, husband, father, Episcopalian and devoted enthusiast of old-time railroads. Respected, and compassionate, the judge spends a lifetime following his faith and addressing his frequent doubts concerning the nature of God and man, while his profession demands that he weigh the standards set forth in the law, as well as how those standards shape the fate of living men and women. This novel marks the arrival of a seasoned author.

The Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman (Atlantic Monthly Press). Holman masterfully juggles three storylines involving a rural Virginia town where a woman gives birth to 11 babies; a cheesemaker/single mom who captures the heart of her co-worker, a Jefferson devotee; and the cheesemaker's daughter's rebellious coming of age. When the media lose interest in the 11 babies, the townspeople re-enact an historical event, in which dairy farmers crafted a 1,235-pound handmade cheese, then carted it to Washington.

You Back The Attack! by Micah Ian Wright (Seven Stories Press). Wright, a former US Airborne Ranger who's also an award-winning animator and comic book author, created this thin but rich collection of powerful protest art by "adjusting" classic war posters, most from the WWII era. Wright respects the original artwork but has changed the text to create a series of incendiary protest pieces that confront the war-and-obedience nature of the current US regime.

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