Where to start? We're here to help. Following is a list of some our favorite books, both fiction and non-fiction, from 2002. They're all winners, so if you have book lovers on your gift list, you won't go wrong by picking some of the works listed here.
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Hyped as the hip literature of the year, Foer's story-within-a-story interweaves a man's trip to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandmother from the Nazis (largely narrated by travel agent Alexi in humorous-but-somehow-moving broken English), and the story of a family who lived in the Ukrainian shtetl the man (also named Jonathan Safran Foer) is searching for. Veering from satire to serious historical probing to magical realism, this novel is an entrancing juggling act.
Boulevard by Jim Grimsley. In 1978, a young gay man from rural Alabama moves to New Orleans, "a city full of everything good and bad," and learns a lot about life, reality vs. expectations, and sexual awakening. Compassionate, funny in spots, and revealing, this is the book which engendered high praise and enraged complaints when the author read from it during Creative Loafing Carolina Writers Night in October.
The Dead Circus by John Kaye. Los Angeles is once again the backdrop (and de facto character) for a noir novel. This one is a masterfully written tale involving dead rock musicians and a long look into connections with the Manson Family.
Just Like Beauty by Lisa Lerner. A few years in the future, 14-year-old Edie Stein is scheduled to compete in the annual Feminine Woman of Conscience Pageant. The contestants must show a knowledge of chemical stimulants, then kill a rabbit and sew it into a muff, as well as simulate sex with the Electric Polyrubber Man. And that doesn't even cover the popular suicide cult called Happy Endings. Disturbing but hilarious, and somehow oddly believable.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The winner of the 2002 Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, this masterful and wildly imaginative novel tells the tale of Pi, a spirituality-obsessed boy raised in a zoo in India. After a shipwreck on the way to Canada, he finds himself alone on a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker. And that's just the beginning of a fantastical, funny and ultimately affirming and humanist story.One Foot In Eden by Ron Rash. Winner of the 2002 Novello Festival Press Award, this is a poetic yet gritty novel of community, murder and family in early 20th century Appalachia. An enveloping and somehow timeless look at a bygone way of life.
Half-Mammals of Dixie by George Singleton. Fifteen witty, intelligent, and often hilarious short stories about eccentrics in a South Carolina small town, with not a bit of nostalgia or sappiness to be found. Think of an R-rated Andy Griffith Show, but with an overlay of irony.
The Last Girls by Lee Smith. Former college friends relive their Mississippi River raft journey, this time on a luxury riverboat. Wonderful dialogue, intriguing characters and a close examination of the past's importance in the present make this one of Smith's best.
This Cold Heaven by Gretel Ehrlich. A startling and lyrical non-fiction work about a place and a people most people know nothing about: Greenland. This is thrilling and vulnerable writing, alive with the land, its people, and their rich, spirit-filled arctic culture. Ehrlich intersperses her own digressions and comments, but "the real heroes," as she calls them, are the polar Inuit whose joy and spirituality and self-reliance are a serious eye-opener for all of us in the smug, self-satisfied West.
Can't Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon. Gordon is an enthusiastic writer who captures the flavor of the Mississippi Delta where Waters was born, as well as the grit and energy of the Chicago streets where the musical giant practically invented modern electric blues single-handed. A fine biography that focuses as much on the music as the artist's life.
Blue Latitudes by Tony Horwitz. The author of Confederates in the Attic has produced another personal quest tale by following in the wake of Captain James Cook, an immensely important explorer who's both despised and deified by the descendants of those he "discovered." A mix of interviews with the locals, an examination of Cook's era and methods, and a salty sense of humor.
Step Across This Line by Salman Rushdie. A collection of essays comprising everything from the semi-trivial to the profound to the funny from one of the world's most respected writers. His accounts of dealing with the Iranian government's fatwa, or death warrant, are by turns harrowing and hilarious.