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My Top 5 Books of 2004

1. A Map of Doubt and Rescue by Susan Miller (2004)
Thoughtful drama in this country is in a strange place; this play won the prestigious Pinter Prize in 2004, but has yet to be staged outside of conferences. Still, this stands out: a play in which most of the characters turn into literally new people as they search for a way to transform their mistakes into new possibilities. It's strange but fascinating, with spectacular dialogue and an openness to total and complete change that can touch hearts across great distances.

2. California Poetry: from the Gold Rush to the Present, edited by Dana Gioia, Chryss Yost, and Jack Hicks (2004)
Astonishingly, this is the first comprehensive historical anthology of native and long-residing poets in our state; even more amazingly, it finds considerable common ground among the "radical individualism" of our best poets, from the sardonic Ambrose Bierce to the fierce Gary Snyder. This is poetry that refuses to go away, much like "The Old Con" deftly put down by Lew Welch in the Sixties. Those who can't find anything to live for/always invent something to die for/then they want the rest of us/ to die for it, too.

3.Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile (2003, hardback) (2004, paperback)
Charlie Wilson was a larger-than-life Texas Congressman who loved cocaine, Las Vegas, and showgirls...but hated Communists. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he found his road to glory: with the help of a brilliant, foul-mouthed CIA agent named Gust Avrakatos (who specialized in dirty tricks), Wilson pulled strings and twisted arms to fund the largest covert operation in CIA history. This is history uncensored: too raw for textbooks or newspapers.

4. Dark Water by Koji Suzuki (2004)
In time this may be seen as a masterpiece: for now, it's just a terrific book. Two of its seven stories will appear as movies in this country next year; what's more, unlike most horror, this is a book that reminds us of what really matters -- love and caring -- even as it scares us with its absence.

5. Tijuana Straits by Kem Nunn (2004)
Kem Nunn, universally considered the best novelist ever to write about surfing, is a writer as fearless and unsparing as his characters are reckless. His surfers can be obsessive, druggy, unthinking -- and yet, in their willingness to bet everything on a wave, enthralling. This book is his most ambitious yet, set in a no-man's-land between the US and Mexico, with a burnt-out surfer who rescues a Mexican woman. Will he be able to care for her? That's the question: it's far bigger than it first appears.