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My Top 5 books of 2004

1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
At a time when every new book is billed as profound, earth-shattering, magical, and uproarious, Infinite Jest actually is. It's the rare book that actually lives up to its extraordinarily hyperbolic marketing hype.

Infinite Jest has acquired a well-deserved reputation for its immense size and complexity. It took me a month to get through all of the book's twisting, clause-ridden sentences, multiple-page paragraphs, and laybrinthine plot, but it was a good use of my time.

The book may seem endless, but it is also endlessly diverting, endlessly humorous, and endlessly thought-provoking.

In broad strokes, the plot centers around two main elements: a tennis academy where genius children are sent to be molded into the tennis champions of tomorrow, and a drug rehabilitation clinic a short ways away. There's also the matter of a Canadian group of wheelchair-bound terrorists trying to destroy America with a piece of entertainment so compelling that once you see it you literally can't stop watching.

Out of this, Wallace makes some profound statements about the deep need to give yourself over to something as well as the direction America is headed. The book is often called a Naked Lunch for the post-1980s America, and its a good comparison -- there's drugs everywhere, the plot is chaotic, and just as Burroughs's book was in part a reaction to the America of the '50s, so is Wallace's book a critique of the perverted '80s values that have run amuck.

2. Underworld by Don DeLillo
On the cover of Underworld is a picture of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, which should give you a good idea of what the book is about. It covers the 50 years of the Cold War, providing a definitive picture of an America that built up an empire on the back of capitalism.

But the Towers obviously also make you think of 9/11 and how much the world has changed since the Cold War ended. 9/11 made a lot of books instantly obsolete, but it's a testament to
Underworld's enduring power and quality as a work of literature that even after 9/11 it's still very much worth reading.

DeLillo begins with one of the best openings of any novel written in the 20th century: a reenactment of Bobby Thompson's "shot heard round the world" for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Thompson's home run is paralleled by another shot -- the Soviet Union's detonation of a nuclear weapon on the same day.

From here, DeLillo goes on to dissect the surface-level America -- exemplified by Thompson's home run and the throngs of excited fans -- and the shadowy web of individuals beneath America's surface -- exemplified by J. Edgar Hoover, who received notification of the Soviet bomb while in attendance at the game. It's a long, disconnected book that has a lot to reveal to patient readers who enjoy it on its own merits.

3. The King of California by Mark Arax, Rick Wartzman
You've probably never heard of J.G. Boswell, and that's the way he likes it. He's one of the top ten biggest cotton formers in the world, and he farms it right here in California. It's a darn difficult job, keeping immense land-holdings of nearly a million
acres under wraps, but Boswell handles it well. Too well, in fact, which is why Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman (two seasoned journalists who are currently with the Los Angeles Times) decided to write an entire book about him.

And what a book it is. 560 hardcover pages, based on heaps of research and a series of interviews after Arax and Wartzman had finally tracked Boswell down and harassed him into finally agreeing to just talk to the city boys and get it over with. The book tells its story on an epic scale: 3 generations of Boswells, going all the way back to their roots in Dixie, the rise of California as an agricultural superpower, the westward migration of poor Americans and northward migration of Mexicans, billions of dollars in water rights, immense dam and irrigation projects, unions, workers' rights, strikes, riots.

It's to Arax and Wartzman's great credit that they tell this immense story without ever making it feel ungainly. As Arax and Wartzman tell us how one man built his empire and how his son filled his large footsteps, they keep things moving and focused so that we never lose sight of where we've been and where we're headed. Along the way they include details on everything from the fine points of growing the best cotton (give it just enough water to keep it from dropping its seeds, but not so much that it grows leaves instead of cotton) to how Boswell once lined up hundreds of junked cars as a makeshift dam during recent atypically heavy rains that almost ruined his land.

This is truly one of the great untold stories in California's history and Arax and Wartzman have done us all a service by putting it all into one volume (albeit, a large one). In a state that has come to be inextricably tied to its farming and its water wars, The King of California sheds light on a story that is central to both, but virtually unknown. In the coming years, this book should assume its rightful place among other Californian epics, such as Mike Davis's City of Quartz and Mark Reisner's Cadillac Desert.

4. City of Glass by Paul Auster
For me, Paul Auster was one of those thrilling events that are precious because they make you appreciate exactly how much a completely unintentional event can change the way you look at literature. I happened upon City of Glass by accident, innocently picked up the book, and was suddenly taken into an entirely new world. This status shattering discovery made me want to go back to the bookstore again and again and purposely select obscure-sounding authors just to re-capture that feeling of making such a great discovery.

Coincidentally (or not), City of Glass (in fact the entire New York Trilogy) is suffused in just such moments. The book constantly and forcefully confounds your expectations, and each Austerian befuddlement suddenly morphs into a brilliant insight on writing, or authorship, or our culture's current condition. The book is like a minefield, each sentence pregnant with meaning, clever thoughts hiding everywhere.

City of Glass starts out with an author of detective fiction who gets a mysterious phone call asking for his help in solving the mystery. The caller has misidentified our author as a detective by the name of Paul Auster.

This, of course, immediately makes the reader start: Paul Auster? Isn't he the author of the book? The rest of the book follows this playful lead, becoming ever more self-referential and labyrinthine until it seems on the brink of being hopelessly complex--and then Auster runs in another direction entirely and discovers the book's ending.

A very superficial reading of City of Glass could conclude that it is just one of those ridiculous postmodern games, a book that has no greater point than reveling in its own cleverness. True, the book can be read simply as an extremely complex game to figure out, but such a reading would be to only see the book's framework, and to miss the spirit that animates it and context that surrounds it.

City of Glass is a thoughtful interrogation of the concept of the author, a questioning of the way society works at the most basic levels of human interaction, and an engrossing mystery whose driving questions alone are strong enough to keep the reader enthralled.

5. Madeline is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
I really, really hope that this book won't be remembered as one of the four that didn't win the infamous 2004 National Book Award. Defining this book in that way is to pigeonhole it into an obscure little patch of history, and that would be a shame because Madeline is Sleeping is a book that should have a large audience.

Why do I think it should have a large audience? Not for its trenchant social analysis. Not because of the life-lessons it teaches that you, as a fallible and imperfect human being, need to know. Not because it's an uplifting little fable to brighten a rainy day. None of these is the reason to read Madeline is Sleeping.

This is: The book taps in to what is wonderful about reading. Madeline is a short read and yet there is far more imagination in this book than in many a bloated novel. Virtually every page of her book pops with an arresting sentence, a vivid image, or an entire paragraph of plot that you simply have to read again because you don't believe she just said what you thought she said.

This isn't showing off for showing-off's sake. If such a short, rich book is to be anything more than an incoherent agglomeration of fantastic images, the author must well-govern her garden of delights. Bynum does. In fact she does more than simply govern the skill with which she arranges and calls forth each element in her story is akin to a good conductor leading a fine symphony orchestra.

This is what is good about reading. Working with the author to discover how everything coheres. Closing your eyes and seeing a vivid image in your mind's eye. Being taken by the hand and led on a tour of another's imagination. This is what Madeline is Sleeping has to offer.