The best books of 2005.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 14 2005 2:11 PM

The Year in Books

Slate picks the best books of 2005.

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When I polled my writer friends—prodigious Roth-worshippers all—about, say, the nearly 700-page-long novel Letting Go, I was not surprised to hear that not one of them had read it. … While reading this overdrawn tale of two young couples struggling to come alive against a flat Midwestern backdrop, you feel like telling Roth: ''Forget the Henry James route and take the Sam Clemens way out! Lose the earnestness. …"

I couldn't disagree more. Wonderful though Portnoy is, I think wrestling with respectability is actually what Roth does best. It's certainly the preoccupation of Roth's much-praised late period— American Pastoral, The Human Stain, I Married a Communist, The Plot Against America. These novels, though justly praised (except maybe The Plot Against America, which is a little pedestrian; I found Charles Peters' recent nonfiction treatment of the same material, Five Days in Philadelphia, more compelling), lack the sweep and energy of Letting Go. James Atlas pointed out in an evangelizing introduction to a paperback reissue in 1982—as best I can make out, I was Atlas' only convert, though I've since passed the word on to a few friends—that Letting Go possesses an old-fashioned narrative richness that can't be found in any of Roth's subsequent novels. The book overflows with vivid characters, settings, and points of view, and the deft manner in which they crisscross establishes the novel's theme that to behave too decently can put your soul in mortal peril. In Letting Go, unlike Portnoy, morality and autonomy are evenly matched; it's a fair fight that goes into overtime. I believe that Letting Go, which I reread for the third or fourth time this year, is Roth's best novel. If a better one was published in 2005, I'd like to see it.

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Meghan O'Rourke, culture editor and "Highbrow" columnist A favorite of 2005 is Peter Green's translation The Poems of Catullus. Green is a celebrated classicist and his boyish enthusiasm is a perfect match for the bawdy ferocity of Catullus, the Roman poet best known for his ribald poems of sex and satire. Green takes plenty of liberties (he tries to replicate Catullus' original meter, with mixed results), but he perfectly captures Catullus' voice—whose outrageousness may shock even the most jaded sophisticate. You don't have to be a regular reader of poetry to like these poems.

My runner-up is Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, which I still find myself thinking about some nine months after reading it in one sitting. Didion's taxonomy of grief is one that we all can relate to, and at the same time it's a truly strange one, because she explores the ravages of loss in her trademark clinical—and even detached—prose. The result is a book that invites you in and remains obdurately distant at the same time, like so many relationships. But the book I most loved this year (though it wasn't of this year) was Denis Johnson's Angels, one of the most stunningly luminous novels I've ever read.

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David Plotz, deputy editor Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is chilling and incredibly sad. I don't really know how to explain it without giving too much away. It is the story of three children at a bizarre boarding school in a dystopian England who are preparing for a mysterious and apparently terrible future. The book is at once a great boarding-school book—it captures the psychodynamics of teenagers as well as Prep does—and an unsettling vision of our future. The best horror movies recognize that nothing is scarier than the unseen fright. Never Let Me Go is like that. Ishiguro doesn't give readers the comfort of knowing exactly what is happening, and that makes it utterly terrifying.

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Lee Siegel, art critic My favorite book this year happened to be one that I reviewed. What thrilled me about Ian McEwan's Saturday were qualities that would have been taken for granted in a work of fiction 30 or 40 years ago: plausible characters with complex psychologies, a story that held you spellbound, unselfconscious language in which words were put into the service of meaning, an intellectual framework that rose organically from the characters and the action. Predictably, there was a backlash against the sensationally successful McEwan, with a few critics complaining, not without some justification, that his plots consisted of mechanically connected set pieces. But this is like dying of thirst in the desert and complaining, when you stumble upon an oasis, that the water is warm. Bravo to this last powerful gasp of a dying artistic form. I also reread The Odyssey this year. Homer's tale is the only book I know—maybe War and Peace is the other one—whose reality is more substantial than anything life has to offer.

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Dana Stevens, TV critic Though it technically came out in late 2004, I spent the first two months of this year struggling with David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood. But it was a passionate, engaging struggle, like an argument with a brilliant, impossible friend. I'd abandon the book for a week in disgust (for example, after reading Thomson's bizarre assertion that, before the advent of sound, film was only a "half-made medium"), then sneak back to it for the sheer pleasure of Thomson's lush, erudite prose. If this book's title is misleading, its subtitle is an outright lie; this is no more a history of Hollywood than Thomson's rambling, libidinal New Biographical Dictionary of Film is a straightforward film reference work. For Thomson, movies are always and foremost about desire, and his description of the glories of Technicolor could easily stand for what there is to love in his own work: "its expressiveness, its warm aliveness, its damson and crème brûlée mix as lipstick meets cheek, and its passion."

And rereleased this year in paperback after eight years out of print: Pamela Des Barres' 1987 classic I'm With the Band, the slutty mother of all rock-groupie memoirs. I've somehow failed to snag a copy of this at tag sales, so it was a great pleasure to buy it (in an edition illustrated with appropriately cheap-looking photo spreads) and inhale great drafts of Des Barres' sunny, uninhibited prose as deeply as the author herself once inhaled an industrial solvent called Trimar: "When I came back to my extremely sensual senses, I was in the middle of a perfect backbend on Jim Morrison's tatty Oriental rug, my purple velvet minidress completely over my head, his redheaded girlfriend glaring down at me." Only a party pooper would question how Des Barres saw the redhead through the velvet.

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Julia Turner, associate editor I loved Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep. I picked it up expecting a thin campus farce and found instead an uncannily honest—and deliciously readable—portrait of boarding school, and adolescence generally. Sittenfeld nails the details: plastic toiletry buckets; idle common-room rounds of kick-the-pizza box; one queen bee's impossibly perfect white cotton underwear; that new lacrosse stick smell. She also draws a wonderful portrait of her insecure protagonist, Lee Fiora. Sittenfeld skewers Lee's perverse social logic—at one point Lee, fantasizing about an attainably geeky boy performing at a talent show, thinks: "He understood sadness, clearly, because who could choose to perform 'Fire and Rain' without understanding sadness?"—but she also gets down how terribly important high school feels to those who are still in it.

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June Thomas, foreign editor
In a year of wonderful books, the one that affected me most was "I Didn't Do It for You": How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, Michela Wrong's history of Eritrea. It managed to make me feel ashamed of my ignorance and simultaneously thrilled to have it dispelled in such an entertaining fashion. The release of Invasion of the Dykes To Watch Out For, the 11th compilation of Alison Bechdel's beautifully drawn, perfectly observed cartoons, drove me to reread the entire series. Almost 20 years into the strip, it's still the story of my life, even though I'm more conservative than Mo and Co. these days.

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Jacob Weisberg, editor
I read some wonderful novels in 2005, including Never Let Me Go, Mission to America, Gilead, and   The Known World, but the one I most enjoyed was Ian McEwan's Saturday. I feel silly recommending it, because it's such an obvious choice, but nothing else I read this year thrilled me half as much. In his last two novels, McEwan has outgrown his juvenile macabre without sacrificing any of his gift for suspense or clinical description. In Saturday, he puts all of that virtuosity in service of examining the moral and political questions of our day: terrorism, the Iraq war, and medical ethics. It's a meditation on the modern condition that crackles with energy, intelligence, and insight.