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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Emily Bazelon, senior editor and legal writer
My favorite new nonfiction book this year is Tulia, by Nate Blakeslee. It's the story of the wrongful prosecution of 47 residents of the town of Tulia, Tex.—38 of them black—based on the made-up testimony of one rogue cop. Some of the defendants got virtual life sentences before the case unraveled. Blakeslee broke the story for the Texas Observer. His book has movie deal written all over it. There's a rich and unlikely mix of characters—devious bad guys, likable victims, and valiant lawyer-heroes who wield their briefcases to save the day. It all makes for a satisfying tale about fighting the good fight.

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Bryan Curtis, deputy culture editor and "Middlebrow" columnist Best drug book of the year: Juiced, by Jose Canseco. In the noble tradition of Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, Jose Canseco wrote a book-length valentine to his favorite performance-enhancing drugs, steroids. "I needed steroids and growth hormone just to live," the former major-leaguer confided while downplaying the annoying side effects, such as the "atrophying of the testicles." The book spawned a congressional hearing in which one of the players Canseco accused of using steroids, Rafael Palmeiro, said, "I have never used steroids. Period." A few months later, Palmeiro tested positive for steroids. Juiced is a sweeping indictment, a how-to guide, and a real scream.

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David Greenberg, "History Lesson" columnist The best book of "recent history" this year is Restless Giant: The United States From Watergate to Bush v. Gore, by James T. Patterson. After his 1996 Bancroft Prize-winning tour de force Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945–1974, what does the Brown University historian do for an encore? Turn out an equally readable, smart, and fair-minded history of the last century's final quarter. A book like Restless Giant must be impossibly hard to write, since you need to keep in focus both yesterday's news, which lies so close to our present gaze, and events that have already receded into the historical distance. Patterson pulls it off—and in the process mounts a quietly persuasive defense of the "right revolution" that he argues has been central to American politics and society in recent times.

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Ann Hulbert, contributing editor and "Sandbox" columnist The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall is the best kind of biography, blending subtle psychological portraiture with astute intellectual history. It's a fascinating story, too, not just of two sisters vying for the love of Nathaniel Hawthorne, but of a period when a front parlor in New England presided over by women was the site of some of the most exciting exchanges of ideas going on in early 19th-century America.

This year's other literary high point was rereading a book that came out a century after the Peabody sisters were born, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth(1905).For a psychologically compelling portrait of one of the most unforgettable protagonists in American literature, you can hardly do better than Lily Bart. It came as something of a jolt to be reminded of the chasm between the stifling, ruthless New York society world in which women like Lily were trapped and the transcendentalist circles in which the Peabody sisters had traveled.

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Fred Kaplan, "War Stories" columnist The best book about the Iraq war is Assassins' Gate by George Packer. It doesn't deal much with military matters, but there isn't likely to be a better account, anytime soon, of how Bush & Co. got into the war and how they screwed it all up after Saddam's statue was toppled. As his dispatches in The New Yorker have long shown, Packer is that rare writer who combines journalistic enterprise with analytic rigor, and his book adds to this mix a compelling narrative, whose protagonist is Packer himself. Come with me, he seems to be saying, as I go to Cambridge coffee shops and London conclaves, where Iraqi exiles dream of liberation; to Washington think tanks, where the plot takes hold; to the inner councils of Bush's government, where theory becomes policy; then across the landscape of Iraq, where reality shatters illusion. Packer lets us see the good intentions, as well as the brutish tactics, that entwined us in this mess. Throughout, he reveals and examines his own ambivalences. The story—his, ours, and the Iraqis'—is one not of conspiracy but of tragedy.

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Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor and legal writer
My favorite legal book of the year was probably Cass Sunstein's Radicals in Robes: Why Extreme Right-Wing Courts Are Wrong for America. He offers a thoughtful and really cogent articulation of the dangers of this big national love affair we're having with originalism. As the perennially weary mother of a 2-year-old and a 7-month-old, I also offer this somewhat embarrassing submission for a really helpful child-rearing book, suggested in turn (and with some embarrassment) by our pediatrician but truly full of tremendous insight: The Happiest Toddler on the Block. One other favorite book that I reread and loved all over again this past year: Joseph Telushkin's Words That Hurt, Words That Heal. It's always useful, but especially for anyone who bends and twists words for a living, to think about how powerful language can be.

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Stephen Metcalf, book critic My favorite book of 2005 was Ian McEwan's Saturday, for introducing me (I'm ashamed to admit) to McEwan's writing, which is so cool and phlegmatic and precise, but also for the attitude of suspicion it directs at the entire literary enterprise. McEwan's Henry Perowne isn't a Babbitt, an aesthete, or a hotshot libertine snorting his way through the advertising world. Instead, as a basically decent man of remarkable intellectual but only average imaginary endowments, and not prone to adultery, he is the sort of dull haute bobo hero who probably doesn't deserve his own novel. The one he gets isn't flawless, but it is animated by a steady and gripping sang-froid, and it got me to read Atonement, Black Dogs, Enduring Love, and Amsterdam. My runner-up is Walter Kirn's very fine and genuinely funny Mission to America.

The two books I enjoyed reading most in '05, but not of '05, were Lolita, on my third go-through, and some combination of Enduring Love and Black Dogs.

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Timothy Noah, "Chatterbox" columnist Forty-three years after Philip Roth's first full-length novel was published, Letting Go resurfaced this fall in the first of two Roth volumes published by the Library of America—eight are planned, though the way Roth has been going lately they may need to add a ninth—where it is once again being dismissed as a lesser work. The standard critical construct is that Roth didn't really achieve greatness until he stopped wrestling with respectability and instead spurned it, '60s-style, with Portnoy's Complaint. Thus Gary Shteyngart in the New York Times Book Review: