Best of 2005: Books

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ANDREU DALMAU / EPA

Author Kazuo Ishiguro

FICTION

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Never Let Me Go
By Kazuo Ishiguro
288 pages

You're better off not knowing exactly what is amiss at the exclusive English private school Hailsham. But something is definitely off. The teachers are afraid of the students. The students are afraid of the forest. And nobody wants to put into words just what exactly is going on here. Set in a creepy alterna-England, Never Let Me Go is a horror novel, but it's less about fear than it is about a deep, existential sadness that the world is such a horrifying place. By the time you learn the secret it's much too late: you've been drawn into this strange amalgam of science fiction and high literature, and it won't let you go. - L.G.

Movies: Our critics pick their favorites
Richard Corliss
Richard Schickel
Television: Battlestar Galactica is No. 1 for TV of 2005
Music: Kanye West tops the list with Late Registration
Books: Five fiction and five non-fiction greats of 2005
Children's Books: TIME selects the year's top titles for kids
Comix: The best graphic novels and comix of the year

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Shalimar the Clown
By Salman Rushdie
398 pages

Early on in Shalimar the Clown a diplomat is stabbed to death by his chauffeur. It takes Rushdie the rest of this absorbing novel to explain why. Prowling restlessly backwards and forwards through the 20th century, he follows the principal players from country to country, through World War II and the struggle between Pakistan and India for control of the Edenic villages of Kashmir. Everywhere he takes us there is both love and war, in strange and terrifying combinations, painted in swaying, swirling, world-eating prose that annihilates the borders between East and West, love and hate, our private lives and the history we make. - L.G.

-3-
Magic for Beginners
By Kelly Link
273 pages

The first story in Magic for Beginners concerns an enchanted handbag. Open it one way and you find a village that was hidden inside it long ago for safekeeping. Open it another way and you're pulled into a dark land guarded by a dog with no skin. Link's stories are kind of like that handbag. At first blush they look like charming yarns about divorce and TV shows. But they're haunted by dark spirits, and dark emotions, loss and anger and despair. They play in a place few writers go, a netherworld between literature and fantasy, Alice Munro and J.K. Rowling, and Link finds truths there that most authors wouldn't dare touch. - L.G.

-4-
Saturday
By Ian McEwan
238 pages

McEwan followed his 2001 masterpiece Atonement with this robust meditation on evil, fear and — unusual for him — on happinesss, too. His main character is Henry Perowne, a prosperous London neurosurgeon with a loving family and a handsome townhouse. In all, he's a contented man, or he would be if his well being weren't edged with the anxieties that trouble us all after 9/11. On the single day in which this book takes place, with the streets of London jammed by a massive demonstration against the impending Iraq war, he crosses paths with a belligerent stranger. Before this haunting novel makes its intricate peace with the world, they will meet again. It won't be pretty. - R.L.

-5-
The March
By E.L. Doctorow
363 pages

It's the autumn of 1864, the final months of the Civil War , and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman is leading 60,000 Union troops in his fearsome march across Georgia and the Carolinas. As Sherman's men humble the Confederate countryside, hundreds of runaway slaves follow along. The author of Ragtime and Billy Bathgate returns to the vexed territory of the American past, and comes back with a novel in which Sherman's advancing column, and the thousands of lives caught up in it, becomes the force of history itself. - R.L.

NON-FICTION

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American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer
By Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherman
721 pages

A painstaking account of the making and breaking of an intricate man. Oppenheimer directed the successful U.S. effort to develop an atomic weapon during World War II. But after the war his opposition to the push for an even bigger weapon, the hydrogen bomb, helped set in motion the events that led to his being stripped of his government security clearance. The authors show the ways in which Oppenheimer was complicit in his own destruction, but never lose sight of the ugliness of the process. - R.L.

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The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
By George Packer
467 pages

A very discouraging account of the war in Iraq so far, from its flawed inception to its chaotic daily execution. Packer, a staff writer for The New Yorker, begins as "an ambivalently prowar liberal", siding with Iraqi exile friends in their hatred of Saddam but skeptical of the Bush Administration neo-conservatives who thought Iraq could easily be transformed into a pro-American democracy. In Packer's deeply persuasive telling, their false assumptions and inadequate planning ensure that the war will procede down a path into deepening chaos, and it does. - R.L.

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Post-War: A History of Europe since 1945
By Tony Judt
878 pages

A massive, kaleidoscopic and thoroughly readable survey of the continent's dificult passage from the devastation of World War II to the still uncompleted project of the European Community. Judt briskly reviews every part of this complex story, from the Marshall Plan, the Cold War and the upheavals of 1968 to the aftershocks from the fall of the Berlin Wall, offering useful and sometimes surprisng judgments on all of them. His book now becomes the definitive account of Europe's rise from the ashes and its take off into an uncertain future. - R.L.

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The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion
227 pages

Didion and her husband had been married for almost 40 years on the night when he collapsed at the dinner table and died of a heart attack. The loss devastated Didion so completely that she entered a state of temporary insanity: She literally believed that she could bring her husband back to her. The Year of Magical Thinking is the story of her slow acceptance of what had happened, her journey from madness to the duller, deeper pain of mourning. To watch one of our most acute, acerbic social observers turn her attention to the collapse of her own psyche is to witness an act of consummate personal and artistic bravery. - L.G.

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1491
By Charles C. Mann
480 pages

It's a convenient fiction that American history starts with Columbus. In 1491 Mann tells the story of a lost world of vast, glittering cities, sophisticated cultures, and an agricultural economy built without the aid of horses or, largely, the wheel—all destroyed by the epidemics initiated by contact with European explorers. The Indians the Pilgrims encountered were merely the last survivors, refugees from a civilization that had already collapsed. "Think of the fruitful impact on Europe and its descendants from contacting Asia," Mann instructs us. "Imagine the effect on these places and people from a second Asia. Along with the unparalleled loss of life, that is what vanished when smallpox came ashore." - L.G.