Dive Into a Life-Changing Book
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ow many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book!" Thoreau wrote in 1854. Include women, too, and it's as true now as then. We asked independent bookstores to name the books of 2005 that moved readers most.
The Year of Magical Thinking. In this National Book Award-winning memoir of grief, essayist Joan Didion confronts the loss of her husband of almost 40 years, the writer John Gregory Dunne, as well as the life-threatening illness of their daughter, Quintana, who died shortly before the book was published. "Life changes in the instant," Didion writes. At times, grief robs her of her very reason, leading her to think "as small children think, as if my thoughts or wishes had the power to reverse the narrative, change the outcome." Didion's searing depiction of the way we mourn has made this "the book people have really been moved by," says Tad Smith of Cincinnati's Joseph-Beth Booksellers.
The March. War is the great leveler in E. L. Doctorow's panoramic Civil War novel. As we follow General Sherman on his ruthless march, we meet a ragtag horde of the displaced: characters of every race, social class, and political persuasion, uprooted from a way of life that no longer exists and scrambling to live from one day to the next. The book brings home the horror of our Civil War and compels us to examine our own souls: What choices would we have made? It's a provocative page-turner, a "well-written, well-researched history in the guise of fiction," says Leslie Graham of San Francisco's A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books.
Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War. A fluent Arabic speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid not only presents gripping firsthand reportage from Iraq; he also explains the war through the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. "They came to overthrow Saddam," one says. "Why are they fighting his victims?" Shadid's portrait of a population under siege "will have long-term impact on people's view of the world," says Cathy Langer, book buyer at Denver's Tattered Cover Book Store.
Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. Photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D'Aluisio traveled the world, inviting themselves to dine with 30 families in 24 countries, from Darfur to Cuba to Poland. But before dinner, they shop together. In so doing, they discover how what we eat both reflects and affects who we are. Photo portraits of each family show them surrounded by a week's worth of groceries. And there are recipes, too! Barbara Meade, an owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., likens it to the classic The Family of Man by photographer Edward Steichen and poet Carl Sandburg.
You Can Do It! The Merit Badge Handbook for Grownup Girls. The brainstorm of Lauren Catuzzi Grandcolas, who died on Sept. 11, 2001, on United Airlines Flight 93, this is inspirational how-to at its best. Experts provide advice in 60 areas, from public speaking to training for a triathlon. You can even make your own merit badge on a printed tag, complete with star. "This is a book that empowers," says Steve Bercu, co-owner of BookPeople in Austin. And by the way, men can do it (and do read it), too.
This story appears in the December 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.