If there is one question I am constantly asked this time of year, it is, "What do Jews do on Christmas?" We mostly open presents under the Christmas tree and sing songs from the Neil Diamond Christmas album, I generally respond. This year, however, because the yuletide spirit has me in a death grip, I’m also happy to provide a little last minute shopping advice. Below are my ten favorite books of 2004 (with one slight fudging for a book that came out in late 2003 but which is exceedingly long).
1. You Remind Me of Me by Dan Chaon. One of America’s finest short story writers is now also one of our most cherished novelists. A powerful, challenging book.
2. Cottonwood by Scott Phillips. A western. A mystery. A gothic horror story. A tour de force by not just the finest crime writer around, but one of the most diverse chroniclers of the human condition I’ve ever read.
3. Mr. Paradise by Elmore Leonard. Leonard is as nimble and energetic as he has ever been and Mr. Paradise is one of his finest books, period.
4. And the Dead Shall Rise by Steve Oney. It actually came out in October 2003, but anyone who says they finished this exhaustive 750-page account of the murder of Mary Phagan and the lynching of Leo Frank before the dawn of 2004 lied. Quite simply the best true-crime account ever. Ever.
5. Every Night Is Ladies’ Night by Michael Jaime-Becerra. This excellent debut collection of short stories heralds a fantastic new voice capable of making even the most mundane landscape, in this case El Monte, Calif., as vibrant and alive as Paris.
6. Don’t Try This At Home by Dave Navarro & Neil Strauss. Not great literature necessarily, but a fascinating insight into what makes Navarro tick, or, perhaps, twitch. (A nice companion is Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis.)
7. Born to Rock by Todd Taylor. This collection of essays and interviews about punk rock serves as a definitive account of what it means to be an outsider while craving to know what the inside looks like, if only to fuck the place up once you get there.
8. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir by Nick Flynn. The title says it all.
9. War Trash by Ha Jin. A hard look at what it means to survive.
10. Covenants by Lorna Freeman. A rich and energetic debut by a fantasy author who looks to have a bright and prolific future.