by John Wilson

The Top Ten Books of 2004

And a warning about the risks of reading.

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  1. The Finishing School. Muriel Spark (Doubleday). This little novel—really a novella too; why not call a spade a spade?—got mostly lukewarm notices from American reviewers, some of whom even suggested that the length of the book alone made it suspect. Others used it as a point of departure to talk about Spark's books that Really Matter. What a pity. This marvelously deft and enigmatic tale centers on a very precocious young novelist—still a teenager—and his jealous teacher. It has all the qualities that make Spark Spark, above all the irreducible strangeness. (Speaking of novellas, did you see the wonderful Shanahan cartoon in the Christmas issue of the New Yorker?)
  2. Florence of Arabia. Christopher Buckley (Random House). As a very funny writer and the son of a very famous man, Christopher Buckley is doubly disqualified from being taken seriously. He is certainly among the most underrated novelists at large these days. His new book, as good satire always does, eludes the familiar political categories. Set largely in a fictitious Middle Eastern kingdom with a strong resemblance to Saudi Arabia, it offers a bracing contrast both to the careful banalities of the Bush Administration and to the tiptoeing interpreters of the "Arab world." Wonderfully entertaining, yes, but the story comes with a wicked punch that leaves the reader unsettled.
  3. Ira Foxglove. Thomas McMahon (Brook Street). McMahon, who died in 1999 at the age of 55 from complications after surgery, was a scientist with an endowed chair at Harvard University. He was also a marvelously idiosyncratic novelist. To the three novels published during his lifetime—Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry (yes, that is one of his novels—a fictionalized account of Los Alamos, among other things), McKay's Bees, and Loving Little Egypt, all reissued in paperback a year ago by University of Chicago Press—we can now add a fourth, written 30-odd years ago (we're told) and discovered by his daughter among McMahon's papers. It's the story of a winsomely eccentric inventor and a love story, too; and it features a trans-Atlantic flight by blimp. (It's also the most suited of all McMahon's books to be made into a movie; I hope someone good takes that on.)
  4. The Undressed Art: Why We Draw. Peter Steinhart (Knopf). This book by a naturalist and writer reminds me of a certain kind of piece from the heyday of the New Yorker, combining reportorial virtues with the leisurely manner of a confident essayist, inspecting a subject from this angle and that, unrushed yet unflaggingly interesting. Steinhart has been writing less and drawing more, he says, so we're fortunate that he has taken time to write about drawing: its continuing primal appeal despite its marginal place in the current art scene, its typical life-cycle (blooming in childhood and then quickly fading), above all its invitation to pay attention to the world, to the human figure, to faces, to the visibility of the invisible. The book includes drawings by various artists; a few more of these would have been even better. (And it has been lovingly designed by Gabriele Wilson—no relation, I hasten to add. Visit a bookstore and take a look at the dust jacket, one of the best designed of the year.) A review is coming in B&C.
  5. Vanishing Point. David Markson (Shoemaker & Hoard). Markson's latest is billed as a novel. If you have read some of his earlier books, you'll know that what he means by novel is not what you might otherwise be expecting. This particular novel consists of short passages rather like entries in a commonplace book. Many of them have to do with writers, painters, composers, artists of one kind or another. Certain themes recur: for instance, the scorn with which many great works (as we now regard them) were originally greeted, but also the contempt of Artist X for Artist Y, so that we're not simply getting a skewering of the unenlightened. Another theme is the anticipation, many centuries ago, of complaints that we tend to think of as distinctively modern. And so on, all adding up to a memento mori. Oddities and ironies are duly noted. The book is perfect for bedside reading (several pages each night).

Next week: more noteworthy books from 2004, and a look at some coming attractions for 2005.

John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture.

Related Elsewhere:

Reading At Risk is available from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Books in this list are available from,, and other book retailers: Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945, The Bones of the Earth, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, The Divine Voice, The Final Solution, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, The Finishing School, Florence of Arabia, Ira Foxglove, The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Vanishing Point.

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