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Best fiction books of the year

If the past year made you feel as though you were back in the Vietnam era, in 1930s Germany, or at the Scopes trial, many novelists appeared to be similarly afflicted. From Philip Roth to Margaret Drabble, defiantly modern writers visited the past to find their bearings, whether political, artistic, or (yawn) sexual.

Novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, this year's Nobel Prize winner in Literature, has taken such compass readings for decades, particularly in ''The Children of the Dead," which condemned her native Austria's attitude to its Nazi past. Roth's ''The Plot Against America" also confronts fascism, the home-grown variety that looms when Roth imagines FDR losing the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh.

Another legendary enigma, Henry James, is the subject of ''The Master," by Colm Tibn, which invents a turbulent inner life for the writer, and ''Author, Author," by David Lodge, which presents James -- celebrity and failure -- in his social and historical context.

T. C. Boyle tackled a more controversial patriarch, Alfred Kinsey, in ''The Inner Circle," an oddly moving evocation of Kinsey's strange world and of postwar America at large. Sex of a sophomoric kind permeates ''I Am Charlotte Simmons," by Tom Wolfe, and also the ''The Line of Beauty," by Alan Hollinghurst, which won Britain's Man Booker Prize and dwells in the gay enclaves of 1980s London.

The National Book Award went to Lily Tuck's ''The News From Paraguay," an elegant novel based on the experiences of Irish beauty Ella Lynch, the mistress of Paraguay's mad 19th-century dictator, Francisco Lopez, who here perpetrates true horrors. In Drabble's ''The Red Queen," a modern academic is captivated by the life of another canny survivor, the 18th-century Korean princess whose journal permits heroine and reader to enter an ancient, alien world.

Here are 10 books, listed alphabetically by author, that made the reading year worthwhile.

The England of Kate Atkinson's ''Case Histories" is a haunted place populated by the walking wounded: parents who have lost their children, children who have lost their parents and their innocence. A private investigator, himself a casualty, takes on three old cases and enters other lives contorted by grief as Atkinson's laconic style and tough wit reveal the heart's resilience.

Brutality on a larger scale fills Hannah Musgrave's past in ''The Darling." Once a member of the Weather Underground, now a New England farmer, Hannah returns to Liberia, where she lost her husband, her three sons, and her chimpanzees to war. But frailty, not horror, is Banks's concern, and his portrayal of it here makes this political thriller one of his finest works.

Brilliant in every sense of the word, Stefan Chwin's ''Death in Danzig" is an elegiac portrait of wartime and postwar Danzig in which every image has the dreamy clarity of northern light and childhood recollection. As German residents flee Danzig in 1945, and Poles, driven westward by the Russians, occupy their abandoned homes, characters converge. A German professor still stunned by the mysterious death of his lover lives alongside Polish refugees from Warsaw, and each salvages what he can of fragile memory and humanity.

''The Stowaway," a superb, deceptively simple novel by Robert Hough, is based on a true crime committed by the captain of a container ship who set two stowaways adrift on a flimsy raft in the frigid Atlantic. Some Filipino members of the crew, haunted by the atrocity, seek justice. Meanwhile, they discover another Eastern European in hiding. Hough's compressed, lyrical style traps us aboard ship and inside the marginal lives of the Filipino crew and of the desperate Romanian refugees.

An epic war novel, Ha Jin's ''War Trash" is most remarkable for its psychological acuity and its compassion. This intimate portrait of Chinese soldiers who are sent to fight in the Korean War and are imprisoned in American POW camps is based on true historical accounts of this forgotten conflict and its forgotten victims. Confining himself to the prison camp, a world of relentless surveillance and shifting alliances, the author lays bare human weakness and the irrational essence of hope.

In ''The Secret Goldfish," by David Means, the subjects range from a neglected goldfish witnessing the breakdown of a Connecticut marriage to a man stalked throughout his life by lightning. In each case, Means structures his story with crazy precision, packs it with humor, brutality, and sadness, then fuels it with language that nails you to the page.

Set in the early 1990s in a remote Anatolian city, ''Snow," by Orhan Pamuk, exudes playfulness as it maps the shifting terrain between East and West, between the secular state and Islamic religion. Weighty matters such as poverty, suicide, and political and religious extremism are leavened by Pamuk's poetic style, his irrepressible inventiveness, and his ability to make childhood memories seem as real as political acts.

Elwood Reid's flawless novel ''D.B." opens in midair in 1971, when D. B. Cooper jumps out of a plane with a $200,000 ransom and a parachute, disappearing for good. The novel follows him to Mexico and back, through a freewheeling time when we called it the land, not the homeland, and drove a van, not a minivan. A retired FBI agent whose life is imploding picks up D.B.'s trail, and Reid brilliantly captures the rush of the chase as well as the paralysis of suburbia and the trailer park as he takes us for a glorious ride.

In ''A Bit on the Side," by William Trevor, a middle-aged accountant ends a love affair; a priest worries about the fate of his congregation; an elderly cuckold confides in a schoolgirl; a widow gets on with things; and whole lives are compressed into a few paragraphs. These 12 stories -- set in claustrophobic English homes, faded European hotels, rural Irish parishes -- are exquisite variations on the desolate but redemptive theme of Trevor's most recent novel, ''The Story of Lucy Gault," and demonstrate once again that he is a master of both forms.

''The Last Crossing," a classic quest by Guy Vanderhaeghe, is set in the 1870s on the Canadian frontier that has swallowed up Charles Gaunt's brother. Led by a half-Blackfoot guide, Charles and syphilitic Addington Gaunt are joined on their trek by a woman seeking her sister's murderer and by the Civil War veteran who loves her. Vanderhaeghe, author of ''The Englishman's Boy," sustains both tension and mood with writing of such suppleness and restraint that you will be reminded of Charles Portis or Annie Proulx.

Nonfiction

In a year dominated by war and politics -- a dominance reflected in publishers' lists -- it is particularly gratifying to single out, among the year's best nonfiction books, one whose subject explored the enduring beauty of America.

That book is Richard Rhodes's masterful biography ''John James Audubon."

On the ''very first page," wrote the Globe's reviewer, John Gregory Brown, Rhodes ''signals his intention to uncover what fueled" Audubon's ''quest to locate and draw every species of bird" in early 19th-century America.

Dispatched to America to tend to his father's business interests, he instead traveled throughout his adopted nation, through the still-uncut forests and down the great rivers, recording it all for posterity in words and drawings. ''Studying birds," Rhodes writes, ''was how he mastered the world, and himself."

In a presidential election year, two books dealing with two of the greatest US presidents stand out.

In ''Washington's Crossing," a National Book Award finalist, David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis University, writes that it was the spirit of revolutionary revival after a string of defeats that prompted General George Washington to take his battered army across the ice-choked Delaware River to surprise and defeat the British forces at the pivotal Battle of Trenton during the Christmastime of 1776-77.

The Globe's reviewer called the account ''history at its best, fascinating in its details, magisterial in its sweep."

And in ''American Brutus," political historian Michael W. Kauffman presents the conclusions from some 30 years of studying the assassination of Abraham Lincoln -- seeking answers to such questions as the motives of the charismatic actor John Wilkes Booth and his fellow plotters, and whether there was a wider conspiracy. There have been ''a score of books" about the assassination, wrote the Globe's reviewer, Harvard professor emeritus and Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald, but this is ''by all means the best" -- written ''with vigor and skill."

This year's National Book Award winner, ''Arc of Justice," by Kevin Boyle, is a gripping account of the 1925 trial of 10 black men in Detroit, charged with murder after firing into a white mob that was attacking the home of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor. A notable civil rights case, it was largely forgotten until, as the Globe's reviewer law professor Paul Butler wrote, it was ''restored to the urgency of news" by Boyle, a professor at Ohio State University.

Two fine biographies -- both by Massachusetts writers -- delved into the worlds of writers who charted new directions in literature.

William E. Cain called ''Will in the World," by Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, ''vividly written, richly detailed, and insightful from first chapter to last." Greenblatt places Shakespeare in his worlds and against the background of medieval morality plays and mystery cycles.

It is for exploding the conventions of poetic language that E. E. Cummings commands our attention. And in Christopher Sawyer-Lauanno's biography, wrote Globe reviewer Thomas Filbin, ''the poet is more than merely studied, but uncorked, left to breathe, and tasted in the fullness of his genius."

Sawyer-Lauanno, a writer in residence at MIT, follows Cummings from his genteel upbringing (Cambridge Latin School and Harvard) to wartime France and on to Greenwich Village, and explores his tumultuous romances.

Among books of regional interest, the Globe's reviewer found Sarah Messer's ''Red House" and Jane Brox's ''Clearing Land" of particular note.

''Red House" is an evocative account of a house that has stood in Marshfield since 1647 and of the two families who have lived in it. Messer, a poet with an obvious flair for historical investigation, grew up in the house, which her father had bought from the original family.

Brox is also a poet, and our reviewer found ''Clearing Land" to be ''an elegiac farewell," to the family's farm in Dracut, but also to ''a vanishing way of life."

Finally, there is the matter of war.

A surprise finalist for the National Book Award was ''The 9/11 Commission Report." Beyond its recommendations on national security, the book was praised for being as compelling as the best fiction, though terrifying in its detailed account of that world-altering and war-triggering day.

Among the dozens of political polemics, Thomas Frank's ''What's the Matter With Kansas?" stands as required reading for elections yet to come. Globe reviewer Steve Greenlee found Frank's exploration of why lower- and middle-class working people ''have flocked . . . to the party of the privileged" both ''revealing and startling."

Michael Kenney regularly reviews for the Globe.

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