3QD’s Best Books of 2005

Here’s the 2nd annual Christmas eve booklist from some of the editors and writers of 3 Quarks Daily (last year’s list can be seen here):

1.  The End of Poverty, by Jeffrey D. Sachs

In this immensely readable and surprisingly fascinating economic account of the “poverty trap” that many third world countries find it impossible to escape, Sachs (director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University) provides a detailed analysis of the origins and reasons for extreme poverty and gives a prescription for ending it in our time, while also anticipating and answering objections along the way. As Bono says in his foreword: “The plan Jeff lays out is not only his idea of a critical path to ccomplish the 2015 Millenium Development Goal of cutting poverty by half–a goal signed up to by all the world’s governments. It’s a handbook on how we could finish out the job.” –Abbas Raza

2. A Day, A Night, Another Day, Summer, by Christine Schutt

In 2004, Schutt’s novel Florida was nominated for the National Book Award, but The Times never even bothered to review it. When she published this collection of short stories earlier in the year, The Times ran a depressingly ignorant notice whose great opening insight was that “this isn’t a beach book.” No, it’s not. It’s a searingly brilliant collection of absolutely harrowing short stories about people in grim situations. They read as if they were written with a skinning knife. Sentence for sentence, Schutt is one of the best American prose stylists I know about. It’s a sign of the desperately anti-intellectual mediocrity of our national conversation that a writer you can get high on isn’t better known. A taster: “My fantasy was to be crippled enough to be allowed to read in bed all day.” –J. M. Tyree

3.  1776, by David McCullough

With the proficiency of a master historian and the skill of a supreme story teller, McCullough paints the evolution of General Washington during a momentous year when the American Revolution was perilously close to perishing. Should be a must-read for high school students as well as immigrants since the book graphically describes the spirit which drove the common people to pull a remarkable feat against an all powerful monarchy and give us the America we have today. Inspirational! –Azra Raza

4.  Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground, by Robert D. Kaplan

In 1962, President Kennedy, foreseeing a future of low-intensity conflicts, rather than massive conventional wars, created the US Navy SEALs and the US Special Forces, or Green Berets. These Special Operations units are the elite, known for their economy of force and specialized area and language training. Robert D. Kaplan has traveled around the war to discover what exactly these Special Operations units are like on the ground today, from Colombia to Yemen to Mongolia. He paints a clear portrait of how US strategic doctrine is working behind the scenes to ensure stability and create a push for democracy around the world. Kaplan shows in concise prose how a little bit of tough love can go a long way in dealing with narco-terrorists and fundamentalists alike, and that the future security of the world rests in the hands of the few selfless servants known as the US Special Operations Forces. –Josh Smith

5.  Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Obstacles to a Science of Consciousness, by Daniel C. Dennett

This book collects Dennett’s Jean Nicod Lectures. Dennett renews and extends the views he had put forth in Consciousness Explained, taking into account empirical advances in neuroscience and neurophilosophy since that time, 1991. No one writes more clearly than Dennett about consciousness and the philosophical issues surrounding it, and no one comes up with better examples to “pump” the reader’s intuition about the theories he is discussing. –Abbas Raza

6.  My Holy War: Dispatches from the Home Front, by Jonathan Raban

We’re so busy debating how badly we should torture foreigners in our secret detention centers that don’t exist that we’ve forgotten what we’ve been doing to ourselves these last few years as a culture here at home, by breathing in the giddy and poisonous atmosphere of fear in the era of black sites and white phosphorous. Raban, an Englishman living in Seattle, a National Book Critic’s Circle Award winner, and a frequent contributor of brilliant essays to The New York Review of Books and The Guardian, tells us in no uncertain terms that we’ve pretty much lost it. Because of its title, this is a great book to carry with you on the plane or the subway, and one wonders if the original working title wasn’t My Jihad. A taster: “America, in its public and official face, has become more foreign to me by the day – which wouldn’t be worth reporting, except that the sentiment is largely shared by so many Americans.” –J. M. Tyree

7.  Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A creepy story about a dystopian society where human clones are bred specifically to be organ donors. What makes it more eerie is that it’s not set in a futuristic sci-fi world, but one very much like our own. The book follows the lives of three cloned children as they attend a boarding school where they do all the things that normal children do–paint, write poems, play games, fall in love–while being subtely brainwashed to accept their fates as medical sacrifices. –Ker Than

8.  Two Lives, by Vikram Seth

While Salman Rushdie inexplicably continues to produce forgettable novels like Fury and this year’s Shalimar the Clown, Vikram Seth has probably become the best subcontinental writer of English prose alive. If you haven’t read his brilliant novel in verse, The Golden Gate, read it, and also read A Suitable Boy. In this memoir of his great-uncle and great-aunt, he is in top form, and tells their story with WWII as a backdrop. His writing is unsentimental but moving. “In a world with so much suffering, isolation and indifference,” Seth writes, “it is cause for gratitude if something is sufficiently good.” This book is. –Abbas Raza

9. Catalogue of the Lucian Freud Exhibition at the Venice Biennial

My book of the year is the catalogue of the Lucian Freud exhibition published by Electa to accompany the Venice Biennale retrospective of Freud’s work. Water running into a dirty sink, the Queen (‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’), foreheads like the maps of worlds, dogs in repose, the grand flesh operas of Sue Tilley and Leigh Bowery, vertiginous flooring leaping up at the viewer: these are marvels of painting and etching. There is real greatness amongst us, not the usual stuff passed off as such. If one couldn’t be in Venice, then this catalogue, though a poor substitute, is the next-best thing. –Peter Nicholson

10. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

This is just a great biography of one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. Through this telling of Oppenheimer’s life, Bird and Sherwin also explore and illuminate the relationship between science and politics in America. –Abbas Raza

Other best-books-of-2005 lists here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.