Booked for the Holidays

Easy to wrap, hard to put down: Consider these books for the readers on your list.

December 18, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN BOOK EDITOR

A Democrat triumphed -- at least on the best-seller list.

Bill Clinton wrote the big book -- his fulsome autobiography -- of 2004. Bob Dylan weighed in on his own enigmatic existence and porn star Jenna Jameson bared herself -- in words, not just photos. Philip Roth imaged a nightmare America that cozied up to Adolf Hitler, and the 9/11 Commission's report on a real nightmare in America became an acclaimed best-seller. Tom Wolfe published a new novel, and critics thought it was a nightmare.

What follows is not a list of the year's best-sellers but rather, a catalog of our favorites, as well as a sampling of gift books to consider for holiday stockings (in some cases, huge holiday stockings).

NONFICTION

Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens

By Jane Dunn. Alfred A. Knopf. 453 pages. $30

They were blood relatives and female rulers over adjoining lands. But Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots coveted the same thing - Elizabeth's throne - and their competing claims would always make each deadly to the other. Dunn's dual biography is a virtuoso of penetrating insight, elegant writing and astonishing scholarship. Both queens emerge as complex and vivid. Their tragic relationship would be the most meaningful of their lives - and the most treacherous.

Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

By Kevin Boyle. Henry Holt. 432 pages. $26

In 1925 Detroit, as an angry white mob threatened the home of an African-American family that had just broken the neighborhood's color line, shots rang out. A white man fell dead, and 11 blacks inside the house were charged with his murder. Boyle's National Book Award winner is at once literary legal thriller and trenchant civil rights history.

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34

By Bryan Burrough. Penguin Press. 593 pages. $27.95

Duck! Not far into this endlessly exciting book you may start believing that being an American during one two-year period meant the constant ringing of machine guns in your ears. That's because some of the most storied American desperadoes, including John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, were shooting up the middle of the country at the same moment. Arrayed against them, ineffectually for some time, was J. Edgar Hoover's newly created FBI. Burrough's rat-a-tat narrative brims with bank robberies and shoot-outs.

Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare

By Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton. 384 pages. $26.95

This erudite but accessible study burrows deeply into Shakespeare's time and place - the customs, religious conflict, commerce, entertainment, education - to illuminate the life of our most revered writer and his works. The book is speculative, but Greenblatt's scholarship is commanding, his portrait persuasive.

Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book

By Gerard Jones. Basic Books. 384 pages. $26

Think about it. Do comic book heroes - powerful, brash, outsized beings who smite arch-villains and save civilization - emerge from healthy, well-adjusted imaginations? Of course not, as Gerard Jones glowingly confirms in this incisive history of the comic books. With profound appreciation for the unsavory, the shady and the tortured, Jones tells the surprisingly rich tale behind the origins of comic books, revealing the sometimes tormented souls who invented this splashy art form and the unscrupulous operators who sold it. In microcosm, he tells a broader, roiling story of 20th-century America.

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