The Iraq War began in March, and the Human Genome Project announced it had accomplished its mission of sequencing the complete human genetic code in April, while Arnold Schwarzenegger followed the release of Terminator 3 in July with his election as governor of California in October. It was a year of blockbusters in books, with the fifth Harry Potter installment rivaled by a surprise hit thriller that suggested a secret history of the Catholic Church. Audrey Niffenegger and Khaled Hosseini made debuts with novels that would become perennial bestsellers in paperback, while our editors' choice for the best book of the year was an electrifying story of addiction and recovery whose status as a memoir was still a few years from being questioned.
What we were reading: Continuing in Tom’s Old Media Monday tradition, here's a run-down of how the critics received some of our picks for the year's best books:
- Janet Maslin on A Million Little Pieces (astutely suspicious, a year and a half before Frey pissed off Oprah and became the poster boy for memoirists cum fabulists): "This story is supposed to be all true. It is supposed to be a scorchingly honest account of how its author sunk to unimaginable depths, railed against the Twelve Step program that was supposed to help him and ultimately found his own form of salvation. His account does have grit and myopic immediacy that could make it a campus classic, what with such attention-getting incidents as the time this self-loathing author pulls off his own toenails. But in charting the course of his experience, he follows a memoirist's Twelve Step pattern that is as familiar as what Rehab offers."
- Mark Bowden on Jarhead: "Jarhead is some kind of classic, a bracing memoir of the 1991 Persian Gulf war that will go down with the best books ever written about military life.… Swofford writes with humor, anger and great skill. His prose is alive with ideas and feeling, and at times soars like poetry. He captures the hilarity, tedium, horniness and loneliness of the long prewar desert deployment, and then powerfully records the experience of his war."
- A.O. Scott on The Fortress of Solitude: "The Fortress of Solitude is crowded beyond my powers of summary with lessons, insights, facts, dates, song titles and minor characters. But I much prefer its mess and sprawl to the tightly wound intellectual parlor tricks of earlier Lethem novels."
- Erik Larson on The Devil in the White City: "[Larson] wants to tell the whole story, both the glory of Burnham's creation and the sordid details of the first known urban psychopath in American history. It is not a comfortable fit. He uses language well, but has little sense of pacing or focus…. It must be said, however, that though this grab-bag approach slows the narrative, it does allow the inclusion of some good stories about characters like Buffalo Bill Cody."
- Robert Harris on Positively Fifth Street: "[McManus] wins $866,000 in a single hand and takes the lead, and now we're into this with him, willing to pore over his recounting of hand after hand and becoming intimate with the strategies of marathon no-limit poker. He's not afraid to admit his overwhelming fear when a hand is decided on the turn of a final card, ''fifth street.'' But for all his self-deprecation, McManus is smart. He knows that the professionals have him marked as a weak player, so he doesn't play like one…. and walks out with just under $250,000--and, even better for a writer, a great story."
Top Five 2003 Amazon Bestsellers: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Da Vinci Code, The South Beach Diet, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
In Memoriam: Among the authors who passed away in 2003: Roberto Bolaño, George Plimpton, Robert McCloskey, Carol Shields, William Steig, Edward Said, John Gregory Dunne, Leonard Michaels, Hugh Kenner, and Amanda Davis