Exploring the Word ; Our 2002 Collection of Book Reviews

Article excerpt

This is the year publishers had to confront their worst nightmare: Oprah closed her book club. After six years of creating or boosting a bestseller every single month, the TV talk-show host claimed she couldn't find enough good books to recommend. If only she'd returned my calls....

Traveling through the 40 titles we receive here every day, our reviewers have braved the far corners of the world - and beyond - to discover the year's best in fiction and nonfiction. Inside, you'll find 10 highly recommended books and almost 60 noteworthy ones.

On our website, each of these capsules is linked to the full review we ran during the year. Before setting off on an adventure, do your homework and read up on the destination.

Happy exploring.

- Ron Charles

RECOMMENDED FICTION

CARAMELO, by Sandra Cisneros, Knopf, $24

This swirling dinner-table collection of family tales is worthy of the anticipation that's built up over the 18 years since Cisneros wrote "The House on Mango Street." Her story of four generations of Mexican-Americans moves across literary borders as easily as its characters trek between Mexico City and Chicago. Little Lala Reyes tells the first part of the novel, a sweaty car trip to visit the Awful Grandmother in Mexico. But then Cisneros jumps back to tell the story of that Awful Grandmother as a young woman - with the voice of the grandmother often interrupting the narrator. The story spreads out across the whole fabric of Lala's family history with tales of foolishness and passion, tragedy and sacrifice, showing us, in the end, the conciliatory power of storytelling. (Oct. 10)

ATONEMENT, by Ian McEwan, Doubleday, $26

In this comic, moving, ultimately unsettling novel, Booker Award- winner McEwan captures the brutality of love and war and guilt. The story opens on a sweltering day at the ugly Gothic estate of the Tallis family. McEwan rotates through the perspectives of several residents and guests during a ludicrous and ultimately disastrous weekend, turning subtly through a kind of mock tribute to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. As the novel moves on through three more sections, 13-year-old Briony Tallis clears the fog of adolescence and confronts the destructive power of fiction, even while she pursues its redemptive possibilities. Each of us, McEwan suggests, is composing a life. (March 14)

GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH, by Richard Flanagan, Atlantic Monthly, $27.50

With this weird and wild testimony of William Gould, a 19th- century forger imprisoned below the tide line in a Tasmanian penal colony, Flanagan has written a fish story that's THIS BIG, surely the slipperiest, most outrageous novel of the year. The tale Gould tells of the land way down under is captivating. But be forewarned, it's also scatological and shockingly violent, a nightmare inversion of the elegant British society that constructed this place. As the narrative loops back on itself in a series of mind-bending poststructural tricks, Flanagan develops a grander and more ghastly vision that leaps beyond his country's history toward the biggest questions that love and language can pose. (March 28)

IN THE IMAGE, by Dara Horn, W.W. Norton, $24.95

This debut novel storms with crosscurrents of the Old Testament: the trials of exile, the burdens of orthodoxy, the inexplicable nature of evil, the awesome power of God. When a young driver hits Naomi Landsmann in the novel's first paragraph, she and her killer vanish from its pages. But her death brings together an unlikely pair: her best friend, who reacts by becoming mute, and her grandfather, who attempts to capture everything on earth in thousands of carefully organized slides. This exuberant novel about the tenacity and mystery of faith is a book to press into other people's hands and pester them to finish so you can talk about it together. (Sept. …