Book review 

Our staff picks the best reads of 2003

The Quality of Life Report
Megan Daum
Viking
Better suited for an airplane flight than for a literature course, Megan Daum’s The Quality of Life Report uses keen wit to tell the story of big city magazine writer Lucinda Trout’s move to fictional small town Prairie City in a restless attempt to shed martinis and sushi for dollar beers and potlucks. Many of the expected elements are here—city girl meets country boy; Pottery Barn meets farmhouse—but Daum hits some thoughtful notes, too, and her writing is undeniably entertaining. (Robin Troy)

Reefer Madness
Eric Schlosser
Houghton Mifflin
If you liked Fast Food Nation, you’ll like author Eric Schlosser’s follow-up, a brief but forceful prybar into three sectors of the U.S. underground economy: sex, drugs and cheap labor. The shortest section is Schlosser’s first-person account of labor camps and shantytowns inhabited by illegal immigrant strawberry pickers in California; the most right-on is his reasoned attack on hypocritical drug laws and attitudes. Muckracking has rarely read so elegantly. (Andy Smetanka)

The Best Democracy Money Can Buy
Greg Palast
Plume
Greg Palast is the finest living American investigative journalist—so fine, actually, that most of his stories have been published only in England. Think of Palast thusly: While Michael Moore makes an accusatory leap to charge Charlton Heston with intentionally showing up in towns after child shootings (as he did in Bowling for Columbine), Palast wouldn’t report it without first acquiring an internal NRA memo stating such a plan outright. This book first appeared in 2002, but a “revised American edition” popped up in 2003. New additions include faxes proving Florida Gov. Jeb Bush knowingly blocked 40,000 legal Florida voters from participating in the 2000 election. The book may be depressing for the democratic-minded, but only if they fail to translate knowledge into action. (Mike Keefe-Feldman)

Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper
Daniel Mathews
Raven Editions
Missoula lies at both the literal and figurative heart of this explicit compendium, which details the natural world between Grand Teton and Jasper National Parks. Expansive as it is detailed and humorous as it is wise, it may be impossible to find a more easy-to-read and informative treatise on Missoula’s neighborhood. If you’re looking for a lifetime of knowledge wrapped up in a 650-page (but knapsack-friendly) encyclopedia covering the land, weather, critters and history of our bioregion, buy this book without hesitation. (Chad Harder)

Songbook
Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books
In this book of essays, Hornby comes off as nothing like the music-snob protagonists that people his novels, i.e. he doesn’t appear to be a total asshole. Songbook is a warm and gentle little book about Hornby’s love for a couple dozen songs and albums. It’s a great read for plane rides, or for cleansing one’s palate between Gravity’s Rainbow and Infinite Jest. (Jed Gottlieb)

In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot
Graham Roumieu
Manic D Press
More evidence that good things come in small packages. This slim graphic novel (of sorts) comes from a Toronto-based writer/illustrator with more than a few splattered stylistic debts to Hunter Thompson compatriot Ralph Steadman and a demented sense of wordplay very much his own. All this in the service of portraitizing the unexpectedly mundane, exceedingly sensitive and occasionally hair-triggered life and times of Sasquatch like you’ve never seen him (har har) before. (Brad Tyer)

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth
Chris Ware
Pantheon
Yeah, it’s a comic book—but Scrooge McDuck or Sergeant Rock it ain’t. Chris Ware is the James Joyce of graphic novelists, and Jimmy Corrigan is his Ulysses: four generations of failure, abandonment and desperation told in flashbacks and recollections so involved and engrossing you forget where the present starts, or if there’s a present at all. Astonishing art seals the deal: Chris Ware is a comic(s) genius. (Andy Smetanka)

Random Family
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
Scribner
The culmination of 10 years of reporting, LeBlanc’s first book follows the lives of two girls, Jessie and Coco, as they navigate drugs, poverty and motherhood in rough New York neighborhoods. Crafting journalism to read like a novel, LeBlanc tracks Jessie and Coco from heroin dealers’ Mercedes to upstate prisons to cramped apartments teeming with three generations of family. In so doing, she creates a stunning tapestry of tough love, disappointments, and hope. (Robin Troy)

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