Kevin's Best of 2004

Book lists are of course a regular part of year end discussions and lists of various types have been posted and linked across the media and blogger landscape. As a blogger I feel compelled to join in and participate in this tradition. What follows is not a “Best of 2004” in the traditional sense (a list of books published this year) but rather a list of books I happened to read this year and enjoyed no matter what their date of publication. To date I have read 58 books. Below are five fiction and five non-fiction works that I found particularly enjoyable during the course of 2004.


The Flame Tree by Richard Lewis. It is so rare to find a well written, thought provoking, and even-handed work on a controversial subject. The Flame Tree is one such work and it is poignant and exciting to boot. Throw in the fact that it is aimed at young adults and it becomes “a must be on the list.”
P.s. I am hoping to post an Q&A with the author in the near future.

Ancestral Shadows by Russell Kirk. I didn’t think I could be surprised by the writing of one of my intellectual mentors, but I was taken aback by the skill and imagination contained in this collection of short stories. Kirk takes a nearly defunct medium (no pun intended) – the ghostly tale – and showcases his imagination and his obvious insight in to the human condition.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Sean Greer. I picked this up on the recommendation of some bloggers and was richly rewarded. Greer is masterful in creating both a voice for Max and a sense of place and time. Although the story is fantastical in nature, Greer brings you in and allows you to see the world from the characters perspective forgetting about the “real world.” Given that it is less than 300 pages long, it would be hard to beat this book’s bang for the buck.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It is fitting to add this work to the list to represent my occasional quest to read “classic novels” I missed in high school and college. My little self-education project has been enlightening and rewarding. In particular I enjoyed Dorian Gray. I not only enjoyed the somewhat purple prose but I found the ideas and issues that surround the story to be thought provoking and relevant even today.

The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn by Janis Hallowell. One of the first books I read in 2004, The Annunciation of Francesca Dunn started the year off right. Hallowell’s first novel is a gem. The characters are interesting and real despite the fantastical nature of parts of the plot (do you see a pattern here?) and the writing is both lyrical and tender.
P.s. Author interview here.


Charles Dickens: A Penguin Life by Jane Smiley. What better to top the non-fiction list on a “literary blog” than a literary biography? Seriously though, I may not agree with Jane Smiley’s politics but I found her short bio of Charles Dickens to be fascination and well done. I love the Penguin Life series and this is a perfect example why. Allow me to quote myself:

Overall, Smiley provides a fascinating and very readable introduction to Charles Dickens’ life and work. She does this without getting bogged down in biographical minutia, psychological speculation, or academic debates. Instead she helps us understand Dickens as a person and a writer while at the same time placing him in context of his time and connecting him to ours.

Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter McDougal. By far the best history work I have read this year (maybe even the last few years). Engaging, insightful, educational, entertaining, it is everything popular history can and should be. If you have any interest in early American history I highly recommend this book.

– Russell Kirk and the Age of Ideology by W. Wesley McDonald. This work is a must on the list not only because if was a great book about a great man, but because it was the subject of my very first published magazine review.

Suprise, Security, And the American Experience by John Lewis Gaddis. On occasion I read books and never post a review in this space. For whatever reason I just can’t seem to come up with something to say. This work is one such work (and the next on is too). That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great work, just that I couldn’t quite get my arms around it. Gaddis is another one of my intellectual mentors and this short work, based on a series of lectures, is a important counter to all the hyperventilating about President Bush’s unprecedented and reckless foreign policy “unilateralism.”

C.S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea by Victor Reppert is another work I read but never reviewed here. It is also a thought provoking and challenging work. Booklist proposes an alternative title: “Gunfight at the I’m-OK Corral, a Shoot-out: Darwin and the Materialists versus C. S. Lewis and the Theists.” Whatever the title it is a intelligent and sharp critique materialist philosophy and well worth reading no matter what side you are on.

So there you have it folks. Ten books I found particularly good reads this year. If any one out there still needs to do some shopping, as I do, I can say with confidence that any one of them would make an excellent Christmas present.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).