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2 Operation Shylock by Philip Roth. The uncontested master of comic irony comes up with another ticklish situation: a writer named Philip Roth journeys to Israel to confront a Philip Roth imposter who is trying to persuade Jews to go back to Europe and re-establish Yiddish culture. This new Diaspora aims to avert an Arab-engineered Holocaust by returning Israelis to the countries of their ancestors. Seriously funny about Middle East madness, Roth riffs with an abandon not seen since Portnoy's Complaint.
3 Remembering Babylon by David Malouf. A celebrated Australian novelist reimagines his country's pioneer past with a haunting tale of a white man raised by Aborigines. It is the mid-19th century, and the struggling Queensland settlers are homesick for Britain and afraid of the natives. Malouf works the themes of culture clash and racial fears into a seamless narrative that amounts to a national contraepic.
4 The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx. Winner of this year's National Book Award, Proulx's rambunctious second novel zeroes in on a coastal Newfoundland community coming apart economically and socially when the fishing and seal hunting industries fail. The author has a sharp ear for regional speech and a barbed and quirky style that can be both startling and humorous.
5 The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones. This collection of short stories about damaged men poses important questions: Is courage a virtue, or is it simply testosterone poisoning? Is God just a neurochemical event, part of the tantalizing aura that precedes an epileptic fit? Jones is an ex-Marine and former amateur prizefighter who puts a wallop in his prose.
...And the Worst
The Last Brother by Joe McGinnis. Who is this character with a famous name and a mind marinated in platitudes? Certainly not pure fiction, which might have been convincing, but a lifeless creature born out of New Journalism and the checkout-counter culture. Bad novel and bad biography, The Last Brother gives twice as little for the money.