Book of the Year: COLD MOUNTAIN // Charles Frazier (Atlantic Monthly, $24) It was a banner year for adventure stories of all kinds, but the remarkable thing about this one — an unabashedly literary first novel set during the Civil War — is that it throws the ”coming home” part of adventure into sad, stark relief. A loose refashioning of the classic Odyssean myth, Mountain trails, in exquisitely researched detail, the treacherous 300-mile journey of a wounded Confederate deserter named Inman — back to the brilliant, cultured outsider Ada whom he doesn’t quite dare believe will become his wife. There is enough weapon clanging to satisfy all but the most bloodthirsty Civil War buffs, yet Frazier lavishes equal narrative weight on Ada’s trials and ravaged psyche as she watches and waits, struggling to tend her dead father’s farm. Thick with dusted-off Southern Appalachian lore, almost musical in its prose, this National Book Award winner is a thoroughly modern love story.
2 DAUGHTER OF THE QUEEN OF SHEBA // Jacki Lyden (Houghton Mifflin, $24) It takes more than a really crazy mother to hoist a memoir above the trampling memoir herd. Not that this author’s wasn’t a doozy (Marie Antoinette was but one identity she occasionally adopted). But NPR senior correspondent Lyden doesn’t just string together the heartbreaking funny anecdotes of her mom’s manic depression — she weaves them into a skein undergirding her own peripatetic life, with a graceful self-awareness that few in this trendy genre have mustered.
3 INTO THIN AIR // Jon Krakauer (Villard, $24.95) When Outside magazine sent Krakauer to report on a guided trip up Mount Everest in May 1996, he thought he’d be filing a piece about the summit’s increasingly routine surmountability. By expedition’s end, the mountain had claimed six lives, and Krakauer had enough material for a book — one he would have given anything not to write. A horrifying, lucid survivor’s account by the author of Into the Wild (EW’s 1996 Book of the Year).
4 ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’ // Rick Bragg (Pantheon, $25) Nominally, this is the first-person story of how New York Times national correspondent Bragg went from his poverty-stricken Alabama beginnings to a 1996 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. But it’s really more of a poem disguised as a memoir, a gift from a son to his mother, as well as a primer on good reporting. Bragg shows a flair for the unexpected metaphor, and compassion for his subjects.
5 APPETITE FOR LIFE: THE BIOGRAPHY OF JULIA CHILD // Noel Riley Fitch (Doubleday, $25.95) Though it’s certainly disturbing to discover that Julia Child ever lusted after anything racier than, say, a glass of wine, our beloved ”lady of the ladle” threw open her entire life’s chest of drawers — diaries, letters, falsies — to a scholar who previously chronicled erotic diarist Anais Nin, so stand forewarned, there are some naughty bits. But what complete access mixed with zero interference from the Hearty One yields is a meaty, well-told life. Bon appetit, indeed.