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What do 2002's East Bay best-sellers say about us?

"There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" -- Robert F. Kennedy, 1968.

Thirty years ago, we looked at a range of goals: traveling to the stars, an end to poverty, an end to racism, an end to war -- and thought them entirely possible.

We live in different times today. And if the top-selling book choices of East Bay readers this year offer any clues, it appears that we would be content right now if we were just able to make some sense out of an increasingly incomprehensible world.

What did we buy? Based on the Express' monthly best-seller lists, it was Fast-Food Nation, 9/11, Stupid White Men, and Nickel and Dimed. And as for fiction, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Bel Canto, The Corrections, and Atonement. Books on war, wealth, poverty, politics -- and more war.

Consider a couple of events of the past year or so.

Fresh from its success in gouging Californians during the energy crisis and running out of state with the money, PG&E has instituted a new telephone policy. You can no longer call the gas and electric company directly, even to have your power cut off. Instead, a recorded message asks callers to leave their numbers, and suggests a time when someone from the company can call back (between noon and 4, say, next Thursday). Meanwhile, until a company representative can get in touch, your bill continues to run up. A dollar here, a billion dollars there.

For the first time in our history, America has no military equal or even a serious rival in the world, yet we were attacked on our own soil by a foreign power for the first time since World War II. Like a bear stung by bees, we lumber in pain through the world's forests, trampling grass, snapping bushes and saplings as we go. The bees stay just out of reach, sending mocking, threatening letters to the news media from hidden locations. Our administration turns its attention to the nation of Iraq. For months, the federal government tries to make a case for an Iraqi-terrorist axis as a pretext for an invasion. When no such axis can be proven, Bush drops the attempt to make the terrorist-linkage case, but keeps the invasion plans. And so the United States, unquestionably the nation with the largest arsenal of weapons of mass destruction in history, contemplates using its weapons of mass destruction on a nation that might have weapons of mass destruction in order to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction.

We enter an election so evenly balanced that a few thousand votes here or there could change the direction of the country. Two weeks before the election the administration's toughest critic in the Senate, Minnesota Democrat Paul Wellstone, dies in a small-plane crash en route to a campaign appearance. It is eerily similar to the death of Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, also a Democrat, who died during the 2000 elections while opposing then-US Senator and now-US Attorney General John Ashcroft. So now Wellstone's successor loses, and this in part allows the Republicans to control both the presidency and both houses of Congress. Would forces close to our government have a single individual killed in order to control the direction of the country and decide the fate of the free world? Too ridiculous to contemplate? The television commentators say it is.

So how have these issues and all the rest played out in the books the East Bay bought this year?

Beginning on the eve of the war against Hitler's Germany, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay helped us feel good about our chances in a world on the brink of hellish conflagration. In this immensely popular novel by a Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkeley writer, two Jewish kids seek their fortune in the newly formed American comic-book industry by crafting anti-Nazi cartoons. It takes us back to a simpler time not too long ago in this nation's history when hard work and initiative were often rewarded, and when the country could unite against a common foreign enemy. In reality, the days of World War II were darker and less certain than many who did not live through them now care to imagine. But that war's stories are guaranteed to lift our spirits, because we already know what comes at the end. No matter the twists and turns of plot, the Allied armies always enter Berlin, the concentration camps' gates always open, and Hitler always blows his head off in the bunker.

Eric Schlosser's Fast-Food Nation gives us a clear-headed look at the enemy within -- the insidious corporate engines currently plowing up the American landscape, altering the country in almost immeasurable ways. To those who haven't read this scathing investigation of the fast-food industry, which explores slaughterhouses and Golden Arches and everything in between, a supersized Number Three Extra Value Meal with a Coke might seem to be nothing more than a convenient way to grab dinner on the way home from work. But the Atlantic Monthly's Schlosser shows how without a vote or a public discussion of the economic or health consequences, this "convenience" has led to the strip-mallization of America, our quick slide into unhealthy obesity, and the growing gap between the country's rich and poor.

Michael Moore -- the Mark Twain and Will Rogers of our time -- lays the blame for our present predicament on an easy target: "stupid white men" in general, and the Bush administration in particular. In his use of "stupid," Moore does not imply a lack of tactical cleverness (this is, after all, the group that managed to win a presidential election without actually counting the votes), but more a lack of foresight as to the ultimate consequences of our national policy. Saying (with a slight smirk) that "global warming" does not reflect "real science" plays well in Midwestern voting booths. When the Iowa corn and wheat fields begin burning up in a desert sun, it might not seem so funny.

Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto concerns a group of revolutionary guerrillas who take over a dinner party at a South American mansion, holding hostage an international group of politicians and businessmen, as well as one world-class opera soprano. Told from the point of view of the hostages, the book puts a human face on the guerrillas during the long takeover siege. In a time of anonymous war, when developed nations drop ordnance from thousands of feet in the air and send missiles from hundreds of miles away, while unknown terrorists plant bombs in buildings or stand at a distance and shoot down drivers pumping gas at filling stations -- well, Patchett offers a small victory just by letting us look into the enemy's eyes.

If nothing else, a comparison of the East Bay's top book selections this year with what folks are currently reading in other parts of the country would seem to confirm our self-held view that we are more serious than "they" are. According to USA Today, the country's readers have lately been concentrating mostly on romances (Table for Two and Chesapeake Blue by Nora Roberts), vampires (Blackwood Farm by Anne Rice and Violets Are Blue by James Patterson), and the Harry Potter sagas. If East Bay readers are not quite ready to move forward, at least we don't seem interested in joining much of the rest of the country in merely marking time.


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