1. MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, by John Berendt, Random House, $23
This zany portrait of Savannah, Ga., sings with original characters. It tells the universal tale of small-town life in which neighborly rivalries and gossip are pastimes. But Savannah's characters are even more outrageous - sometimes more sensuous - than those of most small towns: from a good-natured con-man who invites the town to raucous parties in other people's houses to "The Lady Chablis" - a drag queen who crashes debutante balls. By Abraham T. McLaughlin
2. The JOY OF COOKING, by I.S. Rombauer, et al., Scribner, $30
The outward appearance of this cooking classic has not changed much in the past 22 years. But the innards have been updated, rewritten, and in some cases, discarded, due in large part to earnest efforts to make it a contemporary encyclopedia for cooks of all abilities. Illustrations that were line drawings are now stippled and three-dimensional. The simplicity of the drawings demystifies the more exotic ingredients and laborious preparation processes. One loss though is the original version's touches of humor. By Evan F. Mallett
3. ANGELA'S ASHES: A MEMOIR, by Frank McCourt, Scribners, $23
"Angela's Ashes," Frank McCourt's brilliant and tender memoir of his miserable Irish Catholic childhood in Limerick, Ireland, is a deeply moving story and a very funny book. Angela was McCourt's mother. The story begins in Brooklyn during the Depression as she tries to hold the family together; later, because of his father's alcoholism the family is forced to return to Ireland, where McCourt discovers Shakespeare and language. It is a book of splendid humanity. By Devon McNamara
4. SIMPLE ABUNDANCE, by Sarah Ban Breathnach, Warner, $17.95
A spiritual self-help book for the "modern woman," a how-to book that offers to overcome stress and assist in self-discovery with topical readings on gratitude, simplicity, order, harmony, beauty, and joy. There is a reading for each day of the calendar year. Like modern gold-mining - 30 tons of shoveled dirt to find one ounce of gold - there are pages of platitudes before one hits an original insight. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" spotlighted this book. By Jim Bencivenga
5. CITIZEN SOLDIERS, by Stephen E. Ambrose, Simon & Schuster, $27.50
Following up on his triumph with Lewis and Clark ("Dauntless Courage"), Stephen Ambrose has written another superb book that weaves history into compelling human drama. The front-line soldier, often still in his teens, tells the story. His heroism and the brutality of his fox-hole-bound existence are unstintingly portrayed. So are the failings - sometimes shocking - of his superior officers. This book is an eye-opener, showing both the heights of character forged by war, and war's depths. By Keith Henderson
6. INTO THIN AIR, by Jon Krakauer, Villard, $24.95
Krakauer writes compellingly that he wanted his personal account of a guided tour up Mt. Everest to have a raw, ruthless sort of honesty, and it does. On May 10, 1996, nine of his fellow climbers, including three guides, were killed in a storm that swept the mountain. Krakauer hoped "that writing the book might purge Everest from my life. It hasn't, of course." Readers of this book will never think of the world's highest peak in quite the same way again. By Suzanne MacLachlan
7. THE PERFECT STORM, by Sebastian Junger, W.W. Norton, $22.95
"The Perfect Storm" serves as both title and metaphor recounting the once-in-a-century phenomenon in which major weather systems converge into one awesome storm. A meditation on and an adrenaline-pumping account of weather gone awry, the book integrates meteorological observations into accounts of the lives and deaths of the six-man crew of the Andrea Gail. What ultimately makes this unique and admirable is its overriding humanity. By Judith Bolton-Fasman
8. THE DARK SIDE OF CAMELOT, by Seymour Hersh, Little Brown & Co., $26.95
Seymour Hersh's latest investigative book, "The Dark Side of Camelot," is not for the squeamish. It wallows in the muck of the sexual improprieties, political corruption, and coverup that appear to have permeated the career of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. What's new is that Hersh has found sources who have told him the whys and wherefores, thus apparently documenting (some) charges. The result is a one-dimensional picture of the slain president, his family, and his associates.By Lawrence J. Goodrich
9. THE MAN WHO LISTENS TO HORSES, by Monty Roberts, Random House, $23
Roberts talks the language of horses, and they listen. Equus is the name he gives this silent language, developed over a lifetime of tireless reading of the body movements of "flight" animals such as the horse, mule, and even deer. This very detailed autobiography reveals the love, patience, and endurance of one man who has been able to coax horses to voluntarily step out of their wild natures into a working relationship with people. Roberts lays out how his own life mirrors the cruelty and drama of horse breakers. By Jim Bencivenga
10. DIANA: HER TRUE STORY (COMMEMORATIVE EDITION), by A. Morton, Simon & Schuster, $22.95
Andrew Morton's update of his 1992 biography will keep readers up into the night taking in its details. The revised edition includes new chapters and transcripts from secret interviews with the princess, who went public with her collaboration in 1995. Di's rise from awkward teen to the people's princess is well presented. But Morton should have shown more restraint with material added since her death. Lines like, "Then the heavens cracked open - and claimed her," will leave even the loyal rolling their eyes. By Kim Campbell
11. CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD, Book I, by Neale Donald Walsch, Putnam, $19.95
Written in a very simple, accessible style, this book is based on what the author, the founder of an Oregon-based organization called ReCreation, describes as a three-year conversation with God that he transcribed. It contains some substantial insights and flashes of humor. God is described as an all-good, omnipotent Being, who is constantly communicating with all people. Prayer is described as a process, not a petition. First of three books. By Abraham T. McLaughlin
12. MAKING FACES, by Kevyn Aucoin, Little Brown & Co., $29.95
Maybe you're not a diva, but you can certainly look like one with the right tools and makeup. Whichever face you desire (there are more than a couple of dozen to choose from), "Making Faces" will help transform your look. It also includes instructions on how to apply lipstick ("a lip brush is essential for accuracy") to tips on curling lashes ("very important to open up the eyes"). Exquisite photos of celebrities and everyday people, large diagrams, and step-by-step directions show that with makeup, anything's possible. By Lisa Parney
13. DIRTY JOKES AND BEER, by Drew Carey, Hyperion, $22.95
"Dirty Jokes and Beer" is harder on the eyes than Drew Carey's crew cut. With few exceptions, Carey starts each chapter with a crass joke and moves on to discuss everything from his troubled childhood and being booted out of college twice, to his checkered private life and his love for greasy food. It's heavy with profanity and sexual innuendo, and readers walk away (gladly) wondering how the comedian cleans up his act for his prime-time sitcom, "The Drew Carey Show." By John Christian Hoyle
14. TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Mitch Albom, Doubleday, $19.95
A beloved college professor who is dying agrees to meet each Tuesday with a former student and discuss life and death. The 14 "classes" are recorded by Mitch Albom, a well-known sportswriter, with his former teacher, Morrie Schwartz. Religion, family, friends, and work are carefully considered. Schwartz (now deceased) was interviewed at home by Ted Koppel and appeared on "Nightline." What keeps this uplifting book from being maudlin is Albom's crisp writing - and the generous heart of Schwartz. By Jim Bencivenga
15. SOURCES OF STRENGTH, by Jimmy Carter, Times Books, $23
"The Laughing Jesus" is the title of one of the 52 meditations on biblical quotations by former President Jimmy Carter. A prolific author and storyteller, he can jest while advocating God's healing love and admonishing that there is no "cheap grace." Decades of teaching Sunday school have made it apparent to Carter that "The presence of God as a guardian and comforter in our lives is something we desperately hunger to believe...." This book seeks to feed that growing hunger. By Mari Murray
GOD AND THE AMERICAN WRITER
By Alfred Kazin
Alfred A. Knopf
272 pp., $25
Since he established himself as a major critic of American literature 55 years ago with "On Native Ground," Alfred Kazin has been writing the kind of literary criticism everyone wants to read but so few seem willing to write. There are critics more dazzling and provocative, but Kazin casts judgments like a principled friend.
For the new student or the experienced scholar, his "God and the American Writer" is an account that captures the true complexity of American authors' attempts to describe their sometimes beautiful, sometimes desperate visions of the essential issues.
In a dozen essays he mixes biography, historical analysis, literary criticism, and even personal experiences with some of the authors he discusses. Kazin highlights "the unavailing solitude" in which American writers from Hawthorne to Faulkner have struggled to communicate in an environment of religious pluralism and entertainment hegemony.
The theological promise of his title is more subtle in the book itself. Indeed, several of the authors he presents had no clear religious interests.
Kazin says that he is "interested not in the artist's professions of belief but in the imagination he brings to his tale of religion in human affairs."
In the irresistible egoism of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, Kazin sees writers from a culture "drenched in religion" choosing instead to posit their fervid individualism as their own special creed.