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GLOBE EDITORIAL

Book group

BOOKS PULL readers into the world's problems, or offer an escape. Books resurrect the past or call for a better future. Some novels seem lifelike, and some real accounts read like fiction. Here is a list of books published in 2005 that caught the attention of editorial board members this year.

Early English and French settlers to the New World found an empty America, but they were experiencing the effects of depopulation caused by diseases carried over by the first explorers. In ''1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus" (Knopf), Charles C. Mann writes that the Americas were a comparatively crowded hemisphere whose inhabitants were busy transforming ecosystems to suit their civilizations. Mann acknowledges that the evidence for his thesis is not as comprehensive as that available for the same periods in Europe and Asia, but his book is a useful corrective to those who still think that pre-Columbus America was -- in Longfellow's words -- ''the forest primeval."

***

Chatter, to Patrick Radden Keefe, is not cocktail talk. Chatter is the enormous volume of phone and Internet communication sucked up by the United States and a few allies in an unacknowledged eavesdropping network code-named Echelon, using Sigint, or signals intelligence, mostly from spy satellites. Insiders say chatter spikes in the days before terrorist attacks. But are the analysts capable of finding useful warnings in the mass of information they tap? Can they do it fast enough to make a difference? Are the privacy intrusions a nuisance or a serious threat? These and other issues are explored deftly and trenchantly in Keefe's eye-opening book ''Chatter: Dispatches from the Secret World of Global Eavesdropping" (Random House).

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Henry Perowne, the main character in Ian McEwan's latest novel, ''Saturday" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday), hasn't cracked the Joseph Conrad book recommended by his poet daughter because ''seafaring, however morally fraught, doesn't much interest him." Fans of McEwan will rightly suspect a wink from the author, whose book funnels Perowne into an intensely moral -- and physical -- struggle. A successful London neurosurgeon, Perowne worries that terrorists may attack by air, but, in action that takes place during a single day, he finds drama much closer to home.

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Can the dialogue in ''The City of Falling Angels" (Penguin Press) really be verbatim? It's hard to believe that author John Berendt brought a tape recorder into an opulent masked ball held in one of Venice's finest palazzos, or had it handy for every gondola ride. No matter. The tale that Berendt spins -- ostensibly about the 1996 fire that destroyed Venice's opera house, La Fenice -- is as liquid and mercurial as the city itself. Part detective story, part travelogue, part sheer gossip, this bestseller is an exhilarating trip. It doesn't seem sporting to hold Berendt to every line.

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In a novel of Ireland on the verge of modernity, the last great Irish storyteller visits a rural household in 1951 and entrances a boy with magical accounts of the history of the island. The boy grows up and goes on a search for the vanished storyteller, who has one tale yet to reveal. ''Ireland," by Frank Delaney (HarperCollins) is a treat for anyone interested in the Irish past.

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''Getting Even: Why Women Don't Get Paid Like Men -- And What to Do About It" (Touchstone), by Evelyn Murphy with E.J. Graff, considers the continuing wage gap paying women 77 cents for every dollar earned by men and asks this simple question: Why not a dollar? The former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts explodes the myth that women on the ''mommy track" want to opt out of careers and documents ingrained attitudes that hold back a highly educated and eager female workforce. She calls for nothing short of another American revolution that enlists the public, top executives, and men as well as women in the cause of fairness to eliminate archaic wage disparities that should have no place in this century.

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Anita Diamant, author of ''The Red Tent," returns to historical fiction with the elegiac ''Last Days of Dogtown" (Scribner). Set in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, in the early 1800s, the book tracks the slow depopulation of a tattered community of tinkers, drunks, witches, freed slaves, and prostitutes who either die off or move up to a better life. Less a plot-driven narrative than a series of linked sketches, the book's power comes from the unforgettable characters, their grinding poverty, and their enduring humanity. There is still a Dogtown section in Gloucester, today just a scruffy woodland. Diamant has made corporal the ghosts of its former inhabitants through the sheer power of her imagination.

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The 1999 riots during the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle ended the 35-year career of Norm Stamper, the city's police chief. But they didn't silence him, as evidenced by ''Breaking Rank: A Top Cop's Expose of the Dark Side of American Policing" (Nation Books). The reader rides along with Stamper, starting with his days as a brutish patrolman in San Diego and ending with his crusade to eradicate corruption and brutality in American policing. Stamper steps fearlessly into the contradictory world of cops and offers himself as Exhibit A. It's tough to ignore a cop under any circumstance, but especially one who can make equally compelling cases for decriminalizing marijuana and locking up domestic abusers for life.

***In ''What is Life Worth?: The Unprecedented Effort to Compensate the Victims of 9/11" (PublicAffairs), Kenneth Feinberg describes his gigantic, emotionally draining job as special master of the $7 billion Sept. 11 compensation fund Congress established to help survivors and families who lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks. Appointed 11 days after the disaster, Feinberg took the job pro bono, agreeing to be the sole arbiter of who should get what. He spent nearly three years absorbing people's anger, grief, distrust, and sometimes flat refusal to accept death. He traces his own emotional journey from no-nonsense attorney to sympathetic listener who learned that getting people to share their memories was ''the most valuable anodyne in my small chest of pain relievers."

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The war in Iraq had its origins in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Iraqi exile community and American neoconservative groups. The conflict produced unexpected opportunities, danger, and death for US soldiers and Iraqi civilians caught in the aftermath of the initial burst of fighting. George Packer, a New Yorker writer, deftly moves among the originators and the victims of the war in ''The Assassins' Gate" (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), essential reading for anyone interested in how the United States stumbled into Mideast quicksand.

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Two Clinton administration terrorism experts, Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, vividly describe how the war in Iraq has made the West's struggle against Islamic terrorism infinitely more complicated in ''The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right" (Times Books, Henry Holt and Co.). The book is especially valuable in its attention to Internet communications by and among jihadists. The authors' prescription for dealing with the Islamic world takes the long view. Among other steps, they suggest a Western engagement with Egypt that will encourage the kind of Islamic democracy taking root in Turkey.

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If civilized men and women prevail in this century, they will owe a debt of gratitude to their great precursor of the past century, Andrei Sakharov, the Russian physicist who helped design the Soviet hydrogen bomb, perceived the perils in the thermonuclear balance of terror, then lent his lucidity and courage to the dissident movement that played a crucial role in the implosion of the Soviet empire. ''The KGB File of Andrei Sakharov" (Yale University Press) tells of Sakharov's heroic apostasy from the point of view of his secret police minders. Here are the reports that KGB boss Yuri Andropov made to the Central Committee, replete with the lies Soviet leaders felt obliged to tell even to themselves about the appearance of a ''domestic opposition."

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In ''February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America," (Houghton Mifflin) author Sherrill Tippins makes readers feel like guests at the raucous dinners, parties, and goings-on at 7 Middagh Street, the house in Brooklyn where a changing group of writers and artists lived during 1940 and 1941. As the residents of 7 Middagh were writing poems, novels, and operas -- including Gypsy's novel ''The G-string Murders: The Story of a Burlesque Girl" -- Hitler was terrorizing Europe. And the world and those at 7 Middagh sought to tilt the balance away from war and toward civilization.

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