Jonathan Yardley

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, December 4, 2005

Readers of Book World who browse elsewhere in this massive newspaper are perhaps aware that I write an irregular column for the Style section called Second Reading, in which I reconsider "notable and/or neglected books from the past." To date, something on the order of 90 percent of the books discussed there have been works of fiction, and almost all of those are books that I admire or even love. By contrast, the "literary" fiction being written in this country nowadays strikes me as so jejune, self-absorbed and lifeless that I am just about unable to read it, much less pass fair judgment on it.

Instead I find myself turning more and more to what is commonly dismissed by the literati as "popular" or "genre" fiction. Most of the fiction that ends up on the bestseller lists is junk, but some of it has meat and merit. I'd read and reviewed Michael Connelly before, but not until the two -- two! -- novels he published this year, The Closers and The Lincoln Lawyer , did I fully grasp the dimensions of his achievement. His books are immensely entertaining, as he obviously means them to be, but they also are serious examinations of the underside of American society, a large, dangerous and important world that goes entirely unnoticed in the frail dithyrambs emitted by the university creative-writing departments. If you can only read one of the two I'd vote for The Closers , but both are sharply and at times passionately written and very smart.

The same must be said, I discovered early last year, for the novels of John Grisham. Advised some years earlier that I'd find his work unreadable, I avoided it but finally decided that I couldn't go on ignoring one of the world's most popular novelists. Boning up for his new novel, The Broker , I read several of its predecessors and was astonished by how good they are. The only person who writes as well about the law is Scott Turow, but Grisham brings a sassy irreverence to the subject that Turow largely eschews. He's amused by the depredations of his high-powered cynics even as he deplores them, which enriches the texture of his narratives and characterizations. His plots are as complex and interesting as Connelly's, and he writes every bit as well. In The Broker he strays a bit afield, into espionage and related matters, and the book isn't quite up to his best, but it's vivid, engrossing and, like Connelly's, very smart.

Literary fiction? Three books deserve to be in this year's list of favorites. Never Let Me Go , by Kazuo Ishiguro, doesn't quite reach the heights of his The Remains of the Day , but its depiction of the strange, sad young people at a strange, scary British "school" is haunting and convincing; the novel isn't science fiction -- a genre for which, regrettably, I've never developed a taste -- but its ventures into the outré and unknown are of a similar cast.

Ventures into the unknown are also the business of Penelope Lively, who in Making It Up looks back over the more than seven decades of her life and imagines what might have happened had things gone a bit differently. As she is at pains to emphasize, this is not a memoir but an "anti-memoir," a work of fiction pure and simple. As such, it is surprising and ingenious, but no tour de force; it is a deeply felt inquiry into the inexplicability of fate and chance, beautifully written.

Finally, speaking of strange and scary, Julia Slavin's Carnivore Diet came out of nowhere in mid-summer and just about knocked me out; set in one of Washington's Maryland suburbs, it's a wildly funny, irreverent send-up of many of this city's sacred cows -- Capitol Hill, K Street, et cetera -- and its off-the-wall ambience is delightful.

As to nonfiction, it was a strange year, at least for me. I must have reviewed around 75 works of nonfiction in 2005, a number of which are solid, useful, interesting books on a variety of worthwhile subjects, yet winnowing them down with a clinical eye leaves only nine for this year-end list. Two of the nine are about cities, though that's about all they have in common. The Edifice Complex , by the British architecture critic Deyan Sudjic, takes the broad view, examining the relationship between architecture and power in original, provocative ways. "Architecture is used by political leaders to seduce, to impress, and to intimidate," he writes, and then goes on to support that argument with an impressive array of documentation and analysis.

John Berendt, by contrast, takes the narrow view. The subject of The City of Falling Angels is Venice, after the destruction by fire in February 1996 of its historic opera house, the Gran Teatro La Fenice. The book is similar in some ways to Berendt's phenomenally successful Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil -- romantic setting, larger-than-life characters, mysterious events -- but it isn't a pale attempt to repeat a winning formula. Berendt has worked hard to tie together not merely all the strands of a complicated story but also the various aspects of Venice that he discovered during his long stay there, aspects rarely seen by the tourists who swarm through the beautiful old city. His prose, as previously, is a pleasure to read.

Two other books are works of history. The Cardinal's Hat , by Mary Hollingsworth, is the story of Ippolito d'Este, the spoiled, self-indulgent son of a union of the Este and Borgia families, but it is also an examination of the vastly extended domestic life of a wealthy 16th-century Italian clan. Hollingsworth's research is meticulous, and her book is as entertaining as it is informative. The same can be said for Defining the World , Henry Hitchings's account of how Samuel Johnson compiled and wrote his famous Dictionary of the English Language . First published in 1755, the dictionary served as the gold standard for a century and a half and still remains immensely readable. Hitchings tells its story, and Johnson's, deftly; this is "popular" history of the first rank.

Finally, five books that qualify, in various -- and very different -- ways as memoirs. Ruth Reichl, the reformed restaurant reviewer who now works as editor in chief of Gourmet magazine, tells the story of her years at the New York Times in Garlic and Sapphires . Reichl, who can be laugh-out-loud funny, pops a number of over-inflated egos in the restaurant and newspaper business and is tough on herself as well; in the end, hers is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of believing oneself more important than the institution that pays one's salary, which is to say a tale that transcends the relatively limited boundaries of the restaurant world.

Paula Fox, a superbly gifted writer, describes a brief but obviously important period in her life in The Coldest Winter . In her early twenties, Fox went to Europe at the end of World War II with nothing particular in mind. She ended up working as a stringer for a small British news service -- if "service" is the word for it -- and wandering through the bombed-out shell that was Europe in 1946 and 1947. She covered some fairly significant events, but her sympathies lay with the ordinary people whose lives the war had turned inside out; she writes about them (and herself) with feeling but entirely without sentimentality.

Another superbly gifted writer is Lynn Freed, a native South African who has lived in the United States for many years and inhabits a psychological space somewhere between the two. Reading, Writing, and Leaving Home is chiefly about how she became a writer and, as such, is one of the best books on that subject I've ever read, but it also includes wry, loving recollections of her exceedingly eccentric parents and thoughtful reflections on what it is like to live in limbo.

Barbara Holland has never had that sort of problem -- she's lived within the circulation reach of this newspaper all her life -- but she shares with Freed an outsider's perspective. When All the World Was Young may sound, from its title, as if it's a nostalgic look back to a vanished youth, but in fact it's a cool-headed depiction of a vanished Washington -- before, during and after World War II -- where the youthful Holland never quite managed to fit in. A child of divorce at a time when that was still uncommon, stuck with a stepfather whom she loathed, Holland took all these lemons and made gallons of lemonade, a significant part of which is this lovely, funny, honest memoir in which not a trace of narcissism is to be found.

Finally, Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking . Two years ago her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly of a massive heart attack, and her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, suffered a succession of debilitating illnesses that left her at the brink of death, to which she succumbed just before the book was published. Didion writes about these dreadful events with the clarity one expects of her, but this is a heartbreaking, passionate book that offers no easy answers and leaves the reader, like Didion herself, at a loss to explain the ways in which life changes, irremediably, in a trice. It is, for me, the book of the year.

Jonathan Yardley is The Washington Post's book critic. His e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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