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Jonathan Yardley
Slavery and civil rights figure prominently in a critic's pick of the year's best books.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, December 3, 2006

Three of the works of nonfiction that make my personal list of the year's best books, and one of the works of fiction, initially came to my attention because of a lifelong interest in race relations in the United States generally and in Southern history more specifically. These are matters about which I make no claims to virtue or moral purity, but they have been foremost in my mind ever since, as a boy of 9, I moved with my family from the Northeast to Southside Virginia. The sight of black convicts working in chain gangs by the roadside unnerved me, and so did the experience of being waited upon by black women who were older than my mother.

That was in the summer of 1948, a time when the South was poised at the threshold of momentous and, for many, traumatic change. The system of segregation and oppression seemed as immutable as the obligatory statue of a Confederate soldier in front of the courthouse. Blacks lived in what whites called "their place," and whites assumed they were both happy in it and uninterested in rising above it.

The next quarter-century proved just how wrong those assumptions were. How the white South responded to the civil rights movement is the subject of There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights, 1945-1975, by Jason Sokol, a young scholar who has done exhaustive research in primary sources and who has shown how difficult it is to generalize about white Southerners in that time of astonishing social, political and cultural upheaval. He gives all due attention to those who reacted bitterly, noisily and sometimes violently to black protest, but he also shows how some whites were embarrassed by these troublemakers and sought other ways to deal with change. Without ever losing sight of the indisputable justice and necessity of the civil rights movement, Sokol manages to understand those who were caught on the sidelines yet found their lives irreversibly altered.

The history of complex Southern feelings about the subjugated blacks in their midst is as long as the history of slavery and segregation. New evidence of this is brought to light by Joan E. Cashin in First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis's Civil War. Her title is somewhat misleading, as this biography of Jefferson Davis's wife encompasses far more than the four years of the war, but it does underscore the point that Varina Howell Davis was involved in internal as well as external struggles. She doesn't seem to have questioned slavery more than occasionally and half-heartedly, but she believed that secession was foolish and the war unwinnable for the Confederacy. She supported her husband unflinchingly, as was expected of wives in that time, but she disagreed with him frequently and apparently wasn't afraid to tell him so.

To Northerners, Varina Davis was an object of ridicule and contempt, but when it came to race, the North had little about which to be proud. Many of the great New England fortunes were founded in varying degrees on the slave trade. In Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution, Charles Rappleye tells the story of Rhode Island's most prominent family. Though he says that relatively little of the Browns' great wealth came from selling slaves, he leaves no doubt that John Brown believed "the true course to wealth came through Africa" and that disagreement over slavery drew him and his brother Moses apart. Newport more than Providence was a slave-trading city, but a basic point of Rappleye's fine book is that New England's claim to moral superiority over the South rested on a shaky foundation.

Slavery was the subject of Edward P. Jones's deservedly much-praised first novel, The Known World (2003), but this year, in All Aunt Hagar's Children, his second collection of short stories, he resumes his meticulous, clear-eyed but warm-hearted exploration of the part of the District of Columbia that is mostly an unknown world elsewhere, the workaday African American community. Set mostly in and around the Shaw neighborhood, these 14 stories are about the daily lives of ordinary people for whom Jones clearly feels deep affection and, when it is earned, admiration. Many of them have struggled out of blue collars into the lower reaches of the middle class and cling to this newly gained status with an uneasy awareness of how easily they could slip back out of it. Some of them are older people who watch with alarm as their neighborhoods decline amid crime and alienation among the young. All of them are entirely believable human beings whom Jones brings fully to life.

As to the rest of the year's fiction, it was my pleasure to discover an uncommonly accomplished first novel, The Dream Life of Sukhanov, by Olga Grushin, a young writer who was born in the Soviet Union but now lives here in Washington. In English more fluent and graceful than that written by many well-known American writers, she tells the story of a Soviet cultural bureaucrat who dances along a fine line between capitulation to the inflexible demands of the communist system and his own artistic beliefs and longings. She sees him as clearly as Jason Sokol sees his conflicted white Southerners, and her sympathy for his dilemma is matched by her withering account of his willingness to let a taste for luxury and position override his convictions.

Among the other novels that I reviewed this year, two stand out: A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus, and Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. They hardly could be more different. Kalfus's is a jangling, daring exploration of America during and after the terrorist attacks of 2001 through the metaphor of a collapsing marriage; it is witty, irreverent yet unexpectedly moving. Gardam's, by contrast, is about an elderly British lawyer and jurist who spent his entire working life in Hong Kong but has now retired, a widower, to his native country; the author gradually unfolds his inner and outer lives in graceful, elegant prose.

Other nonfiction? For me, it boils down to four memoirs, all of them by people who have lived long enough to have real stories to tell. The brilliant and bumptious art critic Robert Hughes writes mainly about his long process of mostly self-guided education in Things I Didn't Know, in particular about how it gradually dawned on him that art was to be the closest thing to religion for him. He says some necessary things about faddishness in the art world that could just as easily be said about faddishness in the literary world, and he includes a long, stinging, exceedingly amusing section about life in London in the Swinging '60s.

The oldest of these memoirists is Roger Angell, the author of Let Me Finish. Best known as the world's champion baseball writer, Angell has spent most of his life at the New Yorker but spares us chummy "Here at the New Yorker" reminiscences. Instead, he writes a series of vignettes, portraits of people who were important to him and of himself at various points in his early life. An especially lovely chapter is devoted to his famous stepfather, E.B. "Andy" White, including a memorable paragraph about a beer-drinking dachshund.

Sandy Balfour was unknown to me until I picked up Vulnerable in Hearts: A Memoir of Fathers, Sons, and Contract Bridge. It is the story of his father, an Englishman who moved to South Africa and had an only moderately successful career there as an engineer. Instead, he focused his energies and affections on bridge, a game that during Sandy Balfour's youth in the postwar years was still widely and enthusiastically played around the world. Knowing about the game, which I used to play quite badly more than three decades ago, is absolutely unessential to anyone who reads this book. The game becomes a metaphor for life in Balfour's hands, one that he treats gently and wittily. The book seems to have sunk without a trace, a reminder of how cruel and unfair the literary marketplace can be.

Finally, All Will Be Well, by the distinguished Irish novelist John McGahern. It is about how he and his siblings survived the death of their mother -- young Sean, as he was then called, was 9 years old -- and the random cruelties of their father, a charming but capricious and sometimes violent man. There isn't an ounce of self-pity in McGahern's chronicle, only an attempt to understand and come to terms with his father, as well as an account of how he discovered his vocation as a writer. McGahern died shortly after All Will Be Well was published in this country.

Happy holidays. See you in January.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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