Book World Live: The Books of 2005
If the year has already slipped by you without so much as a peek into a new book, here's your chance to catch up on what's been published, read and discussed by people who read for a living.
The staff of Book World, which published its annual book roundup in
Joining the discussion are: Editor Marie Arana , deputy editor Jabari Asim , Warren Bass (senior editor, nonfiction), Ron Charles (senior editor, fiction) and Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley .
Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.
Marie Arana: Hello all, and welcome to our discussion of the best books of the year. It's not easy threshing and whittling thousands of reviews to come up with the 100 best-liked by our reviewers, or the 10 we've decided are the cream of the crop. Every year we're pleasantly surprised at what those lists produce.
What were your favorites for 2005? What were your disappointments? Are there a few enthusiasms you'd like to share with us today? Join in. Anything goes in this free-for-all of opinion.
Alexandria, Va.: If you could have picked more than ten best books for 2005, say 15, what would some of the contenders be?
Marie Arana: Hard to say. If we had merged the editors' lists with our critic Jonathan Yardley's list, we would have had 15. Perhaps that's the way to look at it.
There were some great books that might have made it onto the expanded list. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna, for instance. A rollicking good read.
Tampa, Fla.: I really enjoyed "The Year of Magical Thinking." I know it has been widely acclaimed, but I think this book will be a favorite, if not a classic, for many in the years to come. Ms. Didion's story demonstrates that despite the enormous amount of grief and uncertainty that she suffered through in 2004 that life, for her and those who live with similar experiences, will go one, whether you like it or not. In a quiet way, she teaches the reader you can experience grief and loss without losing yourself. Although the focus is on death, it really contains many lessons on how life changes and you have no influence on your new circumstance, but you have no other choice but to move through the changes to find a way out of the sadness.
Jonathan Yardley: You're right on all counts. There is a story in today's New York Times -- Brand X, as we call it -- reporting that she has accepted a proposal to adapt the book for the stage, probably as a one-woman show. Assuming that she writes the play herself, it could be quite a powerful, moving piece of stagecraft.
West Hartford, Conn: Wouldn't you agree that this year brought a bumper crop of great Biritish fiction, including books by Banville, McEwen, and Hornby? Why can't American fiction match the Brits?
Ron Charles: No, sorry, I wouldn't agree. Hornby's book was a disappointment, and Banville's appeal is limited, it seems to me. Americans did just fine this year: The two "March" books, for instance, one by Geraldine Brooks and the other by E.L. Doctorow, are marvelous. I'd add another Civil War novel, "Canaan's Tongue" by John Wry. And the remarkable Krauss-Foer pair published fine novels: "History of Love" and "Extremely Loud...." For complexity and intellectual heft, John Crowley's "Lord Byron's Novel" can match anything from the Brits this year. I loved plenty of books from abroad this year, but I certainly don't feel as though we're playing 2nd fiddle over here.
Clarksville, Md.: A few weeks ago, someone reviewed the work of one of your writers who passed away - it was a series of essays. Can you tell me the name of the book?
Jonathan Yardley: The Woman at the Washington Zoo, by Marjorie Williams
Non-Fiction Recommendation: It has become a new tradition that every year I buy my stepfather a non-fiction book. The past two years, it's been biographies - first, Teddy Roosevelt and last year, Alexander Hamilton. He's a slow reader and it takes him sometimes 4-6 months to finish these books but he always loves them.
What do you recommend for this year? I was thinking Stalin: A Biography but one Amazon reviewer said it was a slow read. (Slow read + slow reader = disaster.) My other thought was America's Constitution.
He's not really into current politics so I think something more historical would better suit his tastes. Thanks!!
Warren Bass: Well, it sort of depends on your stepfather, and far be it for us to intrude... But if he's a TR fan, he might try Candice Millard's "The River of Doubt," about Roosevelt's post-presidential trip to the Amazon--it's an amazing story.
I'm a great admirer of Akhil Amar's "biography" of the Constitution, but it's probably not the thing for a particularly slow reader. For something basically biographical that's a bit lighter than that or the Stalin bio, there's David Margolick's "Beyond Glory," about the bouts between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, which was one of the best sports books of the year. Or you might think of Joshua Wolf Shenk's "Lincoln's Melancholy," which uses the lens of Lincoln's depression to look anew at (for my money) our greatest president--and only makes him look greater.
And coming soon to a bookstore near you: Richard Reeves on Reagan in the White House, and (can't wait) "At Canaan's Edge," the final volume of Taylor Branch's epic trilogy on Martin Luther King Jr. and America.
Springfield, Va.: One of the most interesting books that I read this year was Under and Alone by William Queen. This was about the ATF agent who infiltrated the Mongols motorcylce gang. Is this on anyones best of list?
Marie Arana: Don't know this one! Glad to put it out there for others to comment, however. We did review a motorcycle book by a young Mormon woman who traced the Mormon trail on her bike . . . Maybe someone in Book World can remember the title?
Frederick, Md.: I'm interested in the Ishiguro novel, but worry the reviews I've read have given much of the plot away. Are you telling me it's still worth a read?
Jonathan Yardley: Yes, it is. I can tell you that I worked overtime to keep details of the plot out of my own review and still give some sense of what the book is like. It wasn't easy, but for a reviewer to give away crucial details of a complex and suspenseful plot is simply unforgiveable.
Washington, D.C.: Trying to find the author and title of a collection of short stories set in modern day China that was reviewed in Book Review on 11/27, I believe.
Marie Arana: That must be Yiyun Li's book of short stories. It's called A Thousand Years of Good Prayers. Our reviewer called it "remarkable." Like Ha Jin, Li writes in English, although she grew up in China. Her stories are all about post-Mao, post Tiananmen China. Very interesting indeed. And lyrical.
Washington, D.C.: How do you think Rushdie's latest novel stands against his other works? As good as "Midnight's Children" or is it just the best thing he's written in quite some time?
Ron Charles: I think we can all agree that it's the best thing he's written lately (even if we exclude "Fury," which we should....) But I also think it stands up well to "Midnight's Children." It's more topical, to be sure, but I suspect that it's rooted in contemporary events and themes that will resonate for a long time. I thought it was very moving, often wise, and surprisingly witty.
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC: Mr. Yardley et al,
As you all no doubt know, David Halberstam was live on-line this afternoon talking about his book on a great football coaching family. Like many of my generation, I first came to know Halberstam's work via "The Best and the Brightest," a brilliant piece of nonfiction which seems to describe a world that disappeared a very, very long time ago, a deconstruction, as it were, of the Kennedy blunder into Vietnam. Anyway, I have it on good authority that Bob Woodward is currently working on a similar book regarding the current administration and Iraq-in a shameless parody of Halberstam he was going to call it "The Worst and the Dumbest," but then he suddenly realized that he was also talking about himself. I hear that he's now working on a sitcom for FOX.
Warren Bass: Couldn't agree with you more on "The Best and the Brightest," which still holds up shudderingly well. Bob Woodward is indeed at work on a new book about the Bush administration, a follow-up to "Plan of Attack," which offered the best look I've ever seen inside the administration's Iraq decisionmaking. I think I'll leave the dreary incivility of the rest of the comment alone...
Marie Arana: I want to say a few more words about Marjorie Williams' book, which is full of her truly bracing writing. There's no one I can think of producing that kind of raw, emotional essay. They are deeply honest, quite feminine in point of view, and ruthlessly clear. Her premiere essay in The Woman at the Washington Zoo is the one about her discovery of the cancer that took her life. Chilling. And yet so beautifully written.
Washington, D.C.: There was a book of short stories set in modern day China reviewed in the last two weeks or so in Book World. I can't find it online in The Post. Can you help me with the title and//or author? Thanks.
Marie Arana: Once again, that's Yiyun Li. A Thousand Years of Good Prayers.
Des Moines, Iowa: Perhaps too much of a niche, but Yarn Harlot, a book of essays on knitting is a riot. If you've got a knitter on your gift list, this is perfect. Mostly light, but some serious, and her pieces to knitting pattern designers (as well as one from a cardigan she never finished) -- all pure knitting-as-life. And more portable than the author's blog.
Marie Arana: Glad to know about this.
(I used to be a knitter, but it's hard to knit and read at the same time!)
And let's not forget the greatest literary knitter of all time: Penelope, awaiting the return of Ulysses.
Any more funny books we should be recommending?
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC: Dear "Group,"
A "friend of a friend" knows Yann Martel, the young Canadian writer whose (first?) major novel was the brilliantly quirky "Life of Pi." Martel is apparently working on a new novel. Personally, I found "Life" so good, especially for a first novel, that I'd bet on the "sophomore jinx" and guess that his follow-up will not be as good. Anyone know what Martel is actually working on now?
Ron Charles: Whatever he's working on (I don't know), it's won't really be his sophomore effort. He released a collection of short stories last year that was fairly well received: "Facts behind the Helsinki Roccamatios."
Silver Spring, Md.: I am just finishing up Paul Hackett's "The Assasin's Gate" and was pleased to see it at the top of your 2005 list. He has really done a wonderful job with both the big and small picture of the Iraq tragedy, seen from both before and after the invasion.peace, (one can always hope)jim
Warren Bass: Thanks--it is a pretty astonishing piece of reporting, isn't it? The book takes a step back and offers a wonderfully lucid explanation of how the postwar period in Iraq evolved. The author is actually George Packer, a New Yorker writer; Paul Hackett is an Iraq veteran who narrowly lost a congressional race this summer and is now running as a Democrat for the Senate in Ohio--something you can get you'll be hearing about in the paper's A-section soon.
We wound up putting two Iraq books on our Top Ten list, somewhat to our own surprise; the other was Anthony Shadid's wonderful "Night Draws Near," about the Iraqis on the receiving end of the American grand designs that Packer limns. The two books are almost perfectly complementary--you get both the American and the Iraqi side of the coin. Both are well worth the time of anyone trying to get their head around Iraq today--good reads, and (unlike so much nonfiction these days) books that we'll still be taking off the shelf years from now.
Ron Charles: And Marie has just reminded me that "Life of Pi" wasn't his first novel -- just his break-out novel. And contrary to what I said (above), "Facts Behind..." was published earlier.
Durham, N.C.: I've enjoyed reading Charles Mann's 1491; it's really turning around a lot of what I previously thought about pre-Columbian America. Any ideas of what might make a good companion book to that, something that might challenge Mann on some of his points (although one thing I like is how cautious he was on his conclusions)?
Marie Arana: There's a great deal of interest in the history of exploration. And it's a lot of fun, frankly, to imagine the world in an entirely new way. There was a very good book by Louise Levathes some years ago on this subject. Called "Ships of the Dragon Throne" or something like that. It focused on the Chinese ships sent out by the emperor (12th century?)that may have arrived in America long before Columbus. Evidence for it was found along the coast of Africa and India (along which the Chinese ships traveled) and explains a great deal of Chinese culture that was part of the Americas before it became European . . .
Anyone know more on this?
Warren Bass: Should add, in the interest of full disclosure: Shadid is a Post foreign correspondent. The book made the list abundantly on its own merits...
Boise, Idaho: Let's say we're all around in 2100, has anything been published in the last five years -or four years for the excrutiatingly correct] that will be on a list of the top 10 books of the century, either fiction or non?
Jonathan Yardley: I'm not a big fan of lists, though from time to time I have little choice except to make them. That having been said, the only books that leap to mind as being at that level of attainment are Ian McEwan's Atonement and Edward P. Jones's The Known World.
Washington, D.C.: Having just completed Peter Matthiessen's 1979 'The Snow Leopard,' I am yearning for a follow-on ... something similarly uplifting, insightful, aspirational, and hey a touch of adventure doesn't hurt. Who these days is writing at this depth about exploring? I can't take any more John Krakauer, as fun as he seems.
Marie Arana: Well, it isn't a Matthiessen or Krakauer-like adventure, but I strongly recommend Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. It is adventure in the extreme. A Year in which a woman is tested by the excruciating loss of everyone in her family. It is written with a sharp, unsentimental eye. And it is the pinnacle of nonfiction this year, in my humble opinion.
Springfield, Va.: Interested in knowing more about "City of Falling Angels"; is this generally about Venice, or does it tie aspects of the city and its history together by focusing on the destruction of the opera house?
Jonathan Yardley: It uses the fire at the opera house as the framework around which to portray Venice -- not in whole, certainly but those aspects of the city that particularly interest berendt. It's a very good book.
Munich, Germany: I'm often concerned by the apparent exclusion of unknown authors by publishers and critics alike.
Which previously unknown or underestimated authors overcame the odds and made an impression in 2005?
Ron Charles: I really enjoyed several novels by complete unknowns this year: "The Ha-Ha," by Dave King, and "The Great Stink," by Clare Clark, come to mind immediately. Steve Amick's "The Lake, the River & the Other Lake" is charming. But, frankly, I'm struck every month by how many new novelists are getting their work published, promoted and reviewed. I just don't buy the claim that new people can't break in. They do it all the time -- and it's wonderful.
Washington, DC: While I don't know if it would qualify as one of the best books of 2005, I really enjoyed the book "Prep". It was very entertaining and easy to follow.
Marie Arana: The New York Times picked Prep as one of the top 10 of the year. So you have good company in your opinion.
We liked it and listed it in our big list, if not our short. Someone said it was more of a Young Adult novel. And I certainly wouldn't disagree with that. So was The Catcher In the Rye, after all.
Alexandria, Va.: Can you guys suggest any humor? I was at Barnes & Noble, and the humor table raised nary a chuckle.
Jonathan Yardley: There's no reason why we should restrict ourselves to new books. The shelves are loaded with wonderful works of humor, many of them classics. If you're thinking of this as a gift, you might want to look at one of the many anthologies of light verse. They make bedside books of lasting pleasure. More specifically, Candy Is Dandy: The Best of Ogden Nash. I reviewed a few works of humor this year, but none funny enough to recommend here.
Washington, DC: Books on sports - any recommendations besides David Margolick's Beyond Glory? My husband and father-in-law enjoy all of these, last year I got them the book about Sandy Koufax (can't remember the author). They've read all the usual suspects (Feinstien, etc.)
Jabari Asim: They might also enjoy The Last Coach, Allen Barra's biography of Alabama's legendary gridiron genius, Bear Bryant. There's also Juicing the Game, Howard Bryant's examination of the steroids-in-sports fiasco, Classic Wiley, a posthumous collection of writings by Ralph Wiley, who did a number of cover stories for Sports Illustrated, and Driven From Within by Michael Jordan. From the previous year, there's Unforgivable Blackness (about boxing champ Jack Johnson) by Geoffrey C. Ward and two good books on Althea Gibson: The Match by Bruce Schoenfeld, and Born to Win by Yanick Rice Lamb and Frances Clayton Gray.
Seattle, Wash.: I had the opportunity to hear Doris Kearns Goodwin speak on Microsoft's campus several weeks back about Lincoln and her new book on him and his cabinet. I've yet to begin reading, but wonder what you think?
Warren Bass: Well, I'm a recovering historian by training, so I'm always just a little wary of popular historians like Doris Kearns Goodwin--it's hard to strike that balance between sophistication and accessibility. (God knows academics wind up falling all the time on the other side of the line.) That said, I very much enjoyed her "No Ordinary Time," about FDR and Eleanor during WWII, and I found her much less polished first book--about LBJ's tortued psyche--full of weird, interesting stuff. I have to admit that I haven't read "Team of Rivals," her new one on Lincoln; our reviewer, Allen Guelzo, liked it a lot. If you're looking for a massive book on the Civil War era, you can't do better than James MacPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom," which is still probably the best single volume on the period--a staggering piece of work, and a great read too.
Rockville, Md.: What were the best "coffee table" books this year?
Marie Arana: We'll be covering these books the whole month of December. You'll see a whole slew of them in our Dec. 18 issue. One book we love is Jim Piazza's book on Elvis. It's called The King.
But there will be others you should watch out for: on Greta Garbo, on the Middle East, on Jazz.
Washington, D.C.: Thanks for taking my question. Can you recommend any good, recent books on comparative theology? Thanks!
Marie Arana: Walking the Bible, by Bruce Feiler comes to mind. A wonderful account by an author who set out to see and feel the places and experiences of the Bible.
Anyone have more suggestions?
Coverage of Best Books: Really enjoyed your best books issue this week, as always. I think it would be interesting to give some indication, however, of books that received "best book" nods from more than one reviewer. The long list is great, but seeing a "best of the best" would be awesome.
Marie Arana: Perhaps you didn't see our top ten list? If you go to our website www.washingtonpost.com/seasons_readings you'll definitely get our best of the best.
College Park, Md.: I was sad to see that childrens books were omitted from your consideration (or maybe just not good enough). Our kids need to be comfortable reading, but many kids' books are boring or too long. In that light, can you offer any recommendations for recent kids' book releases?
Ron Charles: Not good enough? Hardly! We're devoting the December 11 issue of Book World to kids books. We've got round-ups of picture books, kids audio books, kids holiday books, kids nonfiction, and speical essays by Michael Dirda and Robert Pinsky on kids lit. AND the results of our art contest. You'll love it.
Fairfax, Va.: I haven't seen any mention of George R. R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" series. With "A Feast for Crows" just being released, I was wondering if you would recommend it? I consider it to be the best fantasy being written currently.
Marie Arana: Don't know about George R.R. Martin. Our specialist on him is Michael Dirda, so you might save this question for his session tomorrow at 2 pm.
He was at the National Book Festival this year, however, and as I recall, he spoke about "A Feast for Crows." I do know that Dirda is a huge fan of his work.
Arlington, Va.: Hi. I'm a longtime fan of Book World. I read it faithfully cover to cover every week and send my copy on to my dear mother in Kentucky, who only has access to a paper that was once great and later destroyed by one of the big chains.
Anyway, here goes: I didn't like the holiday books issue. To me, the lists weren't helpful. I did like the authors you spoke with to get their recommendations, but the my eyes glazed over the lists of BW "raves." My vote next year -- add some personality like you did with Yardley. Yardley told us his favorites of 2005, so how about all those other full-time BW writers and editors? I'd love to hear from them. I'm one of those nuts who flocks to the "staff favorite" sections in bookstores, and I'd definitely flock to BW's...
Jonathan Yardley: Thanks. That's actually a very interesting idea. Each year we try to go back to Square One in planning the holiday issue, hoping to make it as good as possible and making whatever changes we think will help. We'll certainly talk about your proposal when the time comes in 2006.
We want the issue to be useful. We also want it to be entertaining. Within the limited space we have, that's a tough assignment.
Ithaca, NY: Some of the most astonishing things I learned from books
1. We came damn near losing the Revolutionary War
2. Being a successful head of the Federal Reserve requires
being able to convince a board of directors to vote for
unpopular fixes, like raising interest rates. (Paul Volcker).
3. The US has over 700 military bases throughout the
world (Sorrows of Empire).
Marie Arana: Right you are. Isn't it the damndest thing? Just when you think you know history, more histories come out to disabuse you of that notion.
I'm amazed what we've learned about Lincoln in the last year or two. There always seems to be more.
And the appetite seems to be insatiable.
Brattleboro, Vt: Anyone read James Salter's new collection of short stories? I thought it was wonderful.
Marie Arana: James Salter is a perpetual wonder. I think he is one of America's great living treasures.
"Last Night" his most recent collection, was mightily loved by our reviewer, Michael Knight.
The man should be given a prize.
Washington D.C.: I'm always on the lookout for additions to the humor shelf, and I believe that no such collection is complete without some James Thurber. A book or two of Woody Allen's essays is not a bad idea either. Thank you for the Ogden Nash recommendation!
Warren Bass: And don't forget P.G. Wodehouse--they don't make 'em any funnier. Amazing writer, too--I love the way the inimitable Jeeves "shimmers" into the room...
Jonathan Yardley: Following up on Warren's recommendations re Lincoln, I'd like to add Benjamin P. Thomas's Abraham Lincoln: A Biography. Published in 1952, it has allegedly been rendered obsolete by subsequent Lincoln scholarship, but don't believe that for a minute. It is the best Lincoln biography I have read, and it brings Lincoln to life with stunning authority.
Buffalo, NY: The Life of Pi was a fascinating read. Anything similar that you can suggest?
Marie Arana: I loved Life of Pi.
If you like that sort of book--full of surprises, heavy with atmosphere, dark and yet somehow fully human--you might like Lee Martin's The Bright Forever. I read it a few weeks ago and was amazed by its power. Like Pi, a sharp disquisition on the power of good and evil.
Martin wrote another novel, Quakertown, which was admired on the record by our deputy editor, Jabari Asim.
West Hartford, Conn: For the person from Alexandria looking for humor, I'd suggest Nick Hornby's "A Long Way Down." I was wondering if you thought it was as weak as others seem to think - I thought it was wonderful.
Warren Bass: I haven't read the new one, but I'm a great admirer of "High Fidelity," which first put Hornby on the map--hilarious and beautifully observed. (It may be a guy thing.) But I should really defer to the fiction gurus.
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC: Re your reader wanting to read books on "theology," the truly adventurous might want to sample Anne Rice's mysterious (some might say bizarre) break with her vampire/empire canon and read "Jesus the Lord" or something similarly named. It's about Jesus growing up and coming to grips with his divinity. It sounds crazy to me, but I don't read much on theology and nothing by Anne Rice.
Marie Arana: Afraid to say that this didn't get a good review on our pages. Our reviewer, Melvin Jules Bukiet (terrific writer in his own right), took it apart.
But it might make for good conversation, in any case. Rice was brave, if nothing else, to take on the life of Christ.
Chicago, Ill.: Have any of you had the opportunity to read Penelopia or Weight in Canongate's new myth series? I don't think I'd rank either individually above most of your list, but I think the Boxset as a whole warrants a mention.
Marie Arana: Mention away!
I must admit ignorance on this score. But perhaps there are others out there who would like to weigh in?
Alabama: I went into "Oh the Glory of It All" without a lot of expectations, but I was pleasantly proven wrong; Sean Wiltsey really brought his parents and his upbringing to life. What did you think?
Marie Arana: This is one we didn't review, alas.
But glad to post your recommendation up there for others to enjoy.
Arlington, Va.: Through my fondness for Dave Eggers and his cohorts, I have become a fan of contributors to McSweeney's, who publishes magazines like McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and The Believer, and I have read a couple of their short-story collections. I find them really funny but a little obscure. Any recommendations on where to start with them, book-wise?
Marie Arana: Eggers has just published a book called "Teachers Have It Easy." It might be that combination of high relevance and edgy humor you're looking for. . .
Ron Charles: We have a review of Canongate's new myth series in the works. I hope to get it into BW before the end of the year.
King of Prussia, Pa.: I enjoy memoirs and this year I read some that I thought were excellent. These include John Hope Franklin's MIRROR TO AMERICA, Karl Flemings's SON OF THE ROUGH SOUTH, Jules Witcover's THE MAKING OF AN INK STAINED WRETCH, and a fascinating look at higher education in Marvin Wachman's, THE EDUCATION OF A UNIVERSITY PRESIDENT, and John Harris's THE SURVIVOR. Nice to read some non-polemical political oriented books. Did any of these make your lists. Thank you.
Warren Bass: Harris's "The Survivor" did make our larger list--it's a look back at the Clinton presidency, by a former Post White House reporter who's now on the national desk. And Jon Yardley gave an admiring review to the great John Hope Franklin's memoir, though he did find it a bit laconic at key junctures. Jon's plumped for Joan Didion's "Year of Magical Thinking" as the book of the year, so let me be mildly contrarian and suggest as well Romeo Dallaire's "Shake Hands With the Devil," the devastating memoir by the Canadian general who headed the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda and found himself shackled by the great powers, including the United States, while a genocide by machete raged. It's a harrowing, horrifying, unforgettable book--the one memoir (of a sort) to make our 10 best of the year.
Ron Charles: Humorous novels: Don't forget "Lucky Jim"!
Des Moines, Iowa: As for humor, don't forget the marvelous compilations.
The Best of Modern Humor, the Thurber bi-annual (brain
glitch -- can't think the title but it's probably Thurber
something. . . )
On a bad day, I always look up The Old Codger's Almanac
and read the calendar, then laugh until I cry.
Ron Charles: I thought Christopher Buckley's "Little Green Men" was hysterical. And I loved (alas, alone) a completely ignored comic novel called "Simon Silber" by Christopher Miller. (It was reissued a year later -- in a fruitless attempt for more readers -- as "Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects."
Escaping Our Biases: I've been thinking lately about to what extent we can escape a preference for books written in . . . how to put it, the prime of our life, during our formative years (which I'm postulating to be our twenties and thirties; older than high school age, obviously, but still young enough where we're discovering literature). I have a feeling that we develop a taste for the type of fiction that is prevalent or new at the time (and by "new" I mean in a kind of break-out way, like what the young generation of writers is bringing to the table at the moment).
Case in point: I've noticed that some of the established Post reviewers have little regard for books like The Corrections, which I thought was the best novel of recent years and more likely to endure than most. On the other hand, I've tried my hand at a few novels that Jonathan Yardley and others have raved about, only to find them kind of old-fashioned (not that old-fashioned can't be great, but not in these cases).
Now, I know that taste is taste, but don't you think that generational preferences for TYPES of fiction become ingrained to the point where you can't necessarily see the relative merits of newer fiction? I fear that 30 years from now, I'm still going to be praising to the heavens the novels that are like The Corrections---simply because that's what I've become accustomed to thinking of as "good writing" and what I remember with fondness from my . . . well, I can't say youth, but "youther"!
Marie Arana: Very good comment, and thank you.
I loved Franzen's The Corrections.
I thought it was an extraordinary document for our times. Smart, snarky, a novel that cut to the core of how we live today, which is --after all-- exactly that goal to which novelists should aspire.
I guess the answer to your question is that we all look for a good story. And we find it in different ways. You can't compare Anne Tyler to Jonathan Franzen.
The best one can do is find a critic you respect and follow his/her work. Beyond that (in a good year): the prizes. Franzen did win the National Book Award, after all.
Ah! But it makes the work of a book review editor a lot of fun!
Chicago, Ill.: Regarding Canongate's Myth Series, including Atwood's Penelopiad and Winterson's Weight, is a new series that will bring together well known authors to retell traditional myths from a different perspective (Atwood tells Penelope's story in Ulysses and Winterson takes Atlas' point of view in his encounter w/Hercules during his Twelve Trials). Both are very good, and I've seen them in my local Barnes & Noble, so they've made their way here from Scotland. I'm most looking forward to Donna Tartt's rendition, where I believe she will retell Icarus's story.
Marie Arana: Getting this up there for all to see. Thanks for the comment.
plain-vanilla version please!: Hey - for all of us who are at work, and can't access the interactive book list, can you please put up a plain HTML version? Thanks!
washingtonpost.com: Book World Raves (HTML version)
Marie Arana: Duly noted!
Marie Arana: Well, thanks to all of you for a really marvelous session. We should do this more often perhaps. The questions were really sharp. Much appreciated.
Be sure to log on next week, when Jabari Asim talks about Children's Books and the best of the best of those this year.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.