Book World 25th Anniversary

Historic highlights from Book World reviews of the:
1970s | 1980s | 1990s

Hardcover Bestsellers, 1972-1996


The Book World staff picks its favorites of the last quarter-century.

Editor Nina King ponders the vagaries of becoming a bestseller.

Jonathan Yardley, Carolyn See and Kunio Francis Tanabe write of their personal experiences as critics.

Marie Arana-Ward explores the relationship between publisher and critic.

Jabari Asim celebrates a flourishing of African American literature.

Michael Dirda comments on the state of fiction.

David Nicholson speculates on the future of books in a technological age.

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Pronouncements, Critiques, Catcalls and Plaudits
Book World Highlights: 1970s

June 1, 1997

Looking back at 25 years of Book World reviews, we see passages that strike us as memorable for a myriad reasons: because of who wrote them, or because of what they said, because the books were emblematic of their time. Here, in chronological order beginning with the front page of Book World's first issue in 1972, is a string of highlights from the first eight years. (You can also read our favorite excerpts from the 1980s and '90s.)

Meg Greenfield on Harry McPherson's
A POLITICAL EDUCAT ION
It is no accident, I think, that the Johnson literature to date -- starting with William Brammer's novel "The Gay Place," taking in George Reedy's exceptional monograph, "The Twilight of the Presidency," and now including this book -- already shows signs of being more intellectually engaging than the much larger body of Kennedy memoirs. The experience of bright men in Lyndon Johnson's service called forth a wholly different set of emotions and raised a wholly different set of questions. For while the tragedy of President Kennedy proceeded from the barrel of a gun, the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson proceeded from both within and without. It rested not just in the times or in external circumstance, but also in that hopelessly tangled knot of Mr. Johnson's own weaknesses and strengths. Almost by definition, then, sensitive men who worked for him will find themselves reflecting upon the intractable conflicts of political life, the relationship of ends to means, the interplay of personality with historic cause and current. They may stand in some danger of long distance rebuke. But, except for the irredeemably sycophantic among them, they stand in little danger of succumbing to illusions, such as those which mar many of the Kennedy memoirs, that their leader and therefore they themselves represented something almost too fine for American life.
(June 4, 1972)



Ronald Steel on David Halberstam's
THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST
So the argument over Vietnam goes on. We pick at it obsessively, trying to understand how our good intentions and generous instincts could have led us to such a tragedy. Eight years of war, 60,000 Americans dead, some four million Vietnamese casualties -- and for a purpose that few can understand and even fewer explain. The end of the war will not lead to a cease-fire in the search for explanations, for we have to know what went wrong and why we allowed Vietnam to become a national obsession. Like our own Civil War, it cannot be put to rest because it contains some dark and essential truth about our character.
(Nov. 12, 1972)



Laurence Stern on Frances Fitzgerald's
FIRE IN THE LAKE
What Miss Fitzgerald suggests is that the motors that power the Vietnamese insurgency are stronger than those that drive the B-52s and tactical air squadrons that have taken over the brunt of the American war -- more powerful even than the U.S. Treasury. They are fueled by the ethnic unity and the latent hatred of the Vietnamese people, who have endured suffering and death which, in the scale of population, exceeds anything we have seen in our time.

One of the deepest frustrations of the Americans in Vietnam, with our well-ordered linear logic, is the seeming inability of the South Vietnamese to unite effectively against the Communists. One of the most hackneyed pieces of advice of the so-called "old Vietnam hands" is to get out of Saigon into the field. To them the term "Saigon politics" is the catchword of irrelevancy and the life of that blighted metropolis a mirage of confusion, bickering and sterile protest.

But the fallacy in their advice is that what goes on in Saigon also goes on in "the field," whether in the cities or outlying provinces. The disorder throughout the country and on the battlefield is all inter-related.
(Aug. 6, 1972)



Roger Wilkins on Robert Coles's
FAREWELL TO THE SOUTH
Coles, a child psychiatrist, was in the armed forces in the South before the civil rights movement gained momentum and he stayed to observe the integration of black and white school children, their parents, civil rights workers and others who were involved. . . . You can watch the scarring struggle of growth born of travail, see lives changed, and new determination or just plain resignation to the difficulties of life. Coles shows us youthful optimism turned to human wreckage and a Klansman reluctantly watching a new order being formed. You see starvation after all of the struggle, and men being broken and ennobled.

What you see most, though, is complexity, for Coles is a relentless pursuer of truth. He won't let poor blacks be entirely noble nor will he let the richness of the soul of the South fall prey to easy northern pejoratives. He tells as much as he can of a troubled land in a troubled time, and although he didn't give me all the tidy answers I sought, and although there is much repetition, I think just about everybody in this town ought to read this book -- at least once.
(Aug. 13, 1972)



Milovan Djilas on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's
AUGUST 1914
By avoiding theorizing, by his impassioned portrayal of moral and ethical beauty, Solzhenitsyn typifies essential, traditional Russia, a Russia as inexhaustible and immense as her vast steppes and plains. He said recently, "I am serving Russia, and Russia is helping me," but he could have said: I represent Russia, that Russia which in mortal convulsions and death itself is overcoming oppression, invasions and dark furies. Rationally and intuitively, Solzhenitsyn knows that the totalitarian state and ideological camps are symbols of a more lasting and deep disfigurement of Russian life, which he is continuing to examine.
(Sept. 17, 1972)



Elizabeth Janeway on Margaret Mead's
BLACKBERRY WINTER
Since 1928, when "Coming of Age in Samoa appeared," Margaret Mead has been serving as a kind of missionary to parochial America. When she began writing, America was still very close to Sinclair Lewis's Main Street. In 1924, when she was working for her doctorate, there were only four graduate students in anthropology at Columbia. The public's idea of anthropology ran to shelves of dusty potshards and bits of eccentric information, like something out of Ripley's Believe It or Not. Boas and Radin and Sapir and Ruth Benedict were publishing, of course, but it was Mead and Malinowski who broke the news that primitive peoples were not just savages to be converted. We live in quite a different cultural world today, partly because 50 years of social science have shown us analogies between our society and others which have not only widened our horizons but given us a whole new dimension of thought. And Margaret Mead's books, brilliantly clear, utterly readable, are at the foundation of our changed view of the world.
(Nov. 12, 1972)



Geoffrey Wolff on Thomas Pynchon's
GRAVITY'S RAINBOW
Fate has dealt me another long hand. A couple of months ago I was whining in these pages about the inhumane quantity of words stuffed into "The Sunlight Dialogues," John Gardner's novel about Everything. Since then I've been turning pages day and night, watching my fingers go ink-black, bleeding from paper cuts, reading "Gravity's Rainbow." Forests have gone to the blade to make paper for these novels. Don't mourn the trees; read the books. (Viking has put Pynchon's within reach at $5 [for the paperback]. The $15 hardback is mere whimsey, a nothing-ventured-nothing-gained version pitched to rip off a few capitalist readers and half a dozen careless library order clerks.)

"Gravity's Rainbow" will be compared with "Ulysses"; "Gravity's Rainbow" will be compared with "Duck Soup." It is at once a farce and an extended, most extended, meditation on the ache left behind when They amputated free will.
(March 11, 1973)



Lee Lockwood on Huey P. Newton's
REVOLUTIONARY SUICIDE
It is already amazingly hard to recapture the violent rhetoric and spirit of the fratricidal '60s; that era now seems, in this Nixonian moment of law-and-ordure, as distantly passe as the War of 1812. But one of its few enduring images is the photomural of Huey Newton clad in Panther leather and beret, seated upon an enormous, fan-backed wicker throne, a rifle in one hand and, in the other, an anachronistic but somehow metaphorically appropriate pronged spear, glaring imperiously at the camera. More than any other image -- except possibly a poster of Che Guevara -- that photograph became a unifying symbol for militants of all colors and stripes in what we used to call the Movement, and for some a summons to violent action.
(April 29, 1973)



Larry McMurtry on
Wille Morris's THE LAST OF THE SOUTHERN GIRLS
Barbara Howar's LAUGHING ALL THE WAY
It is my considered opinion that if Southern ladies and Southern gentlemen are to be allowed to go on forever writing books -- as seems all too likely -- the only recourse the commonwealth has is to see to it that the French language and French literary history are made mandatory from the kindergarten level on in Southern schools. Only repeated applications of the lime of French prose have any chance of drying up the great Dismal Swamp of Sentiment that Southern literature has become these last few years -- and in fact, with rare exceptions, has always been.
(June 17, 1973)



Paul Theroux on Graham Greene's
THE HONORARY CONSUL & COLLECTED STORIES
Although he has been for the past 40 years one of the most prodigious and effective English novelists, with an unshakable reputation and now an entire shelf of books in a collected edition, Graham Greene has conducted himself with a degree of anonymity that challenges the vanity of lesser writers. In an age of grotesque self-promotion few writers are so invisible. He is seldom seen in England, he does not appear on television, no scandal surrounds him, his private life is completely private; occasionally -- but nearly always on a political subject -- he writes a letter to The Times. His Englishness is one of his identifying marks; it is a species of membership, England being a club for which regular attendance is not required to prove loyalty (quite different for the American, whose sojourn abroad is always seen as apostasy if it lasts longer than a summer). Indeed, Greene is the perennially absent member, much spoken about in the club as he saunters around the globe reporting the activities of others similarly absent. "Greene?" said a mutual friend a week ago. "Someone said he saw him in South Africa."
(Sept. 30, 1973)



Charles N. Conconi on Leslie H. Whitten's
THE ALCHEMIST
Whitten is an erudite, eclectic man who combines the best abilities of a police reporter and a scholar. His interests are broad, sophisticated and sometimes even academic, but his style is light, careful and disciplined. He writes a masterful adventure story and in "The Alchemist" mixes the dross of politics, sex and the black arts into an engrossing drama.

The author obviously knows Washington. He knows that the grand old lady of the Potomac is really a tired old whore under the expensive trappings and that her glamour is power and sex and that it is often difficult to decide which is the most erotic.
(Oct. 21, 1973)



Geoffrey Wolff on Timothy Crouse's
THE BOYS ON THE BUS
In some circles it's said that reporters are terminal skeptics and nest-foulers. As a former poet for the obituary page of this newspaper, as a former historian with its night-police bureau, I'd like to say that my brothers have for too long suffered as the scapegoats of a power-mad Middle America run amuck with self-satisfaction. Read between the lines of Crouse's book -- just the right lines, mind you -- and you'll discover there, as I discovered, as lovable a gang of chaps as ever shared a confidence, as ever joined a man for a drink. They're as messy as life, the best of them, and enjoy to an unusual degree the single most useful defense against the times, a fine sense of the mutability of things.
(Nov. 11, 1973)



Richard J. Walton on Merle Miller's
PLAIN SPEAKING: An Oral Biography of Harry S Truman
This is Harry Truman all right and no wonder the book was a best-seller even before its official publication date, for it comes out when we most need an astringent antidote to the Richard Milhous Nixon blues. Whatever his shortcomings (though as far as Merle Miller is concerned, he didn't have any), Harry Truman was an authentic human being. He knew what he was, and so did we. With Nixon, we cannot be sure what he is, although Harry Truman thought he knew: "I've told you, all the time I've been in politics there's only two people I hate, and he's one. He not only doesn't give a damn about the people; he doesn't know how to tell the truth. I don't think the son of a bitch knows the difference between telling the truth and lying." Of course, Richard Nixon has had some equally unflattering things to say about Harry Truman; such as "traitor." History will decide if either of them was right.
(Feb. 17, 1974)



Reynolds Price on Joseph Blotner's
FAULKNER
What was the nature of the shaft of ice near the heart of Faulkner's adult character? Was it really a core of frigidity or fear (as many of the facts of his relations with family and helpful friends suggest), or was it a thin protective sheath? If it is not central in him, why does family love seem to alternate so unpredictably with revulsion? What was the origin of his wife's long battle with drink, begun apparently after their marriage; and what of the disintegration of the marriage in its middle years? How can he tell his young daughter, when she attempts to forestall a [drinking] bout by saying "Think of me," -- "Nobody remembers Shakespeare's children"? Why must he invent elaborate myths of physical prowess? Most puzzling of all, why did the work bring him so little relief from the terrors of life?
(March 10, 1974)



Henry Allen on Robert M. Pirsig's
ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE
The book on review here . . . is about a man who rides a motorcycle across the western United States with his son on the back. Nothing strange about that. The preposterous . . . part is what happens along the way. What happens along the way has nothing to do with the standard picaresque/picturesque romance of wandering loners. . . . What happens along the way is that the narrator thinks, mostly, a pastime which has not been very fashionable in this age of see-me-feel-me-touch-me-heal-me. He thinks about things like the relationship of his gas tank to Kant's concept of a priori realities; Hume's refutation of causation; monist resolutions of Aristotelian mind-matter duality; the attacks of Lobachevsky on the certainties of Euclidean geometry. He thinks very hard.
(May 19, 1974)



Jean Stafford on James A. Michener's
CENTENNIAL
If you think that Mr. Michener is going to begin with Christopher Columbus or Eric the Red, or with those arrivistes from Europe and the British Isles; even if you think he's going to begin with the buffalo and the Asian hunters who followed them, you have another think coming, and another one, and many more thereafter. No he begins billions of years before there is hide or hair of homo sapiens. Indeed, he begins at the beginning when the North American continent is still under water. Eons slowly pass by (the reader can easily get through a case of Schaefer's) and then the Appalachians appear. Ages and ages later, the Rocky Mountains push up their brash, boyish heads: "They have the extravagant beauty of youth, the allure of adolescence . . ." Now we get cracking. . .
(Sept. 1, 1974)



William McPherson on Robert Stone's
DOG SOLDIERS
What is a person to make of it? That reviewers have advanced cases of terminal superlatives? Two weeks ago in these pages Robert Stone's novel "Dog Soldiers" was hailed, albeit anonymously and conditionally ("if one were forced to choose, this would be . . .") as the most important novel of the year. In truth, we won't know that for some years yet but it is possible to say now, without being arrogant, foolish or anonymous, that Dog Soldiers is a very good novel; that it is an intense, compelling and uncompromising novel; and that it may well turn out to be just what we said it was. It tells us more than any number of polls and surveys about ourselves and about the values by which we live (as opposed to those we merely profess). Things being what they are these days, what it tells us is fairly depressing.
(Dec. 22, 1974)



Jonathan Yardley on Larry McMurtry's
TERMS OF ENDEARMENT
McMurtry is a novelist of the old-fashioned variety, which I persist in thinking is the best. He writes a lot about families, and he is principally concerned with love -- or the absence of love -- both familial and sexual. In Terms of Endearment he brings all those concerns together, in a novel that is at once extravagantly funny (I haven't laughed as hard over a novel in ages) and excruciatingly sad. "Terms of Endearment," in other words, is as packed with emotion as Larry Woiwode's "Beyond the Bedroom Wall." God bless both Larrys.
(Oct. 19, 1975)



Anne Tyler on Margaret Drabble's
THE ICE AGE
It sometimes comes as a shock to realize that Margaret Drabble must have an English accent. Her level, contemplative style is so close to our own internal voices -- or what we'd like to imagine our internal voices to be -- that little reminders like "bed-sit" and "It was not fair on them" tend to stop us in our tracks. She writes as if she knows exactly what question we'd like to ask next. Introducing any character, she unfolds before us his past, his inner life, the complicated mechanisms by which he manages to coexist with the other characters. There are no paper people in Margaret Drabble's books.
(Oct. 23, 1977)



Ward Just on Michael Herr's
DISPATCHES
These are dispatches from a region of Michael Herr's mind, and at their best they constitute the premier war correspondence from Vietnam. Herr's work is in the great line of Crane, Orwell and Hemingway, but do not look for sustained set pieces or political analysis -- a retreat from Caporetto or a purge of Barcelona. Herr is writing concertos, not symphonies, and the structure of "Dispatches" mirrors the structure of the war: episodic, repetitive, formal in its disorder, the truth revealed in savage flashes of irony and paradox, and always in bad dreams. The book fits no category of journalism I know of. Herr reaches an excruciating level of intensity without ever resorting to tricks. He seems to have brought to this book the ear of a musician and the eye of a painter, Frank Zappa and Francis Bacon; this Herr, he is a mother of invention.
(Nov. 6, 1977)



William Kennedy on Jerzy Kosinski's
PASSION PLAY
Jerzy Kosinski takes on some new subject matter -- polo, horsemanship and public sex -- in his seventh novel, "Passion Play," yet these things are not really his new territory. What he presents are the further psychological adventures of the Kosinski hero, who is now as recognizable as the Hemingway hero used to be. But what is genuinely new in "Passion Play" is that Kosinski's hero grows older; and we are treated to the continuing struggles of the boy from The Painted Bird who became the man from Steps, as he jousts quixotically with (as usual) women and death, loses some of his hair, and enters into a crisis of middle age and lost youth.
(Sept. 16, 1979)



L.J. Davis on Geoffrey Wolff's
THE DUKE OF DECEPTION
There's the American Dream, and then there's the Anglo-American Dream. The former, an exportable commodity, presently undergoing drastic revision, revolves around the acquisition of money, position and goods through faith and works regardless of the circumstances of one's birth and condition. Like all myths, it has been responsible for many follies and mistakes -- Andrew Carnegie, the films of John Garfield, endless suburbs, Bert Lance, and the gas crisis, among others -- but like all durable myths, it also sometimes worked, and it was ever a sustaining source of hope.

The Anglo-American Dream is quite different. Drawn in its purest and most lugubrious form, from the pages of old Town and Country magazines, the catalogues of the late Abercrombie & Fitch, and the motion pictures of Sir Alexander Korda, it involved a major confusion between the British aristocracy and the British aristocracy's toys. It was fostered by the tempting if staggeringly ignorant delusion that membership in a ruling class was identical with leisure, tins from Fortnum & Mason, hacking jackets from Huntsman, noble crests, collapsible silver drinking cups, architecture, a "varsity education," servants, a certain manner of speaking and a miraculous absence of bills. It is less a myth than a silly misunderstanding that has resulted in the present sorry state of Britain, "The Great Gatsby," credit cards and a number of the proximate causes of the American Civil War. And on a small but tragic scale, it was the engine of destruction that drove the father of Geoffrey Wolff, the critic and writer, to his inevitable doom.
(Aug. 12, 1979)



William Greider on Norman Mailer's
THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG
At one point, about 10 years ago, Norman Mailer was writing what I thought was the most powerful journalism around, so well-rendered that it approached the level of art. With his artist's eye and his luxuriant, precise prose, Mailer swept over the great and absurd events and -- to hell with the rules -- forced his own interesting ego into the middle of things.

In "The Executioner's Song," a tale of the life and death of Gary Gilmore, who was executed in Utah nearly three years ago, Mailer retreats to mere journalism. His ego and his eye are not in the narrative at all. His fevered self-analysis is missing. The prose is deliberately flat and blunt-edged, not the marvelous, descriptive blade of the younger Mailer. He obviously feels that there is an effect to be gained by using, himself, the crude, chatty language of his characters, but it wears thin very quickly.

The material pours forth: interviews, court transcripts, news clippings, more interviews -- ad tedium. There is all the authenticity of Dreiser, but seamier, and duller. The narrative is stitched together to follow the available material, the way a good rewrite man on a newspaper city desk makes the story flow from whatever the street reporters have managed to pick up. Mailer is playing rewrite man with this book and, of course, he does so expertly. What he needed was a tough city editor.
(Oct. 14, 1979)



Margaret Drabble on John Updike's
PROBLEMS and Other Stories
Heroically mundane, still desperately hopeful, their minds echoing with quotations from Blake and St. Augustine and esoteric scraps of information about extinct ungulates, Updike's characters stumble bravely on through the dark world, remembering past innocence and past delights, for they are aging and guilty, victims of the "curve of sad time" which Updike invokes in his dedication. Fathers confront sons and recall their own fathers, and wonder why and how they themselves have failed. Husbands confront ex-wives, tormented by love's refusal to die. And yet, as always with Updike, there are moments of exhilaration, phrases that redeem the prevailing sense of loss. Something gleams just beyond the edge of vision, and one of his many particular gifts is his ability to suggest it, to catch at it, to persuade us that after all this sorry pageant is not a pageant but a serious enterprise, and one worthy of serious endeavor, however inevitable the ultimate defeat.
(Oct. 21, 1979)



Eve Auchincloss on Charles Murphy and J. Bryan III's
THE WINDSOR STORY
Heaven has been described as eating caviar to the sound of trumpets, but hell is more various and familiar. One trifling model of it was lately on display in the 35-year marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Photographed with their pug dogs and innumerable trunks during perpetual arrivals and departures on the Paris-New York-Palm Beach circuit, drizzling their sterile lives away in nightclubs, she an immaculate nutcracker, he a drooping withered child, the Windsors fluttered in a vacuum, restless, sleepless, weightless, tormented by rage, greed and boredom.
(Nov. 11, 1979)



Read more review highlights from the 1980s and 1990s.

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