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: 1980s

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, because of what they said, because the books were emblematic of their time. Here, in chronological order, is a string of highlights from the 1980s. (You can also read our favorite excerpts from the 1970s and '90s.)

Margaret Atwood on E.L. Doctorow's
LOON LAKE
What happens to a writer such as E.L. Doctorow when a novel such as "Ragtime" sells 220,000 copies in hardback, gets translated into 20 languages and wins the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction? A writer of a certain kind would merely try to duplicate these lush results as quickly as possible. A writer who is more serious must risk or perish. Everything about Doctorow's career to date indicates that he considers the novel a vehicle for social and moral commentary as well as an art form which should stretch the author's resources to their limits. But success on the "Ragtime" scale in America almost automatically makes it more difficult for a writer to take himself seriously, partly because other, less successful writers begin to discount him. Post-romantic inverse snobbery attached to sales figures is still with us. Does 220,000 hardback copies really mean you're a schlock artist? Then there are all those critics gunning from the shrubberies. You've walked Niagara Falls on a tightrope once, but can you do it again?
(Sept. 28, 1980)



Robertson Davies on Anthony Burgess's
EARTHLY POWERS
In his latest novel the powers of Anthony Burgess seem to be stretched to their uttermost extent, but with this constantly astonishing writer we can never be quite sure. He has such great gifts, and writes with so much wit and energy, that a part of the public has mistaken him for a funny-man. But with Burgess, as with Samuel Johnson, it is often bitterness which we mistake for frolic. This triviality of judgment dogged his great success, "A Clockwork Orange"; foolish people thought the author must approve of vicious hooliganism, he wrote about it with such relish. They were wholly mistaken; Burgess is a stern moralist.
(Nov. 23, 1980)



Anita Desai on Salman Rushdie's
MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN
Since the subject of Salman Rushdie's novel is the progress of the political juggernaut through the Indian subcontinent -- the juggernaut being literally a religious procession taken through the land in celebration, although said to leave behind a wake of destruction -- one might expect a dark and somber treatise. It is nothing of the sort. On the contrary, "Midnight's Children" burgeons with life, with exuberance and fantasy. It has the same effect on the eyes and the ears as a magnificent circus performance -- a scene that is brilliant with color, zest, daredeviltry and loud bravado. The language is as full and copious as a flood or fire of tremendous proportions. If "Midnight's Children" is sprawling and untidy, then it shares these characteristics with such natural phenomena. If there are many deaths and acts of destruction in the novel, then every death seems merely to fertilize the Indian soil so that 10 heads spring up in the place of the one that rolled. If the last third of the book reveals a slight dwindling of the creative spring, then this is a part of the great design, for by then Rushdie's hero claims to be "disconnected, unplugged, with only epitaphs left to write" and ends, resignedly: "New myths are needed; but that's none of my business."
(March 15, 1981)



Morley Callaghan on Ernest Hemingway's selected letters: 1917-1961
Hemingway was something more than a natural writer. When nerve-racked, sleepless or desperate, he took to writing letters for relief as another man might take Valium. He wrote strange and sometimes wonderful letters although they have nothing to do with the art of the charming letter. Since he knew he would order that they never be published, most of them come pouring out exuberantly, or furiously, or maliciously, or humorously, the stuff of his own wide gaudy wonderful world. We get, too, the part of his inner world he wants to reveal; he was always very canny about this. Since he had a searing power to make everything he wrote seem real, the letters are captivating because we can never be sure whether he is telling the truth, or whether he is being seduced by his imagination into believing the legends he created for himself.
(March 29, 1981)



George W. Ball on John Kenneth Galbraith's
A LIFE IN OUR TIMES: Memoirs
Most economists try hard to validate Thomas Carlyle's description of economics as "the dismal science" by their rigorous commitment to turgid and pontifical prose. John Kenneth Galbraith stands out from his fellows, not merely because he is taller than anyone else in the world, but because he rejects that practice. Disdaining his profession's trade union rules, he insists obstinately on writing in the English language; not only can his books be read without translation but he eschews nonce words and neologisms. Although several of his pithy phrases have found a place in the vernacular -- such as "the affluent society," "conventional wisdom," the "social balance" and "countervailing power" -- they are composed of recognizable English words.
(April 26, 1981)



William Trevor on Frank O'Connor's
COLLECTED STORIES
No precise definition of the short story, ancient or modern, is possible, though it may perhaps be suggested that if the novel at its greatest has an affinity with the complications of Renaissance art then the short story of the 20th century has affinities with the Impressionists and the post-Impressionists. It is the art of the glimpse; it deals in echoes and reverberations; craftily it withholds information. Novels tell all. Short stories tell as little as they dare.
(Sept. 13, 1981)



David Levering Lewis on Maya Angelou's
THE HEART OF A WOMAN
Maya Angelou has . . . achieved a kind of literary breakthrough which few writers of any time, place, or race achieve. Moreover, since writing "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," she has done so with stunning regularity, in "Gather Together in My Name," in "Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas." Now comes her uproarious, passionate, and beautifully written "The Heart of a Woman," equal in every respect to "Gather Together in My Name" and only a shade off the perfection of her luminous first volume. As with any corpus of high creativity, exactly what makes Angelou's writing unique is more readily appreciated than analyzed and stated. It is, I think, a melding of unconcerned honesty, consummate craft, and perfect descriptive pitch, yielding a rare compound of great emotional force and authenticity, undiluted by polemic.
(Oct. 4, 1981)



Jonathan Yardley on Peter Taylor's
THE OLD FOREST and Other Stories
Read superficially, Taylor seems to be a chronicler and defender of the old Southern order, a society that suppresses women and oppresses blacks. Yet as the stories in "The Old Forest" make abundantly clear, from the outset his strongest sympathies have been with the powerless, and his abiding interest has been in discovering what strategies they devise for acquiring such power as may be available to them. He depicts the world as it exists rather than the world as we wish it might be, so some of the social settings and personal relationships in these stories may seem unfortunate to today's enlightened reader; but the truth is that his portrait of the white middle-class South, though drawn with sympathy and affection, is as withering as any we have.
(Jan. 27, 1985)



David Remnick on Jay McInerney's
RANSOM
"Bright Lights, Big City" was a book admired most deeply, I suspect, by people who thought it was the novel they would write if they could get a year off from the horrific responsibilities of urban affluence. It tackled such universal themes as the fact-checking department of the New Yorker and the downtown rock club scene. The pleasures of the book are too often the pleasures of sneering contempt and hyped-up abandon featuring the revival of a familiar character from the '20s -- the disaffected prep. Had "Bright Lights, Big City" relied solely on its portrait of the club scene and its potshots at "The Druid," a fictional stand-in for New Yorker editor William Shawn, the book would have been merely an exercise in personal reporting. But McInerney did not stop there. He tossed in "emotions" and "the promise of reform" as if the book were a recipe lacking sweetness and light. The novel's passions are sops to a half-remembered sense of the upstanding literary citizen.
(Aug. 25, 1985)



Reid Beddow on
THE INMAN DIARY
Surrounded by a retinue of physicians, readers, chauffeurs, cooks, secretaries and companions, helped by his long-suffering wife Evelyn, Arthur endures, in Aaron's phrase, "the last vestiges of eighteenth-century medical lore." A regime of stomach pumpings, throat paintings, laxatives, emetics and enemas and the pokes, probes and stretches of many osteopaths keep Arthur's anxieties at bay. The story of his tempestuous relations with his wife reads like a novel. If the Diary were in fact a novel, its climax might be the enraged revelation that Arthur's favorite osteopath and best friend has seduced his wife and had secret sexual relations with her over a period of many years. Arthur is mighty hurt.
(Oct. 13, 1985)



Michael Dirda on Robertson Davies's
WHAT'S BRED IN THE BONE
Robertson Davies is the sort of novelist readers can hardly wait to tell their friends about. Not that he's precisely unknown, even for a Canadian. A passionate fellowship exists among admirers of his "Deptford Trilogy": "Fifth Business," "The Manticore," and "World of Wonders." Last year his urbane ghost story collection, "High Spirits," even received the World Fantasy Award. When he lectures -- as he did recently at the Library of Congress -- the house sells out. With his out-of-date, high-buttoned suits, a handkerchief up his sleeve like a priest or a magician, and his imposing white beard, he calls to mind a genial sorcerer, an alchemical marriage of Prospero and Faust and Santa Claus.
(Nov. 17, 1985)



Robertson Davies on Anthony Burgess's
BUT DO BLONDES PREFER GENTLEMEN?
Anthony Burgess is surely one of our foremost enthusiasts among literary men. I use the word in its primary sense of "god-possessed"; the god that possesses Burgess is literature, with special emphasis on literature as language. Again and again he emphasizes that books are not made up primarily of thoughts but of words, and the writer who thinks that his thought will make up for sloppy, or tasteless, or even illiterate writing is hopelessly wrong. He does not call for a mandarin form of English; his enthusiasm embraces all sorts of English, and he has a soft spot for what he calls Crimespeak and Yidglish. What he has no patience with is muddled, flashy language reflecting, as it must, muddled, flashy thought. "We're living in a very cynical world, also sentimental, also ill-educated, also vulgar," he writes, and much of what is published in a society where more books come out in a year than might have appeared in a decade two hundred years ago is what he very properly calls "rabbit-droppings." And rabbit-droppings, as every gardener knows, are bad manure; things grow not because of but in spite of them.
(March 9, 1986)



Erica Jong on Henry Miller's
DEAR, DEAR BRENDA
If ever a man was a fool for love, it was Henry Miller. He could create a woman out of a hank of hair and a bit of bone (and several glossy photographs) and pour into her all that he knew about life, love, and literature. And he knew plenty. The recipients of his generosity were bowled over by it: letters that arrived two and three a day, introductions to agents, publishers, movie stars; lists of recommended readings; watercolors in his own hand; long, loquacious lunches and dinners in which he bared his breast and, with it, his heart. To have the sun of his friendship shine on you was to know bliss. I was a recipient of such generosity from him, and it changed my life. I loved him as a mentor and a friend. But I also saw the blarney underneath: the lust for fame beneath the Buddhist pose, the vanity of the white-haired lover, the insatiable hunger for attention.
(March 30, 1986)



Patrice Gaines-Carter on Maya Angelou's
ALL GOD'S CHILDREN NEED TRAVELING SHOES
Because this is the fifth volume of Maya Angelou's autobiography, it's tempting to ask how one writer could stretch a life through so many works. The easy answer is that she can do so because her life has been more exciting, more adventurous, more fraught with challenge than most lives. But the truth is Maya Angelou could have probably written five volumes of her life if she had spent all of her days alone in a 12-by-12 room with nothing but a pen and paper.
(May 11, 1986)



Robert Cormier on Stephen King's
IT
Yes, of course, Stephen King is the acknowledged master of the modern horror story -- so what else is new? Maybe this: He is perhaps the ultimate Young Adult novelist who also writes terrific children's books, although very evil and very corrupt. (But since when did fairy tales suddenly become pure and innocent?) Stephen King, then, has two kinds of horror going for him -- first, the horror that haunts old Colorado hotels, classic 1958 Plymouths, neglected cemeteries and entire Maine towns; second, the everyday horror found in the acned hearts of adolescents and in the perilous lives of children between the ages of, say, 5 and 10. He knows precisely their longings and agonies, their follies and fancies, just as he knows every foul impulse of his imagined monsters.
(Aug. 24, 1986)



Angela Carter on children's picture books
Nothing inspires greater nor more innocent joy than a picture book. Just as there is a kind of imaginative freedom that one can only find in writing for young children -- who have few if any expectations of what is probable and what is not and do not even know the meaning of the phrase "the suspension of disbelief," because they must continually suspend disbelief in order to get through each surprising day -- so there is also the same delighted abandonment to the unexpected about the best children's book illustrations. After all, why shouldn't a zebra come equipped with a zipper? Or a banana with buttons? Or, best of all, an egg with ears?
(Nov. 9, 1986)



David Nicholson on W.E.B. Du Bois's Writings
Now, with the publication of his collected Writings, W.E.B Du Bois becomes the first black writer included in the Library of America. That there are some 30 volumes already in print in this series, the "collected works of America's foremost authors," makes it the kind of two-edged honor with which Du Bois himself was not unfamiliar. He knew early, as he wrote in "Dusk of Dawn: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept" (1940), that "You are an Exception." There was a price to be paid for being one; talented, intelligent, indefatigable, Du Bois decided at 25 that his destiny was to "make a name in science, to make a name in literature and thus to raise my race." There was a price for such an ambition, and he proved never unwilling to pay it.
(Feb. 22, 1987)



Witold Rybczynski on Simon Schama's
THE EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES
We are all fascinated by the lives of the rich and famous, and in the 17th century nobody was as rich, or as famously rich, as the Dutch. Everything they touched, from Japanese porcelain and Malacca pepper to herrings and cheese, turned to gold. Their banks were the most dependable in the world. Their flourishing cities were cleaner, and their homes were better appointed, than those of their European neighbors. They ate finer food -- and drank more -- their children were better looked after, their workers better paid, even their poor were less poor. Such good fortune was hardly universally appreciated, as we are reminded by the numerous Hollandophobisms that entered the English language during that period -- Dutch uncles doled out Dutch consolation, parsimonious hosts offered a Dutch treat, out of the bottle came Dutch courage, and naughty children didn't get in trouble, they got in Dutch.
(June 28, 1987)



Michael Dirda on Martin Stannard's
EVELYN WAUGH: The Early Years
Waugh was good at loathing. In his later years he made himself into the eccentric Tory squire par excellence, a Colonel Blimp quivering with prejudices and jowls, eyes usually bulging with rage over some fresh indignity -- the mass in English, perhaps. Endlessly quotable, unremittingly malicious, Waugh became his own comic masterpiece. He never voted because "I do not aspire to advise my sovereign in her choice of servants." When his old friend Randolph Churchill underwent an operation for a tumor, one that turned out to be benign, he remarked that it was "a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it." He even took to carrying an ear trumpet and dressing in checked suits of heavy wool. He was constantly sloshed: "On the last evening I dimly remember a dinner party of cosmopolitan ladies where I think I must have been conspicuous," he once wrote to Nancy Mitford. "Were you there? I awoke with blood on my hands but found to my intense relief that it was my own."
(Aug. 16, 1987)



Christopher Buckley on Maureen Dean's
WASHINGTON WIVES
After her first book, "Mo: A Woman's View of Watergate," was published, Maureen Dean went on the record and boasted that she had not only not written it, but also not even read it. If Esquire had given her a Dubious Achievement Award, it would have been: Say What You Will About Her Husband, You Have to Admire Her Literary Taste. In the acknowledgements section of this, her first novel, Mrs. Dean thanks "the ghost who . . . lives in my bedroom." That would be John, whose own Blind Ambition was in fact written by Taylor Branch. It is therefore hard to know whom precisely to blame for "Washington Wives."

"Washington," she begins, "is a city of dreams, great and small, of hopes both foolish and daringly grand." We are in Suite 910 of (where else?) the Hay-Adams. We are the chief of staff at the White House, and we are about to get jump-started by a woman who is not our wife. We are in the shower together and we have just gotten the soap where we want it when -- oh oh -- we have a heart attack and die.
(Nov. 1, 1987)



John Lahr on Gerald Clarke's
CAPOTE
"All our acts are acts of fear," Capote said, and certainly the pursuit of fame belied Capote's terror of nonentity. Capote's obsession with power and prestige masked the enormous impoverishment and self-loathing that blighted his later years. "I'm jealous of everything," he said, admitting the envy that stars stage-manage as drive. By the end of his long and celebrated career in 1979, Capote was planning "get-even parties." He'd been dropped by the socialites to whom he'd been court jester and confidant for decades, after retailing their intimate secrets in serialized sections of his last, unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. Faced with real or imagined humiliation, Capote instinctively sought vindictive triumph. In a sense, the sensational spectacle Capote made of himself was a lifelong get-even party.
(May 29, 1988)



Wallace Stegner on Anne Tyler's
BREATHING LESSONS
"Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" and "The Accidental Tourist" should have been hard acts to follow. Actually, so sharp is Anne Tyler's eye and so inexhaustible the field of her observation, "Breathing Lessons" shows us a writer who should have had trouble matching herself, surpassing herself. And Maggie Moran, who dominates the new novel, is a purely Anne Tyler creation -- a woman with a cornpopper mind and an incorrigible capacity for self-persuasion, a scheming flibbertigibbet, a meddler whose misinterpretations and desperate cover-up lies belong in Fawlty Towers, but whose essential goodness and capacity for affection make us want to comfort rather than kick her. Even while we wonder how her husband Ira has put up with Maggie for 28 years, we understand why the marriage has lasted, and will. Maggie's deviousness, underlain by emotional purposes as inexorable as heat-seeking missiles, is a form of innocence.
(Sept. 4, 1988)



David Lehman on children's poetry
Childrenís poetry -- verse written for, though not usually by, children -- has rules and regulations, virtues and charms that distinguish it sharply from the adult variety. For one thing, poetry intended for children is meant to be read out loud, meant to be read over and over until it is etched in the listener's memory. It therefore tends to employ mnemonic devices -- meter, rhyme, alliteration and the rest -- discarded by many practitioners of free verse. Second, where slim volumes of adult verse strive for an elegantly austere look, children's poetry is nearly always accompanied by illustrations. To judge the verse without reference to the drawings is always difficult and generally undesirable. Finally, children's books inspire more vicarious reading than any other genre. The books are made for children, but it's adults who create them, publish them, market them, buy them and review them. The process illustrates Valery's pronouncement that "a poem is a communication from one who is not the poet to one who is not the reader," though probably not in the mystical sense Valery intended.
(Nov. 6, 1988)



Christopher Buckley on Malcolm Forbes's
AROUND THE WORLD ON HOT AIR & TWO WHEELS
Here comes Malcolm Forbes roaring into his chateau at the head of a pack of black-leather-suited bikers wearing "CAPITALIST TOOLS" colors and hell bent for fois gras. There goes Malcolm Forbes in a whoosh of propane, heaven bent in a hot air balloon the shape -- and approximate size -- of the chateau. Bon voyage, monsieur! Oo la la, I ope monsieur does not break ze neck.

A reporter once asked Forbes for the secret of his success. His answer was memorable: "Hard work, imagination, perseverance and a father who left me $100 million dollars." Malcolm Forbes is a guiltless, happy man, and to judge from this book, a coffee-table adventure book written with a half dozen or so of his bike-and-balloon companions, very good company on the road and in the air. There is something winning about a hugely rich man who is at peace with himself and humanity and who likes to have fun on the grand scale.
(Dec. 22, 1988)



Jonathan Yardley on Salman Rushdie's
THE SATANIC VERSES
The phrase for this, as all students of contemporary fiction well know, is "magic realism." Rushdie is an accomplished practitioner of the genre, and he hauls out all its tricks in "The Satanic Verses." But apart from the peculiar bloodlessness of the novel, it suffers from a lack of real originality and an excess of transparency. On almost every page Rushdie's influences beg to be acknowledged -- notable among them being Garcia Marquez, Borges and Pynchon -- and everywhere the reader is too much aware of the author so busily at work: leaping back and forth between "real" worlds and dreams, moving his characters across the vast gameboard he has constructed, demanding that we gasp and applaud at his ability to shoot off firecrackers. In the end, though, what he produces is not astonishment but exhaustion.
(Jan. 29, 1989)



Ursula K. Le Guin on
THE ESSAYS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, Vol. III, 1919-1924
Between 1919 and 1924 Virginia Woolf came into her artistic maturity. All that was promised in the first two volumes is happening in this one. Because of the straightforward chronological presentation, to read the book is to participate in the change and movement of her mind over time, to feel how she thinks, to have almost an illusion of thinking with her. In the first drafts printed here as appendices, with their crossings-out and scribblings-over, that sense of being at the instant of making, the moment of vision, becomes intense. All through the book the reach and stretch of that splendid mind, its leap, its sureness, are amazing, delightful, ennobling. To read it is to feel like a rider on a champion thoroughbred -- -breathless and exhilarated, but securely borne by the faultless rhythm. Never does she put a foot wrong.
(March 19, 1989)



Anne Tyler on Julia Child's
THE WAY TO COOK
If I do say so myself, it seems fitting that a novelist should review this particular book. "The Way to Cook" turns out to have as strong a sense of character as any work of fiction, and that character is so triumphantly consistent, no matter what the situation, that readers find themselves laughing each time they recognize it anew. Julia again! we say. Oh, she promised in her preface that she'd changed, she swore it, but we know Julia!
(Sept. 17, 1989)



Michael Dirda on Umberto Eco's
FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM
Umberto Ecoís "Foucault's Pendulum" builds slowly -- the first hundred pages can try the patience of even the most fanatical admirer of Eco's previous novel, "The Name of the Rose" -- but once its three heroes encounter the mysterious Col. Ardenti, no reader is likely to stop reading. Or want to. Who is so jaded that he can resist an elegant, enigmatic visitor, a coded message on a torn scrap of paper, the dark legend of the Knights Templar, the promise of untold wealth and power, hints of a secret society of global influence, a vow of silence? "Foucault's Pendulum" offers plenty to think about -- Eco is, after all, a distinguished professor of semiotics -- but it is first of all an intellectual adventure story, as sensational, thrilling and packed with arcana as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" or The Count of Monte Cristo.
(Oct. 29, 1989)



Jonathan Yardley on H.L. Mencken's
DIARY
Based on advance word from others, I had expected the diaries to be sour and bitter and mean; they are far less so than I had anticipated. Though Mencken's less agreeable prejudices are herein on display, they are most wisely and charitably viewed as only part of the story; they are scarcely the dominant element in this copious, multifarious book. Indeed, the one respect in which I disagree with [the editor] is his flat insistence that "Mencken was an anti-Semite." Though Mencken does refer to individual as "Jews," and though he issues a few disparaging comments about blacks, these are counterbalanced to some degree by the exceptionally generous, appreciative comments he makes about specific individuals who happened to be Jewish or black. Not merely does he seem to have been willing to accept people on their own merits, but we do well to bear in mind that his prejudices were those of his time and class. We do no man of an earlier time justice if we judge him by the standards of our own more "enlightened" age; to say as much is not to excuse prejudices, but to attempt to understand them and to place them in context.
(Dec. 10, 1989)


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