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 last eight years. (You can also read our favorite excerpts from the 1970s and '80s.)

Sven Birkerts on Philip Roth's
DECEPTION
Every novel is, at root, an invasion of privacy -- or, better yet, the illusion of such an invasion. The sensation of illicitness, faint or less faint, is the motor that moves the hand to turn the page. What is curious, though, is that this foraging among the precincts of the Other is most thrilling when it has a visual component. We don't so much want to get access to another's thoughts as to catch a glimpse of actual stocking -- we want to know what people do behind closed doors.
(April 1, 1990)



Jonathan Yardley on Scott Turow's
THE BURDEN OF PROOF
In his two novels Turow has demonstrated that there is still life in the old American traditions of realism and naturalism. His linear forebears are not the manufacturers of assembly-line entertainments and romans a clef but the likes of Theodore Dreiser and James Gould Cozzens: serious but not self-consciously literary writers who (in Dreiser's case at least) were less interested in prose style than in the great clanging engines of American society and in the institutions -- most particularly business and the law -- that operate them. Turow to be sure seems to have his eye more sharply focused on the marketplace than did Dreiser and Cozzens, but he shares their preoccupation with the whole range of American life and their sense of moral urgency.
(June 3, 1990)



Michael Dirda on Seamus Heaney's
SELECTED POEMS 1966-1987
Where a "Collected Poems," is a monument, a "Selected" is an invitation, a sometimes needed icebreaker for shy new readers. In other words, most of us. Unlike expository prose, which blatantly aims to ingratiate, much poetry often ignores the ordinary courtesies: It is simply there, true to itself. If you picture good prose as a smooth politician deftly working the crowd, then poetry is Clint Eastwood, serape flapping in the wind, standing alone on a dusty street.

This stark image is not inappropriate to Seamus Heaney's poems, which tend to be lean, sinewy, taut and gnarled. The famous first lines of "Digging," say: "Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun." Such bolt-action writing takes its business very seriously indeed.
(Aug. 19, 1990)



Jonathan Yardley on Ronald Reagan's
AN AMERICAN LIFE
All presidential memoirs, with the arguable exception of Harry Truman's, are cut from the same cloth. Every man who comes to the office yearns to place his imprint upon it, and every man who leaves the office is determined to dictate the precise shape of that imprint. Thus each of them turns pen to paper in the hope of swaying history's judgment, of presenting his own case in the best possible light. Thus too each of them writes a book that is unfailingly statesmanlike, polite, diplomatic -- and self-serving to the very core.
(Nov. 4, 1990)



Michael Dirda on Judith Krantz's
DAZZLE
Enough. Sometimes reviewers lament that good trees have been felled to produce a book. In this case, I even feel bad about the ink and glue.
(Jan. 4, 1991)



Diane Johnson on John le Carre's
THE SECRET PILGRIM
As children most of us loved to read about the special world of pirates (or Martians or explorers). Without ever expecting to visit such a world, we learned its special rules -- the meaning of the Black Spot, the ritual of walking the plank. For grownups, the mysterious world of fictional spies has something of the same allure; it is one of the few places we can re-enact the childhood fantasy of roaming, of surviving apart from the family or parents, of independence (and the corollary flirtation with despair and abandonment that would make us feel all the safer in our plain world of home and school). In the grownup world, the shipwreck fantasy, the Kidnapped tale, becomes a tale of men who deceive their families (for a higher good), who roam the world or who, kidnapped, turn up in Bangkok or Sydney or Munich, who have access to mysterious clubs and safe houses, endure hardships and brutality, whose virtues are loyalty and stoic courage (and they have cyanide pills if the going gets too rough). It is Romance.
(Jan. 27, 1991)



Carolyn See on Kitty Kelley's
NANCY REAGAN
If an angel of the Lord had swooped down on me a month ago in a big pink chariot surrounded by golden clouds and announced that today I'd be writing to defend both Nancy Reagan and Kitty Kelley, I'd have said, "Get out of town, angel! You must have been messing in dangerous drugs again!"

Nevertheless. Nevertheless, Kitty Kelley's biography is a sober classic, a study of what it really means to be American, a direct descendant of Booth Tarkington's "Alice Adams," F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy."
(April 21, 1991)



Christopher Hitchens on Anthoney Daniels's
UTOPIAS ELSEWHERE
While scanning a communique in the Daily Worker circa 1936, the British journalist and muckraker Claud Cockburn came across an exhortation for "the leading organs of the party to penetrate the backward parts of the proletariat." He had the greatest difficulty in persuading his comrades that this injunction -- which, they reverently pointed out, had come from Moscow itself -- could be better phrased. There is an old term for this kind of petrified Stalinoid jargon. The term is langue de bois. In his reportage from the last redoubts -- Albania, Romania, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba -- of the old-line Communist world, Anthony Daniels employs the term langue de bois perhaps a hundred times, which is to say, woodenly.
(Aug. 25, 1991)



Michael Dirda on David Lodge's
PARADISE NEWS
Like Robertson Davies, Iris Murdoch or John Updike, David Lodge has grown into so distinctive a novelist that the quality of any single book hardly matters. Anyone who has read his intricately plotted, lovingly satirical "academic romance," "Small World," or his recent "condition of England" novel, "Nice Work" (probably his most ambitious book), will be pathetically grateful just to have nearly 300 more pages of Lodge's buoyant, delicious prose. He is one of those writers that you could read all day, finding something amusing or stylish or ingenious on every page. In a better world, vigilante book groups would have forced him to quit his teaching job at the University of Birmingham years ago -- and compelled him, with riches, honors and bestsellerdom, to write steadily and tirelessly for our own selfish, greedy pleasure.
(April 5, 1992)



Quentin Crisp on Donald Spoto's
BLUE ANGEL
Now that, regrettably, sex seems to be here to stay, the stars of the past are thought to have been sex symbols. They were no such thing. In those days, men only went to the cinema to sit for an hour or two in the dark with their girlfriends; they scarcely glanced at the screen. Before movies were elevated to the status of an "art form," it was women who went to the pictures, often with other women, and to them the stars were symbols of power. At that time it was thought that it might be possible to rule the world by the skillful use of cosmetics alone. Working on this principle, from 1926 to 1931, every woman in the Western world looked like Greta Garbo. Then, on a fateful day in 1931, "Morocco" was released and they all ran home, shaved off their eyebrows, curled their hair and looked like Dietrich. Few people living today can imagine the effect she had on public taste. Donald Spoto's book will do much to remedy this ignorance.
(July 19, 1992)



Jonathan Yardley on Anthony Holden's
BEHIND THE OSCAR
In the American civil religion we celebrate three high holy nights of schlock, three rituals of such exquisite vulgarity that they cement us together as a people far more firmly than any of those moldy pieces of paper signed some two centuries ago by dead white males. The hoariest of these ceremonies is the Miss America Pageant, which has been deprived of some of its glitz by the humorless influence of feminism and, even worse, the departure of the incomparable Bert Parks. The youngest is the Super Bowl, which each year pushes the envelope of garishness even further into the ether. But the most enduring, the most impregnable, the most ghastly: This, by any reckoning, must be the annual awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
(March 21, 1993)



A.S. Byatt on Allan Bloom's
LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP
Returning to lecture at Cornell University after 20 years, Allan Bloom tells us, he was faced with a student banner -- a bedsheet unfurled that read "Great Sex is better than Great Books." "Sure," retorts Bloom, "but you can't have one without the other." It is a large claim, but Bloom, author of "The Closing of the American Mind," believed that this was a time for large, fierce claims -- that there was a civilization, that it needed defending, that it was possible for him to defend it in books. This, his last book (he died in October 1992), is specifically a defense of the powerful ideas of love and friendship, which he calls "passions of the soul," knowing that all these words are at best unfashionable, at worst meaningless. Like many writers with such large projects he sounds both wise and supremely sane, and at the same time cantankerous and curmudgeonly. On the whole, I think, wisdom and sanity win.
(July 25, 1993)



Marie Arana-Ward on Tom Clancy's
WITHOUT REMORSE
Let's get one thing straight right off. No one reads Tom Clancy for his style. Not for us the prosy pirouette, the earnest Bildungsroman, the mot juste, the finely limned character, the universal slice of life. If that's what you're after, move on to someone else's book and someone else's review. Go ahead. Make my day.

What Clancy manages to deliver to armchair warriors more often than not -- and "Without Remorse" is no exception -- is a different kind of virtuosity: a meticulous chronicle of military hardware, a confident stride through corridors of power, an honest-to-God global war game, and a vertiginous plot that dutifully tracks dozens of seemingly disparate strands to a pyrotechnic finish.
(Aug. 8, 1993)



Dana Gioia on Andrew Motion's
PHILIP LARKIN
If one often pities Larkin as a person, one ultimately admires him as an artist. Relentlessly introspective and self-critical, he recognized every inadequacy and failure of his humanity. Just as he constructed a charming, humorous public self to clothe his private misery, Larkin created a better version of himself in his poems. His career illustrates the mysterious way a soiled life may be distilled into art of refreshing purity. "The intellect of man is forced to choose/ Perfection of the life, or of the work," wrote Yeats, one of Larkin's early models. Feeling from early on that his life was doomed to unfulfillment, Larkin unambiguously chose to perfect the work. If he never stopped complaining about the emotional price of the decision, he also never flinched from it. He found a way of making the unhappiest truths darkly beautiful, of finding "Words at once true and kind,/ Or not untrue and not unkind." As Motion's biography makes clear, his poems, like his letters, arose from his daily life, but in his verse he found a way of transcending his petty angers and cold self-absorption. A quietly visionary poet, he knew what life could be, even if he had rarely tasted it. His greatest poems were heartbreaking glimpses of those parts of his life that deserved to endure. "One of those old-type natural fouled-up guys," Larkin knew that in art, "What will survive of us is love."
(Aug. 15, 1993)



Elizabeth Ward on Haruki Murakami's
DANCE DANCE DANCE
Don't read Haruki Murakami if you want Japanese exotic. His settings -- Sapporo, Hakone, Shibuya, Azabu -- may exert an initial outlandish charm, but his props -- from steak houses and Maseratis to Sam Cooke and Cutty Sark -- are as Western as last week's New Yorker tossed on the coffee table. This is mi casa es su casa with a vengeance: We are all living in the suburbs of a global metropolis in which the discontinuities between East and West have long since dissolved. Romantic Japan is dead and gone, say Murakami's novels; modern, urban, middle-aged Japan looks out the window, feels angst, sees signs of April and thinks . . . T.S. Eliot and Count Basie.
(Jan. 16, 1994)



Carl Sagan on Curtis Peebles's
WATCH THE SKIES! A Chronicle of the Flying Saucer Myth
In college I began to learn about how science works, the secrets of its great success, how rigorous the standards of evidence must be if we are really to know something, how many false starts and dead ends have plagued human thinking, how our biases can color our interpretation of the evidence, and how often belief systems widely held and supported by the political, religious and academic hierarchies turn out to be not just slightly in error but grotesquely wrong. Everything hinges on the evidence. On so important a question, the evidence must be airtight. The more we want it to be true, the more careful we have to be. No witness's say-so is good enough. People make mistakes. People play practical jokes. People stretch the truth for money or attention or fame. People sometimes even see things that aren't there.
(May 29, 1994)



Geoffrey Wolff on Carolyn See's
DREAMING
As you'll see by the title, this is an American memoir. This isn't the kind of dreaming the Viennese delegation labored to interpret; this is blue-sky dreaming, better-days-a-comin' dreaming, "getting high," as the author has it, "going up." As you'll see by the subtitle -- wise-ass and wise -- Carolyn See's is the kind of American voice you can fall in love with.
(March 5, 1995)



Dennis Drabelle on Roy Morris Jr.'s
AMBROSE BIERCE
Ambrose Bierce may be America's most interesting minor writer. A master of the short story, the aphorism, the polemic and the insult, he is remembered as much for his one-liners, his misanthropy and his enigmatic death as for the dozen well-padded volumes of his Collected Works. His wit and chiseled style and the flashes of genius glimpsed in those tales and snippets are almost enough to support a verdict of greatness. But to achieve real stature as a writer, you had better parlay your gifts into at least one substantial and original book, and this Bierce failed to do.
(Jan. 28, 1996)



Nina King on Frank McCourt's
ANGELA'S ASHES
"Angela's Ashes" confirms the worst old stereotypes about the Irish, portraying them as drunken, sentimental, bigoted, bloody-minded dreamers, repressed sexually and oppressed politically, nursing ancient grievances while their children (their far-too-many children) go hungry. It confirms the stereotypes at the same time that it transcends them through the sharpness and precision of McCourt's observation and the wit and beauty of his prose.

For if the physical conditions of Frank McCourt's Limerick childhood were appalling -- fleas, rats, a single malodorous toilet for 11 families, TB, typhoid fever, diphtheria and the deadly damp from the River Shannon -- and the emotional conditions were impoverished by his family's inability to express love, he emerged with at least one great inheritance: the Irish gift for, and love of, language and music.
(Sept. 29, 1996)

Read more review highlights from the 1970s and 1980s.

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