Experts choose their favorite books of this year in these categories:
Other end-of-the-year book selections:
Critic Jonathan Yardley lists his favorites
The Book World staff's picks
Favorite gift books of the famous and noteworthy
Go to Chapter One
Go to Style
Sunday, December 8, 1996
Experts Pick Their Favorites
For the best advice, there's nothing like a specialist. In this year-end feature, Book World asked 10 experts to choose the best books published recently in their areas of interest.
By Rebecca Pepper Sinkler
Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt (Scribner). Spare me most memoirs of Important People -- those who insist on dragging you through the great parents, great books, great ideas and events that shaped the great me. To hell with the warrior lamenting that war-is-hell, the disgruntled wife tattling about the marriage she fattened on. Give me instead a memoir with the qualities I love in my friends: irony, compassion born of self-doubt, unanswered questions, and unfinished quality, unwholesomeness in the best sense. The most gloriously unwholesome memoir of the year has to be "Angela's Ashes." The tale of an Irish childhood blighted by poverty, drink, violence, panic and despair and blessed by an author with a huge sense of the ridiculous plus the ability to forgive everyone, even himself. Give Angela to anyone who loves a roaring story in language so fresh it sometimes comes as a shock to the system.
Prospect: The Journal of an Artist, by Anne Truitt (Scribner). If most memorable personal narratives are all downhill after adolescence, there's another sort of memoir that slices off small slivers of time -- a decade, say, or even a day. Anne Truitt relives for us a year in "Prospect." She starts out feeling, at 70, "increasingly hopeful and increasingly anxious." To me, that edgy combination promised insight into how aging works on creativity and vice versa. She delivers on every page, making helpful connections to her experience "as an artist, a mother, grandmother, a teacher. Above all," she writes, "as a person who is preparing to reach the end of a long life." Here is a woman who has struggled to balance her talents and obligations, and won. Among the gifts bestowed by Prospect is Truitt's wide-ranging literacy: She's read everything and looked sharply at art and people. Best of all, she cherishes what she does not know.
The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris (Riverhead). This is an outsider's book: Into a Roman Catholic monastic community of celibate men on the Great Plains, Norris steps -- a married Protestant New Yorker with a fair share of spiritual doubt. These tensions undergird her memoir, structured on the liturgical day and year as experienced by an oblate -- one who vows to follow for a limited time the rule of the Order, in this case Benedictine. For the uninitiate, it is a fascinating excursion in ritual, ecclesiastical tradition and such esoterica as the peculiar lives of saints. Fine writing about music and singing fills "The Cloister Walk," itself anything but cloistered. At midlife, doubts can scarcely be confined to theology and Norris, a poet, explores love, marriage (hers), sex, aging, the world, without descending into spirituality mush.
Light Years: A Memoir, by Le Anne Schreiber (Lyons and Burford). This memoir plunks this cosmopolitan former New York Times editor and passionate fly-fisher (whom I have known professionally) into her newly adopted small-town community and watches her grow wiser about nature, people (including herself), old houses, cats, and above all, the price and rewards of solitude.
Life in a Day, by Doris Grumbach (Beacon). Grumbach (whom I have also known professionally) has produced a book that astonishes in its honesty. What a consolation to share a day of tasks unfinished, less-than-warm fuzzy feelings towards friends, pleasure in good books, and an utter lack of self-protection. What greater gift can a memoir bring than a self revealed in all its grubby particulars, with wit and, when day is done, acceptance?
(Ed. note: you can read the first chapter of "Life in a Day" online.)
Rebecca Pepper Sinkler is the former editor of the New York Times Book Review.
By Carolyn See
We Were the Mulvaneys, by Joyce Carol Oates (Dutton). It's grungy, florid and gorgeous. No one is better at capturing the mildewed side of the American dream.
The Statement, by Brian Moore (Dutton). Elegant prose, age-old problems. This is both a philosophical treatise and a stunning suspense thriller.
Ship Fever and Other Stories, by Andrea Barrett (Norton). Xenophobia, fear of immigrants, fear of death, fear of everything, limned in perfect prose.
Last Orders, by Graham Swift (Knopf). Do you remember the movie "Bye Bye Braverman"? Here it is in literary form. Four guys remember an old dead friend.
Santa Evita, by Tomas Eloy Martinez (Knopf). Multicultural, multimedia, multieverything. The author pulls out the stops in portraying a modern political saint.
Carolyn See is a novelist and a regular reviewer for Book World.
By Suzanne Garment
The People's Choice, by Jeff Greenfield (Putnam). The past couple of years have produced a trove of serious, worthy books about the condition of the republic and the effect of Washington politics thereon. With few exceptions, nobody is in the mood for them. The country has just been through a presidential campaign so tedious that you could not stay focused on it for more than 10 minutes except by exercising steely self-discipline. Everybody deserves a break. So go out and buy, for your nearest and dearest, Greenfield's novel. It is extremely funny. The story involves a journalist, a campaign operative, a president-elect who dies before his inauguration, a runaway electoral college made possible by the magic of the Internet, and a satisfyingly improbably happy ending. My sister-in-law in Philadelphia thought the book too "inside" to be appealing, which probably makes it about perfect for Washingtonians.
The Last Debate, by Jim Lehrer (Random House). You can find further relief in this book, yet another funny novel. This time we have a bunch of journalists who form the panel for a presidential debate between a decent, boring candidate and a talented demagogue. The journalists -- fractious fruit of racial, ethnic and gender diversity politics -- manage to get together and decide that they're mad as hell at the whole manipulative exercise and they're not going to take it anymore. They don't. They are so successful at upsetting the apple cart that some of them even end up with the Holy Grail. Read the book to find out what that means.
Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman, by Sally Bedell Smith (Simon & Schuster). This is a book abounding in its own humor -- Smith's biography of Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman. Go ahead, sneak a peek; then give it to someone. You and the giftee can both pretend you're reading it because it's a piece of fascinating social history, which it is. With regard to the question on everyone's mind (How did she do it?), the answer is less transfixing than might be expected: It turns out that the way a girl gets to go out with a rich man is by having gone out with another rich man. But Harriman's rise to the highest reaches of Washington political influence is a fascinating story, if not an elevating one, about the exercise of power in today's America.
Miles to Go, by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Harvard). By the time you're done with the above, you may not be able to fight off a hankering for something more substantive. In that case, here's a book to give and read that is elevating. "Miles to Go" is a marvelous collection of writings about the decades Sen. Moynihan has spent making and observing social policy. The book provides a graceful reminder of what politics used to be before it became all money and spin, and (optimism rises irrepressibly) of what it might be again.n
Suzanne Garment, the author of "Scandal," is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
By Christopher Hitchens
Theatres of Memory, by Raphael Samuel (Verso). The old country has been stranded for some time between Europe and America and is currently located somewhere between a monarchy and a republic, and somewhere between a long Tory regime and an imminent election. In this doldrum, history and literature supply the most secure consolation. Samuel's book is a sort of extended meditation on the "heritage" question. Many critics see Britain as being transformed into a species of postmodern theme park, where the past can be franchised in the present. Here, one of the country's foremost chroniclers makes the case that the history of the island is accessible to actual inhabitants as never before. Popular enthusiasm for "heritage" and local history, while sometimes verging on the kitsch, is nevertheless expanding our sense of who we are.
Men and Women Writers of the Thirties: The Dangerous Flood of History, by Janet Montefiore (Routledge). This is a superb account of the role of memory in the examination of literature. Montefiore writes very penetratingly about Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West but also tries to restore the neglected talents of Sylvia Townsend Warner and Storm Jameson to their proper place in our attention. The decade has been well-ploughed as a field, but never so intelligently. On the male side of the account, she subjects George Orwell's writing to the best critique that I have ever read.
Fighting With Allies: America and Britain in Peace and at War, by Robin Renwick (Times Books). Renwick, a former ambassador to the United States, has put his experience to work in this racy history of Britain's most determining alliance, though it suffers from a slight access of discretion the nearer it gets to Sir Robin's own tenure. (The Falklands crisis, for example, is discussed without any reference to the effect it had on the Iran-Contra horrors.) Ever since Sir Lionel Sackville-West was declared persona non grata by President Grover Cleveland for expressing a preference about the 1888 elections, the post has been a ticklish one and the "special relationship" a fluctuating index of the state of British power.
Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain, by Peter Hennessy (Victor Gollancz). Unlike the United States, Britain has no written Constitution, no Bill of Rights and no Freedom of Information Act. Hennessy has for years been trawling through the secretive back-channels of the British state, trying to find out how it works and by whose permission. His latest book is a revealing and amusing but ultimately infuriating collection of essays. I say infuriating because almost every page exposes the unconscious assumption of the ruling establishment that they actually own the country, without the least obligation to give an account of their stewardship.
How Tory Governments Fall: The Tory Party in Power Since 1783, ed. by Anthony Seldon (Fontana). The distinguished contributors show us how Salisbury, Disraeli, Macmillan, Churchill, Heath and Thatcher lost the command that at times seemed unshakeable. I can't say how prescient such a book may be for 1997, but I enjoyed reading the dress rehearsals for their own sake.
Christopher Hitchens writes the "Fin de Siecle" column for Vanity Fair.
By Dusko Doder
The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts after Communism, by Tina Rosenberg (Random House). This book offers the most ambitious inquiry into the ways some East European countries are facing up to their past. Using a series of well-executed cameos, Rosenberg squeezes human juices from personal histories to distill their tragic essence. In the process, she records authentic voices in debates which will eventually help shape a new democratic political culture in the region.
What emerges is the picture of communism as an impersonal, banal system. Coercion was at its very foundation, coercion perpetrated not by individuals but by entire societies. Which made almost everyone a co-conspirator. But Rosenberg deals only with the "most fortunate countries" of Eastern Europe -- Poland, Czechoslovakia and eastern Germany -- where changes have been most dramatic and expectation for democratic development the highest.
The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, by Samuel Huntington (Simon & Schuster). Perhaps the most interesting recent book on the overall problems facing East Europe -- and especially those dealing with ethnic conflicts and the replacement of communism by virulent nationalism -- is this one. Huntington's central thesis is that in the post-cold war period the Soviet-American rivalry has been replaced by the clash of civilizations. He makes a strong case for it by examining the crisis in ex-Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war in particular. Although not always convincing, Huntington's general proposition is imaginative and well worth considering.
(Ed. note: you can read the first chapter of "The Clash of Civilizations" online.)
Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and Its Destroyers, by Warren Zimmermann (Times Books). Anyone interested in the most unfortunate part of the region -- the former Yugoslavia -- will have to read this. It is an honest, erudite and beautifully written memoir of Zimmermann's tenure as the last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia during the turbulent period from 1989-92. A keen observer, Zimmermann writes about nationalist thugs who are responsible for the country's violent destruction. He also provides the best account to date on both domestic and international aspects of the crisis.
In the Hold, by Vladimir Arsenijevic; translated by Celia Hawkesworth (Knopf). This slim novel offers a moving and apparently autobiographical account of what it was like to live through the Balkan chaos of the past decade. It is worth reading if one is interested in the attitudes and feelings of the young, whose futures have been hijacked by their parents and grandparents.n
Dusko Doder is the author of "Shadows and Whispers: Power Politics Inside the Kremlin from Brezhnev to Gorbachev."
By Tim Page
The Symphony: A Listener's Guide, by Michael Steinberg (Oxford) is a model of intelligent, authoritative, witty and personal writing about music. Both lay listener and professional musician will profit from Steinberg's observations about the standard repertory (the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler and Sibelius, the later Mozart, selected works by Haydn, Shostakovich and Bruckner) and some important pieces that are less familiar (notably the Symphony No. 3 by Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki and works by Howard Hanson, Walter Piston, Roger Sessions and William Schuman). An essential book for music-lovers at all levels of expertise.
Franz Liszt: The Final Years, 1861-1886, by Alan Walker (Knopf). Much to my surprise, the two music biographies I found most engrossing this year were both about composers whose work usually leaves me cold. Walker's three-volume biography of Franz Liszt, 25 years in the making, is unquestionably a landmark, comparable to Ernest Newman's massive "Life of Richard Wagner." This is Walker's concluding volume -- a meticulously detailed, passionately argued and sometimes wrenchingly moving book (what lyricism and compassion the author brings to his retelling of the calamities that befell Liszt as he grew old!). Whether or not one agrees with Walker's assessment of Liszt's music, he makes an overwhelmingly effective case for the composer as a great man -- indeed, as one of the pivotal musical thinkers in the history of Western culture.
Charles Ives: A Life With Music, by Jan Swafford (Norton). Charles Ives is a faith: One believes or one does not, and debate on the matter, however heated, rarely changes anybody's mind. Now Jan Swafford, himself a composer, has written a sensitive, specific, gracefully worded and remarkably clearheaded book that is both an engrossing biography of a craggy, idiosyncratic New England "character" and a detailed examination of the work he left behind. Swafford believes that Ives's artistic achievement is "manifestly flawed but in the end gigantic . . . one more Ivesian paradox."
Minimalists, by K. Robert Schwarz (Phaidon). Finally, the English company Phaidon has been issuing a series of valuable books on 20th-century composers, ranging from Schoenberg and Stravinsky to the Beatles. This recent volume deserves special notice, as it is the first serious study devoted entirely to the so-called minimalist composers -- especially Philip Glass and Steve Reich but also Terry Riley, John Adams, Meredith Monk and others -- who have been so enormously influential over the past two decades.
The New York-based music critic K. Robert Schwarz is an enthusiast, but not an uncritical one, and he does a very good job of explaining a compositional style that many listeners continue to find mystifying. Of the movement's two central figures, he generally prefers Reich to Glass, yet he is not impervious to the eloquence of the latter's best music. Of the conclusion to Glass's 1980 opera "Satyagraha," for example, he notes that the last aria consists of a rising scale from E to E sung 30 times, while a three-chord progression is repeated beneath. "Far from being simplistic," Schwarz writes, "these structures are used with an ingenuity worthy of Henry Purcell, and although there might appear to be much repetition, hardly any of it is literal."
Tim Page is the music critic for The Washington Post.
By Jack Shafer
Washington Babylon, by Alexander Cockburn and Ken Silverstein (Verso). Iniquity abounds in the Washington exposed by Cockburn and Silverstein. The press would rather suck up to power than hold it to account; thieving lobbyists run Congress; Clinton's corruption knows no bounds; even environmentalists are on the take. A wicked and hurtful book that spares nobody.
Take the Rich Off Welfare, by Mark Zepezauer and Arthur Naiman (Odonian Press). Catalogued in this entertaining paperback are the hundreds upon hundreds of billions of dollars of "wealthfare" that the feds ladled out to corporations and the well off. Required reading for Congress if it ever gets serious about welfare reform.
The President We Deserve: Bill Clinton: His Rise, Falls and Comebacks, by Martin Walker (Crown). Guardian Washington bureau chief Walker examines the 42nd president from an emotional remove (the book was published as "The President They Deserve" in Walker's native U.K.) and finds him a kind of boomer Rockefeller Republican.
(Ed. note, the first chapter of "The President We Deserve" is online.)
Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996, by Ronald Radosh (Free Press). 'Twas crazed liberals that dun them in, according to historian Radosh, and it is cagey centrist Bill Clinton who is bringing them back.
The Good Life and Its Discontents: The American Dream in the Age of Entitlement, 1945-1995, by Robert J. Samuelson (Times Books). Entitlements have blinded Americans to their good fortune and convinced them that government intervention is the solution to every social and financial problem.
Jack Shafer is an editor for the on-line magazine Slate.
By David Lehman
Alien Candor: Selected Poems, 1970-1995, by Andrei Codrescu (Black Sparrow Press). Most people know Codrescu as the voice with the Romanian accent delivering witty personal essays on "All Things Considered." Codrescu, 56, is also the editor of the uncompromisingly hip literary magazine "Exquisite Corpse," and his own poetry is evidence that the strategies of the "New York School" are in vital use in poems being written in San Francisco, Baltimore and Baton Rouge -- all places where Codrescu has hung his hat since leaving New York in 1972. Codrescu has a wild and fertile imagination ready to take on the world of contested ideas, and such recent poems as "Mnemogasoline" and "Not a Pot to Piss In" are notable for their mix of autobiography, philosophical rumination and surrealistic slapstick. From "Mnemogasoline," these high-octane lines: "my hometowns, all of them, are sadly now / overrun, by artists who are the church keys letting / the tourists out of the sardine cans of the middle class. / Reality's birth defects are magnified by art / until tourists with opera glasses stand / in the pretend infant urine of false representation . . ."
Furious Cooking, by Maureen Seaton (Univ. of Iowa Press). The titles of Seaton's poems -- "Femme-Butch Dialogue," "During the Eclipse I Remember You Sent Me Playboy," "The Man Who Killed Himself to Avoid August" -- open the door to a fun house of the imagination. Like Codrescu, Seaton is partial to the "exquisite corpse" (a surrealistic device for ensuring a healthy degree of randomness in a poem) and the reckless American spirit of Jack Kerouac ("He was searching for his Dean Moriarty, he would say, / and once walked due west and slid quietly into the river"). Her best poems are sexy and religious, sometimes both at once, with a jubilant sense of humor.
Mecox Road, by Marc Cohen (Groundwater Press, P.0. Box 704, Hudson, N.Y. 12534). Cohen is a Brooklyn-born New York poet who can sing the blues (as in his touching elegy for Roy Orbison, "Blue Lonely Dreams") and is convinced, as he puts it in "Transmogrified View," that "phantasmagoria is fun." The sorrow in his poems is leavened by a rueful wit, the ex-lover wondering whether "you are in love / with that Virgo cop / who once complained / that your ice-cubes / had a sour odor." The late James Schuyler was a fan. You'll see why if you pick up "Mecox Road."
Powerless: Selected Poems, 1973-1990, by Tim Dlugos; ed. by David Trinidad (High Risk Books, 180 Varick St., 10th floor, New York, N.Y. 10014). When Louise Gluck and I collaborated on "The Best American Poetry 1993," we were powerfully impressed with the posthumous poems of Tim Dlugos appearing in magazines that year. In these late works Dlugos, who died of AIDS in 1990 (he was just 40), wrote with heartbreaking grace about his illness and impending death. A scene in his favorite film noir sparks a final summing up: "Lust, addiction, being / in the wrong place at the wrong / time? That's not the whole / story. Absolute fidelity / to the truth of what I felt, open / to the moment, and in every case / a kind of love: all of the above / brought me to this tottering / self-conscious state -- pneumonia, / emaciation, grisly cancer, / no future, heart of gold, / passionate engagement with a great B film, a glorious summer / afternoon in which to pick up / the ripest plum tomatoes of the year / and prosciutto for the feast I'll cook / tonight for the man I love . . . "
Simplicity, by Ruth Stone (Paris Press, P.O. Box 267, Northampton, Mass. 01061-0267). Stone, 81, is a wonderful poet who keeps getting stronger. She writes affectingly of a mysterious inner world ("Deep inside the sperm / a seething hatred for the egg") and conjugates memory with desire. When she hears a recording of Arthur Rubinstein at the piano, he springs back to life, "a sad trick of the neural pathways resonating flesh / and my old body remembers the way you touched me."
Were there world enough and time, I'd also rave about Linda Gregerson's The Woman Who Died in Her Sleep (Houghton Mifflin) and Donald Justice's New and Selected Poems (Knopf).
David Lehman's latest book of poems is "Valentine Place." A revised and enlarged edition of his anthology "Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms" has just been published.
By Randall Kennedy
Southern Slavery and the Law: 1619-1860, by Thomas D. Morris (Univ. of North Carolina Press). Morris offers a comprehensive, detailed and subtle examination of the law of slavery. At first glance, some readers may be intimidated by the scholarly density and bulk of this outstanding book. With a bit of patience, however, one will be amply rewarded. "Southern Slavery and the Law" is brimming with knowledge and insight about a horrific aspect of our legal culture that continues to affect us.
International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals, by Henry J. Steiner and Philip Alston (Oxford). This is a fascinating and learned introduction to the study of international human rights. The authors arm readers with knowledge about the basic concepts, covenants and institutions that govern the field. As the title to their massive book suggests, however, theirs is no narrowly legalistic description of documents and rulings. They put into social, political and anthropological context current understandings of international human rights and then subject those understandings to critical examination.
Contested Commodities, by Margaret Jane Radin (Harvard Univ. Press). Radin asks "what things can properly be bought and sold: babies? sexual services? kidneys and corneas? environmental pollution permits?" Her answer challenges the ascendancy of "free" market ideology and warrants attention. Her exploration of the limits of contracting and trade is an enriching mixture of careful scholarship and engaged passion.
Randall Kennedy is a law professor at Harvard University.
By Norman Ornstein
The Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Values of Community in the Chicago of the 1950s, by Alan Ehrenhalt (Basic Books). My favorite book of the year. For anyone who grew up in the '50s and is raising children in the '90s, this reflection on the decline of community in contemporary America will resonate. "The Lost City" focuses on three neighborhoods in Chicago in the 1950s -- one urban white, one black, one suburban -- and brings them to life. Many remember the era as the best of their lives. But the times were far from perfect, giving people far fewer choices, far less freedom and far less fairness or equality of opportunity than today. Ehrenhalt makes one think about the trade-offs between freedom and structure, and the tensions in a modern democracy that undergird our political and cultural debates.
The Inheritance: How Three Families and America Moved from Roosevelt to Reagan and Beyond, by Samuel G. Freedman (Simon & Schuster). Like Ehrenhalt, Freedman works in threes -- in this case, three generations of three working-class families, from March 1933 when FDR was sworn in as president to November 1994, when the Republicans took charge of Congress for the first time in four decades. Each family begins as ardent second-generation Roosevelt Democrats. But when their grandchildren meet in Albany, N.Y., in the mid-1970s, they are conservative Republican activists. By focusing on real people and real lives, Freedman sweeps through the century, tracing the political and social evolution of America without ever getting pedantic or boring.
(Ed. note: the first chapter of "The Inheritance" is available online.)
A Rage for Justice: The Passion and Politics of Phillip Burton, by John Jacobs (Univ. of California Press). Here is a biography of Phil Burton, one of the most significant and colorful members of Congress in our lifetimes. Burton was truly a larger-than-life figure, who left an imprint on everyone who encountered him. Jacobs captures Burton, the zaniness of San Francisco and California politics, and the magic of the House of Representatives in the 1970s. It is a fun read for anyone who loves American politics, and a lesson in the difference one person can make.
The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point, by David S. Broder and Haynes Johnson (Little, Brown). This is about the Clinton health care plan and its ultimate demise in the 103rd Congress, and it tells volumes about how policy is made and unmade, and how social and political forces work in the American system. Its insights go well beyond health policy in 1993 and 1994.
The Remedy: Class, Race and Alternative Action, by Richard D. Kahlenberg (Basic Books). After the passage last month of the California Civil Rights Initiative and the brouhaha over the Texaco case, affirmative action is back at center stage. This is a sensible and balanced discussion of the dilemma---with some reasonable policy prescriptions to boot.
Norman Ornstein, co-author of "Debt and Taxes," is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
Back to the top