(Jonathan Yardley is book critic of The Washington Post.)
THE LIFE of a professional book reviewer sometimes seems a long, wearying slog through oceans of mediocrity, but a look back at 1985 reveals a surprisingly generous selection of memorable titles. Three are novels from earlier years that somehow I had missed -- Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, Look at Me, by Anita Brookner, and Changing Places, by David Lodge -- and four are new works of fiction: The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende, A Short History of a Small Place, by T.R. Pearson, The Old Forest and Other Stories, by Peter Taylor, and The Accidental Tourist, by Anne Tyler. Had I to choose but one of these it would be this last, Tyler's most accomplished and complex novel.
But though my special interest is fiction, my choice as the year's book "most worth remembering" is a work of nonfiction: Common Ground, by J. Anthony Lukas. This account of a decade's struggle in Boston over desegregation of the public schools has been so widely discussed and widely honored that there is nothing left for me to add. Suffice it to say that I have been pressing it on all my friends and that it is as vivid in my mind now as it was when I read it more than half a year ago. It is nothing less than a book about America, in all its richness and poverty, grandeur and shame, diversity and homogeneity. It began as journalism but ended as art: a monument.
(Art Buchwald is a syndicated columnist and the author of "You Can Fool All of the People All of the Time.")
I GUESS my favorite book this year was The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy.
I love novels that stay underwater. Red October taught me more about submarines than I will ever need to know. As we say in the book business, "It's a darn good read," and it kept me from looking nervously out of the window of an airplane for five hours.
(Gary Hart, Democratic senator from Colorado, co-authored with Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.) a novel, "The Double Man.")
THE MARCH OF FOLLY, by Barbara Tuchman. But this book must be read together with her earlier work, The Guns of August to appreciate how fragile the veneer of international civilization really is.
Tuchman defines folly as the pursuit of policies known to be destructive or self-defeating even after a more plausible alternative is available. Policies of folly have been pursued through the ages, but with increasingly dire consequences.
The folly represented by the Trojan Horse -- the first historic illustration used by Tuchman -- did not sit well for the people of Troy. But the folly represented by rigid, doctrinaire plans and policies of European nation-states in August, 1914, cost millions of lives and literally rearranged history.
The one great folly left is nuclear war. Today, we and the Soviets are pursuing courses we know to be against our interests, and we know there are more plausible alternatives. Yet we stumble blindly forward, risking less the war produced by design and calculation and more the war produced by human error and miscalculation. Our Trojan Horse and Sarajevo is nuclear war brought by confusion, mistake and chance. And that is pure folly.
(Jessica Catto is publisher of Washington Journalism Review.)
IF YOU ARE in the depths of despair over deficits and summits, the new Robertson Davies novel What's Bred in the Bone, is splendid relief. A sort of back-to-medieval-basic primer, this is a tale of circular sexual secrets, familial deceptions, bizarre events that predetermine lives, and religious conflicts between Canadian Catholic and English Protestant attitudes.
Francis Cornish is the centerpiece and desolate child around whom these secrets and conflicts swirl; his progress is described by two slightly gossipy, mythical guardians: the Lesser Zadkeil, recording angel of biography, and the Daimon Maimas, "a tutelary spirit" -- an artistic impetus, but tougher-minded than a mere muse.
In a related novel, The Rebel Angels, a personification of the devil says that the sources of all horrors, wars, art and beauty lie in "that impatient, all-demanding child who wants love and power and can't get enough of either." Francis sublimates his own lack of love into the twin pursuits of art and spying.
A page without symbolism to Davies is like a meal without wine to a Frenchman. Francis learns his drawing skills from a book of caricature and in the chill of a small town mortuary. In Germany, under the tyranny of an Italian master, he learns to forge magnificent Christian allegories in the heart of Hitler's greedy Reich. He earns his manhood in the art world by revealing a picture as a fake because of the absence of a certain monkey's tail: A Darwinian miscalculation of the forger. Finally, he divines art as alchemy: turning what is base, mean, brutish, and mysterious in one's own family and experience into lyric grace and splendor on canvas.
For Davies, "Science is the theology of our time" and "its priesthood the most overwhelming, pompous mankind has ever endured . . . its lack of symbol and metaphor and its zeal for abstraction drive mankind to a barren land of starved imagination." Davies quotes Robert Browning to frame his medieval vision: "art remains the one way possible of speaking truth."
This book is an engaging distraction from anything modern.
(Gwendolyn Brooks is consultant in poetry at The Library of Congress.)
MY CHOICE, Freedom Rising, by James North, is a sensitive, clear-eyed, deep- hearted response to the several levels of South African anger, hurt and wild-eyed bewilderment. It is a necessary capsule education. I feel rich for having involved myself with its courage and resourcefulness.
(Frank Conroy, the author of "Stop Time" and "Mid-Air," is director of the literature program of the National Endowment for the Arts.)
IT'S RARE FOR me to run across a book that makes me laugh out loud. (Who knows? Maybe it's me.) Many books amuse me, and I'll sit there reading and smiling, but outright laughter is another matter. To find two such books in the space of six months is extraordinary indeed. The first, My Search for Warren Harding, by Robert Plunker, had been lying around the house for quite a while before I picked it up. All innocence and vulnerability, expecting nothing, I was perhaps the perfect reader. The author pulled me in so deftly, moved me up an escalating scale of sly hyperbole so cunningly, that after a hundred pages I seemed to have turned over the keys, so to speak, of my nervous system. Everything became funny, and I had to take breaks every now and then -- put the book down -- to pull myself together.
In a different vein, funny in a different way, is T. Coraghessan Boyle's Budding Prospects, which details the misadventures of a particularly engaging young hero trying to make some money growing dope in northern California. It is not just the situations that are funny here, but also the use of language, the splendid roccoco vocabulary -- at once rich and hip in a new way -- that Boyle brings to bear. There is a delicious wryness to the story, and yet, also, plenty of belly- laughs. I don't know how he did it. DORIS GRUMBACH: (Doris Grumbach is the author of "The Ladies" and "Chamber Music.") SADLY, nothing I read in 1985 seems especially memorable. But of course, who knows for certain what one will inadvertently remember in 2000 of this year's production, or what our grandchildren will celebrate that we totally ignored? There was something for me, however. What I reread and enjoyed greatly were Evelyn Waugh's satiric novels some of which I first read in 1939 and 1940 when my husband-to-be pointed them out to me on the shelves of Cornell University Library. In 1977 Little, Brown did the American reading public an enormous favor by reissuing the seven satiric, funny, wryly sardonic early Waugh books: A Handful of Dust, (1934); Put Out More Flags (1942); Black Mischief (1932); Vile Bodies (19300; Decline and Fall (1928); Scoop (1938), and The Loved One (1948). These were all issued in handsomely designed, uniform volumes, bound in black cloth with gold stamping, the type generous-sized and most readable, perhaps because the original plates were used, and so, for me, a pleasure to read.
My favorite among them is still A Handful of Dust, the supreme satire on English gentry, marriage and infidelity, boredom and country-squire satisfactions. It ends with one of the most ironic scenes in English fiction: the hero, a bored English aristocrat, Tony Last, lost in the Brazilian jungle, is fated to be, for the rest of his life, a captive of Mr. Todd, an illiterate half-breed to whom he must read, over and and over again the novels of Charles Dickens. It is not for nothing that Edmund Wilson called Waugh "the only first-rate comic genius that has appeared in England since Bernard Shaw." I deem any reader lucky who comes upon these volumes for the first time.
ROGER G. KENNEDY:
(Roger G. Kennedy is director of the Smithsonian's Institution's National Museum of American History.)
FUNCTIONAL ILLITERACY marches on. Sedentary viewers degenerate into televegetables. Paper-bound literary junk food found at airports turns even travel into torpor. But there is still writing to be found which does, indeed, induce an altered state, altered from passive reading into active reading. Take, for instance, Ivan Doig's Winter Brothers (1980). Doig, the quirky bard of Puget Sound, will not permit you to be a mere consumer of prose. He beguiles you into joining a coversation between himself and James Gilchrest Swan, and then . . . Swan may have taken his last drink at the age of 82, in 1900, but he is so present for Doig, who holds discourse with his Diaries, that they attend your every daytime reading, and crowd into your bed at night. They don't merely come to you: they force you to go with them, for Doig invokes specific places better than anyone living except maybe Wendell Berry, almost as well as Turgenev. And he sets an active example: he wants us up and reading, up and thinking, up and writing. Do you know an unpublished memoirist who is spoiling for a conversation?
(James Lehrer is the co-anchor of public television's "MacNeil-Lehrer Report.")
MARGUERITE DURAS' The Lover is physically a mere pittance of a novel. But its 117 small, spare pages tell a giant story of a young French girl's affair with an older Chinese man in pre-war Vietnam. It is a story told with sentences like: "I'm fifteen and a half, there are n seasons in that part of the world, we have just the one season, hot, monotonus, we're in the long hot girdle of the earth, with no spring, no renewal." It stands out from the other books I read during the year partly because of the power of the story and sentences. Novels, unlike money and mountains, should not have to be in bulk in order to be noticed and notable. At a time when books seem too often measured and judged, bought and sold by their weight in pounds it was nice to have The Lover come along to remind me of that simple fact.
(Roger Mudd is NBC News' chief political correspondent and anchor of "American Almanac.")
I AM READING again Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings. It was on the bsst-seller list as a hardback when it came out in 1984 and it is again on the list as a paperback. I think it is because no other book has ever taken the reader so close to the core of writing. It is as if the reader were present at the creation. It is also a reassuring piece of news to know that Eudora Welty became creative by staying put. This book is reaffirmation of the value of family stability, local roots and social continuity. Eudora Welty once said, "I can imagine a lot better then I remember." I'm not sure I agree.
(Judith Martin, who as Miss Manners writes a syndicated column, is the author of "Miss Manner's Guide to Rearing Perfect Children.")
SOMEONE HAS TO speak up for the authors who don't go on talk shows to do it for themselves. This is the year I am promoting William Dean Howells.
Everybody knows his The Rise of Silas Lapham and A Modern Instance, and perhaps that is part of his difficulty. Both are marvelously written, but the former questions whether conspicuous consumption and social climbing are worth the bother, and the latter condemns personality journalism and divorce.
Therefore, this once-acknowledged 19th-century American literary giant is now dismissed as a hopelessly oldfashioned prude who just doesn't understand our modern idea of fun.
But along with those two novels in the Library of America's Howells volume are two others: A Foregone Conclusion, which is about a Venetian priest anxious to give up celibacy, and Indian Summer, the story of a middle-aged man's fling with a very young blond beauty whose attempts at intellectual conversation bore him senseless. The wit and subtly pervasive sensuality of these novels ought to reestablish Howells as one of the great, timeless observers of human nature.
My motive for starting a Howells revival is selfish. Right now, I am having an extremely difficult time finding his other novels, aside from the few that are available iln the Indiana University Press editions, which are wonderful, but oversized and cost $20 to $22 apiece. Please join me in a popular demand to bring Howells back in cheap, portable editions.
WILLIAM J. BENNETT: (William J. Bennett is the secretary of education.) THE BEST BOOK I read in 1985 is Felix Holt by George Eliot. Set in the late 1860s, during the time of the English Reform Bill, Felix Holt is regarded as Eliot's "political" novel. But politics is simply a stage; it is really the classic Eliot themes of give and take among men and women that predominate here. (As Chekhov said, He and She is the machine that makes fiction work.) Duty, honor fidelity, passion, personality are always the true Eliot focal points. Her universe is recognizable, her people mixed sorts. Just as you are about to give up on someone as too vain, uncaring and self-indulgent, some other feature comes to light which qualifies, improves, leavens. Yet still there is in Felix Holt something of a distinction between the saved and the unsaved; between those who can look beyond themselves and those who cannot; those who in the end are barren of real love and those who are redeemed, often by aid of something outside themselves -- children, friendship or worthy cause. Eliot casts cool, clear light on the souls of men and women. She teaches us about life and simple humanity.
JAMES H. BILLINGTON:
(James H. Billington, author of "Fire in the Minds of Men," is director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.) DMITRY LIKHACHEV'S Notes on the Russian (Zametki o russkom, Moscow, 1984) is one of those rare examples of a short book (65 pages) by a great scholar on an important subject. Likhachev, the greatest living authority on old Russian culture, argues that there is such a thing as Russian character, which arose out of medieval Christian ideals, interaction with neighboring people on the steppe (as often collaborative as hostile), and a special relationship to nature. Likhachev specially stresses the power of the countryside over the city in the Russian imagination -- and the role of parks and gardens in surrounding modern man with a "symphony" of nature appealing to all senses and renewing his humanity.
Likhachev favors preserving parks and ruins in the original state to feed the imagination rather than "theatricalizing antiquity" with reconstruction that covers up past reality with a facade of present pretensions and illusions. He is implicitly criticizing not only the Intourist approach to historical monuments, but modern attitudes generally that do not respect the "ecology of culture."
There is more than a trace of Slavophil romanticism in Likhachev's glorification of rural values and the Russian past. But there is also a call to honor and integrity here that borders on the deeply religious and finds its echo in the most popular fiction writers in the Soviet Union today, the so- called village writers (derevenshchiki).
Speaking in some ways as the last great embodiment of classical Petersburg, Likhachev praises qualities not usually associated with medieval Russia: its humor, reverence for reassociated with medieval Russia: its humor, reverence for received learning, and sheer variety. He compares St. Basil's Cathedral before the Kremlin to the Holy Fool (for whom the church is named) both jesting and prophesying before Ivan the Terrible (who built the church). Likhachev has also written a marvelous recent book on the former Solovetsk Monastery (in which he was confined when it became the first of the gulags). He rejects the chauvinism often promoted by Soviet officials, contrasting the "national ideal" of old Russia, created largely by monastic pioneers, with modern "nationalism", which creates "lack of faith in oneself and weakness even as it is, in turn, created by them."