From Henry Wiencek's The Hairstons to Paul Auster's Timbuktu, our critic's favorites of 1999.
Paging through the year's book reviews, I thought at first that this annual retrospective would have to be my choice of the worst, rather than the best, books of 1999.
In the spirit of the season names won't be named; suffice it to say that the year got off to a bad start. But by late January, with the appearance of Anita Brookner's Falling Slowly, it took a sharp turn for the better, and -- though there were a few bumps along the way -- it continued in that direction. The result is that the list of books I most admired in 1999 runs to nearly two dozen.
First among them, and by a very wide margin, is the only one that was not published in 1999. Peter Taylor's The Old Forest and Other Stories first appeared a dozen years ago. I re-read it this year for discussion with the members -- of whom there are literally thousands! -- of The Washington Post Book Club. It is, I have come to believe, one of the few genuine and indisputable masterworks of American literature, and it was a delight -- though scarcely a surprise -- to learn that so many Book World readers share that opinion. It is the only title on this list that I have read more than once, and this year's re-reading certainly will not be the last.
One book from 1999 that I may be tempted to revisit is The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, by Henry Wiencek. It began when Wiencek was researching a book about old houses and found himself unexpectedly drawn into the story of the owners of one, the Hairstons, a family that turned out to have a white side and a black side, each tracing back to the days of slavery in the upper South. The book has a rare and precious quality: It was written not to meet the demands of a contract or to further its author's career but because Wiencek had to write it. The result is one of the most thoughtful and revealing books about race in America and a portrait of what is, beyond doubt, one of the great American families.
Questions of race are also treated with sensitivity and authority in Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street: Decency, Violence and the Moral Life of the Inner City and in David Halberstam's Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World That He Made. The former is an intimate view of the life of the inner city, with its focus on Philadelphia; though Anderson tries hard to find cause for optimism, what he tells us is that the denizens of the inner city have been left so far outside the American mainstream as to be almost without hope of entering it. The latter (which I read but did not review) is exactly what its subtitle suggests, but Halberstam keeps an especially sharp eye on the complex -- and exceedingly interesting -- racial aspects of Jordan's story.
Other significant figures whose lives were well told in books published this year include J.P. Morgan (in Morgan: American Financier, by Jean Strouse), Ray Charles (in Ray Charles: Man and Music, by Michael Lydon), Janis Joplin (in Scars of Sweet Paradise, by Alice Echols), and Lady Bird Johnson (in Lady Bird: A Biography of Mrs. Johnson, by Jan Jarboe Russell). The first is a truly monumental life of the great banker whose influence on the United States is almost incalculable. The second and third are biographies of significant popular musicians, books that leave no doubt that such people are every bit as deserving of serious biographical treatment as are more traditional subjects such as Morgan. Similarly, Jan Jarboe Russell treats Lady Bird Johnson as a substantial figure in her own right rather than merely an appendage to her husband, the president.
Five memoirs deserve mention. The best is Larry McMurtry's Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, in which the well-known novelist and occasional essayist looks back on his life as a reader, a writer and a Texan, not necessarily in that order. Max Frankel's The Times of My Life: And My Life With the Times (also read but not reviewed by me) is another rarity, a journalistic memoir (by the former executive editor of the New York Times) that attempts to explore its author's inner life and to recount his career honestly rather than self-servingly. Eddie Fisher's Been There, Done That isn't going to win any literary prizes, but it is terrific fun from first page to last, and larded with first-class gossip. The War Journal of Major Damon "Rocky" Gause is a heart-stopping account by a soldier, long since dead and forgotten, of his incredible escape from the Japanese in World War II. Finally, In Plato's Cave, by Alvin Kernan, is a thoughtful and outspoken recollection of a life in academia by one of the country's most distinguished (and least trendy) literary scholars.
Dramatic military matters are also the subject of Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, which describes the bloody encounter between American and Somali forces in Mogadishu. Encounters of a different sort are dealt with, amusingly and provocatively, by Mark Caldwell in A Short History of Rudeness: Manners, Morals and Misbehavior in Modern America, the best book I've read in years about this endlessly fascinating topic. And the realm of nonfiction cannot be left without mention of Rupert Sheldrake's Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals, in which encounters between people and animals are seen in new, not to mention surprising, light.
As to fiction, Falling Slowly provides yet further evidence that Anita Brookner is one of the most interesting and accomplished writers of fiction now at work, a far deeper and less predictable novelist than a first glance may suggest. Paul Auster's Timbuktu, in which the relationship between man and dog is explored in ways quite different from Sheldrake's yet to strikingly similar ends, is original and moving. I was also much taken with Losing Nelson, by Barry Unsworth, in which a strange man's obsessive interest in the life and person of Lord Nelson, the great British admiral, becomes a way of exploring the nature of heroism, the bloodthirsty impulse and other matters. Similarly, Sam Kashner has much to say about hero-worship and its consequences in Sinatraland, a fine first novel that is also notably original.
Two other British writers, John le Carre and Joanna Trollope, published good books in 1999. The former has had trouble finding appropriate subject matter since the end of the Cold War, but in Single and Single he gets a lot of mileage out of crime and corruption in post-Communist Russia. Although Other People's Children is not Trollope's finest novel -- to date that distinction belongs to A Spanish Lover -- it is noteworthy for the acuity and lack of sentimentality with which Trollope writes about children as well as for her knowing (and also utterly unsentimental) depiction of the new extended family.
That's it for 1999. It seems wondrous strange that the next time this exercise is undertaken it will be for a year beginning with the digit 2, but onward we must go, into the new millennium. We can only pray that it will be half as good a time for books and literature as was the millennium now drawing to a close.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.