We asked some of our favorite writers for a few words (if not
paragraphs) on the book or books they most admired or adored. In the spirit of the season, several went beyond the bounds
of brevity--and did so with our enthusiastic blessing. Many thanks
to all who took part in this annual, deeply unscientific census.
And the results? Let's just say that Penelope Fitzgerald and Dawn
Powell won the popularity contest by a landslide. But read on to
see which other authors earned the affections of our (occasionally
logrolling) participants. --Kerry Fried
The five books I chose as this year's favorites appear very
disparate: an unclassifiable nonfiction work that's perhaps a
species of memoir, an old history book, a new science book, and
two novels. But when I look at them as a group, they seem related
by their uniformly wonderful prose and by the fact that each has
an absolutely distinctive voice: the one quality that can't be
faked, and one I prize.
J.R. Ackerley, My
Dog Tulip: Defensive comments first: This is not a dog
book, and I don't love it just because Tulip, a very difficult
German shepherd, provides a kind of consolation for my own
ill-behaved mongrel. This strange, elegant, compact tale shines in
its absolute particularity of vision, its wit and savagely
observant eye, its consistency of tone, and its desperate
acknowledgment--unstated but apparent in every line--of the depth
and rightness of our most unreasonable passions. Ackerley
writes brilliantly no matter what his subject. But the portrait of
his beloved Tulip is one of his masterpieces: so clear, so
unsparing, her faults and neuroses and bad behaviors perfectly
apparent but in no way corrupting her mystery, her great beauty,
her obdurate, irreplaceable self. Of course Ackerley fell in love
Salle and the Discovery of the Great West: In its spiffy
new incarnation, this old book (first published in 1869) about an
even older set of events (the mid-17th-century wanderings of the
French explorer La Salle across Canada and through the Ohio and
Mississippi valleys) comes with a tantalizing introduction by Rick
Bass. I started it partly because of that introduction, partly
because I had always meant to read some Parkman, and never had.
Now I wish I'd read him sooner--he's a great stylist, turning out
one delectable paragraph after another, and he also has a
brilliantly visual sense of geography's role in history. His
version of La Salle's life does full justice to both the
complexity of his central character and the devious, complicated
political struggles between the expanding French and English
empires and the Native American nations. But Parkman also makes
palpable North America as it looked and felt more than 300 years
ago: rivers and rivers and rivers and rivers--and some tiny men in
bark canoes floating down them, poling up them, moving across the
land between them like mules laden with luggage.
Love, Memory: A Great Biologist and His Quest for the Origins of
Behavior: Why should a story about fruit-fly genetics be
so interesting? At the core of Weiner's excellent fourth book (he
won a Pulitzer Prize for his last, The
Beak of the Finch) is an engaging, brilliant scientist
named Seymour Benzer and his studies of the genetic components of
fly behavior. But as Weiner follows the work of Benzer and many of
his disciples, he illuminates centuries of thinking about animal
and human behavior. What are we born with and what do we learn?
What is hard-wired into us and what can be changed? This is a
beautifully written, extremely clear, gently humorous, and
wonderfully literary inquiry into those questions--the best book
about science I've read in years.
Paula Fox, Desperate
Characters: Newly reissued after being out of print for
more than a decade, this acerbic short novel perfectly captures an
airless marriage, New York in the late '60s, the disasters of
middle age, the perils of self-delusion, the meaning of fate, and
the horrors of over-reading. Peculiar, haunting, bitter and yet
also bracing, its sentences are models of how to write sentences,
each scene and bit of dialogue exemplary--even as part of the
novel's intent is to question the point of elegant shape and form,
of novels, of art. It's easier to single out a characteristic
moment than to analyze why it's so good; like all Fox's novels, Desperate
Characters resists dissection. Here's one of the two central
characters, Sophie, recollecting a lover from whom she parted
Later, during a time when there was no room in her thoughts for
anything but remorseless obsessive recollection, a perverse
desire to debase the tenderness she had felt for him led her to
insist to herself that it had all been a kind of fatigued
Writers love this book with good reason.
Patrick Kavanagh, Gaff
Topsails: I've heard it compared to both Annie Proulx's The
Shipping News and Wayne Johnson's The
Colony of Unrequited Dreams, but that's more a reflection
of a shared place--Newfoundland--than of a common sensibility or
style. Really what it's most like is Joyce's Ulysses,
inverted and transported from Dublin to a single June day in 1948,
in a small Irish Catholic parish on the Newfoundland coast. The
language is gorgeous, the structure deeply inventive; the
characters are complex and memorable; the landscape--ruled by an
iceberg, a cemetery, a chair-crowned house and schools of capelin,
wind and waves and mountains and snow--is astonishingly alive.
This one will last; I know I'll go back to it.
Andrea Barrett's books include Ship
Fever, which won the 1996 National Book Award, and the
Voyage of the Narwhal.
Mary Allen's The
Rooms of Heaven: A Story of Love, Death, Grief, and the Afterlife
is an utterly compelling and gripping page-turner that will make
you believe not only in the enduring power of love but in the
power of literature. Last night I took it down from my shelf to
remind myself of the details--the elegant prose, the pastoral Iowa
countryside, the shimmering descriptions of a brilliant, doomed
man. Forty pages later I looked up and realized I had been caught
again, like a willing carp.
Hold on to your couch: Andrea Barrett's The
Voyage of the Narwhal is a great big adventure book.
Mixing fact and fiction, it tells the story of an expedition to
find the open polar sea. I was so swept away I ate an entire box
of popsicles while reading it. By the end my lips were a pale
blue, and I looked like one of the very Arctic explorers I was
My dog Shep accepted Nancy Reisman's House
Fires from the UPS man, took it out of the envelope, and
devoured it during one of his long literary afternoons under the
front porch. All he left was a pile of cottony confetti, so I was
forced to get another copy. It was worth it--these are brilliant
short stories, rich in both language and vision.
Red Devil: To Hell with Cancer--and Back is the account of
one woman's hand-to-hand combat with breast cancer and its
attendant horrors (doctors, coworkers, chemotherapy). Katherine
Russell Rich is radiant in these pages, intelligent, fearless, and
evocative. I'm first in line for whatever this woman writes next.
Jo Ann Beard is the author of The
Boys of My Youth.
The best, most succinct single-volume treatise on the state of the
nation at the end of the 20th century is The
Starr Report. Want to know about power, dignity, privacy,
ruthlessness, sexism, politics, loyalty, truthfulness, fairness,
language, good taste, bad taste, DNA, vindictiveness, priorities?
It's all right here, sadly. Especially in the tell-all footnotes.
One of the most underappreciated books of 1999 is Turn
of the Century by Kurt Andersen. It's a brisk read, full
of brilliant insights into the special horror that characterizes
the fin de millennium fast-lane media world. Hostile critics
tended to confuse the messenger with the message.
There isn't a person I know who wouldn't enjoy Arthur Golden's
of a Geisha. It's an engrossing story, fascinating in its
intricate detail. Golden's narrative is a tour de force of
character and mood.
Much of my reading this past year has been rereading. I have,
for instance, reread The
Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor. O'Connor is a
master of American fiction, and these stories are not mere
classics; they are literary milestones. I dipped into Tennessee
Stories--much overshadowed by his plays but very much
worth reading. They are full of erotic energy; he tells a story on
the page as compellingly as on the stage.
John Berendt is the author of Midnight
in the Garden of Good and Evil.
I assign You've
Got to Read This, edited by Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard, to
almost every class I teach because I love it so. It's an
extraordinary collection of great stories, regardless of what your
gender, century, country may be (I'm tired of all the specialty
collections--Jewish Vegetarian Orphans and Leather-Loving Cancer
Survivors)--each introduced by (mostly) great contemporary fiction
writers: Mary Gordon on James Joyce, Robert Coover on Angela
Carter, Tobias Wolff on Raymond Carver. I keep hoping that someone
will someday reissue a beautiful hardcover edition, something
handsome and Godine-like and capable of lasting centuries.
Kate Summerscale's The
Queen of Whale Cay is a charming, compassionate (and
clear-eyed) account of the Standard Oil heiress who broke world
records in speedboat racing, slept with Marlene Dietrich,
cross-dressed in Savile Row suits, and became absolute monarch of
a small island in the Bahamas. Not a bad life. She did,
unfortunately, have a life companion in the form of a small
leather doll, named Lord Watley, also dressed in bespoke suits and
shoes--and that's how pots of money and a good tailor can make a
crazy American into an eccentric Englishwoman.
Girls is a small, harrowing, funny, ruthless novel about
growing old in America. Four elderly sisters in Miami--sweet,
sour, smart, and sexy by turns--tell us the story. Scares you to
death, makes you cry, reminds you of what's ahead and right around
the corner. Helen Sheehy's Eva
Le Gallienne is a great backstage read... which led me to
the extremely winsome and witty At
Freddie's by Penelope Fitzgerald, whose well-known big
book daunts me and whose littler books (including this and the
rather dark, ironic The
Bookshop) please me enormously.
Oh, and I almost forgot to add (and I'm ashamed that I must,
but I must): Harry Potter, One,
What can I say? Cracking good reads for boys and girls and people
Amy Bloom's books include the short-story collection Come
to Me and the novel Love
Michael Hartnett's dark, witty, and heartbreaking voice has been
with me since I was a very young poet. His untimely death in
October takes away one of the brightest spirits in Ireland's
literature, but much of his work, including Selected
& New Poems, is available in the United States, and
his vivid, memorable witness continues.
John L'Heureux's wonderful Having
Everything, Jason Brown's eloquent stories in Driving
the Heart, and Keith Scribner's fine novel, The
Goodlife, emerged this year in the vicinity of the
Stanford writing program--and so I had the reward of seeing them
To my intense pleasure, a writer I have felt strongly about for
many years has just published a new book. Jane Cooper's The
Flashboat: Poems Collected and Reclaimed makes the work of
this splendid poet more available. Ever since I came upon her
I've been eager to read more.
And finally, Michael Schmidt's wonderful Lives
of the Poets is a gold mine for anyone who loves poetry.
Eavan Boland's books include In
a Time of Violence and The
When you're busy not writing a book, as I was for much of the
summer, all you can really find time to read is a book about not
writing a book. Out
of Sheer Rage is a masterpiece of that select genre: a
hilarious, manic, meandering story of Geoff Dyer's fitful efforts
to write a serious study of D.H. Lawrence.
Two other favorite British authors had older fictions newly
published in the U.S. this year: the brilliantly odd Scottish
writer A.L. Kennedy and the heroic Penelope Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald's novel Human
Voices, a sly account of the BBC in wartime, has all the
grace, economy, and wit of the rest of her fiction. And at last
American readers can enjoy Kennedy. I particularly enjoy her short
stories, but her novel Original
Bliss has many of the same dark, comic virtues. An
adulterous love story between a porn-obsessed personal-growth guru
and a once-devout battered wife? Well, yes, actually. But it's
moving, memorable, and constantly surprising.
Then there's that millennium thing happening, and along with
making champagne plans it seems important to spend some time
thinking about humans and our collective habits of bloodiness.
Steering me through such reflection has been Philip Gourevitch's
stunning account of Rwanda, We
Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our
Families. Complex, harrowing, and deeply humane,
Gourevitch's study is a subtly layered examination of how
communities become divided and murderous.
Finally, though they are friends of mine, I'd like to mention
that one literary household has had an especially good year, with
the publication of James Wood's far-ranging, provocative
Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, followed
by Claire Messud's wonderfully vivid and impressive second novel, The
Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of The
Metaphysical Touch and Ten
Women Who Shook the World.