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Author! Author!
Andrea Barrett
Jo Ann Beard
John Berendt
Amy Bloom
Eavan Boland
Sylvia Brownrigg

 

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


Andrea Barrett
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 with her.

La 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.

Jonathan Weiner, Time, 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 painfully:

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 middle-aged prurience.
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 novel The Voyage of the Narwhal.

 

 

Jo Ann Beard
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 reading about.

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.

The 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.

 

 

John Berendt
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 miraculous Memoirs 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 Williams's Collected 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.

 

 

Amy Bloom
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.

Helen Yglesias's The 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, Two, and Three. What can I say? Cracking good reads for boys and girls and people like me.

Amy Bloom's books include the short-story collection Come to Me and the novel Love Invents Us.

 

 

Eavan Boland
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 early.

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 luminous Scaffolding 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 Lost Land.

 

 

Sylvia Brownrigg
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 collection, The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, followed by Claire Messud's wonderfully vivid and impressive second novel, The Last Life.

Sylvia Brownrigg is the author of The Metaphysical Touch and Ten Women Who Shook the World.

 


 



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