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The adult books editors have selected the following titles as representative of the year’s outstanding books for public library collections. Unlike other “best book” lists or awards, our scope has been intentionally broad, seeking to include books of outstanding literary, aesthetic, and intellectual appeal as well as notable titles reflecting popular interests and recreational functions. The annotated list is organized topically, following the subject arrangement used in the Adult Books section.
Crossan, John Dominic. Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus. HarperCollins, $23 (0-06-061479-X).
A lucid, accessible guide to the controversy over the passion narratives of the Bible, but more important, one of the best accounts of how prejudice is transformed into racism.
God in All Worlds: An Anthology of Contemporary Spiritual Writing. Ed. by Lucinda Vardey. Pantheon, $35 (0-679-44214-6).
Vardey’s remarkably rich, diverse, and creatively organized anthology traces the evolution of modern spirituality over the past 50 years, a period notable for sweeping changes in even the most traditional faiths.
Joselit, Jenna Weissman. The Wonders of America: Reinventing Jewish Culture. Hill & Wang, $25 (0-8090-2757-7).
In a rich and often amusing social history, Joselit draws on a treasure trove of press clippings, advertisements, and personal ephemera to show how assimilation changed European immigrant Jews.
Raboteau, Albert J. A Fire in the Bones. Beacon, $23 (0-8070- 0932-6).
Why did African slaves in America accept Christianity? Were they taking on the beliefs and values of their oppressor? Raboteau uncovers and analyzes the mysterious ways blacks have practiced Christianity, past and present.
Schmidt, Thomas E. Straight & Narrow? Compassion & Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate. InterVarsity, paper, $10.99 (0-8308-1858-8).
Schmidt states the Evangelical Christian critique of homosexuality so cogently that his book is both the argument serious gay advocates must answer and the model for how Evangelical Christians should approach homosexuality.
Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Faber and Faber, $22.95 (0-571-19849-X).
Birkerts fears not only the fate of books and reading in a digital world but also the “prospect of the erasure of individual selfhood.” In losing the “stable hierachies of the printed page,” he argues forcefully and eloquently, we risk losing the humanistic values that form the core of Western culture.
Crouch, Stanley. The All-American Skin Game. Pantheon, $24 (0-679-44202-2).
A collection of pieces from the provocative Stanley Crouch—all informed by his keen analytical mind, leading readers to startling discoveries and transcending the traditionalist or conservative labels that have been applied to him.
Garber, Marjorie. Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life. Simon & Schuster, $30 (0-684-80308-9).
The real sexual polarity, Garber maintains, is between responding to individuals (bisexuality) and responding to a single gender (monosexuality). To prove the point, she ranges through history and literature, showering marvelous gossip all the way.
Golden, Marita. Saving Our Sons. Doubleday, $18.50 (0-385-47302-8).
Golden probes the “season of blood and ashes” that the African American community now faces: a cascade of violence that calls into question the real victories of the civil rights movement.
Hockenberry, John. Moving Violations: War Zones, Wheelchairs, and Declarations of Independence. Hyperion; dist. by Little, Brown, $24.95 (0-7868-6078-2).
Intrepid correspondent Hockenberry covered the war in the Middle East in a wheelchair, but that’s only one of many triumphs in a life steeped in adversity. Hockenberry describes his struggles to live a full life in spite of his paraplegia in this frank and searing memoir, teaching us as much about our own limited perceptions as about his unlimited determination.
Kane, Joe. Savages. Knopf, $25 (0-679-41191-7).
Award-winning environmental reporter Kane tells the amazing story of a group of Amazonian Indians, the Huaorani, who confronted oil conglomerates and the Ecuadorian and U.S. governments in a courageous effort to preserve their way of life and the rain forest they call home.
Kozol, Jonathan. Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. Crown, $24 (0-517-79999-5).
Once optimistic that the right thing would be done for the nation’s children, even poor children and children of color, now Kozol seems near despair. In this book, he documents a year spent in the South Bronx, in Mott Haven and its neighboring communities, visiting churches, schools, and hospitals and bearing witness to the misery and death he encountered there.
Link, O. Winston. The Last Steam Railroad in America. Abrams, $49.50 (0-8109-3575-9).
The overused adjective awesome is utterly appropriate for Link’s 1950s–1960s photographs, mostly taken at night by means of astonishing technical virtuosity, of a small Appalachian railway and the towns and the people it served.
Mailer, Norman. Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery. Random, $30 (0-679-44296-0).
Mailer pulls readers back into the JFK assassination mess, but even those most opposed to yet another airing of that topic will quickly surrender to the pull of this compelling account, which allows us to understand Oswald more now than we ever did before.
Postman, Neil. The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Schools. Knopf, $22 (0-679-43006-7).
What purposes—what “gods”—does schooling serve, and what gods should it serve? Postman finds the current ones failing and proposes five new ones in an essay on education as inspiring as Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy.
Sullivan, Andrew. Virtually Normal: An Argument about Homosexuality. Knopf, $22 (0-679-42382-6).
Sullivan brilliantly dissects the positions of the four factions he sees battling over homosexuality in America, then advances military service and marriage as the political goals gays most need to pursue in order to achieve equal citizenship.
Vergara, Camilo Jose. The New American Ghetto. Rutgers, $49.95 (0-8135-2209-9).
Vergara has photographed U.S. ghettos since 1977 and draws on this image bank to document ghetto geography and ecology, over time, of specific cities’ housing, commerce and industry, and other revealing areas, resulting in a vivid and troubling portrayal.
Cusumano, Michael and Selby, Richard. Microsoft Secrets: How the World’s Most Powerful Software Company Creates Technology, Shapes Markets, and Manages People. Free Press, $28 (0-02-874048-3).
Now that Bill Gates has been declared the richest man in the world and his company produces the software that drives most of the world’s personal computers, fascination with the man and with Microsoft is at an all-time high; this is a thorough, instructive, objective, and analytical profile.
Galdikas, Birute M. F. Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo. Little, Brown, $24.95 (0-316-30181-7).
Not only is Galdikas—one of the “trimates,” along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall—a brilliant and persevering scientist who devoted many years to studying orangutans, she is also a wonderfully engaging and generous writer able to convey all the frustration and excitement of working in the wild.
Lyon, Jeff and Gormer, Peter. Altered Fates. Norton, $27.50 (0-393-03596-4)
Whether it’s a new dawn or a new Pandora’s box, gene surgery is an established fact, and the lay public following recent developments will find all the latest information in this skillfully written, pathbreaking portrayal.
Morell, Virginia. Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings. Simon & Schuster, $30 (0-684-80192-2).
Morell brings each exceptional member of the Leakey family to life as she explains the significance of and controversies associated with their paradigm-altering discoveries about the origins of humankind.
Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun. Simon & Schuster, $30 (0-684-80400-X).
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb turns from fission to fusion in this compelling account of how the hydrogen bomb was developed. Rhodes delivers a megaton of science, espionage, and postwar politics.
Health and Medicine
Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. Knopf, $24 (0-679-43785-1).
That singularly successful modern genre, the true medical detective story, reaches its apex in neurologist’s Sacks’ spellbinding “tales” about the likes of a color-blind painter and a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome.
Child, Julia. In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs. Knopf, $35 (0-679-43896-3).
Child has outdone herself here. Twenty-six chefs from America’s top restaurants came to her Massachusetts home in the summer of 1994 to prepare their specialty dishes and contribute to this extraordinary cookbook.
Chandler, Charlotte. I, Fellini. Random, $25 (0-679-44032-1).
Rendered in Fellini’s voice, this beautiful biography reads with all the intimacy of an autobiography. The gracious design and captivating illustrations, spread throughout the book rather than grouped in the middle, add to the wonderful effect.
Cruse, Howard. Stuck Rubber Baby. DC Comics/Paradox, $24.95 (1-56389-241-3).
By demonstrating that personal integrity is worth fighting and even dying for, Cruse’s graphic novel about a young white southerner coming out in the 1960s powerfully communicates how the black civil rights struggle influenced later gay activism.
Davis, Francis. The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People—from Charley Patton to Robert Cray. Hyperion; dist. by Little, Brown, $24.95 (0-7868-6052-9).
One of the best younger jazz critics enlivens this well-illustrated history of America’s great roots music with his own takes on blues culture, blues country, and blues performers.
Fineberg, Jonathan. Art since 1940: Strategies of Being. Abrams, $60 (0-8109-1951-6).
For Fineberg, the story of art over the past 55 years is the story of exceptional individuals profoundly engaged in interpreting existence. He profiles many such pioneering artists in this illuminating and richly illustrated volume.
Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. Knopf, $35 (0-394-54664-4).
When Levin discovered that Edward Hopper’s wife, Jo, was essential to the making of his paintings, she realized that her biography had to be a double portrait. The result is a compelling history of an unusual collaboration and an involving description of the source for some of the century’s most provocative and haunting paintings.
Pryor, Richard. Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences. Pantheon, $23 (0-679-43250-7).
Funnyman Richard Pryor proves the adage that the funniest people are also the saddest in his brutally revealing but ultimately defiant autobiography.
Whelan, Richard. Alfred Stieglitz. Little, Brown, $29.95 (0-316-93404-6).
Curiously enough, this is the first comprehensive biography of Stieglitz, master photographer and tireless arts crusader, and Whelan does a superb job of bringing the mercurial, creative, indefatigable, maddening, and lovable genius, and his awesome accomplishments, into gratifyingly sharp focus. Recreation & Sports
Feinstein, John. A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour. Little, Brown, $23.95 (0-316-27720-7).
Perhaps the best book ever written about professional golf, Feinstein’s year-in-the-life look at the PGA tour gets inside the heads of the competitors, transforming them from plaid-panted zephyrs to the kind of multidimensional characters you expect to find in good fiction.
Allende, Isabel. Paula. HarperCollins, $24 (0-06-017253-3).
Begun as a letter to her grown daughter, who, in 1991, sank into an irreversible coma, Allende’s book tells her own exciting life story, a vivid, dynamic account of her parents and grandparents and her childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
Lee, Li-Young. The Winged Seed. Simon & Schuster, $19 (0-671-70708-6).
Poet Lee’s harrowing family history, which begins in China and winds its way across oceans and much of the U.S., is a galvanizing story in its own right, but in his breathtaking prose, it attains the lyricism and universal significance of myth.
Leverich, Lyle. Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams. Crown, $35 (0-517-70225-8).
The early lives of the famous are often fascinating, but none more so than that of the great playwright Tennessee Williams, whose family’s desperate unhappiness seemingly guaranteed that he would find the fame The Glass Menagerie brought him a “catastrophe of success.”
Seymour, Miranda. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. Holt, $35 (0-8050-3055-7).
As acclaimed literary biographer Seymour carefully weaves the intricate fabric of Graves’ passionate life, she identifies key inspirations—especially his vision of the goddess and his devotion to such real-life muses as Laura Riding—and offers fresh readings of his work.
Goodison, Lorna. To Us, All Flowers Are Roses. Univ. of Illinois, paper, $11.95 (0-252-06459-3).
Goodison takes up the culture and people of her Caribbean homeland and sings a long song of struggle, survival, and love.
Graham, Jorie. The Dream of the Unified Field. Ecco, $23 (0-88001-438-5).
Combining great vision like Blake’s, a Dickinsonian philosophical introspection, and a richly modern sensuality, this selection demonstrates the full range of Graham’s poetic gifts.
Justice, Donald. New and Selected Poems. Knopf, $25 (0-679-44173-5).
Justice is renowned for the purity of his form, the exactness of his language, and his ability to help us see “all things for what they are.” These traits are beautifully displayed in this stirring volume, which not only collects earlier poems but also presents a wealth of ravishing new work.
Barber, Benjamin R. Jihad vs. McWorld: How the Planet Is Both Falling Apart and Coming Together—and What This Means for Democracy. Times, $25 (0-8129-2350-2).
“McWorld” connotes the proactive and “Jihad” the reactive, and both, according to Barber, create “a world in which our only choices are the secular universalism of the cosmopolitan market and the everyday particularism of the fractious tribe.” A compelling look at the dichotomies of contemporary life.
Childers, Thomas. Wings of Morning: Story of the Last American Bomber Shot Down over Germany in World War II. Addison-Wesley, $23 (0-201-48310-6).
This outstanding remembrance, possibly the most original title among this year’s World War II anniversary works, was reconstructed from the “last American bomber’s” letters home.
Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. Simon & Schuster, $35 (0-684-80846-3).
In this magisterial yet intimate new biography, an esteemed Lincoln scholar points out that when the idea of Abraham Lincoln for president was first discussed in 1860, the prairie lawyer had few of the usual qualifications for the job. How he became the leading Republican in Illinois, then president, and then successful commander-in-chief is a wondrous story, brilliantly interpreted here. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction.)
McNamara, Robert S. and VanDeMark, Brian. In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Times, $25 (0-8129-2523-8).
Not about to accept a major share of responsibility for the Vietnam War, former defense secretary McNamara attempts in this long-awaited book “to put Vietnam in context,” and in the process, he identifies major causes for our loss in Vietnam and the points at which the U.S. could have legitimately withdrawn.
Rieff, David. Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. Simon & Schuster, $22 (0-671-88118-3).
This scathing indictment of worldwide fecklessness when confronted by the destruction of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the death or displacement of so many Bosnian Muslims is perhaps the most powerful, passionate, and penetrating dissection of the tragedy by a Westerner.
Robinson, Charles M. A Good Year to Die: The Story of the Great Sioux War. Random, $27.50 (0-679-43025-3).
The Battle of the Little Big Horn was the centerpiece of the last great U.S.-Indian conflict, a war not of heroes and villains but, on both sides, of mere men whom Robinson brings to life in all their strengths and weaknesses.
Sereny, Gitta. Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. Knopf, $35 (0-394-52915-4).
This penetrating, powerful study examines the disparate motivations of a complex and puzzling man, motivations that shade his role in but do not mitigate his culpability for the Holocaust.
Theroux, Paul. The Pillars of Hercules: A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean. Putnam, $27.50 (0-399-14108-1).
On this grand tour, the reader travels with Theroux from the Rock of Gibraltar to Jebel Musa in Morocco, stopping in Alexandria to philosophize with Naguib Mahfouz and in Morocco to talk to Paul Bowles and reflecting along the way on historical events and great writings about the Mediterranean.
Weir, Alison. The Wars of the Roses. Ballantine, $24 (0-345-39117-9).
Weir presents popular history at its finest in an account of the bloody dynastic struggle that plagued England between 1455 and 1487.
Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. Atlantic Monthly; dist. by Publisher’s Group West, $21 (0-87113-594-9).
In this tragicomic saga of Coyote Springs, an all-Indian Catholic rock band from the Spokane Reservation in eastern Washington, Alexie mixes biting black humor, a healthy dose of magic, and sparkling lyricism.
Argiri, Laura. The God in Flight. Random, $23 (0-679-42831-3).
If a novel’s worth can be measured by the power and verity of the emotions it instills in the reader, then Argiri’s approaches the divine. It beautifully describes a love story between two men, a young professor and his student, who meet at Yale in the 1880s.
Bell, Madison Smartt. All Souls’ Rising. Pantheon, $25 (0-679-43989-7).
Bell’s intricately plotted historical novel about the slave revolt in Haiti is as electrifying in intensity as it is grand in scope. Bell examines the byzantine politics of race, the spiraling of violence, and the pitched battle between one’s conscience and one’s culture with great verve, imagination, and insight.
Camus, Albert. The First Man. Knopf, $23 (0-679-43937-4).
A genuine literary event, Albert Camus’ final work offers the only record of an extraordinary writer and thinker’s childhood. It is a beautiful testament to the human capacity to learn and rejoice in life.
D’Aguiar, Fred. The Longest Memory. Pantheon, $20 (0-679-43962-5).
The first novel by a Guyanese poet is sublimely spectacular but never showy. The aching inhumanity of American slavery is beautifully expressed.
Dixon, Stephen. Interstate. Holt, $25 (0-8050-2654-1).
Nathan Frey is driving home from New York City on the interstate with his two young daughters in the backseat when they are shot at by two suspicious travelers. Retold through eight chapters, the highway incident reveals new perspectives—what is true, what can be controlled, what can be willed. Hyperactive and richly complex, the novel is a skillful example of fiction’s potential.
Duncan, David James. River Teeth: Stories and Writings. Doubleday, $20 (0-385-47727-9).
Duncan’s compilation of fiction and nonfiction is fluid and diverse. The key piece, “The Garbage Man’s Daughter,” is a perfect re-creation of childhood perception.
Gibbons, Kaye. Sights Unseen. Putnam, $19.95 (0-399-13986-9).
A daughter remembers her manic-depressive mother and her dramatic struggles with her demons in this indelibly detailed, seamless, and resonant novel. Gibbons raises empathy and forgiveness to the level of art.
Graham, Barry. The Book of Man. Serpent’s Tail, $13.99 (1-85242-390-0).
This sad and deeply poignant novel is about strange friendship, youthful freedoms, perpetuated cycles of abuse, and the ripples of violence flowing through every level of society.
Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. Riverhead, $21.95 (1-57322-016-7).
Pop-music fanatic Rob, owner of a vintage record shop in London, whiles away his days by engaging in endless rounds of list making (best music to play at a funeral: “Many Rivers to Cross,” Jimmy Cliff), but it’s his literate, painfully honest riffs on romantic humiliation and heartbreak that make this first novel so special.
Jordan, Neil. Nightlines. Random, $21 (0-679-44438-6).
This meditation on betrayal in bloody Ireland carries at its center an exploration of the archetypal sexual rivalry between the father and the son.
Maxwell, William. All the Days and Nights: The Collected Stories of William Maxwell. Knopf, $25 (0-679-43829-7).
Maxwell, a writer of quiet yet formidable power, has been called one of American literature’s best kept secrets. Now readers will be able to revel in the full range of his art in this set of 23 stories that spans more than 50 creative and productive years.
Mosley, Walter. RL’s Dream. Norton, $22 (0-393-03802-5).
Mosley’s first novel outside the confines of the crime genre is a searingly eloquent requiem for a bluesman. The story of Soupspoon Wise, a 70-year-old blues guitarist who is rescued from the horror of a lonely death by an angry young white woman, is really a story about pain, the common experience that connects us all.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Knopf, $35 (0-394-58615-8).
This collection of 65 stories, containing 13 first-time English translations, will remind many of the sensation Lolita caused and will reinforce Nabokov’s reputation as one of this century’s most insightful, innovative, and darkly humorous writers.
Nordan, Lewis. Sharpshooter’s Blues. Algonquin, $17 (1-56512-083-3).
Nordan charms the reader’s pants off with his storytelling skills as he relates the shaggy-dog tragedy of Hydro Raney, about 20, with limited intellectual abilities, who lives with his daddy in Arrow Catcher in the Mississippi Delta and helps him run a fishing establishment.
Olds, Bruce. Raising Holy Hell. Holt, $22.50 (0-8050-3856-6).
Olds’ haunting, singular first novel takes the form of a quest to understand the fiery soul of abolitionist John Brown. Plunging dangerously into the American past, the novel forces the reader to confront Brown’s unique brand of passion. (xTop of the List winner—Adult Fiction.x)
Roth, Philip. Sabbath’s Theater. Houghton, $24.95 (0-395- 73982-9).
The 1995 winner of the National Book Award, Roth’s twenty-first novel displays all the typical Rothian concerns and stylistic quirks—only more exaggerated. Morris “Mickey” Sabbath, once a lewd puppeteer, now a lewd old man, must face the impersonation of life that has passed him by.
Smiley, Jane. Moo. Knopf, $24 (0-679-42023-1).
In this very funny, warmhearted send-up of academia, Smiley gently skewers any number of easily recognizable campus fixtures (the grant-seeking egomaniac, bewildered freshmen) while never failing to show their humanity—she gives everyone a voice.
Tyler, Anne. Ladder of Years. Knopf, $24 (0-679-44155-7).
Delia was the perfect mother and wife until her children grow up and she begins to feel invisible. So she takes off, reinvents herself and her life, and earns some respect. Tyler is in top form here, charming, shrewd, and hilarious, and her insights into the cycles of life resonate long after the last page is turned.
Wesley, Mary. An Imaginative Experience. Viking, $21.95 (0-670-85649-5).
When a young British woman stops a train to save a sheep who is stuck on the tracks, two men involve themselves in her life: one tries to seduce her, the other to protect her. Wesley interweaves these three characters’ lives into a subtle morality tale about life in cynically sophisticated contemporary London.
Ellroy, James. American Tabloid. Knopf, $25 (0-679-40391-4).
Yes, the JFK assassination is the nominal subject of Ellroy’s stunning noir thriller, but this is a Kennedy book like no other. Money, power, and sex, Ellroy shows us, lurk behind every headline, and to follow their trail is to expose a slippery umbilical cord of sleaze connecting high life to low.
Lansdale, Joe R. The Two-Bear Mambo. Mysterious; dist. by Warner, $19.95 (0-89296-491-X).
East Texans Hap Collins and Leonard Pine—one white, one black; one straight, one gay—may be the unlikeliest but most likable pair of sleuths in crime fiction today. In this third in the series, cult favorite Lansdale displays his remarkable ability to generate laughter and terror almost simultaneously.
Vine, Barbara. The Brimstone Wedding. Crown/Harmony, $24 (0-517-70339-4).
As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell continues to produce superb tales of psychological suspense. Here she tells the compelling story of two women whose tragic love affairs intertwine and mirror one another. A narrative tour de force that transcends categories.
Card, Orson Scott. Alvin Journeyman. Tor; dist. by St. Martin’s, $23.95 (0-312-85053-0).
Card revives his popular series hero Alvin Maker for alternate-world nineteenth-century adventures that include helping fugitive slaves and encountering alternate versions of such figures as Napoleon and William Henry Harrison.
Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age. Bantam/Spectra, $22.95 (0-553-09609-5).
When the interactive manual that teaches dominant tribe members how to maintain power in a nanotechnologized future world falls into the hands of a lower-caste girl, the destiny of society changes irrevocably in Stephenson’s dazzlingly inventive second novel.
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