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Find more Booklist Editors' Choice
The adult books editors have selected the following titles as representative of the year’s outstanding books for public-library collections. Our scope has been intentionally broad, and we have attempted to find books that combine literary, intellectual, and aesthetic excellence with popular appeal.
Arts and Literature
Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City. Free Press, $25 (0-684-82803-0).
Moving fluidly from celluloid to real world, Christopher goes where most critics of the ever-popular film noir genre never go: beyond style and camera angles to real substance—namely, what these oddly dark films of the 1940s and 1950s were saying about the world and about ourselves. Film criticism shorn of pedantry and alive with the electricity of the films themselves.
Mauskopf, Norman. A Time Not Here: The Mississippi Delta. Twin Palms, 405 Paseo de Peralta, Santa Fe, NM 87501, $50 (0-944092-43-8).
The triangle of land in poverty-stricken northwest Mississippi known as the Delta is a fount of great folk music. Mauskopf’s photographs of Delta landscapes, buildings, and people are as eloquent, epical, and exquisite as the finest, deepest Delta blues.
Powell, Richard J. Black Art and Culture in the 20th Century. Thames and Hudson; dist. by Norton, $29.95 (0-500-18195-0); paper, $14.95 (0-500-20295-8).
Art historian Powell has filled this small but vigorous volume with excellent artists’ profiles, lots of reproductions, and illuminating and original discussions of the social and cultural contexts and implications of African American art.
Anderson, Jon Lee. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. Grove, $27.50 (0-8021-1600-0).
This exceptional and exciting addition to the literature of revolutionaries brings the reader face to face with larger-than-life Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentine whose “unshakable faith in his beliefs” harkens back to times when people believed that utopian societies were possible.
Bergreen, Laurence. Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life. Broadway, $30 (0-553-06768-0).
Bergreen shows, without doubt or dissembling, that Louis Armstrong was a musical genius who left indelible marks on jazz and a legend so potent that biographers, social critics, and other musicians are still grappling with it. A deeply moving portrait that fascinates from beginning to end.
Buck, Rinker. Flight of Passage. Hyperion; dist. by Little, Brown, $23.95 (0-7868-6100-2).
In 1966, Buck, then only 15, and his brother Kern, 17, flew a small plane without radio, lights, or heat across the U.S., in the process reconciling with one another and also with their difficult, domineering, yet deeply loving father. A coming-of-age classic.
Clapp, Susannah. With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer. Knopf, $23 (0-679-41033-3).
Esteemed British writer Bruce Chatwin, who died in 1989 at the age of 48, is recalled by his editor and friend in a revelatory amalgam of biography, personal testimony, and literary criticism.
Coetzee, J. M. Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life. Viking, $22.95 (0-670-87220-2).
The great South African novelist writes about himself for the first time in a candid memoir. The prose is spare and beautiful, and the third-person narrative is completely true to a 10-year-old’s self-absorbed point of view.
Ellis, Joseph. American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson. Knopf, $26 (0-679-44490-4).
The true nature of our third president was masked by a nearly unreadable countenance, yet Ellis provides a meaningful interpretation in this serious, rigorous, splendidly accessible biography.
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Wait till Next Year: Recollections of a ‘50s Girlhood. Simon & Schuster, $25 (0-684-82489-2).
For Doris Kearns of Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York, religion was a given, but baseball—in a region blessed with three outstanding teams—was a choice. And the Kearns family chose the Dodgers, with a passion that had six-year-old Doris keeping a detailed score book. What a great start for life as a historian: obsessively following da Bums from 1949 to 1958.
Graham, Katharine. Personal History. Knopf, $29.95 (0-679-58585-2).
Graham, heir to and eventually publisher of the Washington Post, turns in a well-researched and involving memoir that is full of asides concerning such fascinating people as Thomas Mann, Felix Frankfurter, Ben Bradlee, and Agnes Ernst (her mother).
Holland, Endesha Ida Mae. From the Mississippi Delta. Simon & Schuster, $23 (0-684-81011-5).
Even as a young girl in the 1950s, growing up in an all-black, dirt-poor, mostly illiterate Mississippi Delta community, Holland was not one to let circumstances or her own mistakes keep her down. And in her can’t-put-it-down memoir, she manages to pass on that strength and inspiration to others.
Kincaid, Jamaica. My Brother. Farrar, $21 (0-374-21681-9).
In her unflinching family memoir, Kincaid, who manages to be both blunt and lyrical, recounts the sorrow of her brother’s death from AIDS and muses on her complex and scarring relationship with her mother.
Klein, Michael. Track Conditions. Persea, $22 (0-89255-225-5).
Confused and dissolute, award-winning poet Klein leaves New York City in the late seventies to follow his lover to the Midwest and the world of horse racing. He combines the harrowing story of his descent into alcoholism with compelling descriptions of the racing subculture, from the heirarchies among the grooms to the physical care of horses. A heartbreaking story, beautifully told.
Jones, James H. Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life. Norton, $39.95 (0-393-04086-0).
Sex researcher Kinsey is the latest epoch-shaping twentieth-century figure to be limned by a thorough biography. Jones does him proud, although he reveals that Kinsey was sexually conflicted and manipulative as well as clear thinking and scientifically rigorous.
Kwitny, Jonathan. Man of the Century: The Life and Times of Pope John Paul II. Holt, $30 (0-8050-2688-6).
As the moral force behind the greatest peaceable transformation in history—the fall of European communism—the pope is the man of the century, longtime cold war reporter Kwitny argues in as definitive a biography as we are likely to get while its subject lives.
Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Holt, $35 (0-8050-3427-7).
Lear is Carson’s first biographer, and she is both empathic and informative as she portrays her subject as an extremely private and poetic nature lover, diligent government scientist, and woman of conscience who did nothing less than inspire the modern environmental movement.
Leider, Emily Wortis. Becoming Mae West. Farrar, $30 (0-374-10959-1).
Mae West is remembered best for her vampy one-liners, but she was more than a sexy comedienne, as Leider so vividly reveals in this well-researched, insightful, and immensely entertaining portrait of the actress as a radical woman artist who challenged the hypocrisy of sexual politics.
Nagel, Paul. John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, a Private Life. Knopf, $30 (0-679-40444-9).
Irresistibly readable, Nagel’s reconstruction of the sixth president’s life and times, heavily based on Adams’ copious diaries, traces the course of “unmatched public service” concomitant with “tormenting private struggles.” Adams receives scant consideration here as the nation’s chief executive; it is his accomplishments before and after his dismal presidency that are brought to the fore.
Parks, Gordon. Half Past Autumn. Little Brown/Bulfinch, $60 (0-8212-2298-8).
Parks’ account of his remarkable life is eloquent testimony to the struggle for civil rights in general and for acceptance as a black artist in particular. And his photographs are magnificent.
Perret, Geoffrey. Ulysses S. Grant. Random, $35 (0-679-44766-0).
Perret, with his stylish talent for the entertaining turn of phrase, re-evaluates the man who rose from leather-store clerk to Union general-in-chief in the course of the Civil War. There isn’t an uninteresting page in this fluid, seamlessly written work.
Rampersad, Arnold. Jackie Robinson. Knopf, $27.50 (0-679-44495-5).
Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line 50 summers ago, and fittingly, the definitive biography of the courageous Brooklyn Dodger star appeared during the anniversary year. Princeton English professor Rampersad tells the familiar story in greater detail and with more commentary by those who were present when history was being made. A quintessential American life.
Tanenhaus, Sam. Whittaker Chambers. Random, $35 (0-679-58559-3).
Chambers, the man at the center of this country’s most sensational spy scandal, has been both damned and deified. Tanenhaus has produced not only a balanced biography but also a magnificent one. His recounting of the Hiss affair may easily become the standard for general-interest readers.
Gould, Stephen Jay. Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist’s Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown. Crown/Harmony, $19.95 (0-609-60076-1).
Writer-biologist Gould has written no more entertaining book than this set of three essays on the question of how to calculate the millennium—a fascinating phenomenon despite the amount of cultural hot air it generates.
Klein, Maury. Days of Defiance: Sumter, Secession, and the Coming of the Civil War. Knopf, $30 (0-679-44747-4).
The five months between Lincoln’s first election to the presidency and the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor were an incredibly momentous period in U.S. history, and in a marvelously insightful and beautifully written account, Klein answers the question: How could the country actually sink into such a god-awful situation as the Civil War?
Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World. Walker, $21 (0-8027-1326-2).
Because of one delicious fish, Europeans discovered America, slavery in North America flourished, and the economies of nations and regions boomed and went bust. Kurlansky tells those and other true fish stories—and he includes recipes!
Lucas, J. Anthony. Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. Simon & Schuster, $30 (0-684-80858-7).
Turn-of-the-century Americans were, like us, suckers for dramatic court trials. Lukas, who committed suicide after completing this book, analyzes the archetypal battles played out in trials arising out of the 1905 assassination of former Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg. A valiant story of an often-ignored period in U.S. history.
Plaster, John L. SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam. Simon & Schuster, $25 (0-684-81105-7).
The study and operations group (SOG) in which Plaster served in Vietnam controlled would-be secret incursions into North Vietnam. It sustained horrendous casualties, won seven Medals of Honor and near-countless other decorations, and performed feats that seem too incredible for fiction.
Bidart, Frank. Desire. Farrar, $17 (0-374-13824-9).
Inspired by a lover’s death and classic Roman and medieval literature, Bidart’s fluid free-verse lyrics and narrative poems brilliantly, emotively explore the paradoxical relationship of boundless eros and all-too-limited mortality.
Clampitt, Amy. The Collected Poems. Knopf, $30 (0-375-40008-7).
The late Clampitt had an unerring sense of light, texture, and motion and wrote radiant, witty, intelligent, and moral poems. All five of her outstanding books are gathered together here and blessed by a graceful foreword by Mary Jo Salter.
Alvarez, Walter. T. Rex and the Crater of Doom. Princeton, $24.95 (0-691-01630-5).
Alvarez, one of the Berkeley scientists who found geologic evidence implicating a cosmic collision in the extinction of the dinosaurs, re-creates the big event, opening his book with the appearance of the approaching comet, which grows brighter and brighter until it slams into the Yucatan Peninsula, exploding with energy equal to 10,000 times the world’s nuclear arsenal. Good-bye, T. Rex.
Goldsmith, Donald. The Hunt for Life on Mars. Dutton, $24.95 (0-525-94336-6).
Earthlings have long dreamed of Martian life, a fantasy that scientists may soon prove true through analysis of a four-pound meteorite, the oldest rock known to humankind. Goldsmith’s chronicle of our often controversial quest for knowledge about life on Mars is both comprehensive and lively.
McNutt, John and Boggs, Lesley P. Running Wild: Dispelling the Myths of the African Wild Dog. Smithsonian, $45 (1-56098-717-0).
McNutt and Boggs have produced a compelling look at one of Africa’s most endangered species. Although the photographs alone would have made a beautiful coffee-table book, the authors’ text takes the work beyond beauty and into the realm of superb science for a general audience.
Rhodes, Richard. Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets of a Terrifying New Plague. Simon & Schuster, $23 (0-684-82360-8).
Rhodes has written a chilling, suspenseful, and not-to-be-missed chronicle of the urgent investigation into the sources of transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, that is, deadly brain diseases of the mad cow variety, thus alerting the public to the potential of a truly frightening new plague.
Waal, Frans de and Lanting, Frans. Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape. Univ. of California, $39.95 (0-520-20535-9).
Bonobos, formerly called “pygmy chimpanzees,” are the least known of the great apes. This wonderful book by a preeminent primatologist changes all that, covering studies undertaken both in captivity and in the species’ natural habitat in Zaire. Lanting’s exquisitely personal photos complement the narrative perfectly.
Bawer, Bruce. Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity. Crown/Harmony, $26 (0-517-70682-2).
Arguing that fundamentalism has perverted the church of love that Jesus began, changing it into a harsh, bigoted church of law, Bawer critiques some 150 years of American religious thought and vividly reports contemporary fundamentalist worship and activism.
Davis, Shelley. Unbridled Power. HarperBusiness, $25 (0-88730-829-5).
Any doubts about Davis’ chilling version of how the IRS is run were dispelled by the recent hearings conducted by Congress; his vastly relevant and telling account possesses the sweep and objectivity of an archivist.
Drumm, Russell. In the Slick of the Cricket. Pushcart; dist. by Norton, $25 (1-888889-05-5).
East Hampton newspaper reporter Drumm introduces the unsung progenitor of a weird recreational genre: Frank Mundus, shark fisherman. Mundus is the unacknowledged model for Quint, the Ahabesque charter captain in Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and he resembles an aged and corpulent Hunter S. Thompson. Fun in America.
Everdell, William R. The First Moderns: Profiles in the Origins of Twentieth-Century Thought. Univ. of Chicago, $29.95 (0-226-22480-5).
Everdell recounts the feats of a group of intellectual and artistic provacateurs—Rimbaud, Freud, Joyce, and Schoenberg among them—who destroyed the old cultural edifice and erected the structure called modernism in its place. A work of remarkable breadth and profound cultural analysis.
Ferriss, Susan and Sandoval, Ricardo. The Fight in the Fields: Cezar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement. Harcourt, $25 (0-15-100239-8).
This moving, photo-filled biography documents Chavez’s evolution as a human rights activist and his heroic efforts as founder of the United Farm Workers Union.
García Márquez, Gabriel. News of a Kidnapping. Tr. by Edith Grossman. Knopf, $25 (0-375-40051-6).
The 1990 abductions in Colombia reached alarming heights as the country struggled with its drug cartels. García Márquez tracks the story like a detective, weaving in the voices of all the players, ferreting out the nuances in their relationships, and cunningly revealing a country torn asunder by the quest for drug traffickers, particularly Pablo Escobar.
O’Hanlon, Redmond. No Mercy: A Journey to the Heart of the Congo. Knopf, $27.50 (0-679-40655-7).
A distinguished travel writer ventured into the politically and environmentally inhospitable Republic of the Congo to attempt to ascertain the existence of a fabled lost dinosaur. His trek entailed some of the most appalling hurdles imaginable to the traveler, all of which are vividly rendered in this magnificent book. (Top of the List winner—Adult Nonfiction.)
Shipler, David. A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America. Knopf, $30 (0-394-58975-0).
After writing extensively about other nations, Shipler, a Pulitzer Prize–winning author, spent eight years examining his own country, a land “where blacks and whites are strangers to each other.” A thoughtful and inclusive work.
Simon, David and Burns, Edward. The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. Broadway, $27.50 (0-7679-0030-8).
Abstraction becomes reality in an intensely personal account of the struggles of a group of inner-city residents in Baltimore’s Franklin Park neighborhood. Focusing both on those who will never escape the hopelessness around them and those few who will, this compelling account puts a human face on a national disgrace.
Wei, Jingsheng. The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings. Viking, $23.95 (0-670-87249-0).
Chinese dissident Wei takes Westerners on a fascinating, voyeuristic trip to China’s underside through his reasonable and ironic writings from prison.
Ackroyd, Peter. Milton in America. Doubleday, $22.95 (0-385-47708-2).
As the monarchy is restored in England in 1660, John Milton, 52 and blind, flees to Puritan America—or so reads the premise of Ackroyd’s latest examination of genius. The Milton who emerges is an extraordinary character whose voice rings out long after the book is closed.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. Scribner, $27.50 (0-684-84269-6).
DeLillo’s symphonic, many-voiced, and soulful novel taps into all the confounding forces unleashed by the advent of the nuclear age and explores passions for everything from baseball to art to waste management.
Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. Atlantic Monthly, $23 (0-87113-679-1).
Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, leaves the hospital before his gashed neck heals and heads for the mountains where Ada, a minister’s daughter, awaits him. Similar to Shelby Foote in style and Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms in resonance, Cold Mountain is a satisfying read on many levels.
Golden, Arthur. Memoirs of a Geisha. Knopf, $25 (0-375-40011-7).
This sweeping, riveting first novel, which follows a poor youngster from her humble origins in a rural fishing village to her later years spent in luxurious surroundings in New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria, reveals both the aesthetic delights and the unending cruelty that underlie the exotic world of the geisha.
Gurganus, Allan. Plays Well with Others. Knopf, $25 (0-394-58914-9).
Gurganus dramatizes New York City’s exuberant gay culture just before the onslaught of AIDS and then its profound transformation afterward in an altogether affectionate tale resplendent with scenes of shimmering, metaphorical grace that celebrate the bounty of love.
Hamill, Pete. Snow in August. Little, Brown, $23.95 (0-316-34094-4).
In Brooklyn in the late 1940s, adolescent Michael Devlin is a dutiful son to his widowed mother and a conscientious altar boy at the parish church. One day, he meets Rabbi Judah Hirsch, a recent immigrant from Prague, in a chance encounter that inaugurates a friendship with vast consequences, good and bad, for both of them.
Just, Ward. Echo House. Houghton, $25 (0-395-85697-3).
In this brilliantly orchestrated tale of several generations of Washington, D.C., insiders, Just proves himself as adept at depicting the machinations of politics as he is at parsing the convolutions of relationships, be they sexual or familial.
Kerr, Phillip. Esau. Holt, $22.50 (0-8050-5175-9).
A renowned mountain climber is caught in a Himalayan avalanche, only to wake up in a cave facing a fossilized skull. Kerr, one of Granta’s 20 best young British novelists, delivers a novel that defines the “good read,” while leaving the reader feeling a bit smarter the next morning.
MacLaverty, Bernard. Grace Notes. Norton, $23 (0-393-04542-0).
Catherine McKenna returns home to Northern Ireland from her current residence, Glasgow, to attend the funeral of her father. As she and her mother attempt to bridge the distance between them, the result is an admirably graceful character study of Catherine, a single mother and professional composer.
Montero, Mayra. In the Palm of Darkness. Tr. by Edith Grossman. HarperCollins, $21 (0-06-018703-4).
With enormous skill, Montero creates a brief and suspenseful story of contemporary Haiti. All action revolves around Victor Grigg, an American herpetologist visiting Haiti in search of the elusive, potentially extinct blood frog, and Thierry Adrian, his guide, a man who has worked with generations of foreign scientists. Masterful storytelling.
Moody, Rick. Purple America. Little, Brown, $22.95 (0-316-57925-4).
Taking his themes straight from the blaring headlines (mercy killing, nuclear spillage), Moody limns an incendiary weekend in the life of melancholy alcoholic Hex Raitliffe and his troubled family. Moody’s prose is so powerful and moving that reading his novel is a transfixing experience.
Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Tr. by Jay Rubin. Knopf, $26.95 (0-679-44669-9).
This mesmerizing novel—a masterly mix of surrealism, deadpan comedy, detective fiction, and love story—tells the befuddling story of a Japanese man who searches for his missing wife while sitting in the the bottom of a well. Murakami’s canvas is as broad as twentieth-century Japan, but his brush strokes are imbued with the lines and colors of American pop culture.
O’Brien, Edna. Down by the River. Farrar, $23 (0-374-14327-7).
In continuing to hammer against the constraints of conservative Irish culture, the doyenne of contemporary Irish letters presents a stunning but shocking narrative about a girl’s sexual abuse by her father, her resulting pregnancy, and the national scandal that erupts around her when she runs away from home. O’Brien’s harshly poetic style contributes to the tale’s chilling effectiveness.
Ozick, Cynthia. The Puttermesser Papers. Knopf, $23 (0-679-45476-4).
Ozick’s fascination with the workings of the mind is the driving force behind this astonishing set of frequently surreal tales about Ruth Puttermesser, an attorney with esoteric leanings who finds herself in some mighty strange and instructive predicaments.
Roy, Arundhati. The God of Small Things. Random, $23 (0-679-45731-3).
First-time novelist Roy ponders questions of destiny in this highly original, mythic, and exquisitely crafted tale about a set of twins, their mother’s passion for a forbidden lover, and the physics of life in a tiny river town in India.
Russo, Richard. Straight Man. Random, $25 (0-679-43246-9).
Russo’s hilarious novel stars academic Hank Devereaux, who wages comic war on both the contentious English faculty and the bean-counting administrative bureaucrats. Full of wry comedy, endearing characters, and an artful blend of high jinks and heartache.
Self, Will. Great Apes. Grove, $24 (0-8021-1617-5).
Self creates a fully realized chimp world with this Kafkaesque, or Swiftian, satire that hypnotizes with its comic romps, existential posturings, and Shakespearean intrigues. Here is a writer willing to address the whole of humanity in one book, with style.
Shakespeare, Nicholas. The Dancer Upstairs. Doubleday/Nan A. Talese, $21.95 (0-385-48513-1).
Shakespeare spins a chilling tale about the depth of commitment of the crusader for justice and the depth of suffering his followers will embrace for him. This disquieting work is based on the life of Peru’s guerrilla warrior Abimael Guzmán, leader of the Shining Path. (x Top of the List winner—Adult Fiction. x)
Soares, Jô. A Samba for Sherlock. Tr. by Clifford E. Landers. Pantheon, $23 (0-679-40065-6).
Wine, song, and even a woman distract the sleuth of Baker Street when he comes to 1880s Rio to recover a missing Stradivarius for Brazil’s imperial court and walks into a multiple-murder investigation. A dazzling, delectable jeu d’esprit.
Tapon, Philippe. A Parisian from Kansas. Dutton, $23 (0-525-94239-4).
In Paris, a young American man meets another young American man. One is a writer, and the other, a distinctive personality on the au courant social scene, is HIV-positive and convinced that his life story would make a compelling novel. Alternately funny, flip, and deadly serious, Tapon’s tour de force, brimming with technical virtuosity, presents a host of foible-laden characters.
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