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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
Crowe, Cameron. Conversations with Wilder. Knopf, $35 (0-375-40660-3).
What started out as a magazine interview between young film director Crowe and old master Billy Wilder became something of great value: with open discussions of classic Wilder myths and with more than 400 photographs illustrating his filmic ideas and techniques, it’s like viewing, in the palm of your hands, a great documentary.
Drury, John. Painting the Word: Christian Pictures and Their Meanings. Yale, $25 (0-300-07777-7).
Drury discusses the religious symbolism in the composition, coloration, and lighting as well as the subjects of some of the greatest Christian paintings of the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries.
Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Still Life: A History. Abrams, $125 (0-8109-4190-2).
In a gracefully detailed interpretative narrative that stretches from ancient Greek and Roman mosaics to twentieth-century paintings, art historian Ebert-Schifferer presents the long and fascinating history of the still life, a highly symbolic genre. A pleasurable and enlightening read accompanied by hundreds of magnificent reproductions.
Gass, William H. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Knopf, $26 (0-375-40312-4).
Dissecting pieces by the expressionistic German writer Rainer Maria Rilke, who wrote beautiful, often untranslatable lines, Gass shows off in detail what a translator goes through to render faithfully an artist’s language. An excellent, provocative book.
Hirsch, Edward. How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. Harcourt, $23 (0-15-100419-6).
Reading poetry, declares award-winning poet Hirsch in this passionate and erudite celebration, is a spiritual act not only because it engenders rapture but also because poetry is an art of deep moral significance, a point he proves with many soul-stirring examples of great poetry from Ovid to the present.
Maraini, Fosco. Maraini: Acts of Photography, Acts of Love. Joost Elfers; dist. by Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, $60 (1-55670-973-0).
Maraini’s photographs, mostly made to accompany his socially investigative travel books, are thrilling and dramatic artworks as well as fascinating documents of such places as Tibet and 1950s Japan.
Melnick, Jeffrey. A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song. Harvard, $27.95 (0-674-76976-7).
Did Jews embrace the blackface masks and popular song of minstrel shows—the style, language, and nuance of black culture—as a means of establishing their own status as whites? Melnick answers that provocative question with this wide-angle view, through the lens of popular American music, of black-Jewish relationships.
Rybczynski, Witold. A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century. Scribner, $28 (0-684-82463-9).
Rybczynski’s expert account of landscape architect Olmsted’s extraordinary life and achievements, including the creation of New York’s Central Park, revolves around Olmsted’s pioneering vision of nature’s crucial role in American cities and embraces the grand scope of his lesser-known passions and adventures.
Bandele, Asha. The Prisoner’s Wife. Scribner, $23 (0-684-85073-7).
Incredibly, poet bandele went to prison to read her poetry and met her future husband, Rashid, serving 20-to-life for murder. Rashid helped her to confront her troubled past, and by the end of this powerful, romantic, but honest story, the reader questions neither bandele’s sanity nor her motives, realizing, instead, the problems this couple face.
Black, Stephen A. Eugene O’Neill: Beyond Mourning and Tragedy. Yale, $29.95 (0-300-07676-2).
Psychoanalyst and professor of English Black plies both his trades to examine the conflicted life of the Nobel Prize–winning U.S. dramatist as no one else has before.
de Baecque, Antoine and Toubiana, Serge. Truffaut. Knopf, $30 (0-375-40089-3).
Cahiers du cinéma editors de Baecque and Toubiana leave few stones unturned in this compelling account of the film artist who breathed life into the term auteur through his writing and his work, from The 400 Blows to The Last Metro.
Dearborn, Mary V. Mailer. Houghton, $30 (0-395-73655-2).
Dearborn supplies a close reading of one of the most controversial American writers of the postwar era. Mailer’s body of work, beginning with his career-defining first novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), is analyzed with remarkable insight. Mailer’s notorious personal life is also examined, as Dearborn sorts through the various preoccupations that have obsessed the writer over five decades in the literary spotlight.
Echols, Alice. Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin. Holt/ Metropolitan, $26 (0-8050-5387-5).
Hard-livin’, hard-druggin’ blues shouter Joplin is an emblem of her generation, as Echols’ careful biography verifies without ever losing sight of the highly conflicted, appealing-repulsive individual that the real Janis was.
Fussell, Betty. My Kitchen Wars. Farrar/ North Point, $23 (0-86547-577-6).
The story of cookbook author Fussell’s escape from the role of servile faculty wife (serving canapés to her husband, writer Paul, and his colleagues) has at its core a delicious irony: although Fussell hated her forced confinement in the kitchen, she liked the kitchen itself just fine. The author (and chef) knows how to get the most from her ingredients, and she uses not only irony but also self-deprecating humor and poi¬gnant understatement with delicate precision.
Hinojosa, Maria. Raising Raul: Adventures Raising Myself and My Son. Viking, $21.95 (0-670-88445-6).
CNN correspondent and NPR reporter Hinojosa sketches in sharp yet loving detail the first year in the life of her son, Raul. It is the familiar story of a modern woman wanting it all—career, marriage, family—but Hinojosa injects it with new life; she writes the way women talk to each other, words tumbling out, backtracking, laughing, and always full of deeply felt emotion.
Kaplan, Fred. Gore Vidal. Doubleday, $35 (0-385-47703-1).
This copiously detailed portrait of one of America’s most accomplished writers demon¬strates veteran biographer Kaplan’s ability to weave masses of information into a smooth, interpretive account. Vidal’s twin obsessions—writing and politics—surfaced early, and Kaplan tracks his subject’s many contributions in both arenas.
Marlowe, Ann. How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z. Basic, $22 (0-465-03150-1).
Marlowe is remarkably incisive, and although the 130 short biographical essays in her book are organized around buying heroin, doing heroin, and running out of heroin, the book is not finally about drug use. It’s about the ways in which we seek to hide from our deaths by arranging our lives.
Robertson, David. Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America’s Largest Slave Rebellion. Knopf, $23 (0-679-44288-X).
Robertson, dogged seeker of truth with a fertile imagination, disinters the secrets surrounding the life and rebellion of black revolutionary Vesey and reflects on the reasons South Carolina slaveholders found it necessary to obscure the historical record concerning him.
Spender, Matthew. From a High Place: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Knopf, $35 (0-375-40378-7).
Spender’s nuanced, dramatic, and ground¬breaking portrait of Gorky, a gifted but bedeviled artist who concealed his painful past, makes clear the connection between Gorky’s beautiful and haunting work and his unmitigated sorrow over the lost paradise of his Armenian childhood.
Thurman, Judith. Secrets of the Flesh: A Life of Colette. Knopf/Borzoi, $30 (0-394-58872-X).
National Book Award winner Thurman brings Colette to vivid life in this fresh, insightful, and splendidly written biography, portraying her as a queen of survival and self-transformation and a daring artist who elevated literature to new heights of sexual candor and feminine power. ( Top of the List—Adult Nonficton. )
Conrad, Peter. Modern Times, Modern Places: How Life and Art Were Transformed in a Century of Revolution, Innovation, and Radical Change. Knopf, $40 (0-375- 40113-X).
Conrad defines modernity by explicating art’s grand effort to decipher, reflect, and assess all the ways life has radically and precipitously changed over the past 100 years. His knowledge of the artistic universe is truly encyclopedic, and his analyses of literature, music, painting, architecture, dance, photography, and cinema are fresh and invigorating.
Ellegård, Alvar. Jesus—One Hundred Years before Christ: A Study in Creative Mythology. Overlook; dist. by Viking, $35 (0-87951-720-4).
Taking the logical next step in the quest for the historical Jesus, Ellegård argues that Jesus was a myth based upon a second-century B.C. figure referred to in the Dead Sea scrolls.
Keegan, John. The First World War. Knopf, $35 (0-375-40052-4).
World War I was a cataclysm shrouded in mystery. Keegan devotes most of his text to an analysis of trench warfare but addresses the mystery with a nuanced assessment of the ghastliness of the front, incorporating both technical factors and the more elusive issues of morale and comradeship.
Kidder, Tracy. Home Town. Random, $25.95 (0-679-45588-4).
Northampton, Massachusetts, appears to epitomize Waspy New England, but Kidder, a preeminent discoverer of the extraordinary within the ordinary, finds plenty of conflict and tragedy behind its picture-perfect facade, as he accompanies policeman Tommy O’Connor on his rounds over the course of a year.
Kissinger, Henry. Years of Renewal. Simon & Schuster, $35 (0-684-85571-2).
This final volume of the diplomat’s memoirs reprises his realpolitik approach to international relations, returning to the Nixon years, when Kissinger was at the helm and “balance-of-power” was the bottom line. An invaluable contribution to diplomatic history as the country begins to go global.
Kurlansky, Mark. The Basque History of the World. Walker, $24 (0-8027-1349-1).
An engaging chronicle of the indigenous people of northwestern Spain and southwestern France, who speak a unique language, who “discovered” America before other Europeans, who care more about being a nation than being a state, and who cook like no other people in Western Europe. Recipes included.
MacDonald, Michael. All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. Beacon, $24 (0-8070-7212-5).
This poignant, firsthand account of the Irish poor in South Boston, where teenagers are dropping out, using drugs, and dying in drive-by shootings, turns stereotypes into living, hurting people.
Thomson, David. In Nevada: The Land, the People, God, and Chance. Knopf, $26.95 (0-679-45486-1).
Thomson is a lover of stories, and in this fascinating history, he delivers stories about Nevada pioneers and schemers, writers and entertainers, killers and cultists and druggies. From desert to casinos to Disneyland, it’s an engrossing tour.
Van der Kiste, John. Kaiser Wilhelm II: Germany’s Last Emperor. Sutton, 260 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10001, $34.95 (0-7509-1941-8).
Kaiser Wilhelm II—or Kaiser Bill, as he was known to the American doughboys who fought against his army in World War I—was one of history’s most flamboyant and controversial leaders. Van der Kiste brings both balance and understanding to this fascinating life of the last emperor of Germany.
Wills, Garry. A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of the Government. Simon & Schuster, $25 (0-684-84489-3).
This timely analysis of the distorted mythology that has grown up around government in the U.S. takes on hot-button issues from the Second Amendment and term limits to the idea that the Founders sought to create an inefficient government. Provocative and enlightening.
Kennelly, Brendan. The Man Made of Rain. Bloodaxe; dist. by Dufour, $35 (1-85224-454-2); paper, $18.95 (1-85224-455-0).
Ireland’s best-selling poet hovered between life and death after quadruple bypass surgery and encountered a man made of rain who guided him in a haunting and hilarious exploration of his life’s essentials.
Olds, Sharon. Blood, Tin, Straw. Knopf, $24 (0-375-40742-1).
Olds has always been a frank and transcendent poet of the body, and now, in her fifth book, a major work, she expands her profoundly tactile sensibility to embrace the entire cosmos in poems of powerful female eroticism and emotional acuity that celebrate love both earthly and spiritual.
Angier, Natalie. Woman: An Intimate Geography. Houghton, $25 (0-395- 69130-3).
Angier demystifies the workings of the female body and eradicates myriad misconcep¬tions about womanhood in this exacting, high-spirited exploration of the awe-inspiring complexities of female anatomy.
Bolles, Edmund Blair. The Ice Finders: How a Poet, a Professor, and a Politician Discovered the Ice Age. Perseus/ Counterpoint, $24 (1-58243-030-6).
Bolles tells the story of how a Swiss scientist (the professor of the title), an English geologist (the politician), and an American explorer (the poet) convinced everybody else that only an Ice Age could account for the way the world looks.
Johnson, Kurt and Coates, Steve. Nabokov’s Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius. Zoland, $27 (1-58195-009-8).
Scientist Johnson and New York Times editor Coates investigate both the role that lepidopterology played in Nabokov’s life as well as his contribution to science. An insightful and lively look at a lesser-known aspect of an extraordinary life.
Sobel, Dava. Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Walker, $25 (0-8027-1343-2).
Galileo’s conflict with authority, which led to his facing the Inquisition, is viewed through the perspective of his relationship with his eldest daughter, Maria Celeste. Sobel combines her own strong narrative technique with the unpublished letters of Maria Celeste to create a singularly affecting story.
Wiedensaul, Scott. Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds. Farrar/North Point, $26 (0-86547-543-1).
The one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, bird migration, stitches the continents together and provides Weidensaul with the subject for this intriguing look at the journeys of avian voyagers.
Beckwith, Carol and Fisher, Angela. African Ceremonies. 2v. Abrams, $150 (0-8109-4205-4).
With their voracious curiosity trained on African rituals and customs, Beckwith and Fisher have created a number of photographic works, none more stunning or informative than this two-volume set.
Berlin, Isaiah. The Roots of Romanticism. Ed. by Henry Hardy. Princeton, $24.95 (0-691-00713-6).
Romanticism was “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West,” Berlin main¬tains, and today’s conservatives and liberals, radicals and reactionaries are all Romantics. To read these 1965 lectures, finally transcribed and published, is to agree and to marvel at how brilliantly Berlin “wrote” on his feet.
Damasio, Antonio R. The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Harcourt, $28 (0-15-100369-6).
Neurologist Damasio, curious about how we cross the “threshold that separates being from knowing,” delineates the nature of consciousness and the biological source of our sense of self in this involving, paradigm-shifting combination of riveting case studies and inspired interpretation.
Faludi, Susan. Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Morrow, $26 (0-688-12299-X).
Journalist Faludi listens to workers and sports fans, Promisekeepers and porn stars, combat veterans and ex-cons, movie stars and media executives, finding evidence that the male crisis in America may stem from loss of economic authority, devaluation of loyalty, fathers’ silence, and the elevation of the ornamental as the standard of personal worth. Very convincing.
Friedman, Thomas L. The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. Farrar, $26 (0-374-19203-0).
This superb primer by foreign correspondent Friedman explores humanity’s growing desire for material well-being (represented by the Lexus automobile) and our conflict over territorial tradition and security (the olive tree).
Gordon, Linda. The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction. Harvard, $29.95 (0-674-36041-9).
Economics, religion, and racial and sexual politics intersect in this account of the social upheaval caused when Mexicans in a small Arizona mining town in 1904 adopted 40 abandoned Irish Catholic children from New York. Gordon’s compelling account of the incident traces the legal challenges by a Catholic charity group that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Lewis, Michael. The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story. Norton, $23.95 (0-393-04813-6).
In profiling Jim Clark, who created Netscape and thus “triggered the Internet boom,” Lewis provides a revealing analysis of the Wall Street of the 1990s, Silicon Valley, “the greatest legal creation of wealth in the history of the planet.” A fascinating take on the computer industry.
Milton, Giles. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg; or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. Farrar, $23 (0-374-21936-2).
In the Elizabethan era, nutmeg was a commodity literally worth more than its weight in gold. Milton takes readers along with the explorers, especially Nathaniel Courthope, who crossed oceans and suffered hardships in search of advan¬tageous trade routes that would make it possible to control the spice market. A pleasure to read.
Sen, Amartya. Development as Freedom: Human Capability and Global Need. Knopf, $26 (0-375-40619-0).
Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in economics, is one of the most important thinkers of our time. Although challenging, his ideas about freedom and global inequality are fresh and revealing and will prove crucial as the pace of change accelerates in a new century.
Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. Dial, $26.95 (0-385-31402-7).
In this reportorial tour de force, Pulitzer Prize winner Welsome tells the entire harrowing story of the atomic-weapons establishment’s secretive and unconscionable plutonium experiments, travesties of medical ethics that involved unsuspecting civilians as well as military personnel. The stuff of nightmares, Welsome’s masterful chronicle of the creation and employment of the atomic bomb is vital to our understanding of the current state of the world.
Allende, Isabel. Daughter of Fortune. Tr. by Margaret Sayers Peden. HarperCollins, $26 (0-06-019491-X).
Allende’s latest novel is set in both her native Chile and California, where she currently resides. The tale, which begins in the British colony of Valparaíso, Chile, in the middle of the nineteenth century and then moves to the California Gold Rush, skillfully combines family conflict, romantic love, and true adventure. A moving, superbly constructed novel.
Booth, Martin. Industry of Souls. St. Martin’s/ Thomas Dunne, $22.95 (0-312-24203-4).
The story of a British citizen, Alexander Bayliss, who spent 25 years in a Soviet hard-labor camp before becoming a teacher in a small Russian village, Booth’s compelling novel is a character study of rare intensity. Facing a sudden and dramatic choice, the 80-year-old Bayliss remembers both the horrors of his imprisonment and the quiet pleasures of his recent years.
Ellison, Ralph. Juneteenth. Random, $25 (0-394-46457-5).
The release of the late Ellison’s second novel was one of the major publishing events of 1999. Although the novel is unfinished (what we have is an extract from hundreds of manuscript pages), the dreamlike narrative possesses great power, drawing on Ellison’s signature theme of racial identity. The title refers to the day in 1865 when black slaves in Texas learned of their emancipation, two years after the fact.
Jaffe, Michael Grant. Skateaway. Farrar, $24 (0-374-26571-5).
Jaffe’s story focuses on three children whose lives are affected by two forces beyond their control: their father’s schizophrenia and their mother’s work in an abortion clinic. A brilliantly imagined, gorgeously written novel, vivid and alive, utterly without the distanced irony of so much contemporary fiction.
Johnston, Wayne. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Doubleday, $24.95 (0-385-49542-0).
This story about a controversial Newfoundland politician, Joe Smallwood, focuses on his early years in politics, juxtaposing his views with those of his lifelong friend, newspaper reporter Sheilagh Fielding, as related through her acerbic newspaper columns, personal journal, and history of Newfoundland. A sweeping and entertaining historical drama.
Jones, Thom. Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine. Little, Brown, $23 (0-316- 47223-9).
Jones has developed a reputation as a contemporary master of the short story, and his third collection only enhances his standing. Quiet domestic dramas populated by ordi¬nary people are not Jones’ interest. In these funny, busy, delectable stories, he favors loud, excitable characters caught up in dramatic action.
Kalfus, Ken. Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies. Milkweed, $22 (1-57131-029-0).
In his second collection of short stories, Kalfus, critically acclaimed author of Thirst (1998), captures the heart of the Russian people against the tumultuous backdrop of Soviet history. The collection includes a novella about two Russian writers during the liberalizing ‘60s and the title story, in which a nuclear power plant worker tries to sell plutonium on the black market.
King, Stephen. Hearts in Atlantis. Scribner, $28 (0-684-85351-5).
In five stories only lightly touched by dark fantasy, King follows three friends from their sixth-grade year, 1960, to 1999, by which time each has been victim and savior, of one another and others. One of King’s finest.
Lee, Chang-rae. A Gesture Life. Putnam/ Riverhead, $23.95 (1-57322-146-5).
Doc Hata lives an exemplary American small-town life, but, as Lee masterfully reveals, his decorum conceals an immigrant’s tragic past. Born to poor ethnic Koreans but raised by wealthy Japanese, Hata falls in love with a comfort woman during the war. Haunted by her dire fate, he adopts a Korean girl, but, unable to express his love, he nearly loses her, too.
Leffland, Ella. Breath and Shadows. Morrow, $24 (0-688-14271-0).
Leffland portrays three branches of the Rosted family tree, beginning with Thorkild, a misshapen dwarf grieving for his son, who died in the Napoleonic Wars, and moving on to his great-granddaughter, Grethe, and her grandchildren. A poetic, wise, and enrapturing saga about the inexorability of inheritance.
Lethem, Jonathan. Motherless Brooklyn. Doubleday, $23.95 (0-385-49183-2).
Lethem is a master of invention who delights in tweaking literary genres. This time he offers a unique twist on the detective story: detective-narrator-protagonist, Lionel Essrog, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, which makes his quest to find the murderer of his boss and mentor . . . unpredictable. A tour de force. ( Top of the List—Adult Ficton. )
Matthiessen, Peter. Bone by Bone. Random, $26.95 (0-375-50102-9).
Matthiessen concludes his Watson trilogy with a magnificent epic that resolves some of the questions raised in the earlier novels about the larger-than-life character’s mysterious past. Watson—a legend in the Florida Everglades at the turn of the century—takes the narrative reins this time, offering readers a new perspective from which to assess an utterly compelling character.
Mosley, Walter. Walkin’ the Dog. Little, Brown, $24.94 (0-316-96620-7).
In this second volume of interconnected short stories, Mosley gives his hero, 59-year-old ex-con Socrates Fortlow, a new job, a new home, and a new commitment to ridding his Watts neighborhood of a rogue cop. Overtly political fiction is difficult to pull off, but Mosley makes it work by grounding his issues in the felt life of his characters.
Naslund, Sena Jeter. Ahab’s Wife; or, The Star-Gazer. Morrow, $28 (0-688-17187-7).
Una, wife of the captain of the Pequod during his pursuit of Moby Dick, narrates this combi¬nation adventure and love story, which reflects the period’s controversies over slavery, the position of women, and the influence of religion. A brilliantly written, beautifully illustrated novel.
O’Connell, Robert L. Fast Eddie. Morrow, $24 (0-688-16690-3).
War historian O’Connell limns the life of World War I air ace Eddie Rickenbacker in the manner of an oral history. The great man himself, his mother, the big shots he knew, and God all testify, and the court of history rocks with laughter.
Rushdie, Salman. The Ground beneath Her Feet. Holt, $26 (0-8050-5308-5).
Rushdie’s latest novel is about India, about being Indian, and resisting being Indian. This beguiling feast of a yarn, which centers on the life of a legendary Indian pop singer, is played out on a grand scale, over several years and all over the globe. Rushdie continues to show that he knows the entire world no less intimately than Faulkner knew Mississippi.
Silko, Leslie Marmon. Gardens in the Dunes. Simon & Schuster, $25 (0-684-81154-4).
Late in the nineteenth century, Sister Salt and her younger sister, Indigo, the last of the Sand Lizard tribe, are driven from their home and separated by government authorities. Each embarks on adventures that reveal a world in turmoil as the faithful await the Messiah, Indians struggle to preserve their cultures, women fight for equal rights, and the industrialized assault against nature begins.
Thompson, Jean. Who Do You Love. Harcourt, $23 (0-15-100416-1).
In 15 stories chock-full of broken marriages, unfulfilled dreams, and unfulfilling jobs, Thompson presents a bleak but compelling view of life in middle America. Wonderfully adept at the short-story form, Thompson insinuates the reader into her characters’ lives and makes us care about them in just a few pages.
Yarbrough, Steve. The Oxygen Man. MacMurray & Beck, $20 (1-878448-85-4).
Ned and Daisy Rose, brother and sister, have spent 23 years avoiding one another even as they share the same quarters in the family house. The narrative moves back and forth between 1996 and the siblings’ pivotal teen years (1972–73), explaining in the process how Ned and Daisy were alienated from one another and why they are moving toward reconciliation. Set in the Mississippi Delta, Yarbrough’s first novel belongs in the finest southern Gothic tradition.
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