The Year in Books
What New Book Did You Most Enjoy in 1998 and Why?
Barbara Strickland:The Weight of Water, by Anita Shreve. Based on the historical account of a 19th-century murder in which the accused, a woman, was acquitted -- despite being the only survivor of a double murder on an island -- The Weight of Water is a nerve-racking, starkly drawn story that at first glance doesn't seem as though it could have the power that it does, so plainly written is it.
Phil West: Rebecca Brown's The Dogs. Brown is best-known in recent years for The Gifts of the Body, an arresting, stripped-down narrative about an AIDS services volunteer, which read more like memoir than fiction in its narration of people with AIDS from many walks of life. The Dogs is decidedly more fictive, reading more like her earlier, allegorical work, while carrying much of the earnest attentiveness of her Gifts protagonist, and entering into a whole new range of exploration and narrative experimentation. The Dogs is a sometimes frightening, occasionally hilarious, and thoroughly absorbing novel, which has the hallmarks of definitive work permeating throughout.
Marion Winik: I absolutely loved Bridget Jones's Diary. God, Helen Fielding is hilarious. This book gave me hours of laughter and pure fun and the fact is, I live for that.
Jesse Sublett:Confederates in the Attic, by Tony Horwitz. Horwitz takes a tour of Civil War battlefields, guided by re-enactors and other period buffs and finds the wounds still hurting, the scars running deep in America's psyche.
Claiborne Smith:Sight-Readings: American Fictions, by Elizabeth Hardwick. Literary criticism that is fascinating, reading more like a collection of stories than analysis.
Mike Shea: No novel, new or old, grabbed my attention like The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell's science-fiction tale of a disastrous space expedition -- a Grade A, Prime Certified example of the narrative power of good genre fiction.
Tom Doyal:The Comedy Writer: A Novel by Peter Farrelly. Mr. Farrelly has written a roll-on-the-floor-laughing book about a struggling, and failing, man in his 30s who has gone to the Left Coast to establish himself as a screenwriter. There is a lot of sex in this book, much of it self-inflicted and very funny. Poverty comes in many forms and lack of money is only one of them. Farrelly appears to know quite a lot about the other forms.
WHAT BOOK DID YOU LEAST ENJOY IN 1998 AND WHY?
SW:After the Fall, the second autobiography of Suzanne Somers. (Don't ask.) Here's a summarizing excerpt: "I felt like Mary Magdalene, the biblical figure to whom I most related. She was a sinner who was so bad she washed Christ's feet with her tears and dried them with her hair to show her reverence ... figuratively, I wanted to wash my feet with my tears to show my gratitude."
BS: Don't have an answer for this one, unless I am allowed to include the complete syllabuses for all three of this semester's graduate classes.
PW: None this year, although Beau Sia's A Night Without Armor II: The Revenge led me to revisit Jewel's thoroughly discomfiting A Night Without Armor. Thanks, Beau.
MW: Though I cannot say I didn't enjoy Catherine Texier's Breakup, I enjoyed it in the way other people enjoy watching the Surgery Channel or whatever it's called. Texier traces the end of her marriage in horrific detail. You will never read anything like the description of what she wants to do to her husband's girlfriend.
JS:Night Train, by Martin Amis: A big time "literary" author writes what is supposed to be a hip, smart noir book. Even though this pretentious, murky tale of a suicide investigation is bleak and short, just like the lives of so many great pulp writers (which Amis ain't), while reading it I had a surging conviction that my time might be better spent turning the compost heap.
CS: Dealing the double blow, I concur with Jesse that Night Train was the most disappointing, odd thing I read all year for the reasons mentioned above. And just what are Latinate references and phrases doing sprinkled throughout a noir book?
MS: Usually reliable noirist George P. Pelecanos set his '98 offering, King Suckerman, in Washington, D.C., in the Seventies and the result was like an awkward visit with an old friend who had lost whatever made them a friend in the first place.
TD: My nominee in this category is a very good book. I just found it so deeply affecting and disturbing that I cannot say I enjoyed it. I nominate Why Lawyers (and the Rest of Us) Lie & Engage in Other Repugnant Behavior by Austin trial lawyer Mark Perlmutter. Mr. Perlmutter is a devotee of the writing of Scott Peck (The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie). Perlmutter examines the legal profession with a withering intensity and the things he sees are not pretty, especially the profession-wide incentives to play ethical dodgeball over the tough scenarios presented in the daily lives of the modern practitioner. The author offers some hope, but I found his examination so devastating that I couldn't share his optimism about finding a way out of our current dilemma.
WHAT OLD OR REISSUED BOOK DID YOU MOST ENJOY IN 1998 AND WHY?
SW:Shiny Adidas Track Suits and the Death of Camp, an anthology from the late, lamented Might magazine. Tripp Hartigan's article, "Green Bay," perfectly captures the kitsch -- and the desolation -- of young adults remaining in the same small town where they grew up.
BS:Franny and Zooey/Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, by J.D. Salinger. A friend of mine gave me these two out of her personal library. They are wonderful old books, and hardback, with the original book jackets still on them. But aside from all that (and I think it is wholly within the spirit of these two fine-hearted books to prosaically note the following), they ramble, they digress, they go on for days about what seems like nothing, they are chock-full of references to Buddhism and other world religions that sometimes seem (oh, forgive me) downright gratuitous -- and they have the wonderful capacity to break your heart without warning, to send truth whizzing to hit you between the eyes with all the joy of a well-aimed curve ball, or a well-skipped stone.
PW: Lorca's Poet in New York. Though a number of these translations were available in a full Lorca collection, this sliver of Lorca's sizeable body of work is the most captivating, the most daring, and the most purely poetic of his offerings.
MW: Sometimes you read a book you love so much you want to marry its author -- and this time I'm going to do it. The writer in question is Crispin Sartwell, and the book is a philosophy treatise called Obscenity Anarchy Reality. There is something about the way he thinks and writes that is completely comfortable and yet takes you to stunning and unexpected intellectual places. I've never read anything quite like it.
JS:The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons by John Wesley Powell (1895). Powell, a one-armed Civil War veteran and geology professor, took a ragtag band of nine iron men in four wooden boats down what he called "The Great Unknown" in 1869, when the Grand Canyon was literally a blank spot on the map. With a lot of guts and brains and imagination, Powell made a big mark on American history.
CS: Don Graham's Giant Country isn't an old or reissued book, but the personable, often hilarious essays in it are previously published. Really intelligent but far from condescending writing.
MS: The reissue of Edwin Bunker's Little Boy Blue, a clunky but skin-crawlingly creepy tale of growing up an adolescent thug, was a revelation.
TD: The word "enjoyed" isn't quite right here, but I nominate A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. The first third of the book is sunny, amusing, and a slightly dotty comedy, then the late Mr. Waugh, at his most wicked, drops the reader into the hot grease. I never thought I could have so much sympathy for the travails of a Kiplingesque colonial.
WHAT AMONG THE MANY INTRIGUING THINGS THAT HAPPENED IN THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY THIS YEAR INTRIGUED YOU THE MOST?
SW: C-Span's Book TV, allowing us to see and hear great authors who might not incorporate Austin into their book tours.
BS: Just more of the same old nasty vertical and horizontal consolidation, lackluster editing, and focus on the profit margins at the expense of good, innovative writing and ideas.
PW: The alarm over Barnes & Noble acquiring Ingram. From several different e-mail lists, ranging from English grad students to slam poets, the outrage over the Barnes & Noble big fish eating one of the few solvent distribution fishes smacked of either righteous indignation or Chicken Little alarm. But those who believe in the power of the small press have definitely taken notice.
MW: Bertelsmann buying Random House was big for me because I am published by Pantheon, which is part of the Knopf Group, which is part of Random House. But so far it hasn't had any visible ramifications for me.
JS: Maybe it's my imagination but suddenly, history actually seems trendy -- sexy, even. There seem to be an awful lot of history books coming out and a lot of them -- even ones not written by Stephen Ambrose -- are hip, smart, and good.
CS: Rupert Murdoch's edict that HarperCollins, which is owned by Murdoch's holding company, The News Corp., not publish a book by Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, because Murdoch didn't agree with Patten's views and positions in Hong Kong. What a thuggish thing to do. Patten's book was published anyway in September by Times Books.
MS: In the publishing industry, the commercial introduction of the electronic book looks likely to change reading habits and publishing trends so radically we might not even recognize the publishing industry in five years. I love the essence of books -- the dust jackets, the pages, the heft of the things. And I'll miss them when they're gone. But gone they will be because it's hard to resist a one-pound device that can be loaded with several books and thrown into a briefcase or carry-on without feeling like a pack mule. And when the technology and formats become commonplace, it should ultimately be good for authors because a publisher won't have to incur the expense of printing books with limited appeal, but can still "publish" them in a downloadable format for a small audience. And self-publishing will become the province of anyone with a keyboard and Internet access.
TD: I nominate the steadily eroding treatment of authors by publishers. Not only are the dishonest vanity press vultures still exploiting writers, but mainstream publishing houses are using more work-made-for-hire agreements, seeking to contract for extensive rights that they cannot properly exploit, and excusing this behavior with mumbling about "rapid changes in technology" as though the invention of the pistol made highway robbery less despicable than it had been in the day of the broadsword and pike. Some electronic publishers are paying royalties on the old print scale without troubling to share freight, printing, and retail cost-savings with the writer. It was ever thus, but writers are getting smarter. Let just hope the bastards need something from us someday. By the way, the vaunted "standard publishing agreement" does not exist. Stephen King does not sign the same contract that is offered to you or me, alas.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE HAPPEN IN OR TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY?
SW: We need more and better books coverage on the Web. Here's hoping someone will replace the "irreverent, interesting writing and writers" niche recently abandoned by Salon magazine, which now appears to be some sort of wit-free polemic.
BS: More commitment from the large houses to quality editing that includes not only wining and dining the authors of sure sellers, but also a commitment to an intensive editing and re-writing process. More recognition and support given to small presses, such as El Paso's Cinco Puntos Press, preferably in the form of vast sums of cash. I'd also like to see an indefinite moratorium on any book that claims to be a conversation with God (or any other deity), and any book with the planet names "Mars" or "Venus" in the title that isn't a Peterson's Field Guide.
PW: More small presses surviving and thriving, particularly those who deal in poetry titles, and the stores who carry them, like Austin's FringeWare, surviving and thriving along with them.
MW: I would like The New York Times Bestseller List to be un-rigged: i.e., based on actual sales figures of all books at all stores, instead of a narrow survey of only certain books at certain stores.
JS: We've gotta save the independent bookstores. Maybe the federal government should consider subsidizing them -- sort of like National Public Radio. The megazilla stores could be forced to pay a big tax that could be divvied up by the indies so that they could offer the same discounts. A WPA-type program could pay for installing espresso bars in places like Adventures in Crime & Space and Asylum Books.
CS: Less lying, of the publicity sort. I understand it's a business and all, but just how many books in one year can really be "this year's most popular, thrilling page-turner"?
MS: Electronic publishing might save fiction from being relegated to the endcaps and checkout counters at America's supermarkets. If it reverses the trend of blockbuster publishing based on market survey and retailer feedback, it will be a very, very good thing indeed.
TD: I want the industry to shake out from the huge tsunami of worldwide industry mergers in such a way that mid-list authors still have a chance to find a readership. We as a culture can't go on forever reading the same diet book and celebrity bio (often the same book) without paying a high price for it. We need the quirky little novels, the cranky screeds, the eccentric memoir, and all of the other "little" books. The industry-wide insistence that every book be the next boffo blockbuster is cheating the reading public. I do think solutions to this concern will emerge, but it is difficult to see them right now. University presses could be a part of the solution, but they seem a little timid in taking up the challenge, focused as some of them are on more pressing cultural issues like creating stadium boxes fit for despots.