Atonement, Etc. -- Top 10-plus, Special 2002 bonus edition
Books for which we confess our true feelings, reconsider our disdain, or finally find room
[Ed. note: There is no Books editorial board off which such comments as "One nominee was a ringer tossed in by the fossil of the pack in a fit of mischief" (The New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, Dec. 8, 2002) are refracted. There is no fiery fist-shaking in silhouette. There is no logic, really. I am recommending to you as if we were friends having coffee or a postcoital cigarette books that were published in 2002, ones that I would call my favorites of the score and a quarter I actually finished. Several of the Chronicle Books contributors have their own opinions. My list takes up more space because I'm the editor.]
1. Behindlingsby Nicola Barker (Ecco): The most stylistically assured British novelist since Martin Amis and as sly a storyteller as Ian Sinclair, Barker in her second novel is farcing around with conventional notions of farce. Her recklessly plotted but somehow precise tale of incidental intrigue involves a group of misfits tracking every move that a Daniel Defoe/Alvin Toffler-inspired Wesley makes. Why Wesley? Aside from his hipster leanings and anarchist flirtations, his sporadic writing and vitriolic wit, not to menton his curious brand of animal kindness, he discernibly warrants no pursuit. "'No ... It's more,'" says Arthur Young, a Wesley expert because he might or not actually be Wesley, in some frightful sense. "'[I]f you don't mind me saying so, it's much more subtle than that -- and this is what you have to try and take some kind of solace in -- because the people Following, the site on the Net tracking Wesley, the articles in the paper; these apparent trappings of his success are actually its very opposite. These people aren't his allies -- you'd have to be a fool to think that. These people are his punishment.'" That's just Exhibit A from Barker's big trunk of mindfucks in this truly 21st-century work of fiction. Suffice to say that her wit is well-suited to the paranoid air that we've all been forced to breathe lately. She's an astounding young writer who infuses a restrained hysteria, a delirious embrace of doom, into every sentence, and every sentence is more complex than the one before (which is saying something when you're talking 534 pp.). Her abilities are unearthly and on the outskirts of unlimited.
2. The Lion's Grave: Dispatches From Afghanistanby Jon Lee Anderson (Grove): The New Yorker war correspondent and author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life and Guerrillas: Stories From the Insurgent War uses old-fashioned reporting in the so-called new kind of war, and his stories are disquieting in their own evenhanded way. This is an American writer whose manner is refreshingly understated and whose temper is mild; his powers of observation and his knack for first accessing tough stories and then conveying them are second to none. But The Lion's Grave also includes e-mail communications between Anderson and his editor, Sharon DeLano. "Since we don't have [a suitable image-transmitting system], Thomas will have no choice but to beg other media in the area, which leaves us somewhat dependent," Anderson writes in an Oct. 7, 2001 correspondence. "I have new material from Mamur on bin Laden, etc. He seems to blame it all on whacko Pakistani madrasah teachers and Arabs, whom he calls a bunch of pederasts. I have rented a horse for the week."
3. The Little Friendby Donna Tartt (Knopf): Dorothy Allison's Cavedweller (1998) begins with this: "Death changes everything." Who knows whether that opening inspired Tartt's expertly calibrated novel about a 12-year-old Mississippi girl who decides to find her brother's murderer and exact revenge, and whose family all but disintegrates in the process? We do know that Tartt -- one of this country's most fearsome talents -- owes more than a bit to Allison, as well as to the handful of other giants she seems to alternately admire and attempt to outdo. In October, we wondered if Tartt is "writing herself into the Western canon with literary name-dropping or with modernist brilliance," but we also called her second novel a "fascinating, ambitious achievement" and marveled at how it "Twains its way along with a roughhouse whimsy belying its graveness: The adventure is hilarious to everyone but the principals; the morality is understood to them and no one else."
4. Icelandby Jim Krusoe (Dalkey Archive): In May, we called Krusoe's debut "a brilliant black comedy of the semi-surrealist strain," charmed by its story of a typewriter repairman suffering from a potentially terminal case of "organic disintegration" whose "journey of such outrageous fortune" might or might not lead him to his lost love. "Though the thoughts ... are deep ones -- how memory works, and why; how myth and reality dovetail and diverge in the collective unconscious; and how love quite often doesn't conquer all, or even come close -- his exposition is scaled down to one man's life, filled with the deadpan dialogue and everyday observations that make someone like Vonnegut so readable."
5. Brown Eyed Handsome Man: The Life and Hard Times of Chuck Berryby Bruce Pegg (Routledge)
6. Get Your War Onby David Rees (Soft Skull)
7. Franklin Flyerby Nicholas Christopher (Dial)
8. Great White Fathers: The Story of the Obsessive Quest to Create Mt. Rushmoreby John Taliaferro (PublicAffairs)
9. Things You Should Knowby A.M. Homes (HarperCollins)
10. The Necessary Grace to Fallby Gina Ochsner (University of Georgia),
The Impressionistby Hari Kunzru (Dutton)
The Heaven of Mercuryby Brad Watson (Norton)
The Flathead Indian Reservation has stayed with me since reading Debra Magpie Earling's Perma Red (BlueHen). The smell of spearmint and anise. The vision of Louise White Elk, her red "hair lit to shining." The "sun turned cold, and dark owl days." I dream of this heartbreaking novel, and am relieved to wake.
Amanda Eyre Ward
There are two books I urged upon people this year.
Pipe Dreams: Greed, Ego, and the Death of Enronby Robert Bryce (PublicAffairs):
Bryce's history of the decline and fall, or rather the pumpin' and poppin', of the diseased energy-trading leviathan is amusing, appalling, and crystal clear. Enron was a white-collar riot -- a looting spree with stock options. Jeff Skilling's slogan, for the gas pipe company he took over, was that he was going to turn it into an "asset-less enterprise." This, it turns out, is what robbers do with pistols in convenience stores.
Big If by Mark Costello (Norton): There was no The Corrections this year, no Underworld. There was, however, Costello's novel, which was better than DeLillo's last novel, and surely ranks up there with, say, Players. The plot, which centers on the Secret Service contingent guarding an unnamed, but very guessable, VP making a presidential run, has that great bad-acid paranoid style. Costello loves the mercury shimmer of techno-speak, he loves odd expertise, he loves the gap between America's "symbol workers" and its symbols. He loves the disconnect.
Favorite bookish things in 2002: checking out Lyndon the Great's fab neckties in Robert Caro's Master of the Senate (Knopf); subbing for James Carlos Blake at the April Texas Monthly Book Club; capering with Richard Stark in his boffo Breakout (Mysterious Press); communing with the Cherokees in David Marion Wilkinson's Oblivion's Altar (New American Library); scoring with W.K. Stratton's Backyard Brawl: Inside the Blood Feud Between Texas and Texas A&M (Crown); and at Bouchercon, meeting Steve Oliver, author of Dead Men and Moody Sings the Blues.
A smart, swift blend of memoir and poetry, To Be the Poet (Harvard University) gives us novelist Maxine Hong Kingston's wry insights into the "happy," "easy" life of the poet. "Poets are always happy," she declares, and the book celebrates the difficulty and roaming richness of the writer's life.
Paul Auster's 10th novel, The Book of Illusions (Holt), considers how individual desires and dreams seldom match up with necessities and realities. A youngish comp lit professor who has lost his wife and sons to a plane crash wants to die -- or rather, he doesn't want to live. But his obscure book about an equally obscure silent film actor/auteur triggers events that bring him face to face with the dying filmmaker and provide context for his own life and loss. The Book of Illusions is at once gritty and literary and entertaining. Auster remains one of our most consistently brilliant writers.
Atonement (Doubleday) by Ian McEwan: This hyped and acclaimed novel deserves all of the praise it has received. I was struck especially by a passage early in the novel: Briony, a 13-year-old budding writer who will tell a lie that will have shattering consequences for many characters, wonders, "Was everyone else really as alive as she was?" It's an egotistical thought every writer -- every person -- has had but would never admit to ever having. This novel, as only a great work of fiction can, succeeds in showing that everyone is as alive as Briony and that "the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated."
An English country estate, a girl named Briony, and cocktail-saturated Brits on holiday: The first hundred pages of Atonement feel too much like Jane Austen, and too little like the dark, brooding author of Amsterdam. The precious, delicately wrought opening, however, only makes the machinations of young Briony's mind that much more compelling -- and disturbing. Ian McEwan, with just a touch of postmodern trickery, follows the trajectory of Briony's life to ponder the very nature of sin, guilt, and, ultimately, atonement.
For the year's local bestsellers, please see the Litera section of Arts listings