Books Top Tens
JANUARY 12, 1998:
You should hear the grumbling. "Top Tens -- bleah!" Still, there's nothing
like an annual rehash to put the old year in its place. The thing is, unlike the
two hours spent in a movie house or at a stage production, or three hours seeing
a live band, reading a book is a true commitment of time, almost like deciding to
take a new lover. This is what you'll be intimate with, what you'll be spending your
evenings and spare time with, this is what will engage your thoughts, maybe even
coloring the world around you for a while.
It's tough, then, to tell reviewers to choose a Top Ten for books. "I barely
had time to read 10 books!" some complained. This is true; you can watch several
films or plays or bands in the time it takes to finish one book -- that's why we
embrace reading as such a luxury. It's like driving alone in your car, a solitary,
deeply gratifying indulgence.
Hearing me complain about the Top Tens, Chronicle reviewer Stewart
Wade suggested a kind of poll instead, questions to reflect the state of books and
book publishing last year. Aha! The light bulb went off, the e-mail was sent, and
the responses came flooding back. This is how writers Anna Hanks, Michael Bertin,
Jay Hardwig, Adrienne Martini, Jesse Sublett, Marion Winik, and Claiborne Smith saw
1997. Welcome to 1998. -- Margaret Moser
WHAT NEW BOOK BROUGHT YOU THE MOST ENJOYMENT IN 1997 AND WHY?
AH: I loved Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kristen Bakis. It is the
story of a future New York, where dogs with money, fame, great clothing, and surgical
enhancement can do no wrong. Call it magical realism.
JH: Peter Matthiessen's Lost Man's River. I've just started on this
book about murder and memory in the frontier Everglades, and it brims with the elegant
prose, striking characteri/zation, and moral complexity that has made Matthiessen
famous. The sequel to 1990's Killing Mister Watson, it promises to
be a very satisfying read indeed, and an auspicious start to 1998.
JS: Comeback by Richard Stark. No
doubt about it. I even remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard that,
after a 20-year absence, Donald Westlake had resurrected his fabulous creation, the
hardboiled professional criminal, Parker, and the pen name he uses (Richard Stark)
when he writes of this character. The book, the latest in a long line of brilliant,
tough, and tautly plotted caper novels by Westlake, not only lived up to its high
expectations but in my excitement, I decided to write a feature on Westlake which
got me reading his other brilliant book of 1997, which is The Ax, the
story of an average middle-aged executive who, after being downsized out of his job,
resorts to murder. All he wants is his old job and his old life back, and he'll kill
however many people it takes to get it.
MW: Two books I was utterly charmed by: Le Divorce by Diane Johnson
and Do The Windows Open?by Julie Hecht. Fun, funny, and so smart.
MB: The Teatherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner. This is probably
as much a result of my inability to get around to reading anything released this
year as it is a reflection of how good Teatherballs is. Nonetheless,
Leyner has an uncanny ability to dump the encyclopedic contents of his memory into
the blender of his brain and pour it out on the page into bizarre, flamboyant stories
that are interesting beyond the simple juxtaposition of otherwise completely unrelated
stuff. Reading Leyner is kind of like surveying the aftermath of a linguistic explosion.
Plus, it's funny.
AM: Bujold's Memory by Lois McMaster. Originally, I ended up reading
this book to write a review of all of the Hugo 1997 nominees. Fortunately, Memory
was my gateway to all of Bujold's books and lead to a year-end burst of playing
catch-up with all of her work. For years I had heard that Bujold wrote good, meaty
space operas with great character development but hadn't picked up one of her many
novels, either those part of the Miles Vorkosigan saga or stand-alones. Unfortunately,
I've now read them all and am anxiously waiting for my next fix, due in the summer
MM: Feeling a little gun-shy from the influx of must-read literature (and also
guilty over having enjoyed The Rules so much), I found Patricia Kennealy-Morrison's
Blackmantle absorbing, romantic, and illuminating. Morrison's 17th
century fantasy epic deftly blends Celtic mythology, science fiction, and pop culture
in a way that is engrossing and wicked. Doors fans know author Morrison as the woman
who married Doors singer Jim Morrison in a handfasting ceremony in 1970, as revealed
in her autobiography Strange Days, which I first trashed and then reversed
my position on. Think of Blackmantle then, as Strange Days
in outer space, and brush up on your anagrams and Doors trivia. (Hint: Loris Venöet
= Oliver Stone)
CS: Since I generally don't make New Year's resolutions, let me offer a hope I
have for 1998: I hope I remove Serge Schmemann's Echoes of a Native Land: Two
Centuries of a Russian Village from my nightstand where I placed it in the
vain hope that I might get some of it read before sleeping and place it instead on
my desk, where it is more certain to be read. Doubtlessly the title alone has induced
some of you to sleep, but this account of The New York Times foreign
correspondent's Russian forebears during pre-revolutionary feudal life to revolutionary
fervor to civil war and present life, told through the history of Sergiyevskoye,
now Koltsovo, 90 miles south of Moscow, is told in an engrossing manner.
WHAT OLD OR REISSUED BOOK BROUGHT YOU THE MOST ENJOYMENT IN 1997 AND WHY?
AH: My favorite "old" book is probably David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens. I really like the way that the narrative is drawn out, yet fiercely
JH: "Old" books are mostly what I read, and I've read several great
ones this year. Honors probably go to the Texas classic Goodbye to a River,
Robert Graves' simple and eloquent farewell to a now-vanished world. Other highlights
included William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows, Cormac McCarthy's
Outer Dark, and Louis de Berniere's The War of Don Emmanuel's
MM: 1997 was a year in which I found solace re-reading familiar books from my
childhood, and nothing was more pleasurable for me than George S. MacDonald's The
Princess and The Goblins. It reminded me of how blessed we are to have books
that can do such magical things as transport us to any point in space or time, and
that children's books need not be written in a cutesy manner. I was also completely
entranced by Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series of recent years.
JS: My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue by Sam Chamberlain.
After his adventures in love and war during the Mexican War, Bostonian Sam Chamberlain
spent the remaining years of his life writing and illustrating his memoirs of his
fabulous adventures in the Southwest, including his stint with the scalp-hunting
gang of John Glanton, which formed the basis for the classic, legendary novel Blood
Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. This book is too wild and weird for it all to be true,
but it doesn't really matter, says historian Bill Goetzmann, who edited this first
unexpurgated version of Chamberlain's memoirs and also wrote a very lively, illuminating
introduction. It's still one of the best informed, and certainly one of the most
unique, documents of its kind.
MW: I finally read Angela's Ashes and it is everything you've heard
and more. Also enjoyed discovering the early writings of Erma Bombeck, and The
Hobbit, of all things, which was the bedtime story around here for about
MB: Independent People by Hallador Laxness. Independent People,
the creation of one of the world's least recognizable Nobel laureates, had been out
of print for decades until its 1997 reissue. At the most basic level, it's a book
about sheep and a stubbornly stupid Icelandic crofter. Yet, through subject matter
that almost nobody can identify with first hand, Laxness deftly manipulates the themes
that come to write themselves upon all of our lives. While that's the hallmark of
any good book, Laxness manages to do it with remarkable subtlety through a completely
obvious character. It's a rare read.
AM: Robert A. Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon -- I somehow managed
to miss this book when I was going through my Heinlein phase and was thrilled to
discover a "new" book from an old, sadly dead, master of the genre. While
this Roc reissue of an out-of-print classic is not Heinlein's best, it is a wonderful
reminder that the man deserved all of the praise that has been lofted his way.
CS: Harvest Books, an imprint of Harcourt Brace & Co. reprinted Italo Calvino's
short story collection, Difficult Loves, from its original 1958 publication
date. In fact, Harvest didn't reprint the book in paperback in 1997, but since that's
when I found it, it becomes my favorite "old" book of 1997, principally
because Calvino is so slyly humorous and adept at making small details reveal larger
WHAT WAS THE BIGGEST LITERARY DISAPPOINTMENT OR MOST OVERRATED BOOK OF1997?
AH: Close to the Bone: Memoirs of hurt, rage and desire, edited by
Laurie Stone. With the exception of Baby Doll by 17-year-old writer
Terminator, this is a bunch of over-educated whiny Americans pitying
themselves because their parents didn't love them enough. Get over it.
JH: It was published in '94, paperbacked in '95, but '97 was the year that David
Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars hit the used bookstores and henceforth
my home. Raved over by critics, devoured by my friends, praised by almost all the
literate people I know, I found Snow to be a rather tepid courtroom
drama of fair-to-middling merit. What's wrong with me?
JS: I don't have any. There were too many good books to read in 1997 to waste
time on the bad ones.
MW: The incredible furor surrounding Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss
fascinated and disturbed me, but left me with no desire to read the book: a sort
of literary equivalent of the O.J. trial.
MB: Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry. This is a bit unfair as I didn't
even finish the book, but that's the very reason McMurtry earns this distinction.
Just like with Mailer's Harlot's Ghost a couple of years back, slugging
through the first half of Comanche Moon became such a chore that I
abandoned the thing altogether less than halfway through.
AM: Stephen King's Desperation/The Regulators -- Okay, okay, technically
these books came out in 1996. What can I say, it's been a busy year. I'm sure that
the lack of merits of these novels has been endlessly debated but I feel the need
to add my two cents. I know King can do much, much better than this but probably
got locked in the same kind of time pressure that haunts us all. Come on, a demon
god from below the earth that inhabits peoples' bodies and kills anyone who stands
in its way while delivering a thinly veiled message about the nature of God? It's
high time for the great Mr. King to prove he's worth his $80 mil.
CS: I wish there had been more to Allan Gurganus' Plays Well With Others
than there was.
WHAT WAS THE MOST INTERESTING TREND IN LITERATURE OR PUBLISHING?
AH: In some senses, the most interesting trend is the rise
of the memoir. I've always loved the form. (Confessions of a Failed Southern
Lady by Florence King is one of my all-time Top Ten books.) And, as many
others have pointed out, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt was stunning
JH: If nothing else, '97 was a good year for bookmarks. My mother, an inveterate
mystery reader and connosieur of bookmarks, regularly sent me markers of all shapes,
sizes, and intents, invariably with a yellow Post-It proclaiming, "These are
neat!" And generally they were. As far as publishing, the continuing trend away
from serious literature and towards mass-market bestsellers, even by the small houses,
is a little depressing (but hard to fault from a purely capitalist perspective).
MM: The depressing rock & roll-ization of book packaging. Books covers are
starting to read and look more like album covers, and carry that
Gen-X patina of hip design, which dates itself in six months. The problem is symptomatic
of the general trend in publishing to rush out so many titles that flashy colors
and fonts are more of a concern than content and craft. I love to hold a Modern Library
volume or a Knopf Vintage re-issue in my hand and marvel at its simplicity and modesty.
JS: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I found it very interesting
that an achingly slow-paced, literary novel of the Civil War would dominate the top
of the bestsellers list for so long. It's on my reading table but I haven't gotten
past the first two chapters yet. I'm sure it's a good book, but I'm always surprised
when I check the bestsellers list and see it's still there.
MW: Cool stuff for booklovers online: like AOL's Book Report, and the amazing
MB: I am tormented by the fact that Oprah Winfrey has become the most important
voice in books in this country. The horror. The horror.
AM: Endless science fiction series is actually an old trend that grew even stronger
in 1997. Robert Jordan, Bujold, Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett, Anne McCaffrey, Dan
Simmons... the list just keeps growing. I understand how difficult it is to build
a new world, develop characters, and finish all of the story in 300 pages. Fans fall
in love with these creations, never want to see them end and will buy any collection
of pages that comes their way. Despite that, it's kind of disturbing that these writers,
and their publishers, will continue a saga even long after all of the energy is played
out and the magic has left no forwarding address. But it's hard to roundly condemn
the phenomenon as a whole. In the hands of some writers, these streams of books are
incredible each time at bat.
CS: Please don't ever make me read another memoir!
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE HAPPEN IN OR TO THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY?
AH: Better editing. My review copies are often red-penciled
due to an obvious lack of proper editing. Often the prose is as bloated as Orson
Welles after an eggnog binge.
JH: I would like to see more good quality humor -- damn funny stuff that doesn't
insult the public intelligence. Less of stand-up comics rehashing stale one-liners
and more of the subtler (but no less savage) wit found in only the best of the humorous
novels and essays. May '98 find me chuckling.
MM: More judicious editing.
JS: Smaller books! For a while it seemed that no matter how shallow or vacuous
the book, a new hardcover book had to be the size of a cinderblock or it wasn't taken
seriously. Then, one day I'm at the bookstore and I see a book called The Right
Man for the Job, by Mike Magnuson. It's bright orange and has a gas can on
the cover and its relatively petite 8"x5" size fits right in the palm of
my hand. A real friendly feel. Coincidentally, the contents of the book are good,
too. Other books this year that were small on the outside but huge on the inside
included Comeback by Richard Stark; Lives of the Monster Dogs
by Kirsten Bakis; Gone Fishing by Walter Mosely; Where Trouble
Sleeps by Clyde Edgerton; Monitor by James T. deKay; and Sandman
by J. Robert Janes. Could this be a trend? I hope so. There will always be exceptions,
books that demand to be big, but some books really ought to fit in
your hand, all the better to get inside your mind. Also, although the publishing
industry doesn't have a whole lot to do with it, I love the Internet versions of
the Sunday editions of The New York Times Book Review and the Los
Angeles Times Book Review, with their online first chapters, RealTime author
interviews, and selected archives of past reviews and features on spotlighted authors.
With that kind of stuff available, Sunday morning reading can last all week.
MW: I would like superstores not to crush independents, bestsellers not to crush
midlist authors, and I would like Oprah Winfrey to try, somehow, to make amends with
me when my new book, The Lunch-Box Chronicles, comes out in April.
MB: Fewer "P is for Psycho" books foisted upon the world, please.
AM: Soon, the giants of the publishing industry are going to collapse under their
own weight. These monoliths have gotten just too large and unwieldy to do the job
well and seem to simply be hemorrhaging money. It is the small publishers who are
picking up the slack, gaining momentum, and keeping the business as personal as possible.
I would love to see more and more of these companies who fly under the radar to keep
the marketplace vital and diverse.
CS: Please don't ever make me read another memoir! n
NOTABLE EVENTS IN THE NATIONAL AND LOCAL SPOKEN-WORD SCENE
by Phil West
1. The passing of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.
This is perhaps the most significant year for loss in recent contemporary spoken-word
history, for not only were Ginsberg and Burroughs two of the most notable graduates
of the Beat movement, but many contemporary spoken-word artists have used these two
writers' works as an entrance to discovering and shaping their own voices. Ginsberg,
who died in April, and Burroughs, who died in August, were undoubtedly accomplished
writers, yet so much of their appeal lay in their ability to graft their own voices
to their work when they read. We can still read them on the page, but save for their
recorded output, we will no longer have the opportunity to hear Ginsberg's droll,
Puckish rhythms or Burroughs' gravelly, sinister intonations.
2. The kindness of the benefit.
Although the local poetry scene has had its fractures and skirmishes in the past
few years, the scene has admirably coalesced around two of its own in recent months.
When local performance poet Vicky Charleston was struck with temporary blindness
this fall, making her unable to work or even read from the page, poets came together
to organize a December benefit at the Victory Grill which not only raised a significant
sum of money, but showed how compassionate Austin artists can be when faced with
the challenge of shocking setback. Poets also staged two December benefits for former
Blue Plate Poet Pasha, who continues a valiant battle with cancer, and if the trend
of compassion continues, the community would do well to come to the aid of Christina
Sergeyevna, who had to step down from repeating her tireless and magnificent work
in organizing the 1997 Austin International Poetry Festival when she experienced
a heart attack and bypass surgery last month.
3. The Sister Spit Tour.
This was, in a year of impressive tours, the show of the year for its size, scope,
and inspiration. A troupe of San Francisco-based lesbian poets crammed into a festively
painted van this past spring, released a CD on spoken-word label Mouth Almighty,
and charmed audiences across the country (including an amazing showcase at the Electric
Lounge) with work that dealt poignantly with both lesbian-specific issues and a more
universal, far-reaching artistry.
4. The awarding of the 1998 National Poetry Slam to Austin organizers.
Not to toot my own horn here, but toot toot toot. As a co-director of the upocming
August event, I can confidently say that the combination of support from the City
Of Austin, local arts organizations, and the Chronicle, in addition
to the infrastructure and potential audiences that already exist in Austin, lays
the foundation for what could be one of the most memorable spoken-word showcases
in Austin history. And with Nationals coming on the heels on the ever-growing South
By Southwest spoken-word showcase and the ever-improving Austin International Poetry
Festival, 1998 looks like it might just be a banner year for live poetry in the live
NOTABLE BOOKS OF 1997
by Jesse Sublett
The Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John Lomax, by Nolan Porterfield.
Darn good biography of an eccentric, unusual, essential man.
A Sniper in the Tower: the Charles Whitman Murders by Gary M. Lavergne.
Excellent historical biography, should be required reading for all Texans and people
who wonder what the hell happened to the world in the Sixties.
The Alamo: An Epic by Michael Lind. I have avoided this book like
the plague. I know I must read it some day. Did anyone ever suggest that we needed
an epic of the Alamo? These days, "epic" is a term rarely used except to
describe a TV mini-series. Somehow, I think I'll grow to like this but it will never
replace Tex Ritter's version of the story.
All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. He's a Southern boy. He
loves his mama. He sure can turn a phrase. Buy his book.
The Slave Narratives of Texas, edited by Ron Tyler and Lawrence
R. Murphy. After you've seen Amistad, read this book. It's not exactly
cheery reading, but it might dispell some illusions about how slave life in Texas
"wasn't all that bad" compared to elsewhere. Another in a long line of
important historical books from our local, beloved State House Press.
Night Passage, by Robert B. Parker. Parker test-drives his new series
character, Jesse Stone, with a cross-country trip from L.A. to New England, where
he seeks to start over as a small town sheriff and leave his past behind. It's interesting
to see which ideas Parker has left behind and which ones he's chosen to repeat in
this new series, which comes out of the gate like a sure-fire winner.
Underworld by Don DeLillo. No, I haven't finished it. Too busy reading
all those small books. But it starts off with a bang, pun intended. DeLillo is a
killer, no doubt about it.
Already Dead: A California Gothic by Denis Johnson. If you're already
a Denis Johnson fan, you must have this book. If you're not, you might do better
to start off with Jesus' Son or Resuscitation of a Hanged Man,
novels that succeed more thoroughly. This one starts off great but runs out of steam
and turns into a tower of new age babble midway. I still thought the first third
of the book was well worth the cover price, though, and I still think Johnson is
one of America's best novelists.
Taking Charge, edited by Michael R. Beschloss. My hero, Lyndon B.
Johnson, kicks ass and takes names. The proof is in the pudding and on the tapes.
What more do you need to know?
Trunk Music by Michael Connelly. Connelly proves once again that
there's still plenty of life left in that old dog known as the police procedural,
Southern California hard-boiled style. Connelly is a writer who walks the fine line
between tradition and cutting edge postmodern angst, and weaves a fabric tougher
than Kevlar and darker than a mist- and cordite-enshrouded Southern California night.
TOP TEN SCIENCE FICTION BOOKS THAT I FOUND TIME TO READ IN 1997
by Adrienne Martini
- The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
- The Trinity Vector by Steve Perry
- Lifehouse by Spider Robinson
- Half the Day Is Night by Maureen F.McHugh
- Zod Wallop by William Browning Spencer
- A Song of Stone by Iain Banks
- Slow River by Nicola Griffith
- Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and
- Outside the Dog Museum by Jonathan Carroll
- Bellwether by Connie Willis
FAVORITE BOOKS OF THE YEAR
by Marion Winik
- Le Divorce by Diane Johnson
- Do The Windows Open? by Julie Hecht
- Naked by David Sedaris
- Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
- American Pastoral by Philip Roth
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
- Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl
- The Ordinary Seaman by Francisco Goldman
- How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Bouton