- Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, by Laurence
Bergreen (Broadway Books). This straightforward biography doesn't have the
perspective on Louis Armstrong's music that a jazz writer could offer (for
that, read Gary Giddins's Satchmo), and Bergreen has been accused of a
series of factual flubs. But Armstrong mattered to millions to people who never
gave a thought to jazz as an art form, or as anything else for that matter.
This long, continuously absorbing book reminds you of the pleasures to be had
from a writer who knows how to lay out a story (the section on Armstrong's New
Orleans upbringing is particularly vivid). And by putting his trust in an
accumulation of detail to paint a picture of his subject, Bergreen gets a
portrait of something else: the well-deep complexities that can lurk in artists
whose appeal cuts across boundaries of race, class, and taste.
- Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964,
edited by Michael R. Beschloss (Simon and Schuster). I don't mean to
belittle the first volume of transcripts of LBJ's private White House
conversations by saying that this is a very entertaining book. Johnson, the
century's most underrated president, was his voice, and it's all here,
insulting, flattering, cajoling, pressuring. My favorite moment is one of no
historical import, a call to New York City mayor Robert Wagner 80 minutes
before Wagner's wife died of cancer. "I'd walk up there nekkid if there was
something I could do," Johnson tells Wagner, and you think, "Jesus! What would
it mean to have a leader who says exactly what he feels?"
- Resident Alien: The New York Diaries, by Quentin Crisp
(Alyson). Chatter of a very high order, and wit that's almost always
generous. In the guise of a diary, Crisp has written a luxuriantly entertaining
and keen piece of bemused and grateful social criticism. He sees life in his
adopted home of New York City as a comedy of large-spirited and kind manners.
"I have said no one is boring who will tell the truth about themselves," Crisp
writes. Here is a supremely unboring man, and the only British queen worth
- American Nomad, by Steve Erickson (Henry Holt). With the
most unsettling first sentence of the year, "America wearies of democracy,"
Steve Erickson's chronicle of the 1996 election comes close to doing for that
year what Norman Mailer did for '68 and what he and Hunter S. Thompson did in
'72. The most lucid and penetrating analysis of our current political psyche
that any journalist has come up with, American Nomad is a book that will
give no comfort to either conservatives or liberals. And apart from the writers
capable of eloquent righteous rage, that may be the most valuable sort of
- Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women, by Lydia Flem,
translated by Catherine Temerson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Part literary
criticism, part journey through the 12 volumes of Casanova's Histoire de ma
vie, Lydia Flem's book makes the case that the name of Casanova should
stand for pleasure pursued with reckless generosity, the determination to give
as much as has been received, whether the giver can afford it or not. Writing
in rich, atmospheric prose, Flem understands that anyone truly worthy of being
called a Casanova has been willing to wreck his life for the love of women. A
deeply civilized reimagining of an amazing life.
- Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer (Villard). We've
probably all seen the sort of adventure movies where the hero, finding himself
in a tight spot, says, "So, this is Hell." Jon Krakauer's book, one of the most
authentically nightmarish experiences any book or movie or song has given me,
introduces us to a Hell that keeps getting worse. Outside magazine sent
Krakauer to go along on one of the guided expeditions to the top of Mount
Everest. Minutes after the group had reached the summit, a blizzard hit the
mountain and killed 11 people in the various expeditions ascending to the peak.
Krakauer burrows into the brand of masochistic asceticism peculiar to mountain
climbing: the way climbers equate physical pain with purity of spirit. And
without breast beating or finger pointing, he captures the acts of bravery and
selfishness from his fellow climbers, sometimes both types of behavior from the
same person. I was up half the night finishing this book, and up the other half
trying to put it out of my mind.
- Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, by Greil
Marcus (Henry Holt). In which our finest cultural critic, Greil Marcus,
travels the dirt roads and shanty towns of "the old weird America," a journey
that takes him through Dylan and the Band's "Basement Tapes" and Harry Smith's
seminal Anthology of American Folk Music. This is criticism presented as
mystery story, with the exploration more important than the explanation. Marcus
acknowledges the strangeness of American folk music, the way it allows voices
to declare themselves as acts of reckless individuality and never give up the
dream of community. It's a séance parlor of a book where the window
blinds are letting in light and Houdini himself couldn't find any trick wires.
The best criticism of the year.
- Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell, by
Deborah Solomon (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The patron saint of
Woolworth's, lunch counters, and junk shops, Joseph Cornell was the artist who
transformed American kitsch into the shadow play of dreams. He was an odd bird
and, as Deborah Solomon understands in this gentle and canny biography, a rare
and wonderful one as well. The title comes from the address of his family home
in Queens. Solomon shows that in Cornell's mind, it could belong to any New
York street that held the promise of some treasure waiting to be discovered. A
- Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood, by Eileen
Whitfield (University of Kentucky). Eileen Whitfield's invaluable biography
makes an utterly persuasive case for Mary Pickford as an essential movie artist
whose intuitive dramatic gifts signaled a break from the histrionic stage
emoting that carried over into early movies, gifts that were especially suited
to the poetic lyricism that became the signature of silent films. Combining a
great command of narrative with an unerring perceptiveness, Whitfield tells a
story that encompasses Pickford's early stage years (when she was supporting
the family abandoned by her alcoholic father), her rise as star and one of the
founders of United Artists, her fairytale marriage to Douglas Fairbanks, and
her final years as an alcoholic recluse. Everything you could want in a
biographer as well as a film historian, Whitfield has produced as good a
history of the origins of the movies as I've ever read. The best book, fiction
or nonfiction, I read all year.
- Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness, by Ben Watt
(Grove). The male half of the pop duo Everything But the Girl proves himself a
wonderful writer in this tale of the two and a half months he spent
hospitalized being treated for a rare disease that profoundly altered his life.
A vivid rendering of the sensual experience of illness, Patient
describes the heightened sense of self that sickness entails, yet it never
becomes self-absorbed. With curiosity and becoming modesty, Watt writes of the
touching awkwardness with which his loved ones try to fit themselves into his
drastically altered reality and, as if showing respect for the disease that
seized control of him, were a necessary part of his recovery.