I hate to sound like I'm gloating, like I'm some kind of big shot, but I can practically guarantee that my "best book I've read this year" is better than your "best book I've read this year." That's because my best book may be the best book ever written--or best novel, anyway. I admit this only reluctantly. A semi-bookish man of my (rapidly advancing) age is supposed to have read "Anna Karenina" by now. I hadn't, but when I picked it up a while back and finally waded in, I was dazzled by it for the same reasons people have been dazzled by it for 140 years. Like a few other much-hyped Wonders of the World--the Grand Canyon, Wrigley Field--this one really is as good as they say. And the best part is, I haven't finished reading it yet, and probably won't for several more months, which means that my "best book I've read this year" for next year is already in the bag.
I spent much of this year on a stationary bicycle, training to run a marathon. The main goal was to save wear-and-tear on my creaky knees; a pleasant secondary outcome was that I read more books than in any 12 months since high school. And if I learned anything from wading through dreck such as "The Da Vinci Code" and Bill Bryson's "A Walk in the Woods," it's this: The ratio of good books to all books published is disturbingly similar to that of good TV shows to all shows aired on television.
One of the bright spots was Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's "Live From New York." An oral history of "Saturday Night Live," "Live From New York" is full of brilliant, telling details about the TV industry, the comedy business, and the culture of the '70s. It paints unflattering pictures of Al Franken and Janeane Garofalo (surprise!) and casts, in as the main heel, Chevy Chase.
Writer John Landis recounts a satisfying vignette from the show's second season, when Chase and Bill Murray got into a fistfight on the set. As the two men are being pulled apart, Murray points his finger at Chase and bellows, "Medium talent!" Even Oscar Wilde would have to tip his cap.
--Jonathan V. Last
This was a year of great baseball books, and I'm thinking of "Moneyball" and "Teammates" in particular. But the best book I read in 2003 wasn't new. It was about a charismatic American, an icon, a larger-than-life figure who still ranks as America's greatest athlete. "Babe Ruth" by Robert Creamer was published 20 years ago, and I don't know why I just got around to reading it. A wonderful book, biography at its best.
One regular reviewer, when asked if he has finished reading the book about which he has written so eloquently, will often reply, "Well, I've read in it." "The Devil's Dictionary" is the perfect book for reading in. I read in it at breakfast, forcing myself to savor it one cereal bowl at a time. I loved it from the start, but Ambrose Bierce won my heart at the letter L, when he defines "literally, adv" as "figuratively" and, a bit later, "loquacity, n" as "a disorder which renders the sufferer unable to curb his tongue when you wish to talk." "Leisure, n" is summed up as "lucid intervals in a disordered life." Pick up a copy of "The Devil's Dictionary" in your first "lucid interval" of 2004.
At the bookstore, I sometimes peruse the staff recommendations, for sociological reasons, curious what kind of person would choose to work in hell. But never in my memory had I taken the proffered advice, unable was I to imagine a bookstore clerk whose standards approached my own. Until one day in August. I noticed a short story collection, not even a new one, being hailed and praised from the accompanying handwritten index card. Now the only two reasons I could imagine a short story collection being recommended was that it contained precious artsy crap or that it was written by Big Famous Undeniable Authors like J.D. Salinger, John Updike, Saul Bellow, et cetera.
This was neither, apparently just the early work of a well-established writer whose stuff I hadn't noticed before. I read the first story.
What joy, what friggin' ecstasy I experienced, here in this annoying Barnes & Noble with its dry air, faux-cozy market-tested, interior design, and aisles upon aisles of bad writing. I was in the kingdom of the bestseller and had found a quiet, clever, but joyous writer who wrote with profound care.
The volume was called "Self-Help," an ironic title, and the author was Lorrie Moore. Using a second-person deadpan, the narrator describes her own actions, sometimes as a series of recommendations the reader might follow. In the first story "How to be an Other Woman," it works like this:
You walk differently. In store windows you don't recognize yourself; you are another woman, some crazy interior display lady in glasses stumbling frantic and preoccupied through the mannequins. In public restrooms you sit dangerously flat against the toilet seat, a strange flesh sundae of despair and exhilaration, murmuring into your bluing thighs: "Hello. I'm Charlene, I'm a mistress."
It is like having a book out from the library.
It is like constantly having a book out from the library.
I bought "Self-Help," and devoured it, even while I was in the grip of another love, an ongoing obsession with P.G. Wodehouse, a stack of whose works I was consuming around the same time. Next I got Moore's "Anagrams," a strange but rewarding novel that makes use of the author's gift for puns and teasing words apart for surprising and new, but related, meanings.
As its title suggests, that novel proceeds like a series of anagrams, with varying permutations of characters and circumstance, all of them changing abruptly from one chapter to the next until the kaleidoscopic presentation is explained. Punning, anagramming, linking and de-linking word play were all also prominent in the "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?", the next Moore book I bought, a Christmas gift to myself because other people can't always be trusted to give you what you need. One example of Moore's word play in "Frog Hospital" concerns "atonement," which becomes "At-One-Ment," meaning one with God, in the hokey God-speak of a religious camp where the book's heroine is sent for a summer of moral reform.
It is hard to describe the pleasure of watching Moore's characters halfheartedly grapple for happiness and fulfillment. The adulterer whose prosaically sinful behavior seems devoid of all the badness and zest of actual sin; the reforming teenager who can't dispel the ironic demons that prohibit her from giving herself over to the cornballs at Baptist camp; the wry, self-deluding, single woman whose stated reasons for living are an invented fiction.
Playful, intelligent, excellent, Lorrie Moore is my new favorite writer, or one of them. And now for the new year, I want more, more, more of Lorrie's books.
Although there is no way to know for sure which town suffered the biggest proportional loss on D-Day, there is no denying that Bedford, Virginia, is right up there. With a population at the time of 3,000, Bedford sent 34 of its boys to take part in the liberation of Europe. And within a matter of minutes on June 6, 1944, 19 of them were killed. But only now has this event been recorded in stirring detail by Alex Kershaw in "The Bedford Boys: One American Town's Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice." The personal accounts make for an emotional read, such as when a mother and father learn that both their sons have perished, and when another man refuses to shake his brother's hand because he is confident he will see him on the beach--only to later find his dog tag in a makeshift grave. As survivor Roy Stevens put it, "Freedom is not free." We owe it to them to remember the price they paid.
Biographies of American military figures typically emphasize the influence their subject has had on the outcome of this battle or that war, recounting stories of heroics on the battlefield, tactical inspiration at HQ, or strategic genius in Washington. Robert Coram, however, in "Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War," his well balanced examination of the life and work of John Boyd, focuses not on the man's combat experiences, nor the revolution he spurred in dog-fighting tactics (though this is perhaps the most inspirational and awe-inspiring aspect of Boyd's work), but rather his persistent struggle to overcome obsolete Air Force doctrines and an obstinate Air Force bureaucracy and thus refine the very mission of the Air Force. For those of us with an insatiable appetite for all things martial, Coram serves up an exotic dish, providing insight into the opaque world of procurement and design, the intrigues of the Pentagon, and the most exceptional and unrenowned John Boyd, father of the F-16 and the A-10, and undisputed champion of the Air Force's Top Gun, Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB.
Was a nation ever blessed with a better group of writers than Russia was in the 19th century? A few other eras and countries stand out, I suppose: 16th century England, maybe, or Athens in the 5th century. But in both Elizabeth's England and Pericles's Athens, you could argue, one or two writers so towered above the rest that they elevated the reputations of their contemporaries in the process.
Not so with post-emancipation Russia. Sure, that epoch has its greats--Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for example--but I'm always stunned by the genius of the time's less-celebrated scribes.
If you read Ivan Turgenev's "Fathers and Sons" (1862), you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. Granted, you can't really say that Turgenev is ignored these days; pretty much everyone agrees that "Fathers and Sons" is a masterpiece. But the novel is still a reminder of the abundance of great Russian writers.
The best thing about Turgenev is his style. Richard Freeborn's translation captures the fluid simplicity of the master's sentences, which, in their own way, mirror the placid Russian countryside. And pay attention to Turgenev's silences: His characters--from Arkady, the student, to Bazarov, the nihilist, to Pavel Petrovich, the embittered aristocrat--spend so much time not speaking, their thoughts unrevealed to the reader, that it's a wonder anything happens. But the effect of these silences is stunning; they humanize the characters, and foster a sense of intimacy. "Fathers and Sons" is political, but not preachy; historical, but not dated. It's also, as it happens, the best book I read in 2003.
On Christmas Day I unwrapped a gift that turned out to be Pat Conroy's "My Losing Season." Conroy played basketball for the Citadel, and the book tells the story of his final season--one in which he started at point guard. The team was supposed to do well but didn't, yet it provided the basic material for a heckuva book. It's about sports, it's about literature, it's about perseverance against the odds--and more. You'll read it fast.
Eddie, a disillusioned war veteran, is the protagonist of Mitch Albom's new book, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven." The 83-year-old Eddie carries out a lonely, monotonous, and what he believes to be meaningless existence fixing rides at a seaside amusement park. The story opens when he is killed trying to save a little girl from a falling roller coaster cart.
When he wakes up in heaven, he finds that it's not paradise, but a place where light is shed on his life on earth by five people--some of whom he never met. As the five people explain the unseen connections and meaning in his life, Eddie desperately tries to find out whether or not his last act on Earth was successful. The last person Eddie meets reveals the answer, and the deeper purpose of all his years at the amusement park.
Jane Stanton Hitchcock's "Social Crimes" differs from the scores of other lightweight tales involving money and murder. Playing on the timeless theme of an older wife being dumped for a much younger mistress, Hitchcock offers the tale of Jo Slater, who is living comfortably and happily in Manhattan and the Hamptons, until the French countess Monique de Passy enters her life. Jo befriends the woman and soon thereafter, Jo's husband is dead and he has left his entire estate to Monique. Jo's fall from society (she has to take cabs now, instead of chauffeur driven cars, not to mention being forced into wearing old couture dresses) and her attempts to expose Monique as a seductress and murderer constitute the bulk of the story, with the pages turning very quickly at the end.
Janet Fitch's debut novel, "White Oleander," is by far the most captivating book I've read this year. It tells the story of Ingrid, an eccentric poet and single mother imprisoned for murdering her boyfriend (she poisons him), and her 13-year-old daughter, Astrid, who is shuffled from one dysfunctional Los Angeles foster home to another. Astrid finds herself in one heartbreaking scenario after another, but eventually makes peace with her mother, who, even while in jail, remains (quite literally) a poisonous, though vital, presence in her daughter's life.
The book was recently made into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer (as Ingrid), Alison Lohman (as Astrid), and Renée Zellweger (as one of Astrid's many foster moms), but the film does not even begin to do this gracefully written, highly symbolic novel justice.
Who has time to read books? In any case, books are so . . . second millennium. And most of them are overrated. And so many of them are too long. So, here's an idea: Read really good magazines--e.g., The Weekly Standard (subscribe here). And have a good year.