Like many other things, our reading life had a big hole in it in 2001. For about two months after Sept. 11, we read nothing but books about Afghanistan, terrorism and the Middle East (our two top recommendations: Ahmed Rashid’s still-relevant “Taliban” and Peter Bergen’s “Holy War, Inc.”). When we snapped out of it in mid-November, we had a lot of catching up to do, which is why this time around Salon’s annual book awards are coming out a bit late.
It was a great year for fiction, mostly because of a handful of deep, true, funny and otherwise wonderful books rather than an abundance of pretty darn good ones. Nonfiction, which usually sneaks up and steals our hearts away at the end of the year, offered fewer enthralling page-turners and more substantive fare. Since we’ve always made it a policy to offer you a 10-best list without spinach — noble endeavors are welcome but they must be slog-free — we wound up disqualifying many worthy, important and otherwise influential tomes if we felt they couldn’t beguile us through this year’s especially unsettled hours of air travel.
The result is, as always, a list of favorites, books we loved even if they seem like long shots for making it onto any future Ivy League syllabi. (Nevertheless, we won’t be surprised if some of them do just that.) We had a weakness for books that made us laugh this year — and who can blame us? — but also books that wrestled with eternal questions, from the nature of philosophy to relations between the sexes. The best books do some of both, and here is our list of the ones that did it for us.
In a year filled to the brim with pointless deaths, the loss of W.G. Sebald in an automobile accident in December seems a cruelly excessive final note. It has become common to describe his much-praised novels as indescribable, but they are actually very much like having hours of the loveliest, most fascinating conversation of your life with a soft-spoken gentlemen met by chance on a train traveling from Vienna to Paris. Only after he gets off at his stop and leaves you to lean back in your seat and contemplate the seemingly aimless wanderings of his talk do the pieces fall into place and you realize he’s given you a portrait of a man, his life and, in some miraculous way, the soul of Europe itself. “Austerlitz,” which traces the friendship of two men who meet in just such a way, unspools the history of its title character, an art professor of mysterious parentage raised in Britain. That Austerlitz’s investigation into the riddle of his past leads him into the darkness at the center of his lost homeland doesn’t keep the novel from being suffused with an uncanny and unforgettable light.
Salon’s original review | More on W.G. Sebald
By Ann Patchett
Never underestimate the skill required to execute a perfect entertainment. And don’t think that’s all Ann Patchett has done in writing “Bel Canto.” It’s the story of a motley international group — 57 men plus one woman, an operatic soprano with an incandescent voice — and the guerrillas who hold them hostage for months in the vice-presidential mansion of an unnamed Latin American nation, and in it Patchett weds a preposterously extravagant plot to her own mordant view of human nature. It shouldn’t work, but it does, and the alchemy found in the combination of opera’s overblown passions with the kind of sensibility that can’t ignore such practical matters as the need for clean underwear gives “Bel Canto” a glimmering tartness. Even the novel’s unlikeliest minor characters — a music-mad priest, a cranky Swiss hostage negotiator, the homebodyish vice president — breathe. With opera mixed up in the proceedings there has to be love here, and death as well, but the sum of those two elements is heartbreakingly unpredictable to the very end.
Salon’s original review
By Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
The Lamberts sont nous, if by “us” you mean the average American family trying to figure out a way to live honorably in a world of leveraged buyouts, pharmaceutically engineered moods, dot-com scams, mix-and-match lifestyles and sexual identities, and the cult of Christmas. In this saga of a befuddled Midwestern family, Franzen manages to achieve something remarkable and possibly unprecedented: a merciless satirical look at contemporary life that’s also fundamentally generous and human. Epic yet intimate, smart but not cold, “The Corrections” is also a piece of mesmerizing prose, virtuosic enough to cause a reader to pause in admiration of a sentence or passage, but never so flashy that you feel the book is slowing down to let the author show off. Sure, we’ve heard cranky skeptics complain about the publicity surrounding this novel, but aside from a little contretemps with a certain talk show host, the “hype” mostly consists of lots and lots of radiant reviews. Why so many good reviews, the suspicious ask? Um, get over yourselves. The reason why so many people love this book is simple enough: It’s terrific.
Salon’s original review | An interview with Jonathan Franzen | More on Jonathan Franzen
John Henry Days
By Colson Whitehead
John Henry was a late 19th-century folk hero, a hammer-wielding railroad worker of towering strength who challenged a steam drill to a steel-driving race and won. J. Sutter is a hack journalist halfheartedly going for the “junketeering” record by racking up the most consecutive days of scamming free food, drink and other perks. John Henry inspired a legendary ballad. J. gets hired by travel Web sites to write up festivals celebrating commemorative stamps — in this case, one honoring John Henry. Colson Whitehead’s brilliant, restless novel is about what happens when a cynical, opportunistic, media-steeped product of the Information Age gets rubbed up against the mythic dignity of America’s past. What does it mean to strive for something bigger than yourself in a world where one of your friends loses his eye to another writer’s finger in “a tragic ironic quotes accident”? The fact that both the old-time hero and the present-day freelancer are black only complicates and enriches the novel’s wit. Yes, Whitehead writes about race in a way that feels entirely fresh, but then, he writes about everything else that way, too.
Salon’s original review | More on Colson Whitehead
Stranger Things Happen
By Kelly Link
Small Beer Press
An intrepid young woman described only as the Girl Detective, seeks her long-lost mother by paying a visit to the Underworld. A woman whose boyfriend went out to buy a pack of cigarettes and was last seen getting into the Snow Queen’s sleigh embarks on a bloody-minded journey with the intention of dragging him back — or at least of giving him a piece of her mind. A librarian falls in love with a girl whose parents, between the two of them, have a wooden nose, a wooden leg and a barnful of sinister black dogs. A not very good husband who can’t quite remember his wife’s name writes her woebegone letters from the deserted seaside hotel he’s beginning to suspect might be a waystop on the path to the next world. Besotted newlyweds watch a televised beauty pageant whose contestants seem not entirely human (especially Miss New Jersey, who has horns and a tail). Kelly Link’s exquisite stories mix the aggravations and epiphanies of everyday life with the stuff that myths, dreams and nightmares are made of. Some of them are very scary, others are immensely sad, many are funny and all of them are written in prose so flawless you almost forget how much elemental human chaos they contain.
Salon’s original review | An interview with Kelly Link
By Paula Fox
It’s a hard-knock life novelist Paula Fox recounts in this memoir, from being farmed out to a series of foster homes (in New York, Cuba, Hollywood) by her feckless parents to enduring the implacable enmity of her baffling mother to struggling as a young woman to survive in crummy jobs during the 1940s and ’50s, but this is no tale of woe. In fact, the tale is almost beside the point; “Borrowed Finery” consists of some of the most perfect prose published last year, as pristine and silvery as a mountain brook in the moonlight. It’s sometimes tempting just to let Fox’s pure sentences wash over you and rinse away the trashy, ephemeral jangle of contemporary life, but then you’d miss the author’s sly, ruthless wit and the way the young Paula’s subterranean rages build slowly to a conclusion all the more terrible for its understatement.
More on Paula Fox
By David McCullough
Simon & Schuster
The unlikely runaway success of this biography has drawn a host of quibblers and revisionists out of the woodwork. So be it; when it comes to interpreting the facts, history is really a matter of dueling stories, and whether or not our second president can be fairly called a “hypercritical pedant” or “narcissist” as some have claimed, without a doubt David McCullough tells the best story. He picks a tough row to hoe, seeking to make an appealing hero out of a rotund little Puritan who preferred his Massachusetts farm to the hurly-burly of the city. Even the celebrated matrimonial devotion of Adams and his wife, Abigail, while endearing and inspiring to some, lacks the tortured romanticism that makes the emotional lives of leaders like Jefferson so fascinating. Fortunately, Adams was right at the center of the greatest adventure of the past 300 years — the founding of the American republic — and McCullough makes you feel the precarious nature of the whole enterprise: the crushing odds, the desperate military retreats, the hazardous journeys by sea and land, the seeming impossibility of getting all the squabbling colonial ducks in a row, the vision demanded of those who seek to invent a government from scratch.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend
By Laura Hillenbrand
Everyone had more or less given up on him, this homely racehorse with stubby legs from the wrong side of the Mississippi, and the two men who pledged to make a champion out of him were a couple of hard-luck cases themselves. By the time all three were done, Seabiscuit was the most famous living creature in America; in 1938 his name was mentioned more frequently in the newspapers than FDR’s. Damned if this isn’t about the corniest story in the world, but just try to resist Hillenbrand’s tale of the triumph of sheer equine gumption over adversity and the hoity-toity East Coast racing establishment with its favorite thoroughbred, the exquisitely beautiful War Admiral. (War Admiral’s contest with Seabiscuit is generally considered one of the greatest horse races of all time.) A dash of realism comes in the form of bleak tales of the grueling, risky lives of jockeys as well as their phenomenal athleticism. And then there are Hillenbrand’s accounts of the races themselves, fleet, lean and thrilling. You can almost feel your toes in the stirrups as the unstoppable Seabiscuit makes his fierce bid for the finish line.
Salon’s original review
By Lily Burana
With a premise that makes it sound like one of publishing’s typical throwaway books about a sexy topic — a former stripper about to be wed makes one final ecdysiastic road trip across America — this memoir never stoops to clichés or easy choices. Burana keeps pushing herself to unearth the fundamental nature of her mercurial love-hate relationship with the work that helped her survive in her first years away from home, gave her a renegade subculture to satisfy her yen for rebellion and rattled her to the core by exposing her to the raw edge of human neediness. Like all rigorously honest works, “Strip City” is unlikely to suit anyone’s political agenda, but it’s so full of rowdy energy and unaffected soul-searching that only a hopeless ideologue could object to it. Furthermore, Burana can really write — her descriptions of the truck stops, dives and swank joints she travels through have all the slangy eloquence required by great American road stories.And she’s hilarious, a brainy, brassy dame with a penchant for heavy metal who sheds wisecracks left and right with an insouciance the rest of us can only envy.
Salon’s original review | An interview with Lily Burana
By David Edmonds & John Eidinow
An account, as its subtitle explains, of a 10-minute argument between two great thinkers, this elegant little volume compresses a remarkable amount of history, psychology and philosophy into its 340 petite pages. The quarrel, between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein, took place in a meeting room in Cambridge, England, in 1946, and Wittgenstein may or may not have shaken a fireplace poker at his adversary (eyewitnesses differ on this point). It’s the personalities of the two men — the preoccupied, quasi-aristocratic Wittgenstein and the scrappy, ambitious Popper; one worshipped by his followers, the other perceiving himself as snubbed — that leave the most powerful impression. Edmonds and Eidinow show us how the two men rose out of the peculiar milieu of assimilated Jewry in pre-War Vienna, a world of dizzying brilliance and culture now irretreivably lost. As for the subject of their fight — the question “Are there philosophical problems?” — the authors use it to limn one of the fundamental philosophical divides of the day with crystal clarity. While those who find reading Wittgenstein’s notoriously difficult “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” a snap may scorn this little exposition as unforgivably simplistic, for the rest of us it offers a delightful entrie into daunting territory, and perhaps an invitation to venture further in, as well.