The Second Annual Salon Book Awards

Salon salutes our favorite books of 1997

Published January 5, 1998 8:44PM (EST)


Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink



How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Bonton

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Into Thin Air by John Krakauer

Echoes of a Native Land by Serge Schmemann

Close to the Machine by Ellen Ullman

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BY DWIGHT GARNER AND LAURA MILLER | The publishing industry spent most of 1997 bemoaning flat book sales and airing its dirty laundry like a big dysfunctional family in the latest it's-all-my-mother's-fault memoir, but as readers we simply wallowed in terrific books this year. Choosing Salon's five favorite works of fiction proved a particularly daunting challenge -- anyone eavesdropping on the flurry of transcontinental phone calls that preceded the announcement of our final list would have heard plenty of agonized groans as we winnowed it down to the selection you see here. Among other things, the year saw new books from suchéminences grise as Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo and Saul Bellow, plus dazzling first novels from Charles Frazier and Arundhati Roy. In a less stellar year, Rick Moody's "Purple America" and Cynthia Ozick's "The Puttermesser Papers" would have been shoo-ins, and with regret we weren't able to honor top-drawer literary entertainments like Diane Johnson's "Le Divorce" and Alex Garland's "The Beach."

Nonfiction beguiled us in 1997, rather than knocking us out (even if Jon Krakauer's nail-biter "Into Thin Air" kept us up until the wee hours), but the effects were just as lasting. For us, memoir mania hasn't so much dissipated as moved on. We'd much rather read about an author's work life than her childhood these days -- and Ellen Ullman's "Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents" struck us as one of the most original books we read all year. (Thomas Lynch's "The Undertaking," about his own adventures in "the grim trade," made us -- briefly -- consider extending the list of nonfiction winners to six titles.) You won't, however, find weighty histories and biographies among our winners -- those books receive honors elsewhere. We've chosen to spotlight nonfiction titles that read like great stories, the kind of books you rush home from work to read, rather than definitive studies. For that reason, we've made it a policy to steer clear of miscellaneous essay collections in favor of unified works, but two remarkable books -- David Foster Wallace's often brilliant "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" and film critic David Thomson's "Beneath Mulholland: Thoughts on Hollywood and Its Ghosts" -- also tested our resolve.

After days of wincing and wheedling, we finally arrived at this list, 10 books whose praises we'd gladly sing to total strangers, but more importantly, books we're pressing into the hands of family and friends. Excuse us -- we're print-addled, sleep-deprived and nearly cross-eyed -- but from where we stand (knee-deep in books, of course), 1997 was a very good year.

Book Awards

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By Margaret Atwood
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

Long fascinated by Grace Marks, a 16-year-old Torontonian maid convicted of conspiring to murder her employer in 1843 and confined to a madhouse until a group of social reformers obtained her release, Margaret Atwood makes this notorious life the occasion for a novel about servants and masters, men and women, crime and punishment. A proto-psychologist seeks out the imprisoned Grace hoping to excavate her secrets and establish, once and for all, her guilt or innocence, but Atwood herself is just as interested in the texture of daily life in the 19th century; this is a book about blood and laundry. Her tremendous intelligence -- never contaminated by an iota of sentimentality or cant -- and poet's eye (she describes a Victorian interior in which "all possible surfaces are upholstered; the colours are those of the inside of the body") make "Alias Grace" an acerbic delight, but as always it's Atwood's capacity to imagine herself into the minds of characters like the hapless Dr. Simon Jordan that make this book a marvel.


By Charles Frazier

In Charles Frazier's majestic first novel, Inman, a wounded Confederate Army deserter (based on an ancestor of Frazier's), makes his way, on foot, to his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back at Cold Mountain, his prewar sweetheart, Ada, a city-bred woman, learns how to run her farm. Inman and Ada each face trials that can only be surmounted step by step, Inman traveling across a treacherous and violent landscape, and Ada learning, in a world where paper money has lost its value, how to make the necessities of everyday life -- butter, cloth, medicine -- from scratch. The old "lifeways" Frazier captures had their own slow rhythm, the rhythm of a cow grazed and milked, of butter churned and salted, of a journey made one footstep at a time. In the course of "Cold Mountain," Inman and Ada salvage their lifeway little by little, but, as Frazier laments, for us that possibility is now long lost. Only very rarely, as in a miraculous book like "Cold Mountain," can we rediscover a sense of life lived in intimacy with the earth.

By Mary Gaitskill
Simon & Schuster, 254 pages.

Mary Gaitskill's short fiction, like all of her work, is devastating in its honesty and emotional accuracy. "Because They Wanted To" is her most fully realized work to date; 13 keenly-observed stories about disillusionment and revenge, lust and love, often about characters living on society's margins. Gaitskill's sentences sing because they carry no extra baggage: "Valerie had been celibate for two years when she met Michael," begins a story called "The Blanket," "and sex with Michael was like a solid left hook; she reeled and cartoon stars burst about her head." Other stories probe such topics as a father's public betrayal by his daughter; a writer seeking retribution from a lover who spurned him; and a blanked-out young girl who abandons the children she is hired to baby-sit. Gaitskill refuses to sentimentalize anything in her fiction, most notably her characters. She is as suspicious of middle-class life as any other kind: A pharmacist and his wife remind one character of "two colored building blocks made to illustrate solidity, squareness, and rectangularity for children, the kind of blocks that, when picked up, turn out to be practically weightless and not solid at all." Gaitskill's stories, on the other hand, are more solid (and certainly less square) than you'd ever dream possible.

By Thomas Pynchon

The year is 1761 and two men, a mournful astronomer and a jolly surveyor, meet in London to commence a long, adventurous, quarrelsome and ultimately deeply affectionate partnership. They sail to South Africa to chart the Transit of Venus and observe humanity's shameful propensity to divide itself by race. Then it's on to America, where the friends are hired to slice the colonies neatly, but fatefully, in half with the latitudinal line ("between their Slave-Keepers and their Wage-Payers") that still bears their name. Along the way, they meet scheming Jesuits, cabalists, the Founding Fathers, a homesick electric eel, a fugitive French chef, a vengeful mechanical duck and a fanatical feng shui master, among others. Yes, this is a hefty book, but it's also Pynchon's finest, for in it the brilliant, eccentric novelist of the mind enjoys a late, sweet blossoming of the heart.

By Bernhard Schlink
Translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway

Bernhard Schlink's slim novel "The Reader" has become an international sensation since it was first published in Germany in 1995 (it has now been translated into 14 languages), and it's not difficult to see why. Told in spare, lucid, mesmerizing prose, Schlink's tale -- about a 15-year-old boy's erotic awakening at the hands of a much older woman -- is as gripping as the best, darkest kind of fairy tale. As "The Reader" unfolds, and the older woman's wartime background becomes clear, what began as a novel about a clandestine affair becomes a searching tale about morality, love and mercy in Germany before and after World War II. "Why does what was beautiful suddenly shatter in hindsight because it concealed dark truths?" the young boy asks. It's the question of his generation, and this book explores the potential answers with grace and courage.

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By Alain de Botton

Just because Alain de Botton's tribute to the author of "In Search of Lost Time" reads like a melt-in-your-mouth amusement and bears a mock self-help title, don't make the mistake of dismissing it as something slight. In fact, de Botton tackles a remarkable array of human follies -- our preference for yearning over satisfaction, our tendency to fetishize great artists rather than truly engage with them, the way we let envy and pettiness poison our relationships and, most of all, our mulish refusal to appreciate the world's many opportunities for delight -- it's just that he does it with such gentle élan that you feel entertained rather than educated. This off-beat experiment in literary appreciation is the most entirely and consummately charming book of the year. That de Botton has chosen a gloomy hypochondriac genius as a role model is only the sweet kernel of his joke.

A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
By Anne Fadiman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Anne Fadiman's remarkable book takes its title from a disease suffered by a young Hmong girl named Lia Lee. (The Hmong are a Laotian hill tribe, many of whose members fled to America -- and particularly to California -- after the Indochina wars.) Lia's American doctors diagnose her illness as epilepsy, brought on by a short-circuit in her cerebral neurons. Lia's parents call it quag dab peg -- the spirit catches you and you fall down -- which to them means, as Fadiman writes, "her soul had fled her body and become lost." Fadiman's book, eight years in the making, is the chronicle of a profound cultural clash over the best way to care for Lia. Part of Fadiman's achievement here is combining hard-headed analysis with extraordinary empathy; she enables us to fully view Lia's plight from two very different perspectives. What's more, the book is written on an intimate, personal scale. "I passed many hours in waiting rooms gnawing on the question, What is a good doctor?" Fadiman writes. "During the same period, my two children were born, and I found myself often asking a second question that is also germane to the Lees' story: What is a good parent?" Her book provides stunning insight into each.

A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster
By Jon Krakauer

"One foot in China, the other in Nepal, I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind, and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet." So begins Jon Krakauer's breathtaking narrative about a 1996 climbing disaster on Mount Everest, in which 11 people, including two of the finest climbers in the world, froze to death during a freak storm. Krakauer begins his tale on top of the world; he was among the relative few who would make it down alive. It's among the highest praise you can bestow on "Into Thin Air" to say that it's a much better book than it had to be. Krakauer has a great tale to tell, but in his hands the book turns into something more than a mere adventure story. "Everest has always been a magnet for kooks, publicity seekers, hopeless romantics and others with a shaky hold on reality," he writes, and he introduces us to more than a few of each. In the end, "Into Thin Air" becomes a genuine morality tale in which the author chastises himself (among others) for not having helped save more lives. "The stain this has left on my psyche is not the sort of thing that washes off after a few months of grief and guilt-ridden self-reproach," he writes. His is a book that doesn't wash off, either.

Serge Schmemann

Fire up the samovar, take the phone off the hook and bring out the fluffy quilt because Serge Schmemann turns his history of the country estate where his maternal ancestors once presided into a tale as bewitching as one of Tolstoy's. This is deep history, rooted in the author's personal connection to the land and its people, and exhaustively researched, but "Echoes" is also magical; even if you've never felt the tug of Mother Russia's romance before, you're likely to succumb to it this time. As a New York Times reporter covering the Soviet Union and its fall, Schmemann sought out Koltsovo, the place his grandfather always remembered as "that lost worldly paradise for which we all yearn ... where the soul first opened to receive God's universe and its marvels," and he eventually bought a farmhouse there, establishing warm friendships with the town's current inhabitants. His relatives from the csarist era all seem to have produced memoirs, and even more remarkably, they all write like angels. It runs in the family.

Technophila and Its Discontents
By Ellen Ullman
City Lights

Ellen Ullman's wry and frequently melancholy memoir "Close to the Machine" may be the best -- it's certainly the most human -- book to have emerged thus far from the culture of Silicon Valley. Ullman is that rarity, a computer programmer with a poet's feeling for language. She's written a book that's flooded with the joy that programmers (she calls them "weird logic dreamers") often experience when they give themselves over to "the sheer fun of the technical, to the nearly sexual pleasure of the clicking thought-stream." Yet she's also acutely aware of the real difficulties that arise when "human needs must cross the line into code." Ullman's book is not for techies-only; it's more about the human mind (and about politics, relationships and good bottles of wine) than it is about software. Even better, Ullman is never less than frank: "It has occurred to me," she writes, "that if people really knew how software got written, I'm not sure if they'd give their money to a bank or get on an airplane ever again."

Salon Book Awards 1997




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