The top of one critic's list: outstanding books from 2001

On Books

November 25, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Published gift lists and holiday "roundups" -- whether they're for literature or lollypops -- have always struck me as trivial at best and, more likely, condescending. If you want to give books to your friends, you had better know a lot more about their tastes than an unknown editor possibly can.

James Bready's invaluable annual survey of books from and about Maryland, which we publish here this week and next, offers -- I hope -- almost the same usefulness as a thoughtful walk in a first-rate bookshop stocked with local works. But to do the same with all the volumes published in the United States last year would be a Herculean task.

With that established, here are 15 new books that I read last year and found most exciting or nourishing.

Chronologically, beginning with nonfiction:

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser (Houghton Mifflin, 350 pages, $25). The U.S. fast-food industry rakes in more than $110 billion annually, more than $1 a day per U.S. citizen. Schlosser's passionately researched and argued book is primarily about the American stomach -- as well as the industry's impact on ecological, economic and social sides of America. An important caveat for every citizen who does not eat every meal at home.

Washington, by Meg Greenfield (Public Affairs, 242 pages, $26). A posthumously published field guide to U.S. political animals. Greenfield was long the editorial page editor of The Washington Post and a columnist for Newsweek. A delightfully, intelligently insightful examination of the U.S. government and the sort of people who run it.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand (Farrar Straus Giroux, 546 pages, $27). This is an exciting and unusually deep-reaching tour of how major ideas develop and how they change a culture -- our culture. A hymn to the importance of demanding and indomitable intellectuals, no less today than in the 19th century, where most of the book is set.

Now, fiction, also in chronological order:

The Body Artist (Scribner, 124 pages, $22). Don DeLillo's 12th novel is a wise, exquisitely focused and worthy examination of the question of appearance vs. reality -- an often puzzling, quite beautiful book.

Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History, by Helene Stapinski (Random House, 288 pages, $23.95). An immensely ironic, courageous and delightful account of a family evolving in a tough industrial New Jersey town amid crooked politicians -- and cops, robbers and just plain folks who make the politicians look almost upstanding.

Death of a River Guide, by Richard Flanagan (Grove, 336 pages, $24). A fast-moving, lovely tale of wilderness, the will to survive -- and death. It is set in Tasmania, perhaps the least examined and still most singularly frontier-celebrating land in which English is the main tongue.

Mouthing the Words, by Camilla Gibb (Carroll & Graf, 192 pages, $25). An astonishingly powerful novel, about an abused girl's childhood and a young woman's emergence from utter misery -- brief and tightly delivered. It is full of pain and writhes with madness, but ultimately is a splendid celebration of the beauty and endurance of the human spirit.

The Dying Animal, by Philip Roth (Houghton Mifflin, 156 pages, $23). The latest in Roth's series of novels centered on David Kepesh, a brilliant academic with an insatiable passion for life. Roth, a great master, pursues liberty, lust and love.

Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 211 pages, $23). This is the seventh English translation of books by Murakami, probably Japan's premier living novelist. This is mysterious, with a heroine whose disappearance and its aftermath dominate the book. It brims over with compelling empathy. Charming, unforgettable.

Thinks, by David Lodge (Viking, 342 pages, $24.95) Set, as much else of Lodge's work is, in an English university campus, this is a delightful, provoking novel about awareness. Although it is even-handed, the main vehicle-- a conversation between a woman novelist and a male professor of "cognitive science" -- serves well as a guide to postmodern aesthetics.

Appointment With Il Duce, by Hozy Rossi (Welcome Rain, 256 pages, $25). This is a dazzling first novel by an emerging writer with an immense sense of irony. It is centered on a gifted Italian boy and then young man torn between dentistry and the cello, going through enchantment and disillusionment just before World War II.

Fury, by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 259 pages, $24.95). Extraordinarily short for a Rushdie novel, this, his eighth, continues to affirm his place among the tiny handful of great living English-language novelists. Set mainly in New York, it is very hip, and tellingly captures the city and its influence on a truly international community. Enormously funny, deeply moving, often bleak and finally profoundly affirmative.

Postmodern Pooh, by Frederick Crews (North Point Press, 175 pages, $22). A distinguished scholar and critic, Crews presents a blazing satire of academic obscurantism and pomposity -- culture theory at its most pernicious. It should be must reading for anyone seriously concerned for the health of U.S. university education.

Half a Life, by V.S. Naipaul (Knopf, 211 pages, $24). An often searingly insightful novel -- Naipaul's 26th book -- about postcolonial attitudes and radical movements. A book full of courage and wisdom, it dramatically confirms the judgment of the Swedish Academy in granting Naipaul to Nobel Prize in Literature this year.

Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, selected by Harold Bloom (Scribner, 573 pages, $27.50). Bloom, one of this nation's premier intellects, draws together and makes sense of the purpose of the smartest, most enduring tales and poetry written primarily for children. The result is delightful reading.

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