The most beautiful book of fiction I've read this year is Richard Ford's collection of short stories, "Rock Springs," a sad and quiet set of literary snapshots from one section of America's "voiceless"--poor, sad, unemployed men and women from Montana; a forlorn landscape that's been painted by Ford so that we repeatedly see both the ugliness of men and the elusive beauty of a land that's been ignored or lost, but is still there for those who have either the eyes or the luck to see it.
My nonfiction choice is "And the Band Played On," Randy Shilts' amazing history of the AIDS epidemic. This is the harrowing story of thousands and thousands of people who uselessly died--while public health authorities, the medical profession, blood bank executives and even bathhouse owners in gay communities simply let the whole thing get worse and worse until the epidemic verged on a form of genocide. Lust is the gentlest sin dealt with here. Shilts' marvelously researched tales of greed, vanity, theft, deceit--set against individual examples of great courage and heroism--make this by far the most important work in years.
My wish for the future would be to see more books from the so-called "voiceless" in America. We need to know about the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised--because their lives enrich our own, and because we are just too dumb if we choose not to know about the darker sides of American life.
An editor and publisher long before he became a novelist, Richard Marek not only knows where the cliches lurk, the stereotypes skulk and the pitfalls lie, but he's wonderfully adept at dodging them all in his own book. "Works of Genius" is a wise, witty and altogether original exploration of a semi-classic triangle; the relationship among a writer, an agent and a publisher. In this refreshing switch, the writer is the villain, the agent the knight, and the publisher the besieged lord of the fiefdom.
When Eric Meredith, the first-time author of a dazzlingly brilliant novel, blusters into Tony Silver's office, Tony can hardly believe his good luck. An independent literary agent for a mere 10 weeks, he's pessimistic about his ability to compete with established firms and not at all sure that even unknown writers will entrust their talent to a 30-year-old fledgling who actually answers his own telephone. Meredith is an answered prayer, and Silver cannot do enough for the man. As a result of his inspired efforts, the book shoots to the top of the lists, and Meredith instantly becomes a living legend, exploiting celebrityhood to the hilt, turning his agent and publisher into willing vassals. By the time Tony finds the courage to revolt against the tyrant he's nurtured, considerable havoc has been wrought within an industry once thought to be the purlieu of gentlemen and scholars. Sophisticated, contemporary and realistic, "Works of Genius" was an exception in a year notable for a plethora of murkily symbolic fantasies, some home grown, others non-essential imports by writers with coterie followings abroad.
A truly happy New Year? That would be one in which no more fictional children mysteriously disappeared and all first novelists settled upon their sexual identities, at least tentatively, before they sat down at the word processor. 1988 would mark the end of the Rebecca West revival, the trials of Mrs. Lincoln, and every last missile, forever and ever.
Was the year's best apple better than its best orange? What if you don't like apples? Or if you nurse an aberrant orange craving? What about kumquats?
Fruit salad is the reasonable answer. And in 1987 fiction, it would consist of:
Howard Norman's beautiful and original story about an Arctic growing-up, "The Northern Lights." Philip Roth's "The Counterlife," whose power turns solipsism into a massed chorus. Alice McDermott's "That Night," a flawless story of adolescent illusions and the world's chill. Marianne Wiggins' incandescent short-story collection, "Herself in Love." Toni Morrison's "Beloved," a nightmare about slavery which the reader awakens into . "Paradise," Donald Barthelme's witty and tender parable of eroticism as one more form of modern distance.
Pressed to make a single unreasonable choice, I incline to "Life. A User's Manual" by the late Georges Perec, in a splendid translation from French by David Bellos.
It is a puzzle-palace of a book, a simultaneous narration of the lives, passions and collar-buttons of several dozen residents in a Paris apartment house. The puzzles are elegant and sometimes difficult, the detail is rich and sometimes maddeningly excessive. Bit by bit, there emerges an oddly celebratory recognition that if human lives are transfigured by their stories, these stories in turn are as perishable as the lives are, and the collar-buttons. --Richard Eder
The loftiest (and, demonstrably, the most sincere) compliment that I can bestow upon a book, as I have observed before in these pages, is to place the review copy in my personal library. Only one book was so honored in the Kirsch household in 1987--"World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth," edited by Bradford Morrow (New Directions).
I came to the Rexroth anthology with an awareness of the man's reputation but scant exposure to his work. (Indeed, the Rexroth piece that I remembered best was a curiously lukewarm eulogy that Rexroth wrote for The Times when my father, Robert Kirsch, passed away in 1980.) But I discovered anew in Morrow's superb anthology that Rexroth is an essayist and poet whose vision is so clear and so sure that he will surely remain a posthumous mentor to many generations of aspiring writers.
And the kind of book I'd like to see in 1988?--any book whose art and craft are sufficiently inspiring to justify the $20 or more that a hardbound book costs nowadays, and whose insight and wisdom are enduring enough to earn a place on my crowded bookshelves. "World Outside the Window" is a good example. --Jonathan Kirsch
Writing about science for interested nonscientists is a task fraught with difficulty. If the author makes it too simple, the scientists complain; but if he is scrupulously faithful to the science, the readers complain. The trick is to strike the right balance, and, as in most things, it is rarely accomplished.
Of the 50-odd books that I reviewed in 1987, a few came close, but one succeeded completely: "Chaos: Making a New Science" by James Gleick (Viking). Writing a popular book about mathematics must be among the hardest jobs of all, but Gleick handles it with consummate skill. What's more, his subject--chaos--seems to be a major development in the scientific understanding the world. It is not likely to be just this year's academic fad, destined to be forgotten next year.
Gleick's story is one of personalities as well as of science, and he weaves the two together skillfully, giving due regard to facts, philosophy and people. What more can a reader ask?
At the other end of things is a very thick book that I perused on and off for the whole year and still haven't finished. "Tilings and Patterns" by Branko Grunbaum and G. C. Shephard (Freeman: $59.95) is a terrific compilation of centuries of work in mathematics on the problem of tiling.
A shape is said to tile the plane when it completely covers a surface without any gaps or overlapings, such as the hexagons on a bathroom floor. There is an infinity of such shapes, and they tend to make beautiful patterns, which make this book a joy to look at, even if the mathematics behind it is too deep to comprehend.
For 1988, I hope never to have to read any more about the unity of science and Eastern religion. (Editor's note: See p. 2. ) And, speaking as a nonscientist who is interested in science, I wish authors would err on the side of making things too simple rather than making them too hard. --Lee Dembart
Los Angeles becomes less European with each passing year. Our Asian population is booming. Even our Hispanic population, to the extent (and the extent is large) that it is Mexican, is of the New World rather than the Old. At the national level, the INF Treaty, whatever its real merits, will loosen the ties binding the United States politically to Europe.
All of which, as it makes me think about Europe and about being, if you will, a Euro-American, makes me remember with warm appreciation Stuart Miller's 1987 book, "Painted in Blood: Understanding Europeans" (Atheneum), a book almost as sagacious about that side of the Atlantic as de Tocqueville was about this side. Related to Miller's book, in a way, is one I look forward to in 1988 as a tool for the reviewing trade (among several others): the forthcoming "Columbia Literary History of the United States," edited by Emory Elliott (Columbia University Press: $59.95). "What is it that makes American literature American?" is the question inevitably put to a reference work like that one. But the deeper question is "What is it that makes America American?" No book in years has helped me so agreeably or so well in answering that unavoidable, unanswerable question as Miller's. --Jack Miles