Finalists for the 1990-1991 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
RIGHTEOUS PILGRIM: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952 by T. H. Watkins (Henry Holt) This elegantly wrought, thousand-page biography rescues from historical obscurity the curmudgeonly man-of-purpose who became one of this century’s greatest social reformers. The tale spans the first half of the 20th Century and the New Deal years of Franklin D. Roosevelt, when Ickes served as Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration.
ROAD SONG: A Memoir by Natalie Kusz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) The mesmerizing story of a restless ‘60s family that left the stress of city life for a pioneer existence in Alaska. During their first winter in Alaska, Natalie, in a moment of stunning horror, was attacked by the neighbor’s sled dog. She lost much of the left side of her face, including her eye. Months later, when she recounted the details of the attack--her blood on the snow, the songs sung to her as she waited in the neighbor’s cabin for the ambulance--her mother stared at her and whispered, “I can’t believe you remember.”
O’KEEFFE & STIEGLITZ: An American Romance by Benita Eisler (Doubleday) An intimate dual portrait that demythologizes the 30-year relationship of this lionized couple of the American art world and exposes the realities beneath their skillfully woven public personae. Based on previously unpublished documents, the book is most compelling for its details, such as the foreshadowing fact that “as a toddler, Alfred refused to part with the photograph of a favorite cousin. The image was tied around his waist with a string.”
A LIFE OF PICASSO, Volume I: 1881-1906 by John Richardson (Random House) Intended to cast light on the mystery of the creative process, this first installment of a proposed four-volume biography reveals how much Picasso’s personal life and art influenced each other. This first volume takes Picasso to the age of 25, covering his struggle “to escape the shadow of his father’s artistic failures,” his precocious years in Barcelona and Paris and the period of rejection that followed.
BENEDICT ARNOLD: Patriot and Traitor by Willard Sterne Randall (William Morrow) This new study of one of the most notorious figures in American history argues that he has also been one of the most misunderstood. Early in the American Revolution, Arnold was a successful battlefield commander, often compared to Julius Caesar for his heroic achievements. Yet he became the scourge of West Point, the perceived betrayer of the American Revolution.
WHY AMERICANS HATE POLITICS: The Death of the Democratic Process by E. J. Dionne, Jr. (Simon & Schuster) As Eastern Europeans celebrate their new freedom to engage in public debate, Americans grow more “disenchanted, turned off and angry” with politics. The reason, according to former newsman and historian E. J. Dionne, Jr. is that the paths offered by both liberals and conservatives are “false choices” that have no connection to most Americans’ deepest values and concerns.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMBITION by Alan Ehrenhalt (Times Books) The only way to understand the growing dissatisfaction with politics in America, according to Ehrenhalt, is to focus on the people who run for office: What we have is a new breed of politician, “professional men and women no longer beholden to political bosses, legislative leaders, or sponsors of any sort. They nominate themselves to run for office, not so much to give voice to a particular segment of society, but to satisfy the demands of their own ambition.”
THE CONTENT OF OUR CHARACTER: A New Vision of Race in America by Shelby Steele (St. Martin’s Press) If America is ever to achieve real racial harmony, its citizens must examine their own attitudes and preconceptions, and stop hiding behind the symbol of skin color. Steele sets an example of self-examination in this powerful collection of essays on the psychology of race relations in the post-civil rights era.
THE PRIZE: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin (Simon & Schuster) A precise and comprehensive exploration of the economic, social, political, and strategic consequences of the world’s reliance on oil and the relentless way in which the holders of the stakes either rule or terrorize the planet.
THE PROMISED LAND: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America by Nicholas Lemann (Alfred A. Knopf) Between the early 1940s, when the mechanical cotton picker went into mass production, and the late 1960s, more than five million African-Americans left the fields and farms of the Deep South and headed for the big cities of the North. This great migration changed the United States from a country where race was a regional issue and black culture existed mainly in rural isolation into one where race relations affect the texture of life in nearly every city and suburb.
AGE OF IRON by J. M. Coetzee (Random House) In Cape Town, South Africa, an old woman is dying of cancer. A classics professor, she has opposed the brutality and dishonesty of apartheid but has lived insulated from its reality. In an extended narrative letter to her daughter who long ago fled South Africa to live in America, Mrs. Curran describes the strangeness of her dying days. Her only companion through it all is the homeless, alcoholic man she finds on her doorstep. A passionate, harrowing testament to the capacity of the human spirit to adapt and prevail.
THE ACACIA by Claude Simon (Pantheon Books) In this French writer’s most autobiographical work, the veteran of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II returns to the battlefield. The story begins in 1919 with a young boy and his mother searching a French battlefield for the grave of his soldier father. The boy grows up and serves in World War II on the same battlefield. These events form the structure for a work about the brutality and madness of war, particularly the mass destruction experienced in our century.
A WOMAN’S STORY by Annie Ernaux (Four Walls Eight Windows) In the sparest of prose, this story of a mother-daughter relationship evokes the bittersweet moments and the pain of separation. As the book opens, the mother has just died from Alzheimer’s disease and the daughter must attend to the final arrangements. Ernaux skillfully portrays the subtle narcissism of grown children who only posthumously acknowledge the values and aspirations of their parents.
WHITE PEOPLE: Stories and Novellas by Allan Gurganus (Alfred A. Knopf) The arcane point of view that greeted us in Allan Gurganus’ debut novel, “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” is present in these stories that run the gamut from an Ohio woman describing her ordeal on a tour bus caught in an African revolution to the retired saleslady who finds an injured male angel under her back-yard picnic table.
WOMAN HOLLERING CREEK And Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros (Random House) These are stories that give voice to the vigor of lives lived at the border with Mexico. And what lives! Full of exuberance and wonder and pride, and especially the unrestrained assurance of the inexperienced: The world hasn’t yet called their daydreams into question. Or so it seems. The short staccato revelations express the horrors of poverty; perhaps the buoyant tone of these characters is their way of remaining afloat.
ART SEIDENBAUM AWARD (For First Fiction)
HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT by Whitney Otto (Villard Books) A prose quilt that stitches together the lives of a group of women in the fictional town of Grasse, outside Bakersfield. Seven sets of quilting instructions comprise chaptersful of homily, wisdom and reimagined American history: “What you should understand when undertaking the construction of a quilt is that it is comprised of spare time as well as excess material.”
TEN SECONDS by Louis Edwards (Graywolf Press) A 100-meter dash takes only about ten seconds to run, but the time it takes is not the thing: It is the distance traveled. First-person narrator, Eddie, gulps the sacred moments of his life like a runner gasping for air: “He had traveled with the race, but he didn’t know how. It had started and it was about to end; but, in between, there had been something . . . " The essence of this compelling story is the search for meaning in the small moments of an imperfect life that produces unbearable loss--and the question whether the loss could have been prevented if the race had been run differently.
WARTIME LIES by Louis Begley (Alfred A. Knopf) Surviving war is no guarantee that you will be able to live life. The author looks through the eyes of “polite little Maciek,” a Polish Jewish child whose mother died at his birth and whose father disappears into the vortex of the Third Reich. His survival depends on the wiles and determination of his beautiful aunt Tania, under whose tutelage he learns the value of deceit. At the heart of the novel is Maciek’s struggle as an adult for a perspective he can live with, and his despair that his disease “lies deeper than the poet’s.”
PANGS OF LOVE by David Wong Louie (Alfred A. Knopf) Displacement and alienation are the themes of these stories by David Wong Louie. Although the characters are frequently Chinese, the problems they deal with transcend ethnicity. In “The Movers,” a young Chinese-American is mistaken in the dark for his house’s previous resident. He consciously decides to take on the other man’s identity--and in so doing regains the perspective needed to begin the uncertain and frightening process of change.
THE BOOK OF SAINTS by Nino Ricci (Alfred A. Knopf) Suffused with a mythical, brooding quality, this novel is set in a village in the Apennine Mountains in 1960 and concerns young Vittorio and his mother, Cristina, whose affair with a stranger scandalizes and outrages her neighbors. As Vittorio tries to understand his mother’s diminishment in the eyes of the villagers, we see the disturbing underside of Valle del Sole’s pastoral calm. It is Cristina’s defiance of the villagers--her refusal to allow them to defeat her--that brings the book to a powerful climax.
STALIN IN POWER: The Revolution From Above, 1928-1941, by Robert C. Tucker (W.W. Norton) “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” was Russia to Winston Churchill. Joseph Stalin was that riddle in person. That his was a reign of terror we have known for two generations and more, but we have seen the terror from below. Robert C. Tucker gives us Stalin’s revolution from above, an extraordinary view of the tyrant in action. The terror was neither blind nor gratuitous; from 1929 on, Stalin--in conscious imitation of the most terrible of the czars--was preparing his nation for a war of world conquest.
BEHIND THE MASK OF INNOCENCE: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era by Kevin Brownlow (Alfred A. Knopf) This prodigious and masterful book (representing three decades’ work) uncovers and celebrates a nearly forgotten treasure of American movie making. Many movies made before 1920 contradict the persistent--and more saleable--vision of American innocence fostered in the movies; rather, they spoke to a reality in which millions were desperately poor, immigrants and others were treated like animals, and workers were exploited. Installation of a powerful censorship system by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America in 1921 cast a shadow over film making that has not yet disappeared.
SOULSTEALERS: The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768 by Philip A. Kuhn (Harvard University Press) Occasionally, history provides a tantalizing sidebar that momentarily distracts from largerworries. In the most prosperous period of China’s imperial dynasty, mass hysteria broke out among the common people. It was feared that sorcerers were roaming the land, clipping off the ends of men’s queues (the braids worn by royal decree) and chanting magical incantations over them in order to steal the souls of their owners. In a fascinating chronicle of this epidemic of fear and the official prosecution of soulstealers that ensued, author Philip Kuhn provides an intimate glimpse into the world of 18th-Century China.
THE PROMISED LAND: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America by Nicholas Lemann (Alfred A. Knopf). This book is summarized above, under Current Interest, where it is also a finalist.
THE PRIZE: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power by Daniel Yergin (Simon & Schuster) This book is summarized above, under Current Interest, where it is also a finalist.
REGION OF UNLIKENESS by Jorie Graham (Ecco Press) A sequence of poems forming an extended meditation on the idea of history in which Jorie Graham peels away the “ever-tighter wrappings/of the layers of the/real” to expose the intimate interactions of our inner and outer lives, the past and present, stillness and motion, the strata of light and darkness. Graham’s is a metaphysical poetry in which questions of Being and Time inhabit a world of nursing homes, cabarets, stopped elevators, and insane asylums.
WHAT WORK IS by Philip Levine (Alfred A. Knopf) A series of poems praising the American working class. The tone is sometimes acerbic, sometimes evocative of a more innocent time as in “Growth”: “where I hammered and sawed, singing/my new life of working earning/outside in the fresh air of Detroit/in 1942, a year of growth.” The title poem is written from a more mature/despairing perspective which praises “the refusal to give in to rain, to the hours wasted waiting” to see the man up ahead who will say “ ‘No, we’re not hiring today,’ for any reason he wants.”
SUDDEN DREAMS: New and Selected Poems by George Evans (Coffee House Press) Poems with gut-level optimism, such as this meditation on a friend who died of AIDS: “suddenly I would like to see him/again and will suppress anything to believe it’s possible it is/a typical day because I’m always suppressing one thing/or another for the sake of something and am yet to hook into the notion that life is irreversibly terrible.”
STAR LEDGER: Poems by Lynda Hull (University of Iowa Press) Lyrical poems that both criticize and celebrate the turbulence and contradictions of contemporary urban life. The book travels from memories of the 1967 Newark riots to those of various Chinatowns where the author has lived, from Manhattan’s Port Authority Bus Terminal to the winding allyways of Madrid and Barcelona.
THE WORLD OF THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS: Poems 1980-1990 by Charles Wright (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) These are contemplative internal monologues, rich and substantive, such as these lines from “Lost Souls”: “I never dreamed of anything as a child/I just assumed it was all next door . . . My father wrote out his dreams on lined paper, as I do now/And gave them up to the priest for both to come to terms with/I give you mine for the same reason/To summon the spirits up and set the body to music.”
SCIENCE and TECHNOLOGY
LONELY HEARTS OF THE COSMOS: The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe by Dennis Overbye (HarperCollins) Overbye tells the deeply captivating story of a small group of astronomers who have spent the last 40 years embarked on the greatest intellectual adventure: the search for the origin and fate of the universe. Meticulously researched, elegantly written, and highly recommended for anyone, particularly young people who has not yet experienced the excitement of the scientific quest.
THE TRUTH ABOUT CHERNOBYL: A Minute-by-Minute Account by a Leading Soviet Nuclear Physicist of the World’s Largest Nuclear Disaster and Coverup by Grigori Medvedev (Basic Books) A highly unusual uncensored account by a senior Soviet nuclear engineer of the events leading up to the worst nuclear disaster in history and its subsequent coverup. The Kremlin required that Medvedev merely make an official report from the safety of a few miles outside the site of the power plant. Compelled by conscience and defying the danger of radiation, he went directly to Reactor 4. “The Truth About Chernobyl” is written as a countdown, beginning 16 years before the explosion.
WALKING WITH THE GREAT APES by Sy Montgomery (Houghton Mifflin) The story of how three women have invented a revolutionary way to conduct the science of primate ethology: dedicating their lives to a single species and living as close to the earth and the trees as the great apes themselves. Jane Goodall, an Englishwoman, Dian Fossey, an American, and Birute Galdikas, a Canadian, have contributed immeasurably to our understanding of chimpanzees, mountain gorillas, and orangutans.
THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel (Charles Scribner’s Sons) Both biography and scientific history, this is the account of an early 20th-Century collaboration between an English don and an impoverished Hindu genius that has had far-reaching effects in the fields of science, math and philosophy. Ramanujan was a self-taught mathematical prodigy from a town in South India, who believed that an equation had no meaning “unless it expresses a thought of God”; he was brought to Cambridge by G. H. Hardy, considered to be the most outstanding English mathematician of his time.
THE ASCENT OF THE MIND: Ice Age Climates and the Evolution of Intelligence by William H. Calvin (Bantam Books) Neurobiologist Calvin looks for the forces that transformed the ape brain into the human mind by examining how drastic and frequent climatic changes affected our ancient ancestors. In matching wits with the undependable prehistoric climate, he posits, early humans first developed the capacities for society, culture, and ethics.