Our 25 Favorite Books of 2001

The Lit Parade

THE LAST SUMMER OF REASON
by Tahar Djaout
RUMINATOR BOOKS, 145 PP., $19
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One of the great blind spots of American intellectual life has been its failure to recognize and support Arab intellectuals living under various forms of totalitarianism. Algerian novelist, poet, and journalist Tahar Djaout, assassinated in 1993, is a case in point. Discovered among his papers following his death, The Last Summer of Reason, his first work translated into English, depicts the collapsing world of Boualem Yekker, a bookseller. Though Boualem realizes that "others had created the books he could not create," he remains the hero of this bittersweet hymn of resistance, dedicated to the powers of memory and words that, "put end to end, bring doubt and change."

THE WIG MY FATHER WORE
by Anne Enright
GROVE PRESS, 224 PP., $12 PAPER
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Irish writer Anne Enright's imagination stretches beyond the average novel's cramped perimeters. The Wig My Father Wore surprises the reader at every corner, littered as it is with tiny imagistic fireworks and linguistic shocks—all while being more charming than you'd have thought possible for a story about a young Dublin TV show producer who falls in love with an angel. The Dubliner is a melancholy woman named Grace; the angel is Stephen, a former construction worker with a celestial glow who's been sent to guide Grace's despairing soul. Enright illuminates Grace's lifetime of expectations, regrets, longings, and secrets with unutterable strangeness and beauty.

THE CORRECTIONS
by Jonathan Franzen
FARRAR, STRAUS, & GIROUX, 568 PP., $26
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Jonathan Franzen knows his Pynchon, but he loves Dickens, too. Half brainiac hipster, half social anatomist, Franzen ponders the almost cosmic changes necessary for the widely dispersed Lambert family to yank itself together for one last Midwestern Christmas. Seeking the soul beneath the late-capitalist skin, Franzen watches as his characters surmount depression, pimp former Soviet republics to Western industry, or just figure out who they love; he hints wonderfully at the mutability of personality in an age of globalized industry—willfully privatized, but also able to mold the international megaculture to re-create itself in new configurations. Could this be the first great novel of the 21st century?

Detail from Annette Messager's My Jealousies (1972).
Detail from Annette Messager's My Jealousies (1972).

BY THE SEA
by Abdulrazak Gurnah
THE NEW PRESS, 245 PP., $22.95
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Here is an updated, more humane version of Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival: the wonder and despair of the refugee living the diminished "half-life of a stranger" in a strange land. Here too is the baggage of memory and regret that follows him, and the double isolation—from past life and present home—that Gurnah, England based and Zanzibar born, explores so well. In lush, supple, unhurried reminiscences that occasionally dip into shame and quiet sadness, Gurnah's novel explores large themes of estrangement and exile, memory and identity that seem to rise naturally from humbly trodden paths. But what are so miraculous are the turns that life plays on his characters, propelling them into a wider world of shifting borders and regimes.

RADICAL ENLIGHTENMENT: PHILOSOPHY AND THE MAKING OF MODERNITY 1650-1750
by Jonathan I. Israel
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 810 PP., $45
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As a Hollander, an atheist, and a Jew, Spinoza has often been odd man out in histories of European thought. Even today, his books are more cited in passing than read. This patronizing neglect should end now that Jonathan Israel has reopened the account books on the Enlightenment. More than any man of his time, the Amsterdam rebel deserves credit, says Israel, for upheaving the foundations of religion and politics in the late 17th century. The notorious leader of an "underground radical philosophical movement" that found no rational basis for revelations and miracles, or absolutist monarchies, and argued for "a morality of happiness in the here and now," Spinoza influenced a staggering array of thinkers from Leibniz to Diderot. A bracing revision of well-trod intellectual terrain, this book is not unlike an Enlightenment classic itself.

EMERGENCE
by Steven Johnson
SCRIBNER, 288 PP., $25
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With brainy but convivial clarity Johnson explains "the eerie invisible hand of self-organization," or more specifically how systems generate complicated global behavior without being controlled through hierarchical "top-down" commands. Instead their behavior emerges from the "bottom-up" interaction of relatively simple agents pursuing their own narrow agenda, with little or no concept of the whole. Johnson's originality lies in applying the concept of emergence to familiar systems like cities, media, and software. His point is that our whole concept of control—political, technical, even psychological—is in need of revision. This is juicy territory for a writer who, like a wired Malcolm Gladwell, is charting a path between techno-scientific punditry and literate cultural criticism.

STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN
by Kelly Link
SMALL BEER PRESS, 266 PP., $16 PAPER
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Kelly Link's debut collection fuses storytelling smarts with postmodern flair, Nancy Drew with Philip K. Dick. Here there be amnesiac correspondents, vaginaless blond aliens, and a phantasmagoric Miss America pageant ("She just has the two arms, but she seems to have too many legs"). But behind the fancy, darker shapes emerge. "Water Off a Black Dog's Back" and "The Specialist's Hat" are irresistible modern horror stories that go about their business with such charm it's a shock when their traps snick shut, while "The Girl Detective" is a sly disarticulation of whodunits and the underworld that's as fun to read as it is heartbreaking—a great pop coup, part tabloid headlines, part Joycean "Ithaca."

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