Our 25 Favorite Books of 2001

The Lit Parade

LONDON: THE BIOGRAPHY
by Peter Ackroyd
NAN A. TALESE/DOUBLEDAY, 801 PP., $45
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All the superlatives applied to New York—biggest, grimiest, noisiest, liveliest, most treacherous, most resilient in a crisis—were applied to London first, and Ackroyd makes you believe London deserves them. He gallops through chapters on the city's music halls and prostitutes, its crime and its fog, stopping to consider a crossroads and an ancient tree. But the voices of other Londoners predominate: Wordsworth, Dickens, Woolf, the brewers who dubbed their products Lift Leg and Stride Wide, the Quaker who well before the Great Fire predicted that "as for the city herself, and her suburbs, and all that belonged to her, a fire was kindled therein." Ackroyd makes omniscience look easy; this big book is effortlessly enjoyable reading.

VIEWS FROM THE SOUTH: THE EFFECTS OF GLOBALIZATION AND THE WTO ON THIRD WORLD COUNTRIES
edited by Sarah Anderson
FOOD FIRST BOOKS, 195 PP., $12.95 PAPER
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Views From the South, a splendidly constructed anthology of essays by leading third-world critics of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, is a book to break your heart. You want to cry when you read about the feisty tools the United Nations' poor majority forged for themselves in the '60s and '70s to achieve record levels of economic growth, only to see them crushed as "protectionist" by nations superciliously demand-ing a "level playing field" for first-world products. Learning how the WTO makes its rules, by a process it calls "census"—which better resembles the techniques of a street-side bunco artist—a sensitive soul might just blubber uncontrollably.

ANTEBELLUM DREAM BOOK
by Elizabeth Alexander
GRAYWOLF, 92 PP., $14 PAPER
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For her third collection of poems, Elizabeth Alexander uses her dreams as a recuperative reflection of a racially tense reality. In the post-Baraka, post-Baldwin, post-black power years, Alexander is surefootedly treading more complicated territories related to race. The book begins with a series of narrative poems that pay homage to the civil rights movement. She also uses her dream poems as a filter to contemplate the public's scrutiny of the black female body, and to grapple with tropes of race and beauty. Alexander's poems are deftly pared down, engagingly readable, and impressively generous in their coverage of historical and popular figures—from Nat Turner to Mick Jagger.

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

OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE
by Michael Azerrad
LITTLE BROWN, 522 PP., $25.95
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In 13 fast-moving, searchingly interviewed band profiles, Our Band Could Be Your Life chronicles a bohemia: the postpunk indie-rock subculture that took shape in the '80s and continues to this day even if Azerrad averts his eyes before the scene-shifting advent of Nirvana. Anyone who thinks voluntary poverty is a lark should check out the travails of Black Flag and the Butthole Surfers, and anyone who thinks music is for soothing breasts or beasts should ponder Ian MacKaye's fight record and Steve Albini's grudge against the world. Whatever Azerrad lacks in overview, he makes up in rich behavioral and musical detail.

THE COMPLETE WORKS OF ISAAC BABEL
W.W. NORTON, 1072 PP., $39.95
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This superbly laconic writer and devastating observer of extreme situations (Jewish Odessa, the 1920 Soviet-Polish War) was first silenced, then shot by Stalin's secret police. Babel's atrocious fate can't be separated from his meticulous art; he's a cult figure to bracket with two other doomed European Jewish modernists, Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, and his oeuvre gets the full cult treatment—everything newly translated, annotated, and assembled in one sveltely deluxe 1000-page volume. All extant stories are supplemented by Babel's journals, journalism, plays, and screenplays—some previously untranslated, among them his adaptation of Sholem Aleichem's comic novel of the Yiddish theater.

NON NO. 5
edited by Jordan Crane
RED INK, 474 PP., $28 PAPER
Jordan Crane's anthology Non is to young experimental cartoonists what Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly's Raw was in the '80s—rule-free turf to find their voices, sometimes explosively. This volume features a couple of creative breakthroughs—Megan Kelso's sly, tender "Retreat" and Brian Chippendale's ferociously surreal "Program,"—as well as solid shorter work from Greg Cook, Ron Regé Jr., and others. It's inventive and gorgeous as a design object, too, from its hand-screened cover to the two smaller books tipped into the package: a collection of Crane's own Col-Dee mini-comics and a freewheeling, wordless piece by Kurt Wolfgang, "Where Hats Go."

SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT
by Lydia Davis
MCSWEENEY'S BOOKS, 201 PP., $17
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In her latest collection of stories, Davis deploys her gift for verbal clarity to draw up intricate guides through experiences of bemusement, annoyance, and high anxiety. A wordplaying crank rails against over-groomed lawns; a woman makes a Zen-influenced New Year's resolution to "see myself as nothing," but then wonders if she has set her goals too high. Many of these stories portray hyperanalytic isolation, but Davis's work is too well-modulated, hilarious, and well-meaning to drift into simplistic cul-de-sacs of dreary solitude. Her characters question everything, especially themselves, and they wonder, obsessively, how to act. Like verbal accuracy, perfect behavior is an impossible dream, but Davis always converts her characters' complex ruminations into narratives full of insight and pleasure.

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?

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."

EPIC ENCOUNTERS: CULTURE, MEDIA, AND U.S. INTERESTS IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1945-2000
by Melani McAlister
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, 373 PP., $19.95 PAPER
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Raised a Southern Baptist, Melani McAlister is uniquely placed to reveal what she calls "the often invisible significance of the Middle East to Americans." Through the Ten Commandments, Exodus, the King Tut exhibit, the Nation of Islam, the rise of white evangelicals and their support for Israel, the hostage crisis, or the "military multiculturalism" of the Gulf War, McAlister reconfigures American investment in the Middle East as a central element of our own national, racial, and sexual identities. One gets the sense that had September 11 not happened, it would have to be invented as a logical continuation of the narrative she constructs.

ANNETTE MESSAGER
by Catherine Grenier, translated by David Radzinowicz Howell
FLAMMARION, 191 PP., $35
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Over her 30-year career, the French artist Annette Messager has fabricated a fantasy world that is equal parts enchanting and creepy. She specializes in making the familiar seem strange: One of her earliest projects involved displaying tiny dead sparrows in wool cardigans she'd knit for them, while a much more recent work suspended a forest of stuffed animals from the ceiling—she described them as "little corpses from childhood to which people remain strongly attached." Her work thrives on ritual and repetition, nostalgia and disorientation. This first major book on the French artist, with extensive text by Parisian curator Catherine Grenier, gracefully leads the reader through the maze of Messager's trickster universe.

OUR WORD IS OUR WEAPON
by Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos
SEVEN STORIES PRESS, 456 PP., $27.95
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"The flower of the word will never die," writes our hero. A poet with political theory is an ideologue; with a gun, a revolutionary; with both, a culture star. Potentially insufferable, but in the case of Zapatista spokesmodel Marcos we get a folksily articulate charmer as wittily self-deprecating with a moral tale as he is satirically ferocious with a press release posted from the Lacandon jungle. Come for the limning of the indigenous uprising that remains the landmark critique of global corporatism; stay for the sweetness, remarkable shifting modes, and magical realist yarns about Durito the bug and a certain big-nosed subcomandante.

MY NAME IS RED
by Orhan Pamuk
KNOPF, 417 PP., $25.95
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My Name Is Red is a breathless, philosophical whodunit set in 1591 when the brutal murder of a gilder threatens to expose a blasphemy that has infected Master Oman's Ottoman court painters. The story is told in the first person from the point of view of a dozen narrators, not all of them human. Pamuk, a writer of intellectual thrillers and a sophisticated provocateur who raises questions about the things that matter—love, death, art, politics—has been compared to García Márquez, Borges, Calvino, Nabokov, and DeLillo. His writing is erudite and magically real, funny and sexy, terrifying and thrilling, taking the reader back and forth across the hazy and dangerous terrain where the Koran clashes with the Bible. The novel is Shakespearean in its grandeur, as well as delightfully sinful, guilty of blasphemy by 16th-century fundamentalist standards (if not 21st as well).

BEFORE THE STORM: BARRY GOLDWATER AND THE UNMAKING OF THE AMERICAN CONSENSUS
by Rick Perlstein
HILL AND WANG, 671 PP., $30
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When Rick Perlstein sat down to tell the secret history of modern conservatism, he mastered the politics, the ideologies, the personalities. Then he absorbed enough period detail to sink most historians; instead, it makes Before the Storm one of the most stylish, riveting debuts in narrative history in years. Barry Goldwater, the daredevil senator from Arizona, was the early '60s' anti-JFK. Swooping down in his private plane, tanned and fearless, he asked not what your country could do for you, but how you could get out from under your country. Perlstein paints a broad canvas, against which his hero self-destructs with the most inept presidential campaign of modern times. Pundits will argue the politics, but the sheer comedy and tragedy of it are too good to ignore.

EVERYBODY WAS KUNG FU FIGHTING: AFRO-ASIAN CONNECTIONS AND THE MYTH OF CULTURAL PURITY
by Vijay Prashad
BEACON, 216 PP., $25
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Pity Nathan Glazer and his ilk. Not long after the neoconservative concedes that We Are All Multiculturalists Now, Vijay Prashad arrives to demolish multiculturalism as a complacent theme park of self-enclosed heritages. Instead, Prashad suggests polyculturalism, the recognition of "our mulatto histories." This slim book spans five centuries to plumb Afro-Asian affairs, from the pre-capitalist mix of the Indian Ocean cosmos to the multinational travels (and fan base) of Bruce Lee. Whether locating both Ho Chi Minh and Elijah Muhammad in Marcus Garvey's audiences or ruminating on the Asian roots of Rastafarianism, Kung Fu is a treasury of hidden histories and startling solidarities. But Prashad is not simply celebratory: He also takes on the "primordialism" of Afrocentrists and Asian nationalists in a book that is both unapologetically radical and alive to paradox.

FAST FOOD NATION
by Eric Schlosser
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN CO., 228 PP., $25
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Fast Food Nation illustrates how America's billion-dollar, cholesterol-laden industry has entrenched itself into our diet—capturing everything from the school lunchroom (90 percent of American children also eat at McDonald's every month) to engineering the national palate. Schlosser's examination of working conditions in the meatpacking industry and its hazardous impact on public health quashes even the most red-blooded of appetites. Schlosser includes stomach-churning data such as a USDA probe that proved companies knowingly shipped contaminated meat. Schlosser's primary point: What the food giants do affects everyone, because we've all got to eat. Rather than lining their pockets, he suggests, just "turn and walk out the door."

AUSTERLITZ
by W.G. Sebald
RANDOM HOUSE, 298 PP., $25.95
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In his longest narrative to date, Sebald conjures a continuum of grief so generous as to include the imagined death throes of a wayward moth and the fate of the titular Austerlitz, an architectural historian whose character was forged by his removal from Prague to Wales via the kindertransport. Austerlitz is a high-wire act in the Nocturama, dense with history and uncanny about the way things fall apart. When the narrator notes Austerlitz's adeptness at "forming perfectly balanced sentences out of whatever occurred to him," it's a comment on Sebald's own aesthetic: His wide-ranging intelligence and the serpentine arguments of his Bernhard-gauge paragraphs make the novel a memory palace of dazzling vistas. Apt, then, that Austerlitz should share his name with the ancestors of an Omaha hoofer—Fred Astaire, whose luminous tread could make any surface sing.

RAYMOND PETTIBON
by Robert Storr, Dennis Cooper, Ulrich Loock
PHAIDON, 160 PP., $35
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This overview of DIY artist Raymond Pettibon presents a collection of image-text ink drawings rangy enough to evoke Charles Manson as provocatively as it does the sentences of Proust. Initially adopted by the L.A. hardcore scene of the late '70s and '80s, Pettibon got his start drawing ersatz subcultural types in moments of unadulterated pychopathic glee. His portraits of mainstream figures—craggy Nancy and Ronald Reagan, Peeping Tom J. Edgar Hoover, Elvis on a cross—tended to highlight the malefic sides of America's pop mythology. As he turns to broader iconography (surfers, baseball, trains), the drawings grow more detailed and the text more cryptic, sometimes mimicking the complexity of late Henry James. Aside from an interview by Dennis Cooper, the written sections here don't add much, perhaps because this artist's work is often resistant to interpretation.

THE ANNOTATED "HERE" AND SELECTED POEMS
by Marjorie Welish
COFFEE HOUSE PRESS, 148 PP., $14.95
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Of course, by the time "Here" is annotated, it's elsewhere. This puzzler, akin to the shifts in figure-ground relationship that animate Welish's elegant art criticism, is one of several slippages that open whorls and eddies in the current of her poetry. In these spaces appear the ferociously analytical and suddenly sensuous discoveries of a poet at her capacious finest, deferring theoretical consolations as surely as convenient emotionalism. Strolling through the shards of modernism, these caustically rigorous inquiries into perception and language (which is figure, which is ground?) help annotate both the here and now of contemporary poetry, ongoingly turning into elsewhere.

JOHN HENRY DAYS
by Colson Whitehead
DOUBLEDAY, 389 PP., $24.95
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Historically, the African American literary landscape has been occupied by more outside forces than Afghanistan. Up until recently, black divas, according to bell hooks, had to write for middle-class white feminists. And now, the black bourgeoisie has moved in. They've brought an unparalleled readership, bookstores, and book clubs. More black authors have gotten rich, but there are still those who go their own way, some of whom might be eligible for food stamps. Colson Whitehead, author of John Henry Days, is better off than that. His lead character, J. Sutter, is a hack freelance writer. Sutter's assignment is to cover the annual John Henry Days pageant, named for the black steel driver who tested his brawn against the force of a steam drill. Along the way, Whitehead mows down a number of American institutions with a wit that is merciless and entertaining.


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