We’ve now reached 1996, the year Carl Sagan died. The books looked like this:
10 – The Beauty of Men by Andrew Holleran – This novel about an aging man’s look back on the loves and fucks of his life in the gay demimonde reads every bit as beautifully as Holleran’s consciousness-defining hit Dancer from the Dance, only as elegy instead of celebration. In this book, the happy, exhausted young men making their way home at dawn from all-night dance raves – that image repeated so often in Dancer – those men are all dead or defeated, and our narrator is their battered survivor. It doesn’t sound like it would make for compelling reading, but it does.
9 – The Music of Dolphins by Karen Hesse – The age-old folk tale of the human child raised by wild animals gets a modern-day update in this spellbinding novel about a little girl who’s raised by a pod of dolphins in the open ocean. When she’s “rescued,” she begins a long and bumpy re-integration into human society, which Hesse captures wonderfully, placing the young girl, Mila, in the company of other great oddity-orphans, Tarzan, Mowgli, and Kal-El of Krypton.
8 – The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama – There’s an elegant, almost mythical simplicity to Tsukiyama’s tale of a teenage Hong Kong boy named Stephen who’s sent to a remote coastal village in the 1930s in the run-up to Japan’s invasion of China. Stephen is sickly, and in his new home he falls under the tutelage of a wise and gentle gardener who teaches him a great deal about both gardening and life. The plot sounds trite on its face, but it’s written up with such grace that it becomes all the more moving for its minimalism.
7 – Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders – I was totally unprepared for the odd, off-kilter brilliance on display in almost every page of this debut short story collection. The stories themselves are weird confections of magical realism and a wonderfully wry sour-puss pessimism – pretty much exactly the kind of combination that should have left me sprinting for the exit. But sheer virtuosity creates its own compulsions, so I read and re-read and recommended.
6 – Drown by Junot Diaz – Any publishing year seeing the appearance of a debut like Civilwarland in Bad Decline could justifiably declare a high-water mark, but 1996 was a very, very good year, and it saw another incredibly good debut collection, this powerful title from Junot Diaz, writing about the same kind of down-and-out hopeful losers as Saunders, and with an equally poetic disaffection, but in a very different key. Reading and re-reading them both has been a treat for a decade.
5 – The Beach by Alex Garland – Our third stunning debut in a row, this novel by Alex Garland tells the ultimate stoner-backpacker shangri-la story, the story of a hidden island known only to a select few, where visitors get to live in rules-free paradise. The novel’s main character is given a map showing how to find this place, and when he and a French couple he befriends actually do, of course it turns out much different – and much darker – than he expected. This is exactly the kind of stuff that usually bores me, but in this case I was blown away.
4 – I’m Losing You by Bruce Wagner – Wagner’s own debut impressed me so much that I made a point of reading this novel without delay when it appeared, even though a) it mined the world of Hollywood for its setting and material, an easy and too often trite choice, and b) it inaugurated what would turn out to be a long string of atrocious titles for Wagner’s various books, as if there’s something hep or cutting edge about titling your book with a cliche or a piece of idiom (as if we’d all be so much smarter if Jane Austen had called one of her books “Gammon!”). But I heroically forced myself to look past the title of this one, and I was thrilled and delighted once again by his laser-sharp characterizations.
3 – The Atlas by William Vollmann – This author has always been very hit-or-miss with me, but this big book was a hit, one of the most extravagant and successful examples I’ve ever read of fictionalized nonfiction. In it, Vollmann takes his own world-covering travels and transforms them into a quasi-fantasia of fact and fiction, a moving stew that really allows his voice to stand out. I had no idea at the time that this author would continue to turn out doorstops for the next decade, but this one pleased me greatly.
2 – The Drowning Room by Michael Pye – Pye takes the sketchy historical details of the life of a 17th-century Manhattan immigrant woman named Gretje Reyniers and imagines out of them a whole life story, one that stretches from Amsterdam to the New World and includes plenty of pathos, squalor, and humor. I thought this was one of the strongest conventional historical novels of the year, and in my re-readings of it, I’ve always wished it were longer.
1 – It’s a Magical World by Bill Watterson – I’m sure I wasn’t the only comic strip reader who’d endured the little heartbreak of seeing Watterson end his sublime “Calvin & Hobbes” cartoon strip the previous year – I practically had tears in my eyes while reading the final installment, where Calvin and his faithful stuffed tiger go sledding off to new adventures we the readers would never see. So of course this volume, collecting the last of the strip, was a bittersweet necessity.
10 – A Tour of the Calculus by David Berlinski – I was, to put it mildly, no big fan of mathematics when I picked up this book, and the conventional revelation would be for me to confess that it changed my mind – but no, it didn’t. I still find all forms of math malignantly bewildering, but luckily, it didn’t matter in this case: Berlinksi in these pages is such a witty, infectiously readable tour guide that I was happy to follow along, understanding nothing about this great something that was moving him to such energy and eloquence.
9 – The Queen by Ben Pimlott – One critic referred to the royal subject of this book as “an ethnic minority of one,” and that sense of both grandeur and isolation comes across more strongly in this great biography than in any other book I’ve read on Queen Elizabeth II (and as of last month, I’ve read them all, God help me). This kind of wry meta-analysis is the only truly worthwhile approach to a woman who’s entire public life is in the state records and whose entire private life is a matter of speculation (the Queen does not grant interviews), and Pimlott does it superbly and playfully.
8 – The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen – Always one of the best nonfiction writers in any year in which he chooses to write a book – Quammen here takes up the subject of island biodiversity, and for an ultimately chilling reason: as he sees it, the entire world is becoming an example of island biodiversity, as more and more natural spaces are bombarded by deforestation, pollution, and human overpopulation. As always, Quammen somehow manages the rhetorical trick of alarm-sounding without doom-saying, and he does it with hugely energetic prose.
7 – Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu by Simon Callow – I only got around to this fantastic book belatedly, put off a little by what struck me as the central gimmick, an actor writing a long biography of an actor/director. But once I finally read it, I was amazed at the thorough job Callow does in grappling with a very complex and contradictory subject. He never falls for Welles’s wormy self-justifications, never allows himself to become spellbound to Welles’s outsized personality, and yet throughout this book and its equally-amazing sequel, he retains a knowing, indulgent smile toward the man – and delivers dozens and dozens of sharp insights into the industry they share.
6 – Outwitting Squirrels by Bill Adler – The goal of Adler’s wonderful book is simple: to keep squirrels out of backyard bird feeders. Just that. But, as our author describes with a smile-inducing combination of humor and matter-of-fact grim determination, this turns out to be virtually impossible. Squirrels are tenacious. Squirrels are acrobatic. Squirrels are single-minded. And perhaps most importantly, squirrels are much, much smarter than the humans who attempt to thwart their seed-devouring ways. Adler tests out all the latest, most ingenious bird-feeders and rates their ability to forestall depredation even temporarily, but the whole book has a hilarious Waterloo feeling of futility about it.
5 – No Passion Spent by George Steiner – Any essay collection by Steiner is a treat of the first importance, but this one has remained my favorite, mainly because it highlights by its very nature the staggering depth and catholicity of his tastes and interests. Here are rich, deep thought-pieces on a wide variety of topics, presented with Steiner’s signature intellectual spikiness and texture. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of critics with whom I tend to argue more than Steiner, but I’m always the better reader for it.
4 – Charles Ives by Jan Swafford – This is in many ways the most conventional of the biographies on this year’s list (a biography-heavy list, as you might expect), and it’s very much of a piece with the big, full-dress biographies Swafford has made his life’s endeavor, but I loved it intensely despite that! Swafford patiently and intelligently parses out the shape and emphases of Ives’s life and times, and it’s an intensely satisfying performance.
3 – Desert Queen by Janet Wallach – There’ve been a few biographies of this book’s subject, the irrepressible Gertrude Bell (and Penguin recently came out with an updated volume of her selected letters), but this one is by far the best at capturing – as much as any book can – the many superlatives and contradictions of the woman who did as much as any man (for good or ill) to bequeath to the modern world the Middle East we have today.
2 – John Marshall by Jean Edward Smith – This particular subject, the nation’s most intellectually formidable and buccaneering Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, was, as Smith contends more forcefully and convincingly than any of the man’s other biographers, as essential to creating the very nature of the United States as was any president or statesman or author. I am, as some of you may be able to guess, rather fond of a (much) earlier Marshall biography, but even so, I recognize a definitive treatment when I see one.
1 – Byzantium: Decline and Fall by John Julius Norwich – In the concluding volume to his magnificent Byzantium trilogy, Norwich, as the book’s title might suggest, takes a more Gibbonesque delight than ever in his subject – even as that subject is embarking on its long, slow voyage into the deep shadows where all great nations eventually go. Norwich charts that senescence with tremendous skill and energy, always attentive for the glimmer-points of heroism or pathos – it’s a great conclusion to a great set of histories.
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