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The Donoghue Interregnum: 1993!

By (December 4, 2015) No Comment

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We’re now at 1993, when the Boston winter was gawd-awful, Jurassic Park stomped into movie theaters, and the great Thurgood Marshall died. Here’s how the book-world looked:

Best Fiction:

a suitable boy10 – A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth – This sprawling novel set in 1950s India and featuring four families populated by vivid characters is so smart, so involving, that it was a bit of a struggle not to give it the #1 slot on this list (and the fact that a few different books on this list produced the same temptation tells me ’93 was a good year for fiction). This is the now-stereotypical ‘big Indian novel’ done about as well as it can be done.

9 – The Pugilist at Rest by Thom Jones – I very the pugilist at restmuch wanted to resist this collection of short stories, since it appeared as the result of a textbook “meteoric rise” of the type that usually makes writers insufferable and in turn makes for insufferable writing (back in 1993, it would be a full 11 years before readers could find all such writers in one convenient place, chain-smoking on the roof of n + 1‘s Brooklyn building). But I couldn’t resist; Jones’s storytelling talent blazes on the butcher boyvirtually every page.

8 – The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe – McCabe’s novel – about a psychopathic and brutalized young Irish boy with a poet’s soul strangling inside him – caught me totally by surprise. I’d expected a knockoff of the kind of Dublin-noir that so often leaves me indifferent, but here, under McCabe’s careful handling, it’s mesmerizing.

7 – Lempriere’s Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk –lempriere's dictionary This amazing debut shares the same name with the classic reference work – a key to all mythologies! – being compiled in Norfolk’s book by hapless John Lempriere, who in the process encounters hidden societies, lurking killers, and a series of deaths that hideously resemble incidents from the myths he’s compiling. It’s a simple plana bewilderingly complicated book, and Norfolk brings it off with devious skill.

6 – A Simple Plan by Scott Smith – Just like Lempriere’s Dictionary, this book by Scott Smith doesn’t read anything like a debut novel. It’s the story of two ordinary small-town brothers who find a crashed plane in the woods with a dead pilot and a satchel full of money; they decide to hide their discovery and keep the money, and Smith follows the ramifications of those decisions with an extremely skillful clarity.

5 – The Blue Afternoon by William Boyd – I was the blue afternoonfamiliar with Boyd’s peculiarities as a writer before I came to this book, but even by his own standards, this is one strange novel, equal parts the story of a young woman in Golden Age Hollywood and a shaggy-dog adventure-story running over half the map, from Portugal to Manilla at the turn of the 20th century. Boyd’s plotting is much more meticulous than it looks, and he makes the whole thing work in ways that I didn’t expect, but the real draw here, as in all his books, is the understated lovely in the eye of the sunintelligence of his prose.

4 – In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Soueif – And while we’re on the subject of lovely prose, it absolutely suffuses this rich novel about the life and unbalanced loves of an Egyptian woman in the (relatively) contemporary Middle East. Soueif is extremely skilled at capturing the subtle changes that simple time can create in personalities, but for me, the highlight of her book is its depiction of the not-so-subtle changes that take place in Cairo society even during the main characters’ lifetime. With the sole exception of our #1, this novel has repaid more re-readings than any the giverother work of fiction from this year.

3 – The Giver by Lois Lowry – You’d think I wouldn’t include this particular book – the germ-seed from which sprouted the eighteen million interchangeable dystopian YA novels in which a lone teen hero saves all young people from evil totalitarian monsters called “parents” (and played by actresses of a certain age, all with stick-straight Morticia Addams hairdos). But you can’t hold this terrific book’s progeny against it – I loved it even when I recently re-read it.

birdsong2 – Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – This archetype-WWI novel – the naive young man, the torrid love affair, the grit and gore of the Front, the chilling descriptions of No Man’s Land – actually made me sigh a bit when I first got it, since, to put it mildly, I’d read such novels before. But I was immediately impressed by the job Faulks does here, especially in the crafting of his characters.

1 – Body & Soul by Frank Conroy – I’m sure I wasn’t body & soulthe only person who eventually became convinced this book would never actually get written, but lo and behold, here it was, and blindingly good – the best novel of the year! This is the story of a young piano prodigy, his troubled mother, his steadfast teacher, and the steadily-broadening scope of his adult life, and it’s imbued with all the care and eloquence and intelligence that filled the author’s memoir Stop-Time. There are set-piece scenes better than anything Conroy had ever written before, and the characters live.



Best Nonfiction:

main_1-Margaret-Thatcher-Signed-The-Downing-Street-Years-Hardback-Book-JSA-ALOA-PristineAuction.com10 – The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher – I expected this doorstop to be every bit as air-dried and dodgy as so many other political memoirs, but I was very, very pleasantly surprised. Lady Thatcher had the same program of self-vindication as every other former politician, but she was wise enough to hire a seasoned old hack who realized he had one of the best political stories of the second half of the 20th century to tell. The result is every bit as dodgy as I feared, but my, my what a wonderful read!

9 – Robert Louis Stevenson by Frank McLynn – robert louis stevensonI’m a big fan of McLynn’s popular biographies, and even now, a quarter-century later, I actually think this one might still be his best, the long and tortured (and yet somehow still mostly cheerful) life of an ailing writer and adventurer, a patient wife and a wonderful friend to children.

whoredom in kimmage8 – Whoredom in Kimmage by Rosemary Mahoney – This rambling memoir of various specimens of Dublin gutter trash shouldn’t be as enthralling as it is, and it’s made that way entirely by Mahoney’s fantastic literary gifts. She has a perfect ear for dialogue, a perfect sense of dramatic pacing, and her perfectly Irish skill at creating reality out of whole cloth (Protestants have a more concise term for that last one, but who listens to them?), and they all combine to make a fiercely memorable book.

7 – Curriculum Vitae by Muriel Spark – How I loved the fact that Spark brought Curriculum-Vitae-Sparkto this memoir the same kind of icicle-cool intelligence and skillful stage-management of her novels! She tells the stories of her life – her childhood, her intelligence-service work during the Second World War, her dealings with the postwar literary scene (many of the inhabitants of which quite vocally didn’t understand her) – as though they were the stories from her novels, the oldest dead white european malesand its all delightful. The least-revealing memoir since Edith Wharton’s.

6 – The Oldest Dead White European Males by Bernard Knox – The snarky title of this essay collection should be an immediate tip-off that this is Knox in a playful mood, riffing on the then-widespread rallying-call that college canon shouldn’t be so filled with the “dead white European Males.” Throughout this book, he’s at his most enthusiastically readable, championing the study of the classics and their place at the cornerstone of any worthwhile educational system. Classicists don’t write like this often enough, or a hell of a lot more people would the queen's throatknow Latin.

5 – The Queen’s Throat by Wayne Koestenbaum – Instead of striking a tone of peremptory outrage at the stereotypical linkage of opera and gay men (the approach that would certainly be the default position today), Koestenbaum confronts it head-on in this fantastic, thought-provoking book. His examination of the connection is fascinating on a social level, but my favorite part of the book is his intensely evocative discussions of operas the diversity of lifethemselves.

4 – The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson – Admittedly, this is my favorite kind of popular science-writing, this kind of over-bursting volume tackling a wide array of evolutionary and natural history topics (there are a few more on these lists), but even so, this illustrated book by Wilson stands out, with something fascinating on every page about the history and nature of life on Earth.

3 – Case Closed by Gerald Posner – Posner tilts case closedagainst both the majority of polled Americans and the majority of books on the JFK assassination by writing an extensively-researched and marvelously intelligent defense of the Warren Commission report, and every page of it is gripping, especially his portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald, which struck me as virtually impossible to contradict.

let the sea make a noise2 – Let the Sea Make a Noise by Walter McDougall – McDougall takes his fairly standard subject – a cultural history of the nations over time who’ve travelled and depended on the North Atlantic – and he adds a terrifically effective overlay of dramatics in order to underscore the human element of the story. At every stage of the book, I had the sense that McDougall was channelling genuine united statespassion into his subject, which is always a great feeling.

1. United States by Gore Vidal – There could never be any other real candidate for the best nonfiction work of this year, of course. This massive collection of essays by one of the 20th century’s greatest literary figures hits every register in the vast vocabulary of belle lettres; it’s endlessly challenging, infuriating, and re-readable, a permanently fascinating classic.