Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Books Top Tens

JANUARY 12, 1998:  You should hear the grumbling. "Top Tens -- bleah!" Still, there's nothing like an annual rehash to put the old year in its place. The thing is, unlike the two hours spent in a movie house or at a stage production, or three hours seeing a live band, reading a book is a true commitment of time, almost like deciding to take a new lover. This is what you'll be intimate with, what you'll be spending your evenings and spare time with, this is what will engage your thoughts, maybe even coloring the world around you for a while.

It's tough, then, to tell reviewers to choose a Top Ten for books. "I barely had time to read 10 books!" some complained. This is true; you can watch several films or plays or bands in the time it takes to finish one book -- that's why we embrace reading as such a luxury. It's like driving alone in your car, a solitary, deeply gratifying indulgence.

Hearing me complain about the Top Tens, Chronicle reviewer Stewart Wade suggested a kind of poll instead, questions to reflect the state of books and book publishing last year. Aha! The light bulb went off, the e-mail was sent, and the responses came flooding back. This is how writers Anna Hanks, Michael Bertin, Jay Hardwig, Adrienne Martini, Jesse Sublett, Marion Winik, and Claiborne Smith saw 1997. Welcome to 1998. -- Margaret Moser


AH: I loved Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kristen Bakis. It is the story of a future New York, where dogs with money, fame, great clothing, and surgical enhancement can do no wrong. Call it magical realism.

JH: Peter Matthiessen's Lost Man's River. I've just started on this book about murder and memory in the frontier Everglades, and it brims with the elegant prose, striking characteri/zation, and moral complexity that has made Matthiessen famous. The sequel to 1990's Killing Mister Watson, it promises to be a very satisfying read indeed, and an auspicious start to 1998.

JS: Comeback by Richard Stark. No doubt about it. I even remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard that, after a 20-year absence, Donald Westlake had resurrected his fabulous creation, the hardboiled professional criminal, Parker, and the pen name he uses (Richard Stark) when he writes of this character. The book, the latest in a long line of brilliant, tough, and tautly plotted caper novels by Westlake, not only lived up to its high expectations but in my excitement, I decided to write a feature on Westlake which got me reading his other brilliant book of 1997, which is The Ax, the story of an average middle-aged executive who, after being downsized out of his job, resorts to murder. All he wants is his old job and his old life back, and he'll kill however many people it takes to get it.

MW: Two books I was utterly charmed by: Le Divorce by Diane Johnson and Do The Windows Open?by Julie Hecht. Fun, funny, and so smart.

MB: The Teatherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner. This is probably as much a result of my inability to get around to reading anything released this year as it is a reflection of how good Teatherballs is. Nonetheless, Leyner has an uncanny ability to dump the encyclopedic contents of his memory into the blender of his brain and pour it out on the page into bizarre, flamboyant stories that are interesting beyond the simple juxtaposition of otherwise completely unrelated stuff. Reading Leyner is kind of like surveying the aftermath of a linguistic explosion. Plus, it's funny.

AM: Bujold's Memory by Lois McMaster. Originally, I ended up reading this book to write a review of all of the Hugo 1997 nominees. Fortunately, Memory was my gateway to all of Bujold's books and lead to a year-end burst of playing catch-up with all of her work. For years I had heard that Bujold wrote good, meaty space operas with great character development but hadn't picked up one of her many novels, either those part of the Miles Vorkosigan saga or stand-alones. Unfortunately, I've now read them all and am anxiously waiting for my next fix, due in the summer of 1998.

MM: Feeling a little gun-shy from the influx of must-read literature (and also guilty over having enjoyed The Rules so much), I found Patricia Kennealy-Morrison's Blackmantle absorbing, romantic, and illuminating. Morrison's 17th century fantasy epic deftly blends Celtic mythology, science fiction, and pop culture in a way that is engrossing and wicked. Doors fans know author Morrison as the woman who married Doors singer Jim Morrison in a handfasting ceremony in 1970, as revealed in her autobiography Strange Days, which I first trashed and then reversed my position on. Think of Blackmantle then, as Strange Days in outer space, and brush up on your anagrams and Doors trivia. (Hint: Loris Venöet = Oliver Stone)

CS: Since I generally don't make New Year's resolutions, let me offer a hope I have for 1998: I hope I remove Serge Schmemann's Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village from my nightstand where I placed it in the vain hope that I might get some of it read before sleeping and place it instead on my desk, where it is more certain to be read. Doubtlessly the title alone has induced some of you to sleep, but this account of The New York Times foreign correspondent's Russian forebears during pre-revolutionary feudal life to revolutionary fervor to civil war and present life, told through the history of Sergiyevskoye, now Koltsovo, 90 miles south of Moscow, is told in an engrossing manner.


AH: My favorite "old" book is probably David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I really like the way that the narrative is drawn out, yet fiercely compelling.

JH: "Old" books are mostly what I read, and I've read several great ones this year. Honors probably go to the Texas classic Goodbye to a River, Robert Graves' simple and eloquent farewell to a now-vanished world. Other highlights included William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows, Cormac McCarthy's Outer Dark, and Louis de Berniere's The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts.

MM: 1997 was a year in which I found solace re-reading familiar books from my childhood, and nothing was more pleasurable for me than George S. MacDonald's The Princess and The Goblins. It reminded me of how blessed we are to have books that can do such magical things as transport us to any point in space or time, and that children's books need not be written in a cutesy manner. I was also completely entranced by Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series of recent years.

JS: My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue by Sam Chamberlain. After his adventures in love and war during the Mexican War, Bostonian Sam Chamberlain spent the remaining years of his life writing and illustrating his memoirs of his fabulous adventures in the Southwest, including his stint with the scalp-hunting gang of John Glanton, which formed the basis for the classic, legendary novel Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy. This book is too wild and weird for it all to be true, but it doesn't really matter, says historian Bill Goetzmann, who edited this first unexpurgated version of Chamberlain's memoirs and also wrote a very lively, illuminating introduction. It's still one of the best informed, and certainly one of the most unique, documents of its kind.

MW: I finally read Angela's Ashes and it is everything you've heard and more. Also enjoyed discovering the early writings of Erma Bombeck, and The Hobbit, of all things, which was the bedtime story around here for about six months.

MB: Independent People by Hallador Laxness. Independent People, the creation of one of the world's least recognizable Nobel laureates, had been out of print for decades until its 1997 reissue. At the most basic level, it's a book about sheep and a stubbornly stupid Icelandic crofter. Yet, through subject matter that almost nobody can identify with first hand, Laxness deftly manipulates the themes that come to write themselves upon all of our lives. While that's the hallmark of any good book, Laxness manages to do it with remarkable subtlety through a completely obvious character. It's a rare read.

AM: Robert A. Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon -- I somehow managed to miss this book when I was going through my Heinlein phase and was thrilled to discover a "new" book from an old, sadly dead, master of the genre. While this Roc reissue of an out-of-print classic is not Heinlein's best, it is a wonderful reminder that the man deserved all of the praise that has been lofted his way.

CS: Harvest Books, an imprint of Harcourt Brace & Co. reprinted Italo Calvino's short story collection, Difficult Loves, from its original 1958 publication date. In fact, Harvest didn't reprint the book in paperback in 1997, but since that's when I found it, it becomes my favorite "old" book of 1997, principally because Calvino is so slyly humorous and adept at making small details reveal larger truths.


AH: Close to the Bone: Memoirs of hurt, rage and desire, edited by Laurie Stone. With the exception of Baby Doll by 17-year-old writer Terminator, this is a bunch of over-educated whiny Americans pitying themselves because their parents didn't love them enough. Get over it.

JH: It was published in '94, paperbacked in '95, but '97 was the year that David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars hit the used bookstores and henceforth my home. Raved over by critics, devoured by my friends, praised by almost all the literate people I know, I found Snow to be a rather tepid courtroom drama of fair-to-middling merit. What's wrong with me?

JS: I don't have any. There were too many good books to read in 1997 to waste time on the bad ones.

MW: The incredible furor surrounding Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss fascinated and disturbed me, but left me with no desire to read the book: a sort of literary equivalent of the O.J. trial.

MB: Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry. This is a bit unfair as I didn't even finish the book, but that's the very reason McMurtry earns this distinction. Just like with Mailer's Harlot's Ghost a couple of years back, slugging through the first half of Comanche Moon became such a chore that I abandoned the thing altogether less than halfway through.

AM: Stephen King's Desperation/The Regulators -- Okay, okay, technically these books came out in 1996. What can I say, it's been a busy year. I'm sure that the lack of merits of these novels has been endlessly debated but I feel the need to add my two cents. I know King can do much, much better than this but probably got locked in the same kind of time pressure that haunts us all. Come on, a demon god from below the earth that inhabits peoples' bodies and kills anyone who stands in its way while delivering a thinly veiled message about the nature of God? It's high time for the great Mr. King to prove he's worth his $80 mil.

CS: I wish there had been more to Allan Gurganus' Plays Well With Others than there was.


AH: In some senses, the most interesting trend is the rise of the memoir. I've always loved the form. (Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady by Florence King is one of my all-time Top Ten books.) And, as many others have pointed out, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt was stunning and wonderful.

JH: If nothing else, '97 was a good year for bookmarks. My mother, an inveterate mystery reader and connosieur of bookmarks, regularly sent me markers of all shapes, sizes, and intents, invariably with a yellow Post-It proclaiming, "These are neat!" And generally they were. As far as publishing, the continuing trend away from serious literature and towards mass-market bestsellers, even by the small houses, is a little depressing (but hard to fault from a purely capitalist perspective).

MM: The depressing rock & roll-ization of book packaging. Books covers are starting to read and look more like album covers, and carry that
Gen-X patina of hip design, which dates itself in six months. The problem is symptomatic of the general trend in publishing to rush out so many titles that flashy colors and fonts are more of a concern than content and craft. I love to hold a Modern Library volume or a Knopf Vintage re-issue in my hand and marvel at its simplicity and modesty.

JS: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I found it very interesting that an achingly slow-paced, literary novel of the Civil War would dominate the top of the bestsellers list for so long. It's on my reading table but I haven't gotten past the first two chapters yet. I'm sure it's a good book, but I'm always surprised when I check the bestsellers list and see it's still there.

MW: Cool stuff for booklovers online: like AOL's Book Report, and the amazing Amazon.com

MB: I am tormented by the fact that Oprah Winfrey has become the most important voice in books in this country. The horror. The horror.

AM: Endless science fiction series is actually an old trend that grew even stronger in 1997. Robert Jordan, Bujold, Piers Anthony, Terry Pratchett, Anne McCaffrey, Dan Simmons... the list just keeps growing. I understand how difficult it is to build a new world, develop characters, and finish all of the story in 300 pages. Fans fall in love with these creations, never want to see them end and will buy any collection of pages that comes their way. Despite that, it's kind of disturbing that these writers, and their publishers, will continue a saga even long after all of the energy is played out and the magic has left no forwarding address. But it's hard to roundly condemn the phenomenon as a whole. In the hands of some writers, these streams of books are incredible each time at bat.

CS: Please don't ever make me read another memoir!


AH: Better editing. My review copies are often red-penciled due to an obvious lack of proper editing. Often the prose is as bloated as Orson Welles after an eggnog binge.

JH: I would like to see more good quality humor -- damn funny stuff that doesn't insult the public intelligence. Less of stand-up comics rehashing stale one-liners and more of the subtler (but no less savage) wit found in only the best of the humorous novels and essays. May '98 find me chuckling.

MM: More judicious editing.

JS: Smaller books! For a while it seemed that no matter how shallow or vacuous the book, a new hardcover book had to be the size of a cinderblock or it wasn't taken seriously. Then, one day I'm at the bookstore and I see a book called The Right Man for the Job, by Mike Magnuson. It's bright orange and has a gas can on the cover and its relatively petite 8"x5" size fits right in the palm of my hand. A real friendly feel. Coincidentally, the contents of the book are good, too. Other books this year that were small on the outside but huge on the inside included Comeback by Richard Stark; Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis; Gone Fishing by Walter Mosely; Where Trouble Sleeps by Clyde Edgerton; Monitor by James T. deKay; and Sandman by J. Robert Janes. Could this be a trend? I hope so. There will always be exceptions, books that demand to be big, but some books really ought to fit in your hand, all the better to get inside your mind. Also, although the publishing industry doesn't have a whole lot to do with it, I love the Internet versions of the Sunday editions of The New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, with their online first chapters, RealTime author interviews, and selected archives of past reviews and features on spotlighted authors. With that kind of stuff available, Sunday morning reading can last all week.

MW: I would like superstores not to crush independents, bestsellers not to crush midlist authors, and I would like Oprah Winfrey to try, somehow, to make amends with me when my new book, The Lunch-Box Chronicles, comes out in April.

MB: Fewer "P is for Psycho" books foisted upon the world, please.

AM: Soon, the giants of the publishing industry are going to collapse under their own weight. These monoliths have gotten just too large and unwieldy to do the job well and seem to simply be hemorrhaging money. It is the small publishers who are picking up the slack, gaining momentum, and keeping the business as personal as possible. I would love to see more and more of these companies who fly under the radar to keep the marketplace vital and diverse.

CS: Please don't ever make me read another memoir! n


by Phil West

1. The passing of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs.

This is perhaps the most significant year for loss in recent contemporary spoken-word history, for not only were Ginsberg and Burroughs two of the most notable graduates of the Beat movement, but many contemporary spoken-word artists have used these two writers' works as an entrance to discovering and shaping their own voices. Ginsberg, who died in April, and Burroughs, who died in August, were undoubtedly accomplished writers, yet so much of their appeal lay in their ability to graft their own voices to their work when they read. We can still read them on the page, but save for their recorded output, we will no longer have the opportunity to hear Ginsberg's droll, Puckish rhythms or Burroughs' gravelly, sinister intonations.

2. The kindness of the benefit.

Although the local poetry scene has had its fractures and skirmishes in the past few years, the scene has admirably coalesced around two of its own in recent months. When local performance poet Vicky Charleston was struck with temporary blindness this fall, making her unable to work or even read from the page, poets came together to organize a December benefit at the Victory Grill which not only raised a significant sum of money, but showed how compassionate Austin artists can be when faced with the challenge of shocking setback. Poets also staged two December benefits for former Blue Plate Poet Pasha, who continues a valiant battle with cancer, and if the trend of compassion continues, the community would do well to come to the aid of Christina Sergeyevna, who had to step down from repeating her tireless and magnificent work in organizing the 1997 Austin International Poetry Festival when she experienced a heart attack and bypass surgery last month.

3. The Sister Spit Tour.

This was, in a year of impressive tours, the show of the year for its size, scope, and inspiration. A troupe of San Francisco-based lesbian poets crammed into a festively painted van this past spring, released a CD on spoken-word label Mouth Almighty, and charmed audiences across the country (including an amazing showcase at the Electric Lounge) with work that dealt poignantly with both lesbian-specific issues and a more universal, far-reaching artistry.

4. The awarding of the 1998 National Poetry Slam to Austin organizers.

Not to toot my own horn here, but toot toot toot. As a co-director of the upocming August event, I can confidently say that the combination of support from the City Of Austin, local arts organizations, and the Chronicle, in addition to the infrastructure and potential audiences that already exist in Austin, lays the foundation for what could be one of the most memorable spoken-word showcases in Austin history. And with Nationals coming on the heels on the ever-growing South By Southwest spoken-word showcase and the ever-improving Austin International Poetry Festival, 1998 looks like it might just be a banner year for live poetry in the live musical capital.


by Jesse Sublett

The Last Cavalier: The Life and Times of John Lomax,
by Nolan Porterfield. Darn good biography of an eccentric, unusual, essential man.

A Sniper in the Tower: the Charles Whitman Murders by Gary M. Lavergne. Excellent historical biography, should be required reading for all Texans and people who wonder what the hell happened to the world in the Sixties.

The Alamo: An Epic by Michael Lind. I have avoided this book like the plague. I know I must read it some day. Did anyone ever suggest that we needed an epic of the Alamo? These days, "epic" is a term rarely used except to describe a TV mini-series. Somehow, I think I'll grow to like this but it will never replace Tex Ritter's version of the story.

All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. He's a Southern boy. He loves his mama. He sure can turn a phrase. Buy his book.

The Slave Narratives of Texas, edited by Ron Tyler and Lawrence R. Murphy. After you've seen Amistad, read this book. It's not exactly cheery reading, but it might dispell some illusions about how slave life in Texas "wasn't all that bad" compared to elsewhere. Another in a long line of important historical books from our local, beloved State House Press.

Night Passage, by Robert B. Parker. Parker test-drives his new series character, Jesse Stone, with a cross-country trip from L.A. to New England, where he seeks to start over as a small town sheriff and leave his past behind. It's interesting to see which ideas Parker has left behind and which ones he's chosen to repeat in this new series, which comes out of the gate like a sure-fire winner.

Underworld by Don DeLillo. No, I haven't finished it. Too busy reading all those small books. But it starts off with a bang, pun intended. DeLillo is a killer, no doubt about it.

Already Dead: A California Gothic by Denis Johnson. If you're already a Denis Johnson fan, you must have this book. If you're not, you might do better to start off with Jesus' Son or Resuscitation of a Hanged Man, novels that succeed more thoroughly. This one starts off great but runs out of steam and turns into a tower of new age babble midway. I still thought the first third of the book was well worth the cover price, though, and I still think Johnson is one of America's best novelists.

Taking Charge, edited by Michael R. Beschloss. My hero, Lyndon B. Johnson, kicks ass and takes names. The proof is in the pudding and on the tapes. What more do you need to know?

Trunk Music by Michael Connelly. Connelly proves once again that there's still plenty of life left in that old dog known as the police procedural, Southern California hard-boiled style. Connelly is a writer who walks the fine line between tradition and cutting edge postmodern angst, and weaves a fabric tougher than Kevlar and darker than a mist- and cordite-enshrouded Southern California night.


by Adrienne Martini

  1. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

  2. The Trinity Vector by Steve Perry

  3. Lifehouse by Spider Robinson

  4. Half the Day Is Night by Maureen F.McHugh

  5. Zod Wallop by William Browning Spencer

  6. A Song of Stone by Iain Banks

  7. Slow River by Nicola Griffith

  8. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and
    Terry Pratchett

  9. Outside the Dog Museum by Jonathan Carroll

  10. Bellwether by Connie Willis


by Marion Winik

  1. Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

  2. Do The Windows Open? by Julie Hecht

  3. Naked by David Sedaris

  4. Into Thin Air by John Krakauer

  5. American Pastoral by Philip Roth

  6. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

  7. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

  8. Permanent Midnight by Jerry Stahl

  9. The Ordinary Seaman by Francisco Goldman

  10. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Bouton

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

Books: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Austin Chronicle . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch