This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

December 30, 2001 — While it seemed like a year when writers' shenanigans were more talked about than writers' books (think Franzen, think Ellis, think Weldon), 2001 was actually a wonderful year for bibliophiles.
      For short story fans like me, for example, there were some once–in–a–lifetime selected and collected volumes by Richard Yates, Paul Bowles, and Isaac Babel. There were some great poetry ominbuses, too, such as those of James Merrill and Czeslaw Milosz.
      Given everything else that was going on, however — beyond the fact that we are at war and in a recession — and given the year's cutbacks in newspaper books coverage, it seemed to me that many of my favorites were significantly under–appreciated.
      In any event, here's my list of favorites from the year, with my normal reminder: it's not a competition, so they're in alphabetical order by author . . . .

"Canaries in the Mineshaft," by Renata Adler (St. Martin's, $26.95) A brilliant collection of essays from over 30 years of writing on media and culture by one of the most insightful and original minds writing today. With a wide–ranging and piercing intellect, and an often biting sense of humor, the long–time New Yorker star looks at everything from presidential impeachment to Sesame Street's Big Bird.

"Eclipse," by John Banville (Knopf, $23) While its setting seems classic British Gothic — a dark old country house with some quirky locals for hired help — this is actually a modernist tour–de–force with a not–necessarily–reliable narrator doing his best to stave off emotional collapse. It's an absorbing character study, made all the more intoxicating by lushly descriptive prose.

"Collected Stories," by Saul Bellow (Viking, $30) A landmark publication: the first overview of Bellow's short fiction from his 60–year career. The stories share with his monumental novels a free–ranging discursive style that's beguiling, and yet gather in a resonance that bespeaks the tight chiseling unique to the story form.

"Collected Short Poems: 1946–1991," by Hayden Carruth (Copper Canyon Press, $16) Although technically a re–issue, out in celebration of the author's 80th birthday, this collection is so stirring its appearance deserves repeated ballyhoo, and serves to remind us of Carruth's importance to American poetry, as well as his incredible range, linguistic and formal resourcefulness, and philosophical intensity.

"Erasure," by Percival Everett (University Press of New England, $24.95) In this wonderfully moving satire, a black academic and writer of obscure, avant garde novels confronts issues of race and publishing in America, as well as his own family's history. While it has the added enticement of a surprisingly timely subplot regarding writers going on Oprah Winfrey–like TV shows, the real appeal of this novel is that it bristles with intelligence and a lacerating wit.

"The Long Marriage," by Maxine Kumin (Norton, $21) Kumin shows her command of craft in poems that embrace life with a large, compassionate sympathy. She writes about pain and loss, and love and renewal, with her characteristic strength and beauty — "O wasteful heaven, the Jewel of the Just! / Placeless heaven full / of disorderly remembrance, come, / come in while my life is taking place."

"Yellow," by Don Lee (Norton, $22.95) Lee's stories about Asian–Americans in Northern California are subtly commanding, thanks to a graceful prose and sly wit. The occasional dips into a dark brand of humor give the stories a heightened realism that belies their classic shape and makes them all the more involving as they examine the vulnerabilities of being an Asian in a white culture.

"The Wilkomirski Affair: A Study in Biographical Truth," by Stefan Maechler (Schocken, $16.95) When suspicions about the bestselling Holocaust memoir "Fragments" first surfaced, the publisher hired historian Maechler to research author Binjamin Wilkomirski. The story of Maechler's investigation, and his shocking findings, make for a gripping psychological drama, heightened by the inclusion of the complete text of Wilkomirski's now–withdrawn book.

"My Name is Red," by Orhan Pamuk (Knopf, $25.95) This tale of royal artists in sixteenth century Istanbul is hypnotic in its exoticism, as well as intellectually engrossing: the artists are prohibited by Islamic law from painting Western–style realistic images, and when four band together to secretly try to break free of the iconic art they've been taught, deadly trouble ensues. Pamuk's quirky story–telling style — the narration's shifts between characters, animals, even objects — makes it all the more darkly enchanting.

"," by Cass Sunstein (Princeton University Press, $19.95) Sunstein's discussion of the way the Internet allows people to focus on in–depth information about subjects that are important to them, but avoid a more well–rounded awareness of civic news, is illuminating. An insightful — and inspiring — consideration of the Internet's impact upon democracy.

Last Week’s Column: THE YEAR IN REVIEW It seemed to be a year when gossipy stories about individual writers took over from the book industry's previous dominant story — consolidation. But was it really?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.