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Curmudgeons and iconoclasts and contrarians, oh my! The year's notable books challenged the status quo

Our country's recent period of hysterics and denial was a particularly felicitous time for reading books, especially the nonfiction variety. In a year in which we were relentlessly reminded that everything had changed, many of the best nonfiction books, from Renata Adler's Canaries in the Mineshaft to Joan Didion's Political Fictions, countered, "What's new?" Far from changing everything, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 only accelerated trends that were already in motion. While lip service is paid to appreciating cultures other than our own, the spread of American-style capitalism, for good and for bad, continues apace. Meanwhile, a new building will begin being erected soon atop the charred remains of the World Trade Center, and our nation's skill in fast-tracking the healing process will achieve closure in record time (complete with memorial). It makes sense then that the best nonfiction books of 2001 should continue ongoing arguments rather than launch specious new ones, and that the best fiction--from Don DeLillo's slim novel The Body Artist to Lydia Davis' short-short stories--should reflect the fragmentary nature of life lived during what our postmodernist theorists refer to as "late capitalism."

The brilliant postmodernist writer J.G. Ballard, who contributed two notable books in 2001, once wrote that Japan's shattered post-World War II population, "gazing at their fire-bombed, moonscape cities, realized where consensus and obedience had led and were prepared for a few years to visualize some kind of alternative." The year past demonstrated that consensus-building comes in many guises. In 2001, while Americans trumpeted their individuality and celebrated freedoms assumed to be guaranteed them by their political institutions, they overlooked the role that popular media played in quelling disagreement. When the nation at large no longer reads seriously, its visual literacy has little value, and the ways in which the United States in 2002 might be distinguished from pre-war Japan begin to seem irrelevant.

The value of our nation's curmudgeons, iconoclasts and contrarians has been put into relief not by the events of 2001, but by our reaction to them. Has there been another year in recent memory more hostile to critical thinking? Adler, Didion, Christopher Hitchens, Joy Williams, Adam Phillips: Without the likes of them, the culture might come to a standstill. In 2001, the defenders of high culture and critical thinking--derided as snobs, going largely unheard--were the most valuable components of the broader culture that denied them. So be it: Even a vengeful God was willing to spare Sodom for the sake of 10 of the righteous. Here are my 10.

Canaries in the Mineshaft: Essays on Politics and Media, by Renata Adler (St. Martin's Press, 390 pp., $26.95). At once one of the best collections of investigative journalism, and cultural and media criticism, published in the last 10 years. This week's review by Indy critic James Morrison (see p. 30) says it best: "[Adler's] pieces ... are, one by one, definitive--a definitive commentary on Vietnam and Watergate, on Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination, on the Starr Report, on the war in Biafra, on the shootings at Kent State, even on Sesame Street. ... She 'proves'--rhetorically speaking, at least--that the Vietnam war was sustained by kickbacks to Nixon from South Vietnamese officials, that Robert Bork is a scoundrel and a liar, that Linda Tripp was secretly working for Ken Starr's office, and that Judge John Sirica was a crook. Why, one might wonder, have these staggering claims--for all the local ruffles they may have caused--not shaken the very earth, and been universally embraced? The answer is simple--and extremely troubling."

Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals, by Joy Williams (The Lyons Press, 214 pp., $24.95). Best read as a companion to Williams' 2000 Pulitzer-nominated novel The Quick and the Dead. As the title suggests, and its subtitle makes explicit, this essay collection enlarges on Williams' ecological concerns. Williams is brilliant enough to pull off the juxtaposition, in one essay ("Sharks and Suicide"), of a meditation on the beauty of the shark and a eulogy for Wendy O. Williams, animal lover. Also included here is her infamous anti-procreation rant, "The Case Against Babies." At turns bitterly hilarious and unbelievably sad, Williams' wonderfully undomesticated prose builds a testament to a world that is passing away with remarkable rapidity.

The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo (Scribner, 124 pp., $22). The story of Lauren Hartke, a middle-aged performance artist who alters her body--through mysterious exercises and cosmetic changes such as depigmentation and radical hair cuts--in order to take on the personas of others, "becoming" a Japanese woman or Pentecostal preacher or pregnant man. After her husband's suicide, Lauren returns to the home that she and her husband had rented together, and discovers a mysterious, autistic stranger there. Is he a ghost? A product of Lauren's imagination? Or has the body artist begun her most difficult transformation yet, attempting to "become" the loved one she only thought she knew? In his July 7, 2001 review, Indy critic Art Taylor said of DeLillo's 12th novel: "Stripped down almost to its essential components and persistently focused on its thematic concerns, it's a minor tour de force, with hardly a wasted word."

Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens (Basic Books, 141 pp., $22). Anyone who read Hitchens' provocative tract The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice expecting a Might magazine-style satire, and came away instead impressed with the demythologizing power of a well-researched character assassination, will know what to expect from this compact volume. Letters is part of Basic Books' "The Art of Mentoring Series." Conceived as a continuation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, the series has invited "leaders of the arts, vocations, professions, obsessions and missions to contribute a text meant to shape the future of their disciplines and to inspire the careers of the next generation and generation after that." No small task that, but Hitchens warms to the challenge, incubating his little hatchlings with a series of surprisingly humanistic arguments for the importance of disagreement. Dialectical thinking, irony, satire, and critical style have gone the way of the crossbow, according to Hitchens, and he'd like to see them back, hitting their targets. The perfect bridge between Renata Adler's termite-like polemical style in Canaries in the Mineshaft and Joy Williams' open-throated call of the wild in Ill Nature.

Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy (Harcourt, 384 pp., $28). Perhaps Greece's greatest modern poet, and one of E.M. Forster's and W.H. Auden's favorites, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) was a paradox, at once controversial and conservative. His work was considered immoral for its celebration of homosexual desire, but anachronistic for its unapologetic spirituality and harkening back to ancient Greece and Rome (unsurprisingly, Gore Vidal contributes a foreword to this volume). The first translation of his work in more than 25 years--including nine previously untranslated poems--gives this modern master the further notice he deserves. Translator Theoharis C. Theoharis calls Cavafy the "poet of erotic losses." Cavafy's passion was matched last year by new young poet Cate Marvin, author of World's Tallest Disaster (Sarabande Books, 75 pp., $12.95), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry. In their muscular commerce with Eros, Cavafy and Marvin neatly bookended the century.

Editors: The Best From Five Decades, edited by Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford (Tobypress.com, 1119 pp., $39.95). Four decades ago, pals Saul Bellow and Keith Botsford looked around and found, despite the plethora of magazines and journals, few necessary publications. And so in the following decades they published four journals together--The Noble Savage and ANON in the '60s and '70s, and Bostonian and The Republic of Letters in the '80s through the present. All four had one basic rule: The editors must write, too, and expose themselves to the scrutiny of their readers. It follows that this anthology of the best work from these journals includes many pieces from Bellow and Botsford in addition to the early work of Mark Harris, Philip O'Connor, Martin Amis, Harold Rosenberg, Arthur Miller, John Berryman, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover and others. A great bargain at the price, and a lofty perch from which to view the cultural landscape of the latter half of the American century.

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, by Lydia Davis (McSweeney's Books, 201 pp., $16.95). Lydia Davis has a reputation and influence disproportionate to her output, which includes one novel and a pair of short story collections (this new one makes three). Davis' stories are very short, but she's no minimalist. Her elliptical style, which carefully parses emotions, diurnal events, overheard conversations, and words and phrases, is now being copied in graduate writing programs across the nation. A highly acclaimed translator of French authors such as Maurice Blanchot and Marcel Proust, Davis first made waves with the short story collection Break It Down, a 1986 finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Fiction. Samuel Johnson Is Indignant is a hands-down winner in 2001 in at least two categories: Ugliest Title of the Year, and Most Influential Short Story Collection. Best read as a companion to the 2001 short story collection Romancer Erector, by Diane Williams (Dalkey Archive Press, 143 pp., $12.95). Williams' stories are like chips off a big block of alien fiction, a Mars-rock of prose, written in a dialect understood to be English but needing a little translation. Collectively, her stories represent a bold experiment in fiction that challenges readers to expand their definition of literature. Williams is less celebrated than Davis, but fans of one may appreciate the other.

Political Fictions, by Joan Didion (Knopf, 338 pp., $25). A collection of pieces Didion wrote for The New York Review of Books beginning in 1988, examining the U.S. political process. Indy critic Maria Pramaggiore had this to say in her Oct. 17, 2001 review: "The point that unifies this collection of eight essays is Didion's contention that the U.S. political process works only for those on the inside. The political class, 'self-created and self-referring,' does not know 'Americans at large' and only 'occasionally [hears] from one in a focus group.' ... In typical Didion fashion, the writing style is characterized by a cool restraint underscoring an inexorable logic." Didion's analysis of domestic politics, examining how nostalgia for an imagined America is used to create consensus, presaged the political class's exploitation of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature, by Adam Phillips (Basic Books, 375 pp., $27.50). In the title essay of this collection, London-based child psychologist Adam Phillips sums up his book's thrust better than any critic's paraphrasing: "For me ... there has always been only one category, literature, of which psychoanalysis became a part. I think of Freud as a late romantic writer, and I read psychoanalysis as poetry, so I don't have to worry about whether it is true or even useful, but only whether it is haunting or moving or intriguing or amusing. ..." Throughout his writing career, Phillips has followed in Freud's footsteps, wedding his psychoanalytic training and interest in art and creativity to a highly accomplished prose style in order to advance a genre that has known few masters. The author of the wonderful extended essays in book form Monogamy, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, and On Flirtation, Phillips collects here his philosophical musings on anorexia, cloning, clutter and jokes; on poetry, translations and various writers; and on narcissism, sex and war.

Super-Cannes, by J.G. Ballard (Picador USA, 392 pp., $24). Ballard's 1998 novel Cocaine Nights was set in the obscenely affluent Spanish seaside community of Costa del Sol, where crime has become just another sport for the rich. 1999's Running Wild dropped into a video-monitored gated community, where, in one day, all the adults are murdered while the children appear to have been kidnapped. In 2001's Super-Cannes, Ballard visits the sculpted, high-tech business park Eden-Olympia, an inverted corporate world where "work is the new leisure"--and where a mass murder has taken place. Ballard has said that Eden-Olympia is a model for the Western world as a whole, a place where the modern Darwinian struggles take place between competing psychopathologies. In each of his last three books, in fact, the British speculative fiction author (Crash, Empire of the Sun) has obsessively worked the intersection of two themes: violence and the psychopathology of affluence. His new novel asks a typically provocative Ballardian question: What if violence is a cure for, rather than a symptom of, the stress in modern society? This is the contemporary theme, one explored by few other writers, and rarely as well. Ballard's inclusion here is further justified by the 2001 paperback release of The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard (Picador USA, 302 pp. $14), which collects some of the seminal short works of postmodern fiction, including "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "The Atrocity Exhibition," and "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan."

Notable 2001 books from Triangle writers include: The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Spencer (reviewed by Terry Roberts Oct. 10); The Practical Heart, by Allan Gurganus (reviewed by Jeff Turrentine Nov. 28); Blake's Therapy, by Ariel Dorfman (reviewed by Haven Kimmel Aug. 1); Every Good and Perfect Gift, by Brenda Jernigan (reviewed by Frances Dowell July 25); Broken Fever, by James Morrison (interviewed by Mark W. Hornburg June 20); and Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell About Life in the Segregated South, produced by Duke University's Behind the Veil Project (spotlighted Nov. 21). All reviews and other coverage of these books is available in The Independent archives at www.indyweek.com. EndBlock

  • 2001's notable books challenged the status quo.

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