Best Books of 2001

By Benjamin Schwarz

December 2001 ATLANTIC

dd357068b8332c0deefb4bc8c3d674a5More books for review are sent to our offices in a week than the magazine has space to cover in a year, which means that we’re constantly culling. Here are some principles that guide our choices. We are, of course, looking for the great books that deserve our readers’ attention. Some might be otherwise neglected—the mesmerizing debut novel that the literati aren’t talking about, the dazzling memoir out of print for decades, the obscure work of sociology so bold in its approach that it redefines the way its subject is understood. But we also want to help our readers decide which highly publicized books are worth their time and money. Moreover, we hope to keep readers abreast of significant scholarly debates, even if a book defining one of those debates is clumsily written and, we believe, completely wrong (reading brisk book reviews can be a painless way to understand the arguments in “important” books you’d rather not read). We also want to assess for our readers popular books that have few if any literary or intellectual pretensions, because we believe that such books can illuminate meaningful aspects of the nation’s social and cultural life. And we want to tell our readers about sharp, clever books, utterly lacking in gravitas, that we know will delight them on the beach or the bus. (Further, “The Editors’ Choice” each month is the one book in that issue that we think is most likely to appeal to our readers.)

The following is a list of books, most but not all reviewed in our pages, that we believe are among the best published in 2001. Although we stand by our choices, we’ve undoubtedly overlooked some extraordinary titles.

 

FICTION

The Hiding Place
by Trezza Azzopardi
Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pages, $24.00

In sentences that lilt and caper Azzopardi renders her story of a loss-filled childhood in the gritty Cardiff docklands at once horrifying and lovely. This first novel may well be the best of the year.

The Peppered Moth
by Margaret Drabble
Harcourt, 369 pages, $25.00

Burrowing under the present and layering her story with metaphor, Drabble explores the persistence of the past. Remarkably, although this clear-eyed novel probes a daughter’s despair over her mother’s severe depression, its perfectly sustained tone expresses humor without poking fun, and regret without sentimentality.

The Corrections
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 568 pages, $26.00

If this novel were half as good as the hype would have it, it would be an extraordinary work. It is both. Overstuffed and at times silly, it is also a funny and deeply affecting portrait of an American family.

Eva Moves the Furniture
by Margot Livesey
Henry Holt, 232 pages, $23.00

With precision and discipline Livesey builds a perfectly structured novel about an intense and sometimes inconvenient friendship between the living and the dead.

The Island: The Complete Stories
by Alistair MacLeod
Norton, 320 pages, $25.95

MacLeod’s “complete” stories number only sixteen, which is understandable though unfortunate, since nearly every one of them is flawless. In stark and cadenced sentences he depicts the hard people and fierce beauty of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island and pieces together sad, often violent stories (no writer has better captured the love and brutality with which people treat animals) that are at once wrenching and idyllic, harsh and tender.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
by Alice Munro
Knopf, 320 pages, $24.00

This collection amply demonstrates that there is no greater living writer than Alice Munro.

Novels 1930-1942
by Dawn Powell
The Library of America, 1068 pages, $35.00

Novels 1944-1962
by Dawn Powell
The Library of America, 969 pages, $35.00

With the publication of these volumes Powell, who could write novels both of cynical wit and of romantic longing and regret, has finally won literary canonization.

Empire Falls
by Richard Russo
Knopf, 483 pages, $25.95

In this comic novel set in a down-at-heel Maine mill town, Russo is as adept at subtle social delineation as he is at creating his passive, melancholic, yet compelling protagonist.

Back When We Were Grownups
by Anne Tyler
Knopf, 273 pages, $25.00

A moving exploration of the life of a fifty-three-year-old woman who suddenly discovers that “she had turned into the wrong person,” Tyler’s novel of forbearance is a gentle masterpiece.

The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
Henry Holt, 494 pages, $28.00
In these tales of loneliness and self-delusion Yates treats his characters with enormous compassion while unsparingly dissecting their weaknesses. His are among the most superb stories of mid-twentieth-century America.

 

NONFICTION

London: The Biography
by Peter Ackroyd
Doubleday, 864 pages, $45.00

With panache Ackroyd hopscotches through the centuries in an exuberant, eccentric, complex, and occasionally exasperating portrait of a great, if sometimes sinister, city and its people.

The War Against Cliché
by Martin Amis
Talk/Miramax Books, 512 pages, $35.00

Most of the essays in this huge and admittedly uneven collection relentlessly, eloquently, and with enormous intelligence support Amis’s contention that style “is not something grappled on to regular prose; it is intrinsic to perception.”

The Waning of the Renaissance, 1550-1640
by William J. Bouwsma
Yale, 352 pages, $29.95

Bouwsma argues elegantly that the liberation accompanying the Renaissance engendered an intellectual reaction characterized by pessimism, doubt, and anxiety. By placing the intellectual history of the Renaissance in the context of a continuing struggle between freedom and order, Bouwsma fundamentally challenges a progressive interpretation of Western history.

Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams—The Early Years
by Gary Giddins
Little, Brown, 728 pages, $30.00

Giddins’s lively and perceptive combination of history, biography, and musicology illuminates nothing less than American popular culture in the first four decades of the twentieth century.

Alexander Hamilton, Writings
The Library of America, 1200 pages, $40.00

For better or worse, Hamilton’s vision of America triumphed, and it is simply impossible to understand this country without apprehending his mind. Readers can now do so with this comprehensive, intelligently selected, and accessible collection of the works of the most brilliant and far-seeing of all the Founding Fathers.

Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in the Public Sphere
by Christopher Hitchens
Verso, 320 pages, $25.00

A collection of subtle (a word usually, if unfairly, missing from descriptions of its author), generous, and deeply learned essays on an amazing range of literary figures, written with brio and precision.

France: The Dark Years
by Julian Jackson
Oxford, 630 pages, $35.00

In the most complete and careful history to date of occupied France, Jackson unflinchingly explores the complexities and moral ambiguities of his subject.

The Danger Tree
by David Macfarlane
Walker, 320 pages, $13.95

This gripping and elegiac memoir of a Newfoundland family, centering on its experiences in the Great War, makes felt the weight of the past on the present and of great movements in history on the lives of individuals.

To Keep the Ball Rolling: The Memoirs of Anthony Powell
Chicago, 472 pages, $27.50
Powell’s complete memoirs have long been out of print, and this abridgement, published in the United States for the first time, is a window onto his masterpiece, A Dance to the Music of Time.Among portraits of twentieth-century British literary life this is perhaps the wittiest and most keenly observed—and certainly the finest-written.

Boswell’s Presumptuous Task
by Adam Sisman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 400 pages, $25.00

A sparkling portrait of a literary artist, and a penetrating assessment of the greatest biography in English.

The First World War, Volume I: To Arms
by Hew Strachan
Oxford, 1180 pages, $45.00

“Definitive” is a much overused word, but this work merits the term. The first of a three-volume history that explores nearly every aspect of the war, from finance to ideology to diplomacy to armaments, it combines depth with staggering breadth, acute analysis with magisterial narrative.

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