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1990's best (and worst) books

1990’s best (and worst) books — See where ”Rabbit at Rest,” ”Dogeaters,” and Exes” ended up on our list

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THE BEST

1. Rabbit at Rest
John Updike
With each volume of his Rabbit tetralogy, Updike has seemed more determined to hold up a mirror up to the age at hand. That determination is responsible for the brio with which he evokes middle-class manners in the last of the books, Rabbit at Rest, in which Harry Angstrom — retired from the Toyota dealership and living in Florida — meets his Maker. Spectacularly readable, Rabbit at Rest is filled with news of contemporary life, on matters ranging from the depth of loyalty to Toyota Inc. among jingoistic American car dealers to the fear of AIDS among hetero-recreational druggies.

2. The Things They Carried
Tim O’Brien
From the author of Going After Cacciato, the story of a U.S. rifle platoon humping the boonies of Quang Ngai Province during the Vietnam War: how they lived and died, whom they killed, the lies they told, the truths they learned, the stories they believed — and some they didn’t know whether to believe it or not. Made up of 22 self-contained but interlocking short stories, essays, anecdotes, narrative fragments, jokes, fables, biographical and autobiographical sketches, and philosophical asides, the novel is held together by two things: the haunting clarity of O’Brien’s prose and the intensity of his focus.

3. Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart
Joyce Carol Oates
Though hardly without admirers, Oates never has had quite the acclaim she deserves as possibly the finest (and most accessible) realistic novelist of her generation. She is near the peak of her remarkable powers in Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart. Set in the black and white communities of a decaying industrial city in upstate New York in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it is the story behind the death of ”Little Red” Garlock, ”sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River.”

4. Family Pictures
Sue Miller
The Eberharts have six children; the third, Randall, is autistic. In an obvious, documentary sense, this novel is about a family unlike any other, grievously injured by a biological accident as arbitrary as a lightning bolt. But there’s another way to read the story. It’s about a family, loving, suffering, enduring, and trying to learn. A more nuanced and mature work than Miller’s 1986 best-seller, The Good Mother.

5. Dogeaters
Jessica Hagedorn
A performance artist and now a novelist, Hagedorn produced a work of fiction about the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship that surpasses any documentary account of that island country’s wild and complicated colonial legacy. By turns witty and tragic, but always vivid, the narrative is a kaleidoscope of voices, classes, languages, and cultural styles.

6. A Hole in the World
Richard Rhodes
Rhodes, author of the National Book Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb, summoned the courage to tell the story of his childhood and the abuse he and his brother suffered at the hands of a tyrannical stepmother. It was a therapeutic exercise, accomplished with great artistry and a minimum of self-pity. A Hole in the World is a tale of sadism and cowardice, but also of survival, redemption, and brotherly love.

7. Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business
Fredric Dannen
As Dannen shows, the rock-music business has long glorified con artists such as Morris Levy and rewarded their thuggish behavior. He examines a group of independent record promoters (informally called ”The Network”) who controlled the airwaves in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Anyone who still believes that payola was an essentially innocuous element in getting music aired should read this book, the most revealing look yet at the ”characters” who run the rock-music business.

8. Coyote Waits
Tony Hillerman
Hillerman’s recent success hasn’t gone to his head. He continues to write the same sort of gently impressive mystery fiction he has always written: a little slow, a little somber, yet gripping, too, thanks to the steady uncoiling of grim secrets, the constant tension between Navajo mysticism and contemporary American values. This, the 11th in his series about the Navajo Tribal Police, concerns the murder of a Navajo cop by an elderly shaman.

9. A Cloud on Sand
Gabriella De Ferrari
De Ferrari clearly doesn’t know that a first novel is supposed to have something wrong with it. She has written an assured, quietly enthralling masterpiece. Set in Italy and South America in the period spanning the two World Wars, A Cloud on Sand tells the story of a tempestuous mother and her equally fierce and independent daughter.

10. Means of Ascent: The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Robert A. Caro
In this second installment of Caro’s four-volume biography, Johnson emerges as ruthless, bitter, and conniving in his 1948 race against fellow Texan Coke Stevenson for the U.S. Senate. Disdain for a subject on the scale that Caro shows for LBJ can kill a biography. Yet, astonishingly, you never once think of quitting this 506-page book. Furious in pace and ravishing as entertainment, it is marred only by Caro’s tendency to allegorize, with Johnson the perennial villain.

THE WORST

1. Any Woman’s Blues
Erica Jong
Always adept at sniffing the zeitgeist, Jong ransacked the self-help books on the best-seller list and produced a novel that managed to combine the worst wisdom of Beyond Codependency and Women Who Love Too Much. Prose to match.

2. The Blackman’s Guide to Understanding the Black Woman
Shahrazad Ali
Although Ali’s guide to the sins of black women (they are sloppy, insufficiently subordinate to black men, promiscuous, and in need of a good slap upside the head) sold well on street corners and in stores, its sentiments included enough unsupported generalizations about gender and race to qualify it as a textbook example of bigotry.

3. A Bed by the Window
M. Scott Peck
Best-selling spiritual adviser Peck (The Road Less Traveled) turned to fiction with what he describes as ”a parable of spiritual growth.” The story of a paralytic patient who gets scissored to death, but not before his sexual urges are satisfied by a beautiful nurse, A Bed by the Window was far too clumsy and lurid to capture the readers who have kept Peck’s nonfiction on the best-seller lists for seven years. It a made a brief appearance on the fiction list and then disappeared.

4. First Hubby
Roy Blount Jr.
Blount, known for the humorous and folksy essays he publishes in various magazines and collects in books with catchy titles like One Fell Soup and Crackers, turned in a flawlessly lame performance with his novel about a man married to the first woman president of the U.S. Complete with sound effects (”Snrk kaf-kaf…wangawangawanga…”), bathroom humor, and leaden political whimsies, the book failed to make anything substantial of its promising premise.

5. Malcolm Forbes: The Man Who Had Everything
Christopher Winans
Obsessed by Forbes’ private life — his homosexuality, to be exact — Winans’ book is small, not only in length, but in generosity of spirit and depth of understanding. Forbes lived an extraordinarily rich life, of which his homosexuality was only a part. This book, eager to be the first biography of the late publisher, collector, balloonist, motorcyclist, and man of the world, does not begin to him justice.

6. Exes
Dan Greenburg
Former humorist Greenburg (How to Be a Jewish Mother) decided to take a stab at writing another thriller (he had previously committed The Nanny), with dismaying results. The plot, about a gorgeous woman who kills every man she’s ever slept with, is dressed up with enough psychobabble about men who fear commitment to make it about as thrilling as a public-television fund drive.

7. His Little Women
Judith Rossner
Rossner (Looking for Mr. Goodbar) turned in what may be the worst performance by a name author this year. The muddled saga of a famous Hollywood producer and his four daughters, His Little Women touches on the requisite movie themes of power, infidelity, and litigation before plunging into a maze of subplots, digressions, and narrative blind alleys, which leave the reader bored and bewildered.

8. Songs of the Doomed: More Notes on the Death of the American Dream
Hunter S. Thompson
This is Volume 3 of the Gonzo Papers, Thompson’s collection of pieces from four decades of journalism for Rolling Stone and The San Francisco Examiner, among other places. The centerpiece here is Thompson’s windy account of his persecution by a woman who accused him of sexual assault. (The charges were eventually dropped.) Strictly for those who still believe that drugs don’t turn the mind to jelly and the prose to sludge.

9. Phaze Doubt
Piers Anthony
One of the most popular writers of science fiction today, Piers Anthony is living evidence of the current debasement of the field. Phaze Doubt is a fairly typical example of his work — strictly for fans at teenybopper level and below, who will be innocent enough to consume dialogue like the following: ”Nay, I be no werebitch. I be a vamp. Now, tread in the shadow o’yon rovot, Lysan….”

10. Dance With the Devil
Kirk Douglas
Douglas, whose candid 1988 autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, garnered a fistful of rave reviews, comes up empty with his first attempt at fiction. The tale of a movie director tormented by his Jewish past, Dance With the Devil uses its threadbare plot as a pretext for numerous sex scenes, including some particularly gratuitous ones involving children.


Best title

Surrender the Pink
Carrie Fisher came up with it on her 1987 book tour from Postcards from the Edge. A male friend jokingly jumped in her hotel room, saying, ”Okay, baby, spread’em. Surrender the pink.” Recalls Fisher: I heard it pornographically, but I mean it metaphorically — give up the feminine side.”


First Amendment Moxie Award

To the Norwegian publishing house Aschehoug, the first company brave enough to release Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in a paperback.


Publishing debacle of the year

After Random House owner S.I. Newhouse forced the resignation of André Schiffrin — the head of Random’s Pantheon Books division — six Pantheon editors resigned in protest. And so the house, which had published, among many others, Günther Grass, Studs Terkel, Simone de Beauvoir, and — most recently and most profitably — Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, fell into disarray.


Most scathing review

Joseph Nocera’s Wall Street Journal pan of Beyond the Boom, edited by Terry Teachout, a collection of essays by baby boomers who turned against the ’60s. Nocera called the book ”one long ’80s whine,” and wrote: ”This is the verbal class? You read this stuff and you think: Shut up and get a real job.”


Best author photo

Judith Hawkes, author of Julian’s House


Most suspicious acknowledgment award

Ronald Reagan in his second autobiography An American Life: ”Robert Lindsey, a talented writer, was with me every step of the way.” Although Lindsey’s name doesn’t appear on the cover, he is widely credited with being the President’s ghostwriter.

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