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1991's best (and worst) books

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The Best

The Journals of John Cheever
John Cheever
Here, against all odds, is misery extracted from comfortable circumstances, and lyricism and lucidity extracted from misery. These alchemical transactions are what art is all about, but God help the alchemist (and those who have to live with him). The public Cheever —a witty, charming man fond of parties and full of jokes, whose clipped New England accent and elliptical conversation suggested patrician nonchalance — is nowhere to be found here. Instead, we get a suburban man under some mysterious sentence of inner exile, a yearning, thwarted man whose fear of landing in a desolate hotel room prevents him from leaving his family, but who still suffers from a loneliness most of us would require a Gobi or Sahara Desert to experience.

2. Den of Thieves
James B. Stewart
The Best and the Brightest rewritten for the 1980s. Seeing the mighty crawl is one of the many pleasures of watching Stewart, The Wall Street Journal‘s front-page editor, chronicle the rise and fall of the junk-bond and leveraged-buyout empires. More disquieting is his pungent analysis of how and why much of the financial community was so easily taken for a disastrous joyride.

Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale — ”And Here My Troubles Began”
Art Spiegelman
It sounds like a sick joke: a cartoon history of the Holocaust in which the Jews are mice, the Nazis cats, the Poles pigs. And it would indeed be grotesque if Spiegelman hadn’t drawn the life of his father, Vladek — a survivor of Auschwitz — with such defiant grace. It’s an astonishing portrait of survival through wit and luck.

4. The Kitchen God’s Wife
Amy Tan
Tan’s stunningly successful first novel, The Joy Luck Club, captivated hundreds of thousands of readers who found in it disconcerting, touching, and funny echoes of themselves and their own mothers or daughters. Tan’s second novel begins on the same note as The Joy Luck Club but quickly turns into a richer, darker work that lives up to Tan’s proclaimed promise and then some.

5. Inmortality
Milan Kundera
Kundera’s newest fiction is a brilliant series of cultural dissections, satirical meditations, tangents, and excursions in which a novel is carefully concealed, sometimes turning up where you least expect it, but too well camouflaged to be shot and stuffed by Hollywood.

6. A Soldier of the Great War
Mark Helprin
Helprin’s novel — an Alp among contemporary fiction foothills and molehills — may have its Dostoyevskian defects, but it also has its intense, memorable triumphs in the passages on war, nature, and love. And not least important, the book reminds us that one freedom the 20th century has taken from us is the freedom to ignore politics.

7. Patrimony
Philip Roth
An unsparing, moving account of the last year of life of Roth’s father, Herman, who, at the age of 86, woke up one morning with the right half of his face paralyzed. Roth has set himself the task of recovering his father’s essential dignity from the paralysis’ indignities, and he succeeds because the rude virtue he attributes to Herman Roth is also the virtue of the book: a ”pitilessly realistic determination.”

8. There Are No Children Here
Alex Kotlowitz
A heartbreaking study of how life in the ”promised land” of the North has turned out for poor black families who migrated from the South. Kotlowitz, a Wall Street Journal reporter, recounts just two years in the life of a family in the Henry Horner Homes — one of Chicago’s roughest housing projects — and makes the reader feel the effect of the ghetto by showing how it shapes the lives of two young boys.

9. A Life of Picasso, Vol I: 1881-1906
John Richardson
This is the first book in a projected four-volume series that promises to become the most enthralling and unwieldy artist biography ever written. Richardson’s greatest accomplishment in this brilliantly illustrated work is to paint the young Picasso into a geographical and cultural landscape. Whatever Picasso’s ultimate place in art history — whether he ends up as a beginning or an end — he emerges in Richardson’s superb biography as the most engaging artist-rogue since Benvenuto Cellini.

10. A Thousand Acres
Jane Smiley
A fine, bitter, suspenseful novel that could as easily be called A Lear of the Plains. Smiley has succeeded in transplanting something of Lear’s mythic power to the bleak American prairie.

The Worst

1. Bad: or, the Dumbing of America
Paul Fussell
In assembling this assault on the vain, the pretentious, and the tasteless in American life, Paul Fussell has created a book that is a case in point of all that he deplores. Far more than the harmless horrors of piped-in music or fads for ”14-Karat-Gold Name Jewelry,” Fussell’s book pollutes the environment in its preening intolerance for the harmless vagaries of popular taste.

2. Women on Top
Nancy Friday
In her new collection, subtitled ”How Real Life Has Changed Women’s Sexual Fantasies,” Nancy Friday asserts that women in the 1990s are more liberated, more sexually creative, and just plain kinkier than they’ve ever been. To prove her point, Friday has assembled her collection of women’s wish lists in can-you-top-this order. Too bad that Friday’s fantasizers sound so much like each other…and like Friday.

3. The Popcorn Report
Faith Popcorn
Faith Popcorn — soothsayer, chairperson of BrainReserve, and the woman who invented the fictitious trend of ”cocooning” — shows us how she analyzes and forecasts consumer trends. But first, of course, she has to make them up.

4. And the Beat Goes On
Sonny Bono
You’d have thought that the self-described ”short, mustachioed, Italian half of Sonny and Cher” would have milked his marriage for every last scurrilous detail. But no. Bono is still bitter enough to deliver the lowest blow: an attack on Cher’s deficiencies as a mother.

5. Squandered Fortune: The Life and Times of Huntington Hartford
Lisa Rebecca Gubernick
A&P heir Hartford dissipated his millions while blundering through four marriages. His reward for a life devoted to the interests of tabloid journalism is this tabloid biography by Lisa Rebecca Gubernick, who has assembled one of the world’s largest collections of rumors and called it a book.

6. Scarlett
Alexandra Ripley
When the executors of the estate of Margaret Mitchell decided to cash in their lucrative sequel rights before Gone With the Wind‘s copyright expired, they chose Alexandra Ripley (author of the historical novels On Leaving Charleston and New Orleans Legacy) to write it. Although the book sold well, reviewers were almost unanimously derisive. And as for Ripley herself, she has resumed writing historical novels but is leaving Gone With the Wind Part III for another writer.

7. Nancy Reagan: The Unauthorized Biography
Kitty Kelley
Shoddily reported and hastily written, Kelley’s biography of the former First Lady is a virtual primer on the journalistic sins of omission and commission. Although bad reviews didn’t daunt Kelley (who was recently enshrined herself in a tabloid-type tell-all, George Carpozi Jr.’s Poison Pen), a death threat did: When an anonymous someone left an ominous message on her answering machine, the mistress of muckraking abruptly canceled all her public appearances. Meow!

8. Exposing Myself
Geraldo Rivera with Daniel Paisner
Trying to make a virtue of shameless self-promotion, the Man with the Iron Groin (he refers to himself as ”a knight in blue-jeaned armor”) has begged the question of his own virility by desperately bragging about his liaisons. If he’s not self-aggrandizing, he’s whining. A real air sandwich.

9. The Crown of Columbus
Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris
Erdrich and Dorris, who are married, have each published distinguished books about American Indian subjects. But this tale of quarrelsome academic sleuths is laid low by an urge to uplift. It lurches from ponderous caricature to lame sarcasm, and ends up in a morass of suffocating wholesomeness.

10. The Runaway Soul
Harold Brodkey
A Polymorphously Perverse Portrait of the Young Genius in a Hall of Mirrors is more like it. This effort is a stream-of-consciousness narrative as murky and featureless as the Sargasso Sea. And as vast — it’s 835 pages long.

Best Book Jacket
Christopher Andersen’s Madonna: Unauthorized, which affords an uninterrupted look at the singer; the book’s title and author are on the back.

Best First Line
”Robert Staples kept trying to explain why he’d thrown Heidi in the alligator pit.”
(A Choice of Nightmares, by Lynn Kostoff)

Best Reagan Anecdote
President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime, by Lou Cannon, had the best Ronnie yarn among several this year:
”Well, Jim,” the President told chief of staff James Baker, explaining why he hadn’t opened the briefing book for the 1983 Williamsburg economic summit, ”The Sound of Music was on last night.”

Best Title
If You can’t Live Without Me, Why Aren’t You Dead Yet
In which Cynthia Heimel skewers men, the Mets, and black clothes.

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