1 INTO THE WILD
[BOOK of the YEAR] Jon Krakauer (Villard, $22) Transcending the materialism of everyday life was a hot book topic this year, but the sobering story of Chris McCandless outdoes them all. The 24-year-old walked into the Alaskan bush with hardly more than a bag of rice, a pair of borrowed boots, and a small-caliber rifle. Four months later, moose hunters discovered his remains in the blue sleeping bag his mother had sewn together from a kit. Apparently, he had died of starvation. Ending all communication with his frantic family, he’d embarked on a cross-country trek — inspired by the writings of Thoreau and Tolstoy — in which he discarded possessions with joyful abandon. Using the young man’s frequent journal entries, his photographs, and the postcards he sent to those who took him in or gave him work, Krakauer retraces the last two years of McCandless’ life with a tracker’s zeal. Nonfiction, perhaps, but a mystery of the highest order.
2 ANGELA’S ASHES
Frank McCourt (Scribner, $23) The affecting story of the author’s squalid upbringing. The eldest of seven children, only four of whom lived past infancy, he was raised in Limerick, Ireland, on the eve of World War II by an alcoholic father and a ”pious, defeated” mother. A rare non-celebrity memoir to hit best-seller lists, perhaps because it taps the universal hope that love and strength — not to mention a real page-turner — can rise out of misery.
3 THE SPARROW
Mary Doria Russell (Villard, $23) It’s December 2059, and the survivor of a Jesuit space exploration has returned to Earth a mental wreck. Why? His interrogation by superiors alternates with flashbacks to the mission’s genesis, flowering, and collapse to bounce readers from pure adventure to tangles of culture and politics. A hopeful sign that science fiction might reclaim its heritage as a literature with boundless capacity to kindle wonder.
4 THE GREEN MILE
Stephen King (Signet, $18.94, boxed set) Just as many in the book world were beginning to look anxiously ahead to the 21st century, King delivered a suspense story the old-fashioned way, via serialized installments. A clever marketing gimmick? Sure. But the publishing sensation of the year also happens to be the prolific shock master’s best fiction in years, a richly narrated Depression-era prison novel that’s as hauntingly touching as it is just plain haunted.
5 THE GIANT’S HOUSE
Elizabeth McCracken (Dial, $19.95) Despite its plot — a small-town librarian falls for a boy giant — this is a curl-up-by-the-fire first novel. Nominated for a National Book Award, it describes a ”fundamentally sad” woman who, in the 1950s, befriends an 11-year-old who grows up to become the world’s tallest man. Taking him under her wing after his mother dies, she conflates maternal and romantic impulses and finds herself in love with him. Warm, well-written, and brimming with surprises.
6 ORSON WELLES: THE ROAD TO XANADU
Simon Callow (Viking, $32.95) Luckily for the biographer, Welles’ glorious, mercurial life and sad, slow public decline are both marvelously well documented and teasingly contradictory (thanks in part to his own prodigious gifts for stretching the truth). This helps Callow — himself an actor — to produce a splendid, definitive work that traces the protean talent from his childhood to the release of Citizen Kane, using the tone of an admiring mentor who brooks no nonsense. A second volume will follow.
7 IN THE BEAUTY OF THE LILIES
John Updike (Knopf, $25.95) In 1910, a Presbyterian minister realizes that he no longer believes in God; meanwhile, D.W. Griffith is filming his latest Mary Pickford picture across town. What follows is a long, beautifully textured novel that somehow wends its way to the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, Texas, four generations later. An exploration of mass culture, religious faith, and family, by arguably our greatest living writer.
8 IN THE PRESENCE OF THE ENEMY
Elizabeth George (Bantam, $23.95) George is a writer who respects murder. There’s only one in this wrenching mystery, and it occurs discreetly between chapters. But the brutal pointlessness of the crime resonates solemnly throughout the novel, which pits two of England’s most Machiavellian institutions — Parliament and Fleet Street — against each other over a 10-year-old girl’s kidnapping. The eighth and best in the ever-gratifying series featuring Scotland Yard’s cultured investigator, Thomas Lynley.
9 THE ARCHITECT OF DESIRE
Suzannah Lessard (Dial, $24.95) The author’s famous — and infamous — ancestor, architect Stanford White, was killed by the husband of one of his sexual conquests in 1906. A thrilling story in itself, but she delves deeper, using a hybrid format — part social history, part personal memoir — to tie together her family’s strong and strange history, including her own sexual abuse and that of her sisters.
10 HIT & RUN
Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters (Simon & Schuster, $25) There’s nothing even remotely fawning about this evisceration of the arrogant spendthrift Hollywood executives Peter Guber and Jon Peters. In describing how Sony lost $3.2 billion by hiring the two, Griffin and Masters correct those who believe that entertainment journalism is an oxymoron. Meticulously researched though it is, it’s most engrossing when read as a collective psychobiography of Hollywood suits.
THE FIVE WORST
1 THE END OF ALICE
A.M. Homes (Scribner, $22) The much-hyped, highly self-conscious story of the creepy correspondence between an unnamed shoe salesman-turned-child killer and a 19-year-old female college sophomore who’s ferociously attracted to a pubescent neighborhood boy. An attempted tour de force that lands smack on its face.
2 LEADING WITH MY CHIN
Jay Leno, with Bill Zehme (HarperCollins, $22) There’s nothing technically wrong with this book: It’s the kind of amiable, toothless pastiche we’ve gotten from so many TV comedians over the past few years. But it’s a colossal opportunity wasted, containing none of the difficult facts surrounding Leno’s decision to fire the late Helen Kushnick or the grueling battle to inherit Johnny Carson’s late-night throne at NBC.
3 THE TENTH INSIGHT
James Redfield (Warner, $19.95) The angel-ridden sequel to mega-best-seller The Celestine Prophecy falls short of even the comic-book novelistic standard set by its predecessor. Feel-good metaphysical goop. 4 SERVANT OF THE BONES
Anne Rice (Knopf, $25.95) This much can be said about Rice’s voluminous, often incomprehensible latest: It’s not about vampires, but rather an ancient spirit named Azriel who arrives on this plane and accosts an archaeology student so that he can tell Azriel’s own terrible history. And tell it he does — for 24 (of 26) mind-numbing chapters. ”Perhaps the story is chaos,” Azriel muses at one point. Couldn’t describe it better ourselves.
5 THE HOTTEST STATE
Ethan Hawke (Little, Brown, $19.95) Acting and writing are such diametrically opposed skills, it’s a wonder so many heat-seeking hyphenates put themselves in criticism’s way. The affably intense Hawke (Reality Bites) fashioned a thin, predictable novel about a young actor named William who falls in love with a young woman named Sarah. Safe to say this coltish effort would never have gotten onto a major publisher’s racetrack were it not for Hawke’s celebrity.
BEST KENNEDY TELL-ALL THE SOTHEBY’S CATALOG
MOST DISAPPOINTING FOLLOW-UP Laura Esquivel, THE LAW OF LOVE
DOORSTOP OF THE YEAR David Foster Wallace’s much-anticipated INFINITE JEST clocked in at 1,079 pages (3 pounds, 2.7 ounces). Did we finish it? Surely you jest.
LUCKIEST FIRST NOVEL NOT ON OPRAH Jane Mendelsohn’s I WAS AMELIA EARHART got several on-air plugs from radio personality Don Imus and became a top 10 best-seller.
THE CLAN OF THE CAVEMEN John Darnton’s NEANDERTHAL, Petru Popescu’s ALMOST ADAM, and Mark Canter’s EMBER FROM THE SUN clubbed it out, but only Darnton’s version was a hit. Since Random House bought it for a paltry pre-hype $25,000, there was much jealous teeth-gnashing all around.
AUTHOR’S-RIGHTS CRUSADER OF THE YEAR Joan Collins, who kept her $1.3 million advance even though Random House sued to recover it (deeming her first drafts unprintable). Starving writers, unite!
DUMB QUOTE OF THE YEAR Plugging Michael Crichton’s AIRFRAME right after the TWA Flight 800 crash, Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta said, ”This is just another case of an extraordinary sense of timing that Michael seems to have.”
FEISTY TITLES FROM ANGRY WHITE MEN RUSH LIMBAUGH IS A BIG FAT IDIOT (Al Franken) BARE KNUCKLES AND BACK ROOMS (Ed Rollins) RANTS (Dennis Miller)