Best Fiction Books: 1999
Close Range, Amy and Isabelle, and Waiting are among the year's best
Book of the Year 1 Close Range: Wyoming Stories Annie Proulx (Scribner, $25)
It was a renaissance year for short stories, as readers and publishers alike once again embraced the abbreviated form. From Gish Jen’s Who’s Irish? to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies, short-story collections thrived in both content and sales—and for the first time, one of them has been selected as EW‘s best book of the year. Annie Proulx’s masterful collection Close Range, a gorgeously nuanced series of tales set in Wyoming’s stark ranch land, shows just how rich a subject ordinary lives can be. In ”Job History,” one man’s blue-collar existence is condensed into a seemingly dispassionate list of events; ”The Mud Below” tells the melancholy tale of a wandering rodeo rider; a foolish old man on a doomed journey to his brother’s funeral is the subject of ”A Half-Skinned Steer.” From cowboys to drug addicts, Proulx creates palpably real, familiar characters, and offers a stunning portrait of a bleak Western world.
2 Amy and Isabelle Elizabeth Strout (Random House, $22.95)
The mother-daughter bond has always been juicy fodder for literature. Unfortunately, because it’s been done so many times, it’s easy to overlook gems like Strout’s. But don’t: Amy and Isabelle is a truly shimmering debut about a confused teenage girl, her repressed mother, and the secrets that keep them apart.
3 Waiting Ha Jin (Pantheon, $24)
The 1999 National Book Award winner for fiction explores the natures of desire and traditional family duty through the eyes of a Chinese doctor torn between his girlfriend and his village wife, whom he has been attempting to divorce for 17 years. Jin’s prose is graceful throughout, but it’s the story’s elegantly ironic denouement that makesWaiting such a satisfying depiction of human yearning.
4 For the Relief of Unbearable Urges Nathan Englander (Knopf, $22)
A homely woman caught in a suffocating arranged marriage. A frustrated husband who receives a rabbi’s dispensation to visit a prostitute—and gets VD. A Brooklyn wig maker who pines for her bygone youth. No matter the premise, Englander’s nine stunningly crafted stories illuminate not just a specific community of Orthodox Jews, but universal relationships and desires.
5 A Star Called Henry Roddy Doyle (Viking, $24.95)
Henry Smart is a street urchin turned IRA assassin who uses his father’s wooden leg as a talisman and never wants for conquests. What elevates this rakish character beyond mere hero-boy status is that he’s the star of an utterly heartrending historical account of the brutal struggle for Irish independence. The first book in a projected trilogy, A Star Called Henry is painted with the same gutsy, visceral prose that made Doyle’s The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha such canny delights.
6 Personal Injuries Scott Turow (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27)
There’s something to be said for taking one’s time. Unlike some of his legal-thriller contemporaries, Turow isn’t about to be rushed into cranking out a gazillion-selling yarn every year. Lucky for us. His latest — the story of the oily yet extremely likable attorney Robbie Feaver (and the FBI sting that hinges on his cooperation) — is an expertly crafted, colorfully peopled tale. Oh, and it’s also a gazillion-seller.
Amy and Isabelle