“The issue of who the cultural arbiters are” –December 8, 2002

Some weeks ago Globe columnist Alex Beam — one of the few remaining and diminishing reasons justifying that newspaper’s contribution to deforestation — mentioned in passing that a particular novel was “lyrical and under appreciated.” Which immediately got me to thinking about how many novels are adequately appreciated, or even what that would mean. Then the brouhaha about Michael Kinsley’s bad attitude and bad behavior regarding his stint as a National Book Award judge (kind of like running into a church and interrupting a service yelling, "I don’t believe in God!") stirred up some dust (once again, Beam weighed in with his new theory of ABC [abstinence-based-criticism]). I previously had held Kinsley in high esteem, especially since he reportedly turned down media potentate SI Newhouse regarding the New Yorker editorship. Perhaps Kinsley realized that position would have required him to read books. Well, who knows?

More to the point for me is the issue of who the cultural arbiters are. This is something about which I worry incessantly, more at this time of year with numerous awards and the inescapable onslaught of year-end lists. While, with some temerity, I accept the need for a Katrina Kennison or someone like her to read 10,000 stories to deliver 100 or so stories to the Best American Short Stories yearly guest editor who then selects around twenty, part of that acceptance is based on faith in her informed judgement. People in the culture business know very well that there are thousands of books, recordings, videos, works of art and whatnot, relentlessly pumped into the marketplace — some with huge publicity machinery creating awareness and recognition and most with none. Kind of sad, when you think about it.

Well, given my declining confidence in the officially designated cultural arbiters (which does not stem from facts like the reliance of the NYT’s Japanese lady on the verb ‘limn’ or like irrelevancies) I thought I would try my hand at this noble business of reminding readers of what they had forgotten or perhaps never knew. Of the nearly hundred books I have read this calendar year the list that follows comprise my view of the novels (well, there are two story collections) that were —in my mind — not shown given sufficient regard:

BURNING MARGUERITE – Elizabeth Inness-Brown
FEMALE TROUBLE – Antonya Nelson
CENTURY’S SON – Robert Boswell
THE SEAL WIFE – Kathyrn Harrison
THE REAL MCCOY – Darin Strauss
A SIMPLE HABANA MELODY – Oscar Hijuelos
IN THE ROGUE BLOOD – James Carlos Baker
PRAGUE – Arthur Phillips
IN THE HAND OF DANTE – Nick Tosches
OYSTER – John Biguenet
HOUSE UNDER SNOW – Jill Bialosky
THAT’S TRUE OF EVERYONE- Mark Winegardner
THE DRIFT – John Ridley
THE PIANO TUNER – Daniel Mason
IN THE RIVER SWEET – Patricia Henley
DARK MATTER – Phillip Kerr

Elizabeth Inness-Brown’s first novel, Burning Marguerite, was as good a story as I read all year. A big story in a compact book that ranges through the past century and remote New England to lush New Orleans with admirable characters and accurate prose. Antonya Nelson’s short story collection Female Trouble contains thirteen stories that limn the subjects of the tensions that exist between men and women and the fundamental question of what women want. I suppose the fact that Nelson has been anointed by The New Yorker as one of the "twenty young fiction writers for the new millennium" might disqualify her from my list, but that honor hasn’t translated to anyone talking about her books in my neck of the woods. Century’s Son by Robert Boswell is the well told story of the existential travails of a Midwestern middle-aged garbage man in juxtaposition to his wife’s disaffection and his larger than life ex-Soviet luminary father-in-law (who allegedly had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to assassinate Josef Stalin). Kathyrn Harrison’s The Seal Wife, set in Alaska around WW I, has a young wide-eyed US Weather Service functionary becoming obsessed with an Inuit woman in a large story told with great economy. Darin Strauss’ The Real McCoy is a good story and a thoughtful rumination on American fascination with authenticity. Maybe the trendy interest in Cuban culture has been temporarily exhausted but I found Oscar Hijuelos’ A Simple Habana Melody to be another wonderful exploration of the displaced person and complete with Hijuelos’ unerring ability to measure and carefully dole out the bitter-sweetness of life. James Carlos Baker strikes me as possessing the dark accurate vision of Cormac McCarthy and the bonhomie of James Lee Burke. In the Rogue Blood follows two brothers from their grimly shattered origins in northern Florida in the 1840’s to Texas and the Mexican War. Youngster Arthur Phillips put his fin de sicle experience in Eastern Europe and Prague to good use by writing an engaging novel about expatriate life in Budapest. Nick Tosches’ In the Hand of Dante is fun, funny, and thoughtful and a little bent. Cross-dressing mob hit men, the tormented Dante Alegheri, and a streetwise writer named Nick Tosches in the same story — go figure. I have been a devotee of stories set in the Louisiana bayou (John Dufresne and James Lee Burke, to name a couple of writers who set their stories there.) Along comes John Biguenet with his novel, Oyster, set in coastal fishing country of Louisiana and the story of two families and a couple of murders that bind them together. Jill Bialosky has written House Under Snow, a story of a family of women shipwrecked by the sudden death of father and husband in the awkward ‘70s. That’s True of Everyone by Mark Winegardner is a story collection marked mostly by its wise humor and its subtle honesty. The oddest book I read this year was TV writer and producer John Ridley’s The Drift. An upwardly aspiring black lawyer in Los Angeles throws “it all away” and takes up the life of a hobo — freight train hopping and all. It’s dreary, harrowing and compelling. Young medical student Daniel Mason spent his time in Burma/Myanmar researching malaria and writing his first novel about an English piano tuner who is called upon by the Crown to travel to Burma to tune the exotic grand piano of a British military commander. Mason’s novel is called, straightforwardly, The Piano Tuner. In the River Sweet, Patricia Henley’s second novel, puts her story’s family in the challenging position of having to deal with some very telling secrets. And finally Phillip Kerr’s eleventh novel, Dark Matter, focuses on Sir Isaac Newton’s tenure at the Royal Mint at a very critical juncture of British history. Newton comes off as a pompous polymath but Kerr’s rendering of London in the 1690’s seems pitch perfect.

So that’s it. That’s my list. It’s not the best. It’s not definitive. And if I may proudly point out it is not clothed in numbing and manufactured quantification albeit the New York Times:

When it comes to best books of the year, the editors of the Book Review continue to find it easier to choose than find. Two years ago the number of books nominated by the editors, which had been declining by two a year for several years, fell to 20, the lowest total in a couple of decades. Last year it was 16, this year 15. Customarily the editors agree to keep in mind that the judgment is only about one year and thus to vote on the curve, but the curve has flattened into a line: last year the editors chose 9 of the 16 nominees, and this year 7 of the 15.

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