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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996

Richard Eder's Top Ten Books Of 1996

December 29, 1996

Bearing in mind that a book reviewer is a travel writer and not a gatekeeper, here are 10 points along my 1996 itinerary--I might well have followed a different one--that particularly delighted or moved me.

THE EMIGRANTS

By W. G. Sebald

New Directions: 256 pp., $22.95

Some of the symptoms of that nearly extinct disease, polio, tend to recur 30 years or so after the patient has recovered. This magical and mysterious part novel and part document evokes four European Jews who, having escaped or been spared the Holocaust, succumb to it years later or, in one case, years before.

*

ALIAS GRACE

By Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday: 468 pp., $24.95

A beautifully told story about an Irish immigrant to Canada who, as maid to a wealthy man, is involved in a gruesome double murder. In one of her strongest works, Atwood has managed to transmute those tedious academic questions about the meaning of narrative and gender into the richest and most searching of fictional mysteries.

*

I NEVER CAME TO YOU IN WHITE

By Judith Farr

Houghton Mifflin: 225 pp., $21.95

An epistolary novel about Emily Dickinson. Using different fictional recollections by those close to her, it manages in its disjunctions and contradictions to be a remarkable equivalent of one of its subject's dash-filled poems.

*

THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MY MOTHER

By Jamaica Kincaid

Farrar Straus & Giroux: 240 pp., $22.95

Xuela, whose foundling mother died at her birth, is doubly deprived of her woman's heritage just as--native of a colonial Caribbean island--she is deprived of a national heritage. Her voice--bleak, pitiless and unutterably lovely--makes this Kincaid's and perhaps the year's finest novel.

*

AFTER RAIN

By William Trevor

Viking: 213 pp., $22.95

Life injures, love gives life. In this collection of short stories, Trevor writes with ruthless grace of the wounds that love inflicts at all ages; wounds that it is slow death to avoid. Nearing 70, Trevor keeps on and keeps on, a comet that refuses to set.

*

THE LAST THING HE WANTED

By Joan Didion

Alfred A. Knopf: 227 pp., $23

Like her "Democracy"--a little less powerful but terrific nonetheless--Didion's novel about a rich, unhappy American woman caught in a murderous web of clandestine operations in Central America links the private and public illnesses of our time. Didion's prose, a cold keening voiced in her special tense, the removed conditional, cuts off the oxygen and accelerates the heartbeat.

*

BLOCKADE DIARY

By Lydia Ginzburg

HarperCollins: 114 pp., $24

An account of the 900-day siege of Leningrad by a member of the Russian literary generation of Akhmatova, Pasternak and Mandelstam. Ginzburg writes with splendid imaginative particularity--never tragically, though--about how bombs and starvation work. And she writes--how could someone of her heritage and generation not write?--about the nobility of the human spirit so as to make it as tangible as cardboard shoes.

*

SLOWNESS

By Milan Kundera

HarperCollins: 165 pp., $21

A splendid tangle of characters from different centuries simultaneously pursuing their ends at a French chateau converted into a tourist hotel. As always, Kundera writes against the crushing of modest human sensibilities by big human purposes: power, ideology, greed, sexual conquest. It is a rant set to music by Mozart.

*

CROSS CHANNEL

By Julian Barnes

Alfred A. Knopf: 211 pp., $21

A splendid collection of variations on the English-French dichotomy, each one a story set at a different time, from the French Revolution to today. They are variously comic, far-fetched and thoughtful, and almost invariably witty.

*

MONA IN THE PROMISED LAND

By Gish Jen

Alfred A. Knopf: 304 pp., $24

The daughter of prosperous Chinese immigrants, who moved to the New York suburbs while clinging to many of their old views, finds that the quickest way to Americanize herself is by converting to Reform Judaism. The book is funny and ingenious though it creaks toward the end. By that time Jen--much as a generation of Jewish American writers once did--has given her heroine a voice that is entirely American yet tinged and enriched by the tones and rhythms of her heritage.

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