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The Best Fiction of 1998

December 13, 1998

Richard N. Goodwin's "The Hinge of the World" is a rare accomplishment, a book of ideas that manages to be animated, suspenseful and firmly grounded in the individual psychological identities of its principal characters. The ideas under discussion here--about scientific method and the threat it posed to Catholicism during the first decades of the 17th century--feel as fresh and as startling as when they were first formulated. They receive an elegant and downright thrilling articulation by Goodwin, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and went on to write widely about America in the 1960s. Written as a drama, "The Hinge of the World" displays many characteristics of a philosophical dialogue, a genre much in favor in ancient Greece and during the Renaissance. Yet Goodwin is careful throughout to give his speakers flesh and blood and foibles, and it is not impossible to imagine his work being presented on the stage. The principal speakers are the Tuscan scientist Galileo Galilei and Maffeo Cardinal Barberini, who is the Vatican's ambassador to France when we meet him and is Pope Urban VIII by the end of the story. "The Hinge of the World" is history alive with tension, passion and paradox.

-- MICHAEL FRANK

THE KNIFE THROWER; By Steven Millhauser; Crown: 256 pp., $22

It doesn't really matter that Steven Millhauser won last year's Pulitzer Prize for "Martin Dressler," an excellent book but not quite as excellent as his astonishing first novel, "Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954." Like many great writers, Millhauser is obsessed. He has one story; he tells it again and again, and practice only makes it more perfect. Charles Sarabee, the genius behind a fantastical Coney Island-like playground, Paradise Park, in Millhauser's latest collection of stories, "The Knife Thrower," is an early sketch of Martin Dressler himself. Paradise Park, with its several levels of extraordinary underground amusement parks filled with beaches and live sea gulls, forests and spherical Ferris wheels, is the amusement park twin of Martin Dressler's Grant Cosmo hotel. What matters is that by grouping the dozen stories of "The Knife Thrower" together, Millhauser gives the reader a solid dose of Dr. Millhauser's Fantastical Tonic, producing laughter, wonder, heady confusion and, best of all, a vision of an America we never knew.

-- JONATHAN LEVI

THE FALL OF A SPARROW; By Robert Hellenga; Scribner: 464 pp., $25

Pace Oprah Winfrey, our country's most (and perhaps only) powerful book critic, the best thing you can say about a novel is not that it made you laugh or cry, helped you endure life's travails, gave you hope or empowered you. These days, emotions come fast and furious, cheap and easy and, if the advertisers are right, we no longer need literature--just a Visa card--to activate them. In such a culture, the highest possible praise for a novel may be that it forced you to engage it, to argue, to confront it as you would a challenging but sometimes misguided lover. Robert Hellenga's "The Fall of a Sparrow" is such a novel. A novel of ideas, "The Fall of a Sparrow" resonates deeply.

-- SUSIE LINFIELD

THE ESSENTIAL TALES OF CHEKHOV; By Anton Chekhov; Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett: The Ecco Press: 340 pp., $27.50

Chekhov seems to me a writer for adults, his work becoming useful and also beautiful by attracting attention to mature feelings, to complicated human responses and small issues of moral choice within large, overarching dilemmas, any part of which, were we to encounter them in our complex, headlong life with others, might evade even sophisticated notice. Chekhov's wish is to complicate and compromise our view of characters we might mistakenly suppose we could understand with only a glance. He almost always approaches us with a great deal of focused seriousness which he means to make irreducible and accessible and, by this concentration, to insist that we take life to heart. Chekhov's stories are never difficult but often demanding; always dense but never turgid; sometimes dour but rarely hopeless. Just read these wonderful stories for pleasure, first, and do not read them fast. The more you linger, the more you reread, the more you'll experience and feel addressed by this great genius who, surprisingly, in spite of distance and time, shared a world we know and saw as his great privilege the chance to redeem it with language.

-- RICHARD FORD

THE LIFE OF INSECTS; By Victor Pelevin; Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 180 pp., $22

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