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The Best Books of 1999 | THE BEST NONFICTION OF 1999

PROUST AMONG THE STARS; By Malcolm Bowie; Columbia University Press: 352 pp., $28

December 05, 1999

The vibrant images in this book originated in an unexpected way. Photographer Don Normark, then 18, was looking for a hill from which to take a postcard view of Los Angeles. "I didn't find the view," he writes, "but when I looked over the other side of the hill I was standing on, I saw a village I never knew was there."

The 88 striking black-and-white photographs in this book that Normark took on a dozen trips to the three communities that made up Chavez Ravine--La Loma, Bishop and Palo Verde--speak of dignity, serenity and, across this span of years, a certain stillness too.

THE SWORD AND THE SHIELD; The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB; By Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin; Basic Books: 700 pp., $32.50

"The Sword and the Shield" is the product of a remarkable collaboration between Vasili Mitrokhin and the distinguished international historian Christopher Andrew. The book is astounding. Mitrokhin's defection set off security investigations in all major world capitals because of the priceless information he had squirreled away on thousands of Soviet agents. But to the outside world, his trove has until now been a well-kept secret. Beyond being essential reading for students of international affairs, Andrew and Mitrokhin's book belongs on the shelves of anyone who wishes to plumb the depths of intrigue and indeed evil in the modern world. If James Angleton, the CIA's legendary chief of counterintelligence, could rise from the grave to read any book, it would be "The Sword and the Shield."

STIFFED; The Betrayal of the American Man; By Susan Faludi; William Morrow: 662 pp., $27.50

"Stiffed," rich as it is in history and sociology, compelling narratives and social studies, will serve as a reliable source for those wondering what the century we are about to leave was like.

What is singular about Susan Faludi is the sheer perseverance of her inquiry. She traces every lead, makes every connection, sits through every interview following her best instincts in pursuit of the facts. And the reader willing to sit through this book is richly rewarded by her erudition. She identifies so much of what it means to be a man these days, so many of the often opposing forces at work in our lives, the damned-if-you-do and if-you-don't imbroglios. Her observations about a culture now dominated by the mall and the marketplace rather than the factory, in which display is more important than production, in which performance is more important than value and media interest more important than message, are hard-won and well woven into the fabric of the male experience.

That women have been oppressed is not a secret. Nor is it news that men have been betrayed. And Faludi's willingness to take on the big work of these issues has produced an important book. But we are members of an evolving species, victims and beneficiaries of history and herstory. The blaming of fathers for the trouble with sons, like the blaming of women for the trouble with men or the blaming of husbands for the trouble with wives, can be defended or debunked by the arrangement of facts. But the exercise keeps us from the deeper meaning of our lives. Justice, liberation, equal rights, reproduction, morality, security, education, the environment, sexual respect--these are neither men's nor women's issues. They belong to humankind.

Faludi, like the rest of us, is a work in progress. She sees, in the lives of men and of women, human wonders, human failings, human possibilities. And therein lies the final promise of "Stiffed," because she gets so much so right so often: There's the hope, still unrealized but maybe just a matter of time, that we might truly "get it" after all.

THE NUDIST ON THE LATE SHIFT; And Other True Tales of Silicon Valley; By Po Bronson; Random House: 254 pp., $25

Imagine a place with the ferocity and energy of the Old West but none of the noise--no gunshots and war whoops, no bawling cattle, no tinkling saloon pianos, just the click of computer keys in quiet business parks and the hum of the brains that created and programmed the computers--and you have Silicon Valley, as Po Bronson describes it in his first nonfiction book.

Bronson, whose novels "Bombardiers" and "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" also dealt with high tech and big money, makes up for the quietness--and the elusiveness, to lay readers--of his subject by rendering the energy and ferocity in prose that doubtless will be compared to Tom Wolfe's.

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