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1999 Los Angeles Times Book Prize Winners

May 07, 2000

JUDITH THURMAN

SECRETS OF THE FLESH

Life of Colette

Alfred A. Knopf: 600 pp., $30

In the middle of the last century, the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye was a rustic backwater despite its proximity to Paris, three hours by train to the nearest station followed by a rough cart ride. The Puisaye was called "the poor Burgundy" to distinguish it from the rich Burgundy of the great vineyards. The landscape was dotted with ponds which bred malaria and smelled of caltrops and marsh mint. Coppice grew thickly in the ravines, where the wild strawberries and lilies of the valley were guarded by pitiless brambles. Game abounded in the woods. There were ancient stands of pine, which Colette loved for their scent. The spongy paths she followed when she gathered wild mushrooms or hunted for butterflies with her brothers were carpeted with violet heather. It was a secretive, inbred region of casual morals, hard winters, poaching, and poor farms. Wet-nursing was, as late as the fin de siecle, a lucrative sideline for the farmers' wives.

Judith Thurman, winner for biography, is the author of "Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller," which won the National Book Award in 1983.

MITCHELL DUNEIER

SIDEWALK

With Photographs by Ovie Carter and an Afterword by Hakim Hasan

Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 384 pp., $27

It is not hard to understand why Hakim Hasan came to see himself as a public character. Early one July morning, a deliveryman pulled his truck up to the curb behind Hakim's vending table on Greenwich Avenue off the corner of Sixth Avenue and carried a large box of flowers over to him.

"Can you hold these until the flower shop opens up?" the deliveryman asked. "No problem," responded Hakim as he continued to set up the books on his table. "Put them right under there." When the store opened for business, he brought them inside and gave them to the owner. "Why did that man trust you with the flowers?" I later asked. "People like me are the eyes and ears of this street," he explained, echoing Jane Jacobs again. "Yes, I could take those flowers and sell them for a few hundred dollars. But that deliveryman sees me here every day. I'm as dependable as any store-owner."

Mitchell Duneier, winner for current interest, is the author of "Slim's Table," which received the Distinguished Publication Award of the American Sociological Assn. in 1994. He is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UC Santa Barbara.

JOHN W. DOWER

EMBRACING DEFEAT

Japan in the Wake of World War II

W. W. Norton: 678 pp., $29.95

It was August 15, 1945, shortly before noon. What followed would never be forgotten.

Aihara Yu was twenty-eight-years-old then, a farmer's wife in rural Shizuoka prefecture. Through the decades to come, the day would replay itself in her memory like an old filmstrip, a staccato newsreel in black and white.

She was working outdoors when a messenger arrived breathless from the village. It had been announced that the emperor would be making a personal broadcast at noon, he exclaimed before rushing off. Everyone was to come and listen.

The news that America, the land of the enemy, had disappeared into the sea would hardly have been more startling. The emperor was to speak! In the two decades since he had ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne, Emperor Hirohito had never once spoken directly to all his subjects. Until now the sovereign's words had been handed down in the form of imperial rescripts -- as printed texts, pronouncements humbly read by others.

John W. Dower, winner for history, is the Elting E. Morison Professor of History at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

AMIT CHAUDHURI

FREEDOM SONG

Three Novels

Alfred A. Knopf: 440 pp., $24

He saw the lane. Small houses, unlovely and unremarkable, stood face to face with each other. Chhotomama's house had a pomelo tree in its tiny courtyard and madhavi creepers by its windows. A boy stood clinging to the rusting iron gate, while another boy pushed it backward and forward. As he did so, the first boy traveled in a small arc through space. When the taxi topped in front of the house, they stared at it with great dignity for a few moments, then ran off in terror, leaving the gate swinging mildly and illegally. A window opened above (it was so silent for a second that Sandeep could hear someone unlocking it) and Babla's face appeared behind the mullions.

Amit Chaudhuri, winner for fiction, lives in Calcutta.

ELIZABETH STROUT

AMY AND ISABELLE

A Novel

Random House: 308 pp., $22.95

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