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The Best Books of 2001

Fiction

December 02, 2001

America Throne, born 1969, daughter of the famous, controversial painter Boris Throne, hippie royalty, star of this novel is not, prima facie, all that different from Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of the late Frank Zappa, famous anarchist musician, also hippie royalty. Boris, America recounts, died in hot pursuit of yet another woman, leaving America with her saintly mother (surrounded by a host of healers) and her brother, Spoonie. Mortified by the $2,000 check she accepts each month from her mother, America cannot figure out what she wants to be when she grows up: "[T]ry to find your own identity in the shadow of a certifiable 'self-made' genius." This is a novel that could only be set in L.A. The breezy banter; the real or imagined feud between the city's bureaucrats and the city's artists; the fine, raw (sometimes flaunted) edges between rich and poor; the plain speaking about love and orgasms; but most of all, the possibility for recovery, which many people have been known to travel across the country for.

Susan Salter Reynolds

*

ANTARCTICA

Stories

By Claire Keegan

Atlantic Monthly Press:

224 pp., $23

*

Every spring, the city of Galway hosts the Cuirt International Festival of Literature, Ireland's premier literary event. It draws the cognoscenti and the country's leading writers and critics. Finding myself there last year but uncertain which events to attend, I let others lead and followed a gaggle of Ireland's well-known and established writers, who were going to listen to a young woman who had just published her first book of stories. The buzz was that she was the real thing. I heard Claire Keegan and was thunderstruck. When it comes to dialogue, Keegan has oblique genius. She has an unerring sense of odd pathos. Reading these stories is like coming upon work by Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver at the start of their careers.

Jerry Griswold

*

AUSTERLITZ

A Novel

By W.G. Sebald

Translated from the German

by Anthea Bell

Random House: 352 pp., $25.95

*

In the creation of a distinctive, instantly recognizable voice is a sure sign of literary mastery, then W.G. Sebald clearly merits much of the acclaim with which his work has been greeted. Beginning in 1996 with the English-language appearance of "The Emigrants," the first of his books to be translated from German, and quickly followed by "The Rings of Saturn," "Vertigo" and now "Austerlitz," Sebald has produced a body of writing that stands at an intriguingly oblique angle to most serious fiction currently being published. Sebald has been lavishly praised by critics throughout the English-and German-speaking worlds, and he has won a series of major literary awards, including The Times' 1998 book prize for fiction. It is Sebald's elegiac tone--the fastidious vocabulary, melancholy prose rhythms and seductive emotional reticence--that envelops one from the first sentence and helps create the paradoxical synthesis of an isolated, unbridgeable inwardness, combined with an uncanny intimacy between narrator and reader that is the hallmark of his writing. History is a nightmare into which Sebald's characters and his books as a whole are trying to awaken. The people he takes seriously have been emotionally deadened, almost to the point of paralysis, by all that has been denied or simply forgotten by those determined never to look backward, and he has learned that a real nightmare is preferable to the inner desiccation of such oblivion. "Austerlitz" is the story of one such bitter attempt to wake up into history's nightmare, and it is Sebald's most direct confrontation so far with the aftereffects of the genocide.

Michael Andre Bernstein

*

AZAREL

A Novel

By Karoly Pap

Translated from the Hungarian

by Paul Olchvary

Steerforth Press: 220 pp., $14 paper

*

If cultures resemble people--they're born, they grow, they thrive or fail to thrive, and eventually they die--there can be intense visionary episodes in their lives that resemble fevers. Early 20th century Eastern European Jewish culture must have had such a fever to produce literary works like I.B. Singer's "Satan in Goray," I.J. Singer's "Yoshe Kalb" and Chaim Grade's magisterial "The Yeshiva" as well as the better-known exotic blooms of Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz. Now we can add Hungary's Karoly Pap to this luminous list. His novel, "Azarel," which appeared in 1937, has recently been published for the first time in English. Like the Singer brothers' and Grade's books, Pap's novel is set against a rabbinical background at a time when religious verities are starting to crumble beneath the onslaught of modernity. Whether that culture would have survived is moot because it was murdered during the Holocaust, as was Pap, whom literary historians believe died in Bergen-Belsen in 1944.

Melvin Jules Bukiet

*

BABE IN PARADISE

Fiction

By Marisa Silver

W.W. Norton: 234 pp., $23.95

*

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