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The Best Books of 2001

Fiction

December 02, 2001

Weird, slightly cracked, yet chiseled and often luminous, Carolyn Cooke's debut collection of short fiction grabs you right away, gathers force and leaves little holes in your heart. These are spare, linked stories of ruin, broken families and angled loneliness. The characters are boozy and often in real pain. Many center on odd relationships, of in-laws and former loves, of chilly husbands and wives and children estranged from parents. They ring with gunshots, failed suicides and cracked bones. She writes with brutal sympathy for old people. Some of her stories are about the young. Like a latter-day Grace Paley, she addresses--of all amazing unspoken American things--class issues. Most of all, she has a strong woman's eye and touch; her characters cook and feel twangs of desire; they despise and yet are drawn to relatives; they laugh in the teeth of hardship and tragedy. Her best writing nails a pinched, painful world, one where good intentions, while clearly evident, hardly suffice, and where love exists, but a long time ago.

\o7 Bret Israel\f7

*

CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL

A Novel

By Glen David Gold

Hyperion: 484 pp., $24.95

*

"I didn't invent sugar or flour, but I bake a mean apple pie." So says magician Charles Carter, vouching for the originality of his act. The same could be said of Glen David Gold, the author of this wildly entertaining interpretation of the real-life Carter's extraordinary career. There are shades here of E.L. Doctorow, Stephen Millhauser and Caleb Carr in the way Gold creates a foreboding, dreamlike aura of Americana. But like his subject, Gold builds upon the craft of his predecessors to give us something wonderfully his own. Gold creates an exuberant feeling of expectation and mystery, cramming this novel, like a thrilling three-act magic show (the unavoidable metaphor here), with misdirections, vanishings and potentially deadly secrets.

\o7 Mark Rozzo\f7

*

THE CLOUD SKETCHER

A Novel

By Richard Rayner

HarperCollins: 436 pp., $25

*

A man's passion for architecture is at the heart of Richard Rayner's "The Cloud Sketcher," a sprawling, action-packed epic set in the early 20th century, which ranges from Civil War-era Finland to Jazz Age New York. It's an engrossing book, full of elegant surfaces, and a significant departure from Rayner's fine memoir, "The Blue Suit," and his novels "Los Angeles Without a Map" and "The Murder Book." Rayner has a strong sense for the textures of time and place--the pale, melancholic light of the Finnish landscape and the heated, highly sexual energy of New York during the 1920s--and the novel's greatest strength is its intensely filmic descriptions of the rhythms of pounding steel girders together high in the sky or the pleasurable claustrophobia of a reckless, drunken night in a Harlem club.

\o7 Meghan O'Rourke\f7

*

THE COMPLETE WORKS

OF ISAAC BABEL

By Isaac Babel

Edited by Nathalie Babel

Translated from the Russian

by Peter Constantine

W.W. Norton: 1,072 pp., $39.95

*

Isaac Babel's personal life was unpredictable, disorganized and rash; his art was otherwise. He wrested his sentences out of a purifying immediacy. Like Pushkin, he said, he was in pursuit of "precision and brevity." Babel's art served as a way station to the devouring. He was devoured because he would not, could not, accommodate to falsehood; because he saw and he saw, with an eye as merciless as a Klieg light; and because, like Kafka, he surrendered his stories to voices and passions tremulous with the unforeseen. If we wish to complete, and transmit, the literary configuration of the 20th century--the image that will enduringly stain history's retina--now is the time (it is past time) to set Babel beside Kafka. Between them, they leave no nerve unshaken.

\o7 Cynthia Ozick\f7

*

THE CORRECTIONS

A Novel

By Jonathan Franzen

Farrar, Straus & Giroux:

568 pp., $26

*

Even more than a work of art, "The Corrections" is a significant cultural document. Jonathan Franzen wants to capture, in Trollope's phrase, "the way we live now" and to write an old-fashioned novel, solidly built on character and psychological insight. "The Corrections" is everything certain readers have been wanting for years: an attempt at a realistic portrayal of ordinary people and everyday life. Franzen isn't afraid to try to inhabit the most diverse kinds of people, from heiresses to nurses to gangsters to Norwegian tourists. And he has to be one of the funniest novelists at work now. His portrait of the social comedy aboard a luxury cruise liner--his mischievous reply to David Foster Wallace's essay about taking a luxury cruise--stands alone as a comic gem. There is something humbling about the way this writer strains his psychological acumen to the breaking point.

\o7 Lee Siegel\f7

*

CROOKED RIVER BURNING

A Novel

By Mark Winegardner

Harcourt: 576 pp., $27

*

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