Twelve Great Books
Published During
The Year 2003

Listed below are parts of reviews of twelve books that the editors of RALPH found to be the very best of 2003. Arranged in order of beauty, grace and truth.

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The Boy and
The Dog Are

This is a book about man trying to save the life of a boy with AIDS --- so it also a primer on AIDS, and the treatment of AIDS, and what the treatment does to destroy the body while saving the body, and the mad-making world of the medical professionals, especially those who deal with the poor, who cannot and will not properly care for those who are at high risk.

But this is also a primer on love, the love of a man for a boy, and a boy for a man --- one that lets us in on all the woe of it and at the same time all the joy of it.

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The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping

Tumbling After
Pedaling Like Crazy
After Life Goes

Susan Parker
Great grief, great tragedy, demands great writing. Many who try collapse into bathos --- where drippy sentiment, ill-kempt sentiment, rules. Or, worse, they try to convey the reality of it in a style that is icy, dispossessed, well separated from the heart.

There are very few who have learned to merge the agony and the comedy and the woe of it. Suzy Parker has figured out how to do it.

Popular Music
From Vittula

Mikael Niemi
(Seven Stories Press)
Popular Music from Vittula is episodic, just like our childhoods. Too, like our childhoods, it is filled with unreasoning terror and bursts of sunlight and laughter, people direct from Gargantua and Pantagruel with monstrous appetites doing monstrous deeds: drinking and eating and beating each other (and their children) until all are senseless.

Too, there are some tales that will never leave you alone: Grandad's seventieth birthday where most of the drunken visitors end up laid out, row by row, on the floor; Matti getting trapped in an old boiler; a ghastly old witch-man, Russi-Jussi who, when asked for help with the ghost who will not leave Miila in peace, turns into a lovely woman.


José Saramago
So I have told you about The Cave but --- as I have done a couple of times before --- I am going to issue a caveat. Which is: don't waste your time with me trying to load up words on the page about the grandeur of this particular novel; just go online or wherever you have to go to get books, access ABA or Powell's or go over to your friendly local bookseller and order it up. I've never heard of Saramago before but I sure as hell plan to be spending a great deal of time with him in the future. There are a few other writers who come across as equals.

Bertha Alyce:
Mother exPosed
Gay Block
(University of New Mexico Press)
This one is impossible to pigeon-hole. It is also impossible to leave alone. Pick it up, leaf through it, put it down, pick it up, look through it again, then, finally, start at the beginning, go at it page by page, merciless as it is.

And this is what happens: we get to experience year-by-year the tumult of living as daughter to one who some describe as beautiful, "the most generous person I ever met in my life." Too, a flirt, a queen, selfish, and, according to one, "she reminds me of the movie, The Three Faces of Eve."


Suzan-Lori Parks
(Fourth Estate)
What a pleasure it is to put oneself into the hands of a writer who, for a change, knows how to spin tales and hook words together. Ms. Parks weaves it all so fine, stories of the five or so major characters and the thirty or so minor characters, all brought together so deftly that there's never a moment where one isn't either goggle-eyed at the details and the dialogue, or agog with anticipation over what's to come next. These people --- most of them supremely poor Blacks living in segregated Texas, 1963 --- are droll and dry and so very feisty.

Memoirs of
A Revolutionary

Victor Serge
(University of Iowa)
This is fearsomely good writing. And the ultimate hero of Memoirs of a Revolutionary is not the one we would normally suspect: not Lenin, not Trotsky, not the multitudes of French, German, Italian, Spanish and Russian Anarchists, Communists and radicals that Serge knew, describes so winningly (and sometimes was to deliver from the hands of the Cheka.)

Rather, the hero in this story is Serge himself. Always watching, identifying trends where others see nothing but confusion, trying in his own small way to keep the revolution pure and on course, most of all, working diligently to save the old radicals who were being left destitute, murdered, tortured, or --- like himself --- sent off to exile. And most wonderfully, no matter what those in power had forgotten, violated, smashed in the ground, Serge always true to the principles of the revolution as envisioned by the heroes of 1917 - 1918.


Emily Brontë
Donada Peters, reader

(Books on Tape)
Don't try to call because I won't respond being as enmeshed as I am (as they are) in this beautifully rendered nuthouse, as they are with each other on the very heights that wither the soul, that shrivel the heart, that kill the innocent and the beautiful alike --- kill them with love.

Donada Peters reads all the parts of this book like a dream, being able to invoke the harsh voice and harsh words of that scoundrel Heathcliff, the sweet seductive (later acidly scolding) Catherine, the stolid peasant intonations of dear, rocklike Nelly, the Yorkshire accents of the pious boor Joseph, the drunken cursing scowling of Hindley, the futile reasoning of the younger Cathy. It's all perfectly contained in this one from Books on Tape. I guarantee that if you try it you'll never forget --- nor forgive, alas --- that foundling gypsy who was able to poison them all for love.


A. L. Barker
The boy called "Gooseboy" is a character who is there and yet not there; and he is the fulcrum of the whole. Since he is deaf and dumb and two-faced (not in the usual meaning of the word), everyone makes of him what they will. Bysshe talks to him most directly, and most honestly, more than with any of the other characters. His twin Dulcie goes out to the estate one day, finds the boy alone, and finds herself thinking of Jekyll and Hyde:

    It was Hyde who kissed me. I'd been waiting years, donkeys' years my time --- the calendar year is for calendars --- and how many girls would bring themselves to be kissed by that stitched-up mouth? We sank to our knees, drew each other down. It was need, not passion ...

    We clung to each other, rolling and devouring each other.

The tales are all expertly interwoven, and you find yourself begging the author not to end it, please keep it going, the twin strands DNA and RNA, words and pictures, jokes and tragedy, cynicism and innocence, laughter and tears, good and bad: you want her to never stop.

My Last Sigh
Luis Buñuel
(University of Minnesota Press)
This is one of those literary works in which the voice of the author is so true that when it's over and done with, you want to set out and hunt him up and thank him in person for cutting off a piece of himself and putting it between the covers so you could know him and his wonderful ways, and in this case, his stunning visions that turned up in all thirty-two of his movies.

Going to a movie is going into a hypnotic trance, he tells us. (He also said that "Watching a movie is like being raped.") Such a funny man he is; such an hypnotist: reading such an glorious piece of writing by this eccentric, honest, beguiling, opinionated firecracker makes us sad that he didn't live long enough to make a movie of his Last Grand Sigh.

The Rise and Demise of
The British World Order and
The Lessons for Global Power

Niall Ferguson
(Basic Books)
Ferguson is, as the present-day juveniles would say, awesome.

How in god's name one man can draw together all the loose ends of the 300 year history of the British Empire in 350 or so pages, and make any sense of it at all is beyond me --- but he does it, and he does it well, and if you have any affection for history that is fun and cogent and lively, this should be your baby. I'm already on page 229, and with luck, I'll stretch out my reading, three or four pages a night, so I can squeeze at least another few weeks out of it.

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The Roots of

Jack Kornfield
(Sounds True)
Through his words and art --- and he is an artist --- Kornfield is able to yolk everything together into a memorable nine-hour treatise on Buddhism: its history, practice, the scariness of it, the good of it, the reality. He may be pretending to tell us the all and everything of the psychology of Buddhism, but in truth, he is conveying to us the art of a life spent in seeking that truth.

City Requiem, Calcutta
Gender and the
Politics of Poverty

Ananya Roy
(University of Minnesota Press)
It's the willingness of the author to expose herself that makes this book so winning. This is not some dry technocrat from an American university making a dry study of the very poor in Calcutta. She is there in the midst of the dust and the stink, giving the reader a worthy study of the soul of poverty... not some facile narrative with charts and figures but a you-are-there experience.

In the process, she is able to sort through all the clichés that we have been handed over the years about India, Calcutta and the very very poor. She does this by calling up tangential issues: land-use, political reality, the vagaries of squatting, the invisibility of the workers, the patriarchy of the political process, and what she calls "unmapping."

She is sure, very sure, of her discipline. She knows her stuff, is not buffaloed by the homilies and the usual sociological platitudes about the poor. At the same time, she is ambivalent enough about her rôle in Calcutta and in this study so that the book ends up with four different conclusions.


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