Fifteen Best Books
We offer here a list of what we
think to be the very best
of the almost 3,000 books
we have reviewed over the years.
The Cave
José Saramago
Margaret Jull Coasta,

Saramago got a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and as far as I am concerned he should have gotten at the same time the Nobel Prize for Psychology and another one, the Wise Prize, for Knowledge of the Workings of the Heart & Soul...

... plus, and in addition, any other prizes lying around, the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Prix Fixe de France and whatever other bookish prizes they have hanging around to give to those who through some sterling ability that you and I will never ever be able to comprehend can take a story and words and characters and twist them around and down inside you with such force that they belong to you ... no ... they become you.

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Out Stealing Horses
Pers Petterson
Anne Born,

(Graywolf Press)
Time may be the hero here, but there is also a boy growing to be a man, inarticulate at that age of change, watching, as he does, from the edge of the woods, watching his father kissing a woman who is not his mother. "There was something in my throat that itched and hurt in a weird way, wanting to come up, but if I swallowed hard I could keep it down."

Time, and growing up, and chance, the odd odds that play such a role in our lives: Trond, hidden, watching his father disappear up the hill, hand-in-hand with a woman who is not his mother; disappearing, as fathers must disappear, into or out of space, or time, or disillusionment ... his father vanished with another mother, a mother of three, one with the odd name of Odd, who, at age ten, is accidentally shot to death by his twin brother, Lars ...

... the same Lars from 1947, who lives down the hill from Trond in 1999, there in east Norway, just above the river and the Swedish border, there just before the millennium.

Out Stealing Horses is timeless, good, filled with wonder; too good, by far, to be put down easily --- or easily forgotten.

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The Best of Ed Zern
Ed Zern
(The Lyons Press)
I guess some of his charm is his well-disguised intellectualism. In one of his pieces for Field & Stream --- Field & Stream, mind you --- he slips in references to Wagner (comparing his operas to big game hunting), Bach Sonatas (trout fishing with a dry fly). Proust and Joyce turn up here or there, as does D. H. Lawrence (see below).

The main reason that Ed Zern is not listed up there with S. J. Perelman, Robert Benchley, E. B. White and Peter de Vries is because he wrote for the sporting set at Field & Stream instead of the smart set at The New Yorker. Yet he bests many of the more famous humorists --- with the possible exception of Perelman. Here, for instance, is his complete review of a certain lurid book you may have run across:

    Although written many years ago, Lady Chatterley's Lover has just been reissued by Grove Press, and this fictional account of the day-to-day life of an English gamekeeper is still of considerable interest to outdoorminded readers, as it contains many passages on pheasant raising, the apprehending of poachers, ways of controlling vermin, and other chores and duties of the professional gamekeeper. Unfortunately one is obliged to wade through many pages of extraneous material in order to discover and savor these sidelights on the management of a Midland shooting estate, and in this reviewer's opinion this book can not take the place of J. R. Miller's Practical Gamekeeping.
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Buddha Da
Anne Donovaan
(Carroll & Graf)
The author not only knows her language, not only knows love, not only loves her characters --- but, as all good authors writing about Eastern religion must --- she knows her Buddhism, knows how to place it in the context of a normal family, one that is practically destroyed by the supposedly benign world of Tibetan masters.

Thus, Buddhism becomes a counterpoint to the story of Liz and Anna Marie and Jimmy, as fine as counterpoint in a Bach cantata --- the bass line going one way, the tenor another, the alto a third: all put together in a musical whole that can make one shiver with the glory of it.

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Night Soldiers
Alan Furst
Read by
George Guidall

(Recorded Books Unabridged)
Having read it but never having heard it read aloud, I would never have imagined Night Soldiers could translate into a vocal drama of such power. The reader in this version out of Recorded Books is an actor named George Guidall. All the accents --- at least those that I know (I am a little weak on Russian, Turkish, Bulgarian, Polish, Romanian, and Czech) --- are perfect. The intonation is exact. The dialogue superb. The narrative will knock you off your seat.

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Master of the Sea
José Sarney
Gregory Rabassa,

This is no simple doughty tale of a fisherman surviving in the cays and rocks and islands and loves and fantasies of Northern Brazil. And author José Sarney is no simple doughty writer who suddenly makes the world of dreams, fish, and madness live. For he is somewhat of a fantasy himself. O Dono do Mar was published in 1978; seven years later, Sarney was elected President of Brazil.

Eh? A great writer ending up as head of the sixth largest country in the world? (His was the transition government from a military dictatorship.)

Can you imagine the President of the United States being revealed to have written a lusty funny tale of fishermen and monsters and passion, the story of a man with a wife who at the end of the forty years with him can say,

    Let's forget about time Cristório. It doesn't exist here and still we count it. Let's get rid of days and nights, months and years and leave everything as though it was only Sun and Moon. Time's something people get into their heads. They invent it.

Could you and I dream of having a president who could write like that, tell us that time is something people have just made up? Or that "He'd never thought that a woman would be able to have that taste and sweet smell, something that wasn't just possession but a feeling of vastness?"

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Or, Notes of an Abject Reptile

Verlyn Klinkenborg
Josephine Bailey,

(Tantor --- 5 CDs)
There is a special bonus in Timothy that comes for the reader or listener. It is one of envy, for this is a rich and lovely account of life of late eighteenth century rural England, and it makes one jealous. To be part of the swarming life of the countryside; the astonishing variety of plants, the growing and the flying and the crawling things; to contemplate the music of their names: plants known as toadflax, borecole, "Traveler's joy," twayblade, eye-bright cow-wheat, go-to-bed-at-noon, Knee-holly or butcher's broom. The birds: the sit-ye-down, ring ousel, Land rail, European bee-eater, jackdaw, missel-thrush, pettichaps, flycatcher, wryneck, butcher-bird, coal-mouse, honey-buzzard, and the nightjar.
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Memoirs of

John Glassco
The Parisian life came to John Glassco when he was but eighteen, and he captures us here in exactly the same way Paris came to own him. He can't walk down to Porte Saint-Denis without running into the painter Sidney Schooner who knows of a small bistro, "very dark," with "tarnished mirrors, filled with elderly respectable bottle-faced men, all bent over their plates, many of them wearing infants' bibs to protect their shirts from the juices and sauces."

There, in the café, with Schooner (along with the jealous reader) Glassco stops his musings as all of us would do at such a moment, to consider the treat before us, in this case, snails:

    I had never tasted such snails; fat, tender and of marvellous flavour, they were swimming in a sauce of browned butter, parsley and garlic.

He asks Schooner how he ever found such a place: "The thing to watch out for in a restaurant is a head-waiter or a maïtre d'; as soon as you see one, turn round and walk out. Also, beware of chafing-dishes."

    I've found that three good signs are a small menu, darned tablecloths, and an old dog on the premises.

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Moscow Stories
Loren Graham
(Indiana University Press)
I was expecting to be bored to death by a long exegesis on Russian Scientific History, interspersed with self-glorying aperçus, but after a few chapters of Moscow Stories, I knew I was in the hands of a charming story-teller. Graham is two people (maybe more; maybe even, unknown to us, a cold-war spook). He is obviously a wise, studious, and learned professional in his rather stuffy field. But, a miracle: he is also a natural adventure writer.

Given the built-in terror that was part of the Soviet/US landscape for over forty years, his comings and goings, and his obvious charm, infuse the reader with an undercurrent of dread. "How is this nutty professor going to get out of this pickle?" we find ourselves thinking. Such as when two KGB agents grab him, take him far outside of Moscow to a restaurant which the author is quite sure will turn into a set-up, which could get him nabbed, possibly put under house arrest or worse.

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My Last Sigh
The Autobiography of
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.

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The Bloomsday Dead
Adrian McKinty
(Blackstone Audio)
"Detective stories" was what we used to call them, thinking of Chandler or the Continental Op. They are strange amalgams of adventure, brutality, and occasional gruff tenderness. We know that our hard-bitten detectives are going to survive massive assaults from fists or firearms, so how does an author even build tension?

I suspect it is more than mere suspension-of-disbelief. For, even with all evidence against it, we cannot be too sure that this "eejit" is going, for example, to get out from under the three thugs sitting atop him at the back of the IRA sedan, the three having just been ordered by a man improbably named Body O'Neill to suffocate him with a heavy plastic bag. Later, we wonder how Forsythe could possibly, with all his cuts and bruises, make it up the stairs of a scabrous dog-fight pub after he spots an aluminum baseball bat coming his way ("they don't play baseball in Belfast?")

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Amy Bloom
(HighBridge Audio)
She leaves Chicago off to points west on a train, arriving in a Seattle whorehouse with a lady named Gumdrop: "She watches Gumdrop rapping her smart little orange shoes against the linoleum and sees what Gumdrop sees: a lumpy-headed white woman with very few skills, no money, and not much promise."

It is this seeing (and being seen) that endears us to the author; that and her ability to take Lillian to the brink of death, lets her survive a dozen times, in Russia, across America, in the Hazelton Agrarian Work Center for Women in British Columbia, culminating in a ridiculous trek across Alaska on her way to the Bering Straits.

Lillian, marching through the snow, alone, cold, with blisters, "and these blisters take as much of her attention as the wild animals, the staggering physical beauty,"

    For the rest of her life when she closes her eyes, she finds only three images of all the thousand she intended to keep: a line of low purple flowers, sparse and underfed, sprinkled among the fallen trees; green light rippling noisily across the night sky; a pink coral-streaked dawn near Tagish.

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Of Kids & Parents
Emil Hakl
Marek Tomin, Translator

(Twisted Spoon Press)
Father and son, different, perhaps, but revealed here to be cronies, old cronies, who get pissed at each other, open up, shut down, confound us (and each other) with their memories, their tall tales, who can believe Honza's whopper about Johan/Lazarus Batista Kollendero, "who were born in London and they were formed in such a way that Johan was growing out of the chest of his normally developed brother, so throughout their lives they were looking at each other's faces. Lazarus was the one with the legs so Johan had to go from one party to another against his will."

    Apparently they always argued about it, and Johan would end up offended, staring at the ceiling all night, while Lazarus would fool around, tell jokes, and in between he'd reason with his brother in a quiet, friendly voice.

Weird, wonderful, wonderfully-horribly joined, like all of us, with those who bore us, who bear us, like Ivan and Honzo, the two of them filled up with their stories, filling us with their stories, there on the streets of old Prague. The memories out of their lives (past and present), the common history of two who have several things in common: memories, father and son, joined-at-the-hips.

Some may be false, some maybe not; but mostly stories out of our lives minted by Emil Hakl come as pure gold, as rich and as good as it gets.

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Getting Mother's Body
Suzan-Lori Parks
(Fourth Estate)
The lay-out --- a chapter given to each character, switching back and forth so we can see the changing world through their eyes --- is lifted bodily from As I Lay Dying. But instead of Addie Bundren inside the house dying as Cash taps out her coffin, author Parks has Billy wanting to dig up her long-dead mother so she'll have the wherewithal to do away with Baby Snipe (or Snopes) growing inside of her. And Snipe's trade, when he isn't seducing the young and the innocent, is building coffins.

The characters have that Faulknerian feel: trashed lives growing out of grueling poverty, with "disillusionment, hope, fantasy, bitterness and understanding." And the structure is perfect for what Parks has set out to do: each character gets a page or two to set the record straight, even if the next character will skew it and the one after that one will turn it on its head.

Come to think of it, this block-building style of writing probably goes past Faulkner, through Joyce, reaching all the way back to the Elizabethans. In those days, they called it "soliloquy," but it served the same purpose: to let us inside a character's mind so we can see how much they are fabricating. For the world. Or themselves.

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As a Friend
Forrest Gander
(New Directions)
The wonder of this is the concentration of it. It's Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio married to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, brought together with overtones of Faulkner. (It's no accident that there is a character here named Quinton, whose name will set off bells for those of us who have been reading and rereading The Sound and the Fury for lo these many years.)

In contrast to craven Clay and boorish Quinton, Les is no dummy. There are a flurry of writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers running around in his brain: Coltrane, Thoreau, Walter Raleigh ("True love ... is a durable fire in mind"), Giotto, Cocteau, Ingmar Bergman, Miles ("I listen to what I leave out,") Blake, Coleridge, Sydney Bechet, Modrian, Jimmy Cliff, Poussin, Kenneth Rexroth ("All your gestures / Have become my gestures.") For a 106 page book to be so crammed with writers and artists might seem to be overachieving, but such is the wit of Gander's writing that these names don't clog and offend: they are as easy here as is the magnificent sketching of his characters ... Les, a Missouri renaissance man, the soulful Sara, and narrator, Clay, an Iago in the summer fields of midland America.

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