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Annual 1999 Bookwatcher's Guide

The flock of titles was bigger than ever this year. More than 65,000 books flew into print. Naturally, in that parliament of fowls, there were a fair number of buzzards and cuckoos - not to mention a few that should be ostracized. But plenty of rare birds took flight, too. Here, we give keen-eyed bookwatchers a look back at the best sightings in fiction and nonfiction: first, our 10 favorites, then another 30 that deserve a peck. We've even got a few for the chicks. Arrange the nest for a long feeding.

- Ron Charles, book editor

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By Kevin Baker, HarperCollins, $26

Trick the Dwarf, a Coney Island circus performer, opens this spectacular novel by claiming, "I know a story," and does he ever. "It is a story about a great city, and a little city, and a land of dreams. And always, above all, it is a story about fire." From there, we descend into the controlled and uncontrolled flames of New York in 1911. Baker turns the Big Apple on its stem. His New York is an explosive furnace in which gangsters, prostitutes, and politicians - all recent immigrants - vie for survival. This is a historical novel thick with the gritty details of unforgettable characters. (March 11)


By Carrie Brown, Algonquin Books, $19.95

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The night Neil Armstrong takes that big step, Norris Lamb makes a giant leap of his own. As postmaster in a little English village, he's had no time for romance, except for a few chaste fantasies about the women he sees on postage stamps. When he begins timidly courting a local woman with a series of anonymous letters, Vida worries she's being stalked by a maniac. In this witty story about two middle-aged people falling in love for the first time, Brown demonstrates rare courage for a serious novelist: a willingness to let things work out well. Her portrayal of these two lovers is so sweet and affecting that we can't help but fall in love with them, too. (April 22)


By Gail Godwin, Ballantine, $25

For readers waiting for a literary novel that treats traditional religious issues with wisdom, wit, and compassion, "Evensong" is an answer to prayer. The story takes place in a small mountain town in North Carolina during the final months of the millennium. Margaret Bonner, a young pastor, can't wait for the hoopla to pass. When a mixed bag of visitors show up, they bring frustrations no one would want, but they also deepen Margaret's sense of family. This story of a busy marriage between two people devoted to helping others is full of fresh, spiritual wisdom, yet entirely free of cant or saccharin truisms. (March 18)


By Wayne Johnston, Doubleday, $24.95

This epic tells the fictionalized life of Newfoundland's first premier. Born on the eve of the 20th century, Joe Smallwood lives with his 12 siblings, their alcoholic father, and a Pentecostal mother. He drops out of school but remains strangely attached to a sardonic young women named Sheilagh Fielding, who pesters and saves him throughout his long march toward fame. Haunting scenery and hysterical selections from Fielding's "Condensed History of Newfoundland" generate tremendous heat in this icebound story. (Aug. 5)


By Joyce Carol Oates, Dutton, $24.95

Oates's novel courses along with the class of 1968 in an upscale town outside of Buffalo. The book's first section is a chorus of high-school gossip that knows no logic but its own excited obsession with John Reddy Heart, a brooding 11-year-old who drives in from the West in his mother's Cadillac. Though he becomes every woman's fantasy of danger, he never notices. The final breathless section takes us back to his frustrated classmates' 30th reunion, where they're still using John as a symbol of the freedom they'll never know. This dry satire of America's thirst for scandal is perfectly calibrated. (June 24)



By Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

Reporter Mark Bowden tells the story of a 1993 peacekeeping mission gone wrong: the deadly firefight in the streets of the Somalian capital, Mogadishu, that generated ghastly images. His book offers a convincing reminder that satellites, night-vision goggles, and high-tech gunships are nice to have but can't guarantee success in a cruel city whose culture American forces don't understand. It would have been nice to have fewer characters to follow as the battle unfolds, but this is a book recommended for those hungering to understand the world of one superpower and the forces swirling around it. National Book Award nominee. (March 11)

By David Moniz


By Blanche Wiesen Cook, Viking, $34.95

This second volume by Cook covers just five years, but what momentous years they prove to be. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt faced the tremendous challenge of saving a country suffering from the worst depression of its history, while across the ocean, Hitler was transforming Germany into a war machine. Eleanor had a way of reaching out to all kinds of common people who'd been consigned to society's margins. And she maintained an active social life, independent of her husband's. Cook pulls no punches when it comes to examining her heroine's personal shortcomings, but she also delights in showing the excellence of her character and the scope of her achievements. (July 1) By Merle Rubin


By David M. Kennedy, Oxford U Press, $39.95

For those whose childhood was spent in the shadow of the Great Depression, reading Kennedy's tome, the latest book to appear in the 11-volume Oxford history of the United States, is to relive their youth. The dominant character, of course, is Franklin Delano Roosevelt, described here from an admiring but still critical view. The story is replete with cameo histories of the leading figures of the era. Kennedy also provides a view of how average Americans lived. The book's second half captures the tensions of the war years. Kennedy has done a superb job giving readers a sense of the onrush of events. (May 27)

By Richard A. Nenneman


By Michael Lewis, W.W. Norton, $25.95

More than anything else you could read right now, Michael Lewis's book will help you understand how Silicon Valley has turned Wall Street - and the American economy - on its head. On the surface, it's the story of Jim Clark, the erratic, but brilliant entrepreneur who created Silicon Graphics and Netscape. But it's also a story of how greed, technological innovation, and the ability to articulate an idea at just the right time has made individuals like Mr. Clark the Rockefellers of our age. (Oct. 28)

By Tom Regan


By Richard Marius, Harvard U Press, $35

This biography of the German monk largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation is an engrossing attempt to fathom Luther's mind and heart. Marius asks, What motivated Luther to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church? He finds in Luther's writings a genuine horror at the grim prospect of nonbeing. For Luther, the antidote was faith in Christ and the resurrection, and he championed his faith with all-consuming intensity. His Luther is in many ways a modern man, more troubled by the prospect of a godless universe than by the demons and punishments that terrified his contemporaries. (April 8) By Merle Rubin



By Christopher Paul Curtis, Delacorte Press, $15.95, ages 8-12

Set in the Depression era, the story unfolds around a 10-year-old runaway with a suitcase of mementos on a search for his dad. In addition to propelling him onward, the mementos carry Bud back to his late mother's tender words and loving care. This book is a gem, of value to all ages. Bud reminds us what a difference connectedness makes. (Sept. 23) By Trudy C. Palmer

HARRY POTTER, vols. 1-3

By J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, $16.95, ages 7 and up

Harry, the young wizard in training, is so eminently lovable and Rowling's prose so eminently readable that adults have catapulted the tales onto bestseller lists. Rowling's rollicking style and combination of fantasy and mystery have performed true magic: gotten young boys to put down the joystick and pick up the books. (Jan. 14, June 17, and Sept. 23) By Yvonne Zipp


By Elizabeth Spires, illustrated by Claire Nivola, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15, ages 8-12

Imagine living with Emily Dickinson and sharing verses with this acclaimed American poet. Then, imagine being a mouse! That's the premise behind Spires's charming book. It's an appealing animal story, a somewhat fanciful introduction to Emily Dickinson, and an altogether delightful read. (April 22) By Karen Carden


By Tim Wynne-Jones, DK Publishing, $17.95, ages 11-14

The title story in this witty collection is about two girls searching for the true identity of a short-order cook. In "The Bermuda Triangle," a young man jumps between the tops of pine trees, trying to scare himself into talking. These stories fly through moments of delight, disappointment, and challenge. (June 17)


By Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemsha, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino, HarperCollins, $14.95, ages 4-7

This wife-and-husband team have created a delightful story about a garbage collector. Illustrator Yaccarino uses a pallet of city colors: taxi yellow, asphalt black, stop-sign red, and garbage-can gray. His simple, stylized art provides modern, very urban imagery to this fun, quirky book. (June 17)

By Karen Carden




By Julian Barnes, Alfred A. Knopf, $23

Financial mogul Sir Jack knows the world is obsessed with imitations, and he has one last grand project: a replica of Britain for tourists too busy to take in the real thing. This is an unsettling satire of corporate ambition gone wild in a culture that values convenience above all else. (May 13)


By J.M. Coetzee, Viking, $23.95

When David Lurie loses his university job for sexual harassment, he withdraws to his daughter's struggling farm. But his sanctuary is violated by a brutal attack that forces him to confront the costs of racial oppression. This Booker Prize-winning novel loses none of its fidelity to the complexities of South Africa, even while it explores the universal tensions between generations, sexes, and races. (Nov. 10)


By Michael Cunningham, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22

Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" is artfully reworked for the '90s with the same spare prose and elegant interweaving of three separate lives. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel slides between the thoughts of Woolf the day before her suicide, a young housewife's stifling marriage in 1940s Los Angeles, and a New York socialite making party preparations for a friend dying of AIDS.

By Susan Llewelyn Leach


By Roddy Doyle, Viking, $24.95

Maddeningly likable Henry Smart grows from a vibrant lad in the slums of Dublin to a ruthless killer for the IRA. Though he joined with hope for the downtrodden, his cause is twisted by petty greed and corruption. The book revels in the sort of moral ambiguity this tragic subject demands. (Sept. 16)


By Kent Haruf, Alfred A. Knopf, $24

Under the guise of small-town life, things start to go wrong in the lives of these richly written characters. When Tom Guthrie's wife leaves, he finds himself trying to raise two sons alone. Across town, two old bachelor brothers begrudgingly take in a pregnant girl and slowly construct a family. "Plainsong" delivers a delicate message of interdependence, all the while showing how landscape affects who we are and how we think. National Book Award nominee. (Oct. 21)

By Christian Stayner


By Nancy Huston, Steerforth, $21

A timid German housekeeper in Paris marries her employer, a great flutist, but she soon embarks on a love affair with a Jewish instrument maker. This love triangle is fraught with political, ethical, and philosophical overtones. (Aug. 26) By Merle Rubin


By Ward Just, Houghton Mifflin, $25

Sidney Parade believes in his government's might and good intentions in the early years of America's involvement in Vietnam. Only too late does he discover the complexity of personal and international treachery. Just's canvas is minute, but the image of moral ambiguity is perfectly drawn. (May 20)


By Lily King, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24

Rosie, a teen-aged American au pair in France, has frosty relations with her new family, especially the icy mother. But she grows close to the father and kids. King, whose language touches deeply, braids strands of two worlds to create a glowing story about family and dislocation. (Sept. 30) By Ron Franscell


By Change-rae Lee, Riverhead Books, $23.95

This deceptively quiet novel tracks the monotonous life of Franklin Hata, a Japanese immigrant. When a minor incident hits Hata, an emotionally troubled past is revealed. Lee has written a beautifully tapestried story of seeking identity and acceptance in another culture while remaining separate from the tug of it. (Aug. 26)

By Verity Ludgate-Fraser


By Peter Matthiessen, Random House, $26.95

Edgar Watson is indoctrinated into violence early on and struggles with the angry racism of his South Carolina clan after the Civil War. This brutal story shows how a reluctant murderer is made. It's also a remarkable look at the Southern frontier, a land that remained wild long after the Western frontier settled down. (April 15)


By Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster, $26

After decades of work, Duane has earned a life of prosperity in Texas. As an innocent act of rebellion, he moves to a little cabin in the woods, throwing his family into disarray. A bittersweet novel of resistance against complaisance, others' expectations, and even tragedy. (Jan. 14)


By Sena Jeter Naslund, William Morrow, $28

Annoyed by the scarcity of women characters in America's canonized literature, Naslund fleshed out a stray reference in Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" and created a feminist classic of her own. The cargo hold of this book is packed with heartbreaking struggle and richly imagined characters. (Oct. 21)


By Annie Proulx, Scribner, $25

The characters we meet in this collection of stories are the flinty cowboys and ranchers of Wyoming. Proulx piles on detail, but her evocative, sinewy prose, together with her tough-minded empathy, illuminates the hidden complexities of seemingly "plain" folks. (June 3) By Merle Rubin


By Elizabeth Strout, Random House, $22.95

A well-intentioned single mother becomes disturbed by the emergence of her teenage daughter's sexuality, not least because it serves as an uncomfortable reminder of her own youthful indiscretion. The novelist's third-person narration takes us inside the characters' minds and hearts, while maintaining a gentle, mildly ironic distance. (Jan. 7) By Merle Rubin


By Ruhama Veltfort, Milkweed Editions, $23.95

Veltfort traces the lives of two European peasants who come to America and become disillusioned by the challenges of the unknown. This is a rich and rewarding novel, a tapestry of many closely interwoven themes, including religious identity, faith and doubt, exile and return. (Feb. 18)

By Merle Rubin


By Susan Vreeland, MacMurray & Beck, $17.50

Vreeland's book focuses on a small painting by Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch master. Each chapter introduces a previous owner for whom the painting assumes a new meaning. Vreeland exquisitely illuminates the hopes and fears we invest in beautiful objects. (Oct. 7)



By Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, Basic Books, $32.50

A former KGB archivist and a British academic offer a rambling, richly detailed account of the inner workings of the foreign intelligence operations of the Soviet secret police from 1917 onward. How Mitrokhin managed to get six trunkloads of secret information to Britain in 1992 is still unclear. His book is stuffed with more bizarre stories than any Hollywood spy movie. (Sept. 23) By Leonard Bushkoff


By James Beck, W.W. Norton, $25.95

Beck analyzes the great Renaissance artist by studying the influence of three individuals who shaped his life: Lorenzo di Medici, Pope Julius II, and the artist's father. Many parts of the book - such as his account of the sculpting of "David" - are simply fascinating. This is a beautifully written volume that satisfies the scholar's desire for detail while remaining accessible to the lay reader. (April 22) By Terry Hartle


By Rosamond Halsey Carr with Ann Howard Halsey, Viking, $24.95

Carr writes from what was once her flower plantation, giving a breathtaking view of her beloved Rwanda and its people, and moving the reader from a pastoral paradise to brutal genocide. The ultimate value of this memoir, beyond the vivid descriptions of landscape and people, comes from the clear explanations of Rwandan history. (Sept. 2) By Marjorie Hamlin


By Keay Davidson, John Wiley & Sons, $30

Despite his flaws, Carl Sagan did more for the good of science and astronomy than any of the envious scientific colleagues who bad-mouthed him. Davidson, a San Francisco Examiner science writer, treats the nuances of Sagan's complex life with understanding and sympathy. This is a journalist's book, not the work of a scholarly biographer, but it gives a well-rounded portrait. (Oct. 7)

By Robert C. Cowen


By Niall Ferguson, Basic Books, $35

This World War I history glories in a virtuoso display of brilliant alternatives and what-ifs that dismiss traditional opinions, scattering glittering digressions far and wide and condemning all received truths. It's been heralded as a virtual masterpiece of revisionism about Britain's role in the war. (Aug. 5)

By Leonard Bushkoff


By Thomas Friedman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.50

The buzz term "global village" has been bandied about a lot in the '90s, but no one gives a better explanation of it. The spread of American commodities and highly visible products, such as McDonald's and Hollywood icons, has given globalization an American face. Friedman explores how that trend may play out against a variety of cultures around the world. He manages to explore big ideas without being overly academic. (April 29) By Stephen Humphries


By Francis Fukuyama, Free Press, $26

Fukuyama, author of "The End of History," contends that beginning in the mid-1960s, a wave of disruptive values washed across Western civilization. Individualism asserted itself over community needs; personal rights and freedoms triumphed over familial and social responsibilities. The result shifted the fragile balance maintaining social order. Fukuyama's work is relentlessly arresting. (June 24)

By David Shi


By Stephen Jay Gould, Ballantine, $18.95

Gould says science and religion form a partnership based on mutual respect for, and understanding of, each other's distinctive nature. What works in one domain won't work in the other. Gould makes his points with authority, insight, and his trademark good humor. (March 18) By Robert C. Cowen


By John McCain, Random House, $25

This family memoir details a life marked by privilege and excess. But it will be best known for the break-your-heart account of McCain's five-plus years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. It's a fascinating history of a remarkable military family. (Sept. 16)

By Brad Knickerbocker


By Ron Naveen, William Morrow, $26

A onetime lawyer who dropped his career goes to study and commune with penguins in the Antarctic. These touching stories show Antarctica's effect on ordinary people. The book contains moving accounts of the author's close interactions with these industrious, social birds. (March 18) By Colin Woodard


By Jedediah Purdy, Alfred A. Knopf, $20

Purdy aptly diagnoses what is wrong with the tenor of our times: a widespread attitude of ironic indifference, as citizens retreat from talking and thinking about public issues. To read this book is an eye-opening experience - and a heartening one. (Review Sept. 16, interview Oct. 7) By Merle Rubin


By Marilynne Robinson, Houghton Mifflin, $24

Robinson's goal is to discover other and better ways of thinking about important societal issues. The topics she discusses include everything from the legacy of the Puritans and the influence of social Darwinism to the worship of the marketplace and its harmful effects on the institution of the family. (Jan. 14)

By Merle Rubin


By Jean Strouse, Random House, $34.95

This carefully documented work about the enigmatic financier, J.P Morgan, presents a complete and balanced picture of Morgan - his strengths, weaknesses, successes, and failures. Strouse allows us to more fully understand the man behind the myth. (July 22) By Terry Hartle


By Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, Little, Brown, $29.95

Tifft and Jones chronicle the most prominent newspaper family in American history, the Ochs and the Sulzbergers, who made The New York Times the most influential newspaper in the world. The authors refuse to take the easy way out by marginalizing the women of the family in each generation. (Sept. 23) By Steve Weinberg

*On the Web, these mini-reviews are hyperlinked to the full reviews in the Monitor archive. Go to

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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