Best Books of 2001

Every week, two critics from  Slate’s Book Club review a new book in a back-and-forth e-mail conversation (click here for a complete listing). Are the books below the best of 2001? Read these selections from reviews of books that have most excited our critics and decide for yourself.

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen The Corrections may be the best novel I have read by a living writer who is not Saul Bellow. John Updike has never written anything to match it. Neither has Norman Mailer. Now it’s clear that Franzen’s book will be given its due only retrospectively; published in an hour when civilization must either steel itself for war or bow to evil, The Corrections is going to get lost for a few months or weeks or years. Still, I’m glad to be reading it. Books like this are what civilization is for.

The Corrections doesn’t have a particularly intricate plot. It is the story of an aging Midwestern couple—Enid, a nightmare of American consumerism, frantic activity to no end, and keep-up-with-the-Joneses superficiality; and Alfred, a gifted, noble, principled man who seems to have gained nothing for his gifts but a love-repelling irascibility that he clings to as if it’s some sort of treasure, and who’s halfway down the slide of Alzheimer’s-related dementia—and their three children. These (Gary, 43; Chip, 39; Denise, 32) have all moved to the East Coast. Franzen describes their silent anguish (and the society’s) by using each of the five as a window into the family (and social) dynamic. And he brings them all together for “one, last”—explosive—family Christmas.—Christopher Caldwell

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, by David Hadju At its best, Positively 4th Street offers a window into the folk music scene of the early ‘60s, into which Dylan, cloaked in enigmas of his own devising, insinuated himself, and which he used as the launching pad for his career. Dylan is one of four principal characters, a player in a quadrille that also features Joan Baez, her younger sister Mimi, and Richard Fariña, a novelist and folk singer who shared some of Dylan’s talents—for using people, for making up all kinds of bullshit about himself, and for repaying adulation with indifference. Hajdu’s take on these characters, while thoughtful and sympathetic, is hardly worshipful. Baez and Dylan especially come off as a pair of insufferable narcissists. Baez, in Hajdu’s account, stole her early repertoire and style from one of her friends and used to sit in the audience at other people’s shows and sing along at the top of her lungs until she was invited on stage. Dylan never bathed, lived like a pig in other people’s houses, and repaid Baez’s kindness—she was, when they met, the biggest star in the folk firmament, and her early support helped win over skeptical audiences—by turning his back on her when she might have needed his support.— A.O. Scott

Back When We Were Grownups, by Anne Tyler In Grownups, the protagonist, a widow in her mid-50s named Rebecca, tentatively takes up again with her college sweetheart—the man she jilted long ago, the man who represents the tantalizing promise of the road not taken. … It’s simple, but it’s also profound in its quiet and un-showy way, this book, because it’s all about coming to terms with—embracing—your life and its disappointments. It’s about accepting and loving your family, in Rebecca’s case a big sprawling mass of neurotic stepdaughters (three), daughters (one), their children, and various hangers-on, like her great-uncle-in-law, who is 99 and lives with her, and her brother-in-law, who (if only she could see it) would be a perfect person to spend her life with.— Sarah Lyall

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser It’s an admirable and sometimes sickening book: well-written (if not awfully well-structured), ambitious, broad in its thinking, and wonderful in its details. More than anything, it’s a triumph of a kind of reporting we don’t see much any more, combining a diligent combing of secondary sources with masses of first-hand observation and interviews.

It’s hardly news that fast food has become a way of life in America. But the facts and figures are startling nonetheless: On any given day, Schlosser writes, about a quarter of the adult population visits a fast-food restaurant. Every month about 90 percent of American children between the ages of 3 and 9 visit a McDonald’s. We spend $110 billion a year on fast food. The typical American now consumes approximately three hamburgers and four orders of french fries every week.—Marjorie Williams

President Nixon: Alone in the White House, by Richard Reeves There are so many unforgettable vignettes: Nixon’s presidential memos to his wife about the height of the bedside table … his fear that the force of LBJ’s shower will knock him down … his constant writing of anonymous hate mail to media outlets … his disdain for “the impossible fags” of the State Department … his canceling of soup at state dinners after he spills down his shirt … his counting the number of Jews in different offices … his penchant for bowling alone long before there was a book with that title.

All these revelations start out quirky, even amusing, but their cumulative weight begins to overwhelm the reader, which may be why Reeves didn’t have the stomach to continue after 1973. The petty dislikes turn into pathological hatreds, and the petty misdemeanors turn into very serious crimes against the state.

To Reeves’ credit, he understands that no voice is stronger or more damning that Nixon’s own. Some of the most powerful passages are straight from his mouth, as when he says, “This would be an easy job if you didn’t have to deal with people.” Or, “God, I hate spending time with intellectuals. There’s something feminine about them. I’d rather talk to an athlete.”

Um, is there a psychological doctor in the house?—Ted Widmer

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon This is not just a late-arriving crazy-person memoir of the sort that Elizabeth Wurtzel, Caroline Knapp, and Michael Ryan were writing five or 10 years ago. One gets the feeling (and it’s a funny feeling to get from a novelist) that Solomon distrusts “mere” stories. His bent is more scholarly than literary. He’s read most of the literature on depression and suicide, and The Noonday Demon can be read as a commonplace book of Great Thoughts on Blue States, from Coleridge, Goethe, A. Alvarez (“There is, I believe, a whole class of suicides who take their own lives not in order to die but to escape confusion, to clear their heads”), and Primo Levi.

Solomon’s own story forms a hub from which his explorations of depression radiate. He starts by describing his breakdowns and those of others. Sleeping for 18 hours at a stretch, unable to stand upright, vomiting. … No one will close this book doubting that depression exists. (No one will open this book doubting that depression exists, either, but that’s another story.) An implicit attack on those who don’t think of depression as a “real” medical ailment is about the only agenda this book has.—Christopher Caldwell

The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo The Body Artist is a slim, intimate book, with just one protagonist and a handful of supporting players. It begins with a scene that seems quintessentially DeLillo-ian. … A couple is having breakfast in a rented house on an unidentified coast, their conversation a spectacular study in missed emotional and verbal connections. They begin sentences, forget what they were about to say, and stop in the middle. They talk around each other. They go off on private reveries. It’s wonderfully done, a fascinating effort to try to depict the way people—and in this case, a man and a woman who, we will soon learn, are living at the most extreme of cross-purposes on this seemingly banal morning—really talk, in contrast to conversations in most novels, where the sentences are neat and ordered and thoughts move along in logical, too-linear pathways.— Sarah Lyall

Demonology, by Rick Moody One of Demonology’s blurbers describes Rick Moody as a writer who is “swinging for the bleachers.” Right! And along with the homers come an unusual number of rally-killing whiffs and embarrassing, boo-inducing double plays. One winds up marking the margins of a Moody book with: “Perfect!” … “Awful!” … “Perfect!” … “Awful!” …

Moody is frequently hilarious. It’s when he’s observing real people keenly—like the Yacht Club kid Marilyn Wendell in “Hawaiian Night,” “who would almost certainly get as stout as her mom, and like her mom, be the consort of all local boys until that daythat one feels one could read him by the shelf-full. But when he’s in his “delight-in-the-play-of-language” creative writing mode, as in “Pan,” the result is meaningless bloviation and a 3 a.m.-style loss of perspective on whether he’s being funny or not.—Christopher Caldwell

Constantine’s Sword, by James Carroll, Papal Sin, by Garry Wills In a series of short, sharp, angry chapters, Wills here reviews a variety of ways in which the Catholic Church has failed to live up to the standards of integrity proposed by Augustine back in the fifth century. He is persuasive, provocative, and humane, and despite his stupendous erudition, punchy in a journalistically savvy manner. The book is a relatively quick read (relative to the Carroll, at least), and notwithstanding the potential ponderousness of its subject and its author’s earnestness, it also manages to be pretty entertaining.

What it is not, however, is closely focused. Indeed, it could easily have been subtitled, “My Various Gripes With the Church.” … Carroll’s book, on the other hand, although unquestionably very long, and certainly personal and discursive, strikes me as being far from “self-indulgent and poorly organized.” I find it an ardent, eloquently written, profoundly informed meditation, integrating disparate facts and ideas with breathtaking sweep, always circling back on itself but at the same time ceaselessly developing its argument. The book is an exhaustive chronological account of the church’s relations with Jews, beginning at the time of Jesus himself and moving right through Vatican II up to the present.— Erik Tarloff

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