THE ESSENCE OF THE THING
By Madeleine St. John
Carroll & Graf, $22
In the early 1990s, America fell in love with the theory of "genderlects" - the separate dialects of men and women. First, Deborah Tannen published "You Just Don't Understand." Then came John Gray's "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus." All this, of course, distresses lovers of literature who thought novels had been exploring the way men and women communicate for centuries. Thankfully, Madeleine St. John may satisfy both the literati and the self-helpi. The novel opens at the moment Jonathan tells Nicola that he wants her to move out of their London flat. The rest of this witty story is a series of conversations between these two ill-matched lovers, their friends, and parents. In perfectly captured dialogue, St. John explores a sad gulf between those secure in relationships and those who consider themselves adrift. The men and women in this novel don't need to affirm they're from different planets. They need to realize they're from the same one. St. John knows that.
By Ron Charles
JACK MAGGS, by Peter Carey
Alfred A. Knopf, $24
Just as playwright Tom Stoppard plucked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the periphery of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," Peter Carey has created a story about the convict who adopted Pip in Charles Dickens's "Great Expectations." The novel opens on the day Jack Maggs risks execution by returning from exile to find the young Londoner he has supported for years. When Jack finds his adopted son's house empty, he takes employment next door and meets Toby Oates, a popular novelist and hypnotist. From this moment on, Jack endures a parasitic relationship with Oates, who tries to plunder Jack's mind for material for his next novel, while Jack tries desperately to find his son before being apprehended. It's a captivating world of horrible secrets, risky confidences, romantic entanglements, and characters torn between the compulsion to reveal themselves and the anxiety of exposure. For artistry, subtlety, and sheer entertainment, "Jack Maggs" is sure to beat the dickens out of any other novel this year.
By Ron Charles
A MAN IN FULL, by Tom Wolfe
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.95
This book is as full of bravado as its brawling hero, Charlie Croker, Atlanta's most successful real-estate developer. Tom Wolfe's second novel
is preoccupied with what a real man is and deserves, but the author's enormous strength is his ability to tell an enthralling story. When a politically explosive rape case threatens to disrupt Atlanta's precarious peace, Charlie is offered a chance to save his empire by defending a monosyllabic football star. The white real estate baron watching his wealth dissolve, the black lawyer grasping for white respect, the bored loan officer fending off an angry mistress, the terrified prisoner fighting for his life - their experiences couldn't be more different, but Wolfe ingeniously forces their paths to converge. His panoramic study of Atlanta - from the ghettos to the corporate offices - won't let us forget that the fundamental issue in American society is the relationship between whites and blacks.
By Ron Charles
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, by Barbara Kingsolver, HarperCollins, $27.50
In this novel, Barbara Kingsolver takes the kind of artistic risks only a beginner - or a genius - would dare take. The story rotates through a series of monologues by the wife and four daughters of a Baptist preacher from Bethlehem, Ga., who's determined to bring his version of salvation to the Congo in 1960. Price's blinding pride makes for a story that's often comic despite its tragedy. Even as political explosions roar in the distance and plagues of biblical proportions descend upon them, he refuses to let his family flee, and they react in strikingly different ways. The book is most successful when its universal insights are conveyed through private moments of transformation, when these women in the crucible of despair come to understand humanity's great need.
By Ron Charles
THE WHEREABOUTS OF ENEAS
By Sebastian Barry, Viking, $23.95
Sebastian Barry has written a novel as colorful as a sunset - or a burning house. He tells the story of a man condemned to wander the earth for a crime he won't commit. Eneas enjoys an idyllic childhood in Ireland, but trouble starts as he enters adulthood. Struggling for an occupation, he innocently joins the British Merchant Navy, where he waits out World War I. Afterward, he makes another fateful choice, joining the Royal Irish Constabulary as the country descends into civil war and boyhood friends fall in with the Irish Republican Army. One night, Eneas witnesses the murder of his sergeant, and when the assassins are killed, Eneas is blamed for squealing on the radicals and marked for death. Politically unsophisticated, Eneas finds everything that matters to him uprooted. Given the chance to escape the blacklist by committing an assassination ordered by the IRA, he refuses. In stunningly poignant prose, Barry has produced a novel about a most unusual plight. But he delves so deeply into Eneas's peculiar fate and redemption that his story speaks to us all.
By Ron Charles
THE LIFE OF THOMAS MORE
By Peter Ackroyd, Doubleday, $30
In this thoroughly researched and beautifully written biography, Peter Ackroyd focuses his talents on the subject of Thomas More, the Roman Catholic statesman, writer, and martyr beheaded for his defiance of King Henry VIII. He argues that More was a true conservative, with a reverence for tradition and the rule of law. Unlike some More scholars, Ackroyd sees no inconsistency between More's devout religious beliefs and his worldly success and practical shrewdness. As a lawyer, public administrator, and statesman helping bring piety, order, and justice to civic life, More could believe he was also fulfilling his duties as a Christian until Henry demanded he swear an oath acknowledging the king to be the supreme authority on all matters temporal and spiritual. In Ackroyd's view, More chose martyrdom because he saw the king's actions as sounding the death knell for the world as More understood it. Whether or not one shares Ackroyd's nostalgia for medieval times, this is an exceptionally fascinating, colorful, and moving biography.
By Merle Rubin
LINDBERGH, by A. Scott Berg
A. Scott Berg has written a superb - and the most complete - biography of Charles Lindbergh's extraordinary life. The first author to have unrestricted access to the papers of Lindbergh and his wife, Berg took eight years to finish the account. That's hardly surprising because Lindbergh packed a lot into his life. The aviator is an icon because of the bravery and skill that carried him across the Atlantic. But he also worked in archaeology, medicine, and science, championed environmental causes, flew missions in World War II, wrote several books, dabbled in politics, and was instrumental in developing commercial aviation. Berg admires Lindbergh but is scrupulously evenhanded in his assessment. He doesn't skim over challenges and failings - the kidnapping and murder of his son, tensions in his marriage, and accusations of anti-Semitism. Thoroughly researched and deftly written, the book is detailed, but it never drags. Few biographies have a "couldn't put it down" quality, but this one does.
By Terry Hartle
MANY THOUSANDS GONE, by Ira Berlin Belknap/Harvard $29.95
This monumental study of the evolution of American slavery is the long-awaited expansion upon a path-breaking article on early American slavery Berlin wrote in 1980. He argues that despite an inherent power imbalance, slavery was a "negotiated relationship." Slaves always held a strong card: the threat of insurrection. Through this negotiation, slaves carved out an independent social sphere. In addition, slavery itself continually changed, and the terms of the relationship frequently had to be renegotiated. Berlin's signal contribution is to drive home that slave life "differed from place to place and from time to time." Slavery was not a static institution. He emphasizes that slavery at no point achieved the "stable maturity" that many historians have ascribed to the 19th-century period. The antebellum archetype most vividly depicted in "Gone With the Wind" was but one brief moment in a 250-year struggle.
By Neal Rosendorf
PILLAR OF FIRE: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS, by Taylor Branch
Simon & Schuster, $30
"Pillar of Fire," the second volume of Branch's epic history, is a relentless and magisterial tour through the interconnected dramas of 1963 to 1965. At the center of it is Martin Luther King Jr., whose life, Branch argues, is "the most important metaphor" for America in those watershed years. He tracks the internecine politics between civil rights groups, the White House, the FBI, and local officials. The "action" shifts adroitly between narratives, with each narrative strand operating as a "book within a book" - a carefully researched and readable storyline using primary sources and interviews that makes "Pillar of Fire" an instant "standard history." At bottom, however, the story is the struggle to crack an entrenched "way of life," as supporters of segregation called it. This book illuminates the inner workings of a cause that defined in our era where the US would go on a question it once fought a civil war over. But the question is still on the table.
By Robert Marquand
SLAVES IN THE FAMILY, by Edward Ball, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $30
One hundred and thirty years after slavery's abolition, its legacy remains one of America's thorniest issues. Though civil rights redressed much of the outward inequity, the lingering social and emotional divide awaits more subtle answers. As a scion of a Charleston dynasty that greatly prospered from the trade in human chattel, Edward Ball faces the legacy of slavery head on. His book, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction, is the moving and disarmingly frank story of his search for the descendants of his family's 4,000 enslaved workers. It acts as both an acknowledgment of his family's past and an accounting of sorts. He's no apologist for his family, stating bluntly that greed was the driving force of slavery. But he doesn't demonize his ancestors, either. The book is an unsentimental yet human history of the Ball family and their slave laborers from Elias "Red Cap" Ball's arrival in the New World in 1698 to the present day.
By Susan Llewelyn Leach