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notes on science, fiction, and points in between
28 Dec 1997
more best lists (5 Dec 1997)
1997's Best Books
Moreso than in most years, there's a remarkable consensus among the various book review journals and end-of-year 10-best-lists on a handful of titles as best of the year -- at least for fiction. Don DeLillo's Underworld is the one title on every such list. (It's even marginally SF, in its closing pages, according to The New York Review of Science Fiction.) Two other novels were cited nearly as frequently, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, and Charles Frazier's bestselling Cold Mountain. Five other titles were cited by at least three of the various lists surveyed (see below, and 5 Dec): Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Arundhati Roy's Booker-prize winning The God of Small Things, John Updike's SF novel Toward the End of Time, Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower.

The situation is more typical among nonfiction books -- that is, almost all the titles on the various lists are different. Only one or two titles can be seen as consensus bests, Jon Krakauer's account of a doomed Everest expedition Into Thin Air, and a similar man against nature tale in Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. Both books were widely admired (and widely read, making bestseller lists), though neither is the sort of serious work of scholarship, or pertinent take on contemporary affairs, that book critics usually prefer to celebrate.

Following, and on the 5 Dec page, are details of the various best of '97 lists.

Los Angeles Times Book Review
The December 14th issue proclaims ''the 100 best books of 1997'' in the form of brief excerpts from reviews run over the past year from as many guest reviewers, an approach that defies any attempt to detect a consensus. Regular book critic Richard Eder is allowed his own, separate 10 best list that includes the titles by Fitzgerald, Pynchon, DeLillo, and Ozick, and volumes by Seamus Deane, Barry Unsworth, and Ismail Kadare among the others. The LAT Book Review is conspicuous among the big three US newspaper book reviews in its disregard of science fiction. A runner-up list of 101 ''other recommended books'' [that were reviewed this past year] does include Jonathan Lethem's As She Climbed Across the Table and John Updike's Toward the End of Time.

The lists in Time magazine's Dec. 29th/ Jan 5th double issue reflect the consensus.


  1. Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon
  2. Underworld, Don DeLillo
  3. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  4. American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  5. The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy


  1. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  2. A People's Tragedy, Orlando Figes
  3. Legends of the American Desert, Alex Shoumatoff
  4. Whittaker Chambers, Sam Tanenhaus
  5. Citizen Soldiers, Stephen Ambrose

Newsweek, in its end-of-the-year special issue, doesn't do lists; it does cartoons. Among summary articles however is one on the state of publishing. While unfortunate trends persist, including expensive celebrity flops that steal money away from midlist writers, the article finds hope in the surprising success of books like 1996's Angela's Ashes, by Frank McCourt, and three of 1997's novels about American life: the books by Pynchon, DeLillo, and Frazier.

Entertainment Weekly and People Weekly
Magazines covering popular entertainment, predictably, mix books by and about celebrities among more serious works on the best lists, and take perverse delight in adding worst lists (often with belligerent inclusions of titles admired elsewhere).

Entertainment Weekly's Best:

  1. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  2. Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, Jacki Lyden
  3. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  4. All Over But the Shoutin', Rick Bragg
  5. Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child, Noel Riley Fitch
  6. Underworld, Don DeLillo
  7. What Falls Away, Mia Farrow
  8. The Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger
  9. Crooked Little Heart, Anne Lamott
  10. Here On Earth, Alice Hoffman
and worst:
  1. Meg, Steve Alten
  2. Hornet's Nest, Patricia Cornwell
  3. Book, Whoopi Goldberg
  4. Behind the Oval Office, Dick Morris
  5. Son of Rosemary, Ira Levin
People Weekly's Best of Pages:
  • All Over But the Shoutin', Rick Bragg
  • Underworld, Don DeLillo
  • The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
  • What Falls Away, Mia Farrow
  • Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  • Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
  • Personal History, Katherine Graham
  • Jackie Robinson: A Biography, Arnold Rampersad
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
and Worst of Pages:
  • Welcome to Your Facelift, Helen Bransford
  • Without a Doubt, Marcia Clark with Teresa Carpenter
  • Book, Whoopi Goldberg
  • Been There, Haven't Done That, Tara Fitzgerald
  • The Kiss, Kathryn Harrison
  • Toward the End of Time, John Updike
  • Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut
  • Promiscuities, Naomi Wolf
  • The Bible Code, Michael Drosnin

Demonstrating the maxim that there is no work so highly regarded that someone, somewhere, does not hate it, the online magazine Slate has run several essays in recent months debunking various acclaimed works. Most recently, James Wood calls Cold Mountain a bore in a December 23rd book review, phony in its representation of historical consciousness. Earlier was an article accusing Arundhati Roy of ''exploit[ing] India chic and colonial guilt to win literature's big prize.'' And Slate's review of DeLillo's Underworld was one of the few negative notices of that book; Walter Kim found it gassy and repetitious.

Slate ran a survey of year's best lists similar to this page in its Summary Judgment section for December 24th.

What about Science Fiction?
We'll get to that. A few best-of-'97 picks from the newspaper book reviews have been cited on the December news page. Look for more lists, including a preview of Locus Magazine's Recommended Reading lists for 1997, in the coming weeks.

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