By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
DAVID L. ULIN:Denis Johnson’s first collection of nonfiction, Seek: Reports From the Edge of America & Beyond(HarperCollins), is the literary equivalent of electroshock therapy; each installment, each impression, jolts you into reactions you didn’t know you had. Featuring 11 essays and pieces of reportage, the book travels the fringes of contemporary culture, detailing encounters with extremes and extremists from the Taliban to the hippies of the Rainbow Gathering, the American militia movement to the Motorcycle Church of Christ. There’s a certain voyeuristic intensity to many of these experiences, as Johnson takes us places we’ve never been to, revealing his vulnerabilities, his fears and prejudices and sneaking sympathies, in a consistently unexpected way. But even more important is Johnson’s sense of wonder in the face of the most severe conditions, a quality that seems utterly essential to the world in which we find ourselves today.
MICHELLE HUNEVEN:Richard Russo’s gift for tragicomedy has been maturing steadily since his first novel, Mohawk, and has now become so fine-tuned and adept that his writing seems simultaneously effortless and miraculous. His take on the renegade, town-drunk or narcissistic father — most famously drawn in Nobody’s Fool— has subtly shifted and evolved in the course of his books and serves as a kind of literary chart of how, over a lifetime, a person can come to accept, love and pragmatically deal with the essentially unacceptable. In his new novel, Empire Falls (Knopf), it’s a father who is constitutionally incapable of responsibility, who misbehaves, abandons his progeny and also loves them, however intermittently. Empire Falls also nails the excruciating misery of high school, the quotidian comforts and irritations of small-town life as lived in its bars and cafés, and the way the suppressed past destructively erupts into present life. Russo manages to be consistently and profoundly funny even as he chronicles human misery and evil, and the result is a slyly brilliant, sustained effort that’s Shakespearean in its pleasures.
MARGARET WERTHEIM:Throughout history, zoo designers have been more concerned with theoretical principles of design than with the well-being of their charges. So declares David Hancocks in his deeply moving call to arms, A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future(UC Press). Hancocks, formerly of Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, wants “to uninvent zoos as we know them.” Proposing a fundamental rethinking of their purpose, he argues that zoos should be pivotal institutions in practicing and promoting conservation. Hancocks calls for zoos, rather than focusing on a small number of charismatic megafauna — lions, tigers, pandas and so on — to make preservation of total biodiversity their primary goal.
F.X. FEENEY:Although technically his first novel, Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River(Atlantic Monthly Press) is a rich achievement — a suspenseful tale, set in the Midwest of the early 1960s, whose playful, consciously mythic character has deliberate roots in the frontier legends of that region. As the 11-year-old narrator Reuben Land, his miracle-working father and precocious poet sister navigate the glacial Badlands in a trailer searching for their prodigal brother (the quarry of an FBI manhunt), Enger infuses the lonesome, In Cold Blood, Lee-Oswald-driving-to-work landscape of that era with a luminosity and magic one normally associates with the literature of South America. The miracles worked by Reuben’s dad are not tricks but genuine, concrete transformations he performs without egotism or fuss, a little secret between himself and the recipient of the miracle. This novel is another.