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What we missed and lost in 2003

Sunday, December 21, 2003

by Bob Hoover, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There were more than 200 books reviewed in these pages in 2003, but more than a few got away or simply never made it into the office.

So this is a column about what was missed and why, as well as other disappointments during a very long, contentious year.

"The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown (Doubleday, $24.95).

Dan who? The thriller "genre" is wide and shallow, dominated by a few names like Clancy, Archer and Ludlum. The plots are so formulaic and beyond the bounds of believability that I've developed an insensitivity to them. Let's face it, the thrill is gone.

To me, Brown's book sounded like a Ludlum ripoff ("The Altman Code," "The Tristan Betrayal," "The Paris Option," "The Liberty Tube.")

OK, I made that last one up, but you get the idea. Not long after I passed on Brown in March, "The Da Vinci Code" hit the top of the best-seller lists and is still there today.

Despite its harsh depiction of a Roman Catholic organization, Opus Dei, biblical revisionism -- Mary Magdalene bore Jesus' children -- and a highly imaginative treatment of da Vinci's life, the book continues to attract buyers. It is a "thriller," after all, not a history book.

So, Dan Brown clearly didn't need my mention; nor, for that matter, do Clancy, Archer and Ludlum.

"Diary" by Chuck Palahniuk (Doubleday, $24.95).

How many times have we heard the comment, "Well, at least they're reading," when a dubious book becomes popular with youth?

The 41-year-old author from Portland, Ore., writes those kinds of books -- brutal, gory, unsympathetic tales of people in extremis. He has developed a loyal following of young fans who find his hard-hearted skepticism of contemporary society a real trip. (Do they say that anymore?)

His 2003 novel came with strong advance comments, so it seemed a good choice for a review.

Then I heard Palahniuk read a short story, "Guts," before a packed auditorium of University of Pittsburgh students in September. The climactic scene found the narrator's intestines unraveling from his body thanks to a swimming pool pump. Don't ask.

In readings of the story elsewhere, Palahniuk had coaxed some listeners to vomit or pass out. He was more pleased with that accomplishment than his writing, which was less memorable, to be honest.

Several passed out at the Pitt reading, while more just left.

The experience persuaded me to pass on "Diary." The book's doing OK and has collected a few notes of praise among critics.

"Benjamin Franklin: An American Life" by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster, $30).

No excuses. Yes, I think the book was "borrowed" anonymously, my choice of a reviewer was indisposed at the time, and I had always considered Isaacson a journalist rather than a biographer. Still, no excuses.

"From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity" by Leo Braudy (Knopf, $30).

What an interesting topic to explore, particularly in these days of aggression and retribution.

Why this book was not reviewed speaks to the nature of book reviewing in these days of so many titles and so few resources.

With a growing pile of books with "terrorism" on the cover, how do you choose?

It's the old "Buridan's ass" theory, in which a donkey is tethered between two equally fresh bales of hay. Since the animal can't choose between the two, it starves to death.

"Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy" by Carlos Eire (The Free Press, $25).
"Gulag: A History" by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, $35).

"Waiting for Snow" won the National Book Award for nonfiction this year, while "Gulag" was a runner-up.

The nominations emphasized the amazing range of work being done by American writers, even those who started in Cuba.

Despite its politically correct rap, diversity can be a good thing, particularly in the hands of a skilled writer like Eire.

Despite its grimness, the Soviet gulag is a salient chunk of 20th-century history.

The books deserved our attention.

"Under the Southern Sun: Stories of the Real Italy and the Americans It Created" by Paul Paolicelli (St. Martins, $24.95).

A native of Mt. Lebanon, Paolicelli has found a wealth of stories in the history of Italian migration to America with both this book and his earlier one, "Dances With Luigi."

"Under the Southern Sun" warranted a thorough look from the newspaper and didn't get it.

In a recent e-mail to me, Paolicelli noted that many people are exploring their family heritage by writing about it. It's a trend that will certainly get on my radar in 2004.

In memoriam

I said this column was about what we missed in 2003. We'll get over most of it. We will not recover, however, from the loss of Betsy Kline, who died in June at age 50.

Betsy was a wonderful book critic who contributed many sensitive, insightful and wise reviews to the Post-Gazette. Most important, Betsy was a dedicated reader who loved books as much as anybody I know.

Her loss leaves an irreplaceable hole on the newspaper's book pages.

Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at or 412-263-1634.

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