From an economic and ecological perspective, 1979 was a book year
of unparalleled devastation. Price tags of $10 to $20 for hardbound books were as common as the $5.95 price tags of less than a dozen years ago. The extraordinary long-windedness of many authors produced books that required the rape and pillage of at least one virgin forest to fill their 1,000-plus pages. Still, when done well a book is the best bargain around. For $15 a reader can
Mavis Gallant proved the wisdom of buying Canadian; TV was oatmeal porridge and The Associates drowned buy years of entertainment and the entrée to new worlds. The following roundup suggests a few of the books that made 1979 one of the best years in a long time.
Nonfiction: For years now writers have been perfecting the technique of combining the freedom and depth of fiction with the alluring immediacy and reality of the documentary. By 1979 writers of nonfiction had achieved truefact books that not only read like novels but ranged much beyond the traditional confines of mere facts. In this genre we have Norman Mailer’s 1,056-page The Executioner's Song, which told the story of executed murderer Gary Gilmore, and Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, a brilliant account of life among American astronauts which cast a merciless eye on American mores and manners. Henry Kissinger’s White House Years revealed an elegance of style and wit not evidenced in the prose of his secretary-of-state years.
Fiction: Novelists achieved the same effect as nonfiction writers by mixing up real-life events and characters with the fictional. In 1979, a year in which all the best novelists seemed to have new books, William Styron’s compelling Sophie's Choice combined an account of Auschwitz and its commandant, Höss, with the life of fictional heroine Sophie. Other novelists relied on a more-thanusually strong autobiographical component. The results were striking, from Phillip Roth’s short novel The Ghost Writer to Bernard Malamud’s superb Dubin's Lives. John Updike satirized Third World politics in The Coup and Joseph Heller took Washington hype to the inevitable reductio ad absurdum in Good as Gold. But for my money Canadians had the best-written books of the year. Mavis Gallant’s From the Fifteenth District was her usual superb writing—if short on plot—with fabulous glimpses of the rich, not-so-rich and wish-we-were set. Margaret Atwood gave us Life Before Man and Gabrielle Roy delighted readers with touching moments in Children of My Heart.
Poetry: Dennis Lee has suffered the fate of all serious writers with an occasional mad streak in them: he is best known for his children’s poems. Lee’s forte has always been his adult poetry and with his latest volume, The Gods, he has matured into an exceptionally fine poet. Also one of the year’s best is Ceylonese-born Michael Ondaatje’s latest book There's a Trick With a Knife I'm Learning to Do. Canadians may not be thought of as a very poetic people, but from the point of view of quality it has always been poetry that has dominated the Canadian literary scene —1979 is no exception.
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