St. Louis Post-Dispatch – “Best books of 2003 – (Nonfiction): Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are”


December 6, 2003, Entertainment, Books
Best Books of 2003
Nonfiction
Passing: When People Can’t Be Who They Are

In six stories that progress through increasing layers of complexity, this intriguing book looks at people who pretend to be what they aren’t — gay instead of straight, white instead of black, female instead of male. They pass to be more truly themselvs. Sometimes the passers in this book cut through passing’s moral and ethical thickets with relative ease. Sometimes not.

Bookmarks on This Year’s Best Books
By Jane Henderson, Book Editor

“All of the men should clean up after Thanksgiving dinner.”
One local mom was tickled when, as homework, her second-grade daughter had todetermine whether that statement, and several others, was “fact” or “opinion.” The girl confidently decided it was “fact.” (And, really, what Thanksgiving hostess would argue?)

A week later, recovering from the sedating effects of stuffing and turkey
tryptophan, Post-Dispatch book reviewers have cleaned up their files and made some hard decisions on their picks for the best books of the year. Confidentlypresented as facts, the annual compilation actually includes, of course, a heavy serving of opinion.

So let’s briefly recap what was fact in this year’s book world:

* J.K. Rowling’s latest, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” made news for the extraordinary length of the children’s story (870 pages) and the record print run (8.5 million).

* In adult fiction, the surprise hit was Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.”

* By the end of the year, many of the best-selling nonfiction books centered on politics, some leaning left, some right. At least two major publishers started conservative imprints. Meanwhile, several authors wrote books critical ofPresident George W. Bush.

* Historic anniversaries (the Wright brothers’ first flight, the Lewis & Clark
expedition) were assessed in several books, with the volumes on the latter due promising to continue next year.

* Writers produced quick analysis of the war in Iraq, and publishers, again,
promise more for the next year.

* Stephen King got a lifetime-achievement award from the National Book
Foundation, spurring debate about whether such recognition rightly belongs to “popular” or “literary” authors (and whether such distinctions are useful). At the award ceremony, he said he had no “use for those who make a point of pride in saying they have never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.

“What do you think,” he asked, “you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?” When fiction winner Shirley Hazzard picked up her National Book Award for “The Great Fire,” she retorted: “I don’t think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction.”

* Meanwhile, Oprah Winfrey’s new concentration on classics (“East of Eden” and “Cry, the Beloved Country”) brought those books some attention. But since she ended her original book club, the best-seller list seems to include far fewer literary titles.

All right, that last statement may be more an impression than fact. Surely some statistician could prove it – if he or she could decide what warranted the “literary” label.

The fact is, most book lovers are not statisticians and are interested in books precisely because they are not easily categorized as fact or fiction, as literary or commercial. Time magazine even claimed last month that there is no such thing as literary or popular categories, just “good” or “bad” books.

Well, that’s helpful. Especially to folks who might need suggestions
for holiday gift buying. So we still try to identify books by some general
categories, while acknowledging that our categories are fluid and our picks of best books somewhat personal. We don’t try to gather reviewers in one room and winnow the list down to the top five or 10 books. Instead, we offer suggestions by two dozen or so readers, whose opinions are based on knowledge and experience. That doesn’t mean every book will appeal to every reader. This list tries to sample both the commercially popular and the defiantly academic.

Our annual selection is always incomplete – there are thousands of worthy books we do not have space to review. We do include a few titles whose complete reviews may not have run in the newspaper yet or were held for lack of space.

And as for whether to read Shirley Hazzard or Stephen King, why pick just one? Read both.

copyright © St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2003

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