French soul singer Edith Piaf famously said, "Je ne regrette rien." I wish I could say the same (in French or in English). At the beginning of every year, I find myself looking back and inevitably regretting all sorts of things. Most of all, however, I lament all the juicy book topics that came my way in 2004 that I didn't get around to writing about.
MICHAEL CRICHTON BEATS UP ON BAMBI
In State of Fear (HarperCollins, $27.95, 603 pp), his latest thriller, Crichton casts environmentalists as bad guys who team up with terrorists to cause ecological disaster (the environmentalists apparently are hoping the shock will galvanize people into jumping onto their preservationist bandwagon). I would have liked to write a column making fun of such an improbable (and offensive) plot. It could have been the prose equivalent of a Gary Larson cartoon _ you know, the one with two moose driving a car with a hunter-author strapped onto the roof.
A LOCAL AUTHOR'S UNSALTED STORIES
Bill Miles, who has lived and worked as far north as Alaska and as far south as McMurdo, Antarctica, and who finally has come to his senses and lives in the Tampa Bay area, sent me his collection of short stories _ twice. The first copy (and his followup postcards) got lost in the avalanche (a word from cold country that Miles understands well) of books and correspondence that come into my office every day. Last year, many local writers' work didn't get mentioned on these pages, and I truly regret that. Of course, some of them weren't mentioned for good reason: They were terrible. But Miles' collection, Alaska Unsalted: Tales of Life and Death on the Last Frontier (Bear Creek Press, $10.95, 91 pp), is a rare find.
Dedicated to Eckerd College's Sterling Watson, who was Miles' teacher and mentor, the tales are more "unsalted" than "Alaska." Unsalted, not as in "meat not seasoned or cured," "a mine not laced with counterfeit gold" or a "winter road lacking an ice-thawing agent" but as in "stories without pretense." Set in a funeral parlor, a bingo hall and a gay charity ball, they are a delightful (and insightful) look at what makes people tick. My favorite story begins, "I am Sister Damian Aloysius Geoffrey, order of the Servants of Our Lady. I know of no way to begin the story of my violent act except with my name. In the end, of course, you must judge."
THE MYTH OF SOLID GROUND
One of the most fascinating nonfiction books I read this year was David Ulin's The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking, $24.95, 290 pp). It came out in July, and I read it in the midst of all of our Florida hurricanes. It gave me a sense of comfort somehow to know that someone else was grappling with natural disaster and finding it impossible not to conclude that no amount of preparation or fair warning can change the fact that we live our lives on shifting ground. Ulin, who lives in Los Angeles, wrote the book to try to make sense of his posttraumatic reaction to the 1994 Northridge earthquake. He interviewed seismologists (those who study earthquakes and seismic waves), but he also explored the folklore that swirls around the drive to predict when earthquakes will strike. In his journey across California to find an answer, he only raised more questions. But that, in itself, was a sort of answer.
I couldn't help but think of this book when news about a far more horrific earthquake began coming to us out of Asia. Immediately, some California scientists claimed that they had "predicted" the quake _ but their predictions turned out to cover a 10-year period. Such imprecision wouldn't have done much to help warn the tens of thousands who got swept up in the walls of water formed by the quake-driven tsunami, even if anyone had paid more attention to their study. Earthquakes have nothing to do with us, Ulin concluded in The Myth of Solid Ground. They are part of cosmological, not human, time. Or as Tom Henyey, the director of the Southern California Earthquake Center, who was quoted by Ulin, puts it, "The Earth is a huge laboratory, and our experiments . . . are the big earthquakes, and we have to wait for them. That's one of the reasons we move so slowly. We're operating on nature's time scale, and it's very different from the human one."
OXFORD AMERICAN: "WE'RE BACK"
The Oxford American, the Southern magazine of good writing, has had more comebacks than Michael Jordon, and all of them have been just as welcome. The magazine last stopped publishing in July 2003. Born in Oxford, Miss., considered by some the literary capital of the South, the magazine is now being published at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, but it has kept its name (I suppose The Conway American just didn't have the same ring). Editor Marc Smirnoff promises to put out another Southern music edition this summer (always the mag's most popular).
The winter 2005 edition, however, is not too shabby, with essays by Barry Hannah, a column by Kaye Gibbons, humor by Roy Blount Jr. and comics written by Kristin Gore (yes, that Gore) with art by Ellen Forney. And fiction, of course. There are even some hilarious (fake) letters to the editor, including one from the co-chair of "The Silvertip Ladies Circle" in Bayou Mayangelou, La., who wants to know why the 2,129 poems by the club's 13 nonagenarians have not yet been printed.
Please subscribe to the Oxford American this time (www.oxfordamericanmag.com), so I don't have to write another story about the magazine's demise. As Smirnoff, the tireless editor who has seen the magazine through all three breakdowns, says, "I mean either you believe all the way, especially when you're down and out, and despair reigns, or yeah, get the hell out of Fenway.
"And stop saying you love the game."
And speaking of Oxford American, I couldn't look back at 2004 without mentioning the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, which came out in November. The first thesaurus for writers by writers, the volume offers more than 300,000 synonyms and 10,000 antonyms to help us find le mot juste. The list of contributing editors reads like a who's who in American letters, including playwright David Auburn, Washington Post Book World columnist Michael Dirda, essayist Francine Prose, novelist Zadie Smith, author Simon Winchester and megahip writer David Foster Wallace. These wordsmiths and others also provide mini essays on their favorite (or least favorite) words. "Just as the British use "clever' as a backhanded insult, meaning "merely clever, not actually intelligent or thoughtful,' "quirky' is often used to mean "mildly and harmlessly peculiar' with "and totally uninteresting' implied. I hate "quirky' and hate having it applied to my own writing," writes Auburn. "I would rather receive a negative review that didn't use this word than a rave that did."
So there it is. My slate is clean. I'm looking forward to a 2005 filled with books that will guide our way _ or at least entertain us as we lurch forward.