The Best of 2007

Voice writers pick their favorite 20 books of the year

A Russian Diary
by Anna Politkovskaya
random house, 369 pp., $25.95

When Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered last year, Vladimir Putin and his cohorts—whose feathers she ruffled with her muckraking reporting, and who may have tacitly approved her assassination—inched ever closer to control of the nation's media and, by extension, its weary citizens. Published posthumously, her searing prose left intact without much editing, A Russian Diary is Politkovskaya's account of the depredations that have occurred since the fall of the Soviet empire, from the dubious war in Chechnya to a Kremlin far more concerned with hegemony than democracy. Writing with an urgency that borders on the fervent, yet never relinquishing the power of the written word, Politkovskaya's entries paint a grim portrait of modern Russia as a place that, having escaped communism, is neither willing nor able to find its footing in the free world. ALEXANDER NAZARYAN


All About H. Hatterr
by G.V. Desani
NYRB Books, 318 pp., $15.95

“Father of the Nation”? Putin’s Russia
Danny Hellman
“Father of the Nation”? Putin’s Russia

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Imagine a schnockered Nabokov impersonating The Simpsons' Apu while reeling off tales of an Anglo-Indian Don Quixote, and you get some sense of Desani's wacko masterwork—a hilarious mix of slapstick misadventure and philosophic vaudeville, voiced in a manic Hindu-accented English so jagged and dense it makes you dizzy. A 1948 bestseller in England, sporadically reissued since then, and now in the NYRB home of the almost-forgotten, the author's only novel follows the idealistic naïf H. Hatterr on his wisdom-seeking quest, in which he encounters (among other nuts) the malaria-mad mystic Giri-Giri, a scheming sage who deals in used clothes, and Charlie, the steak-loving lion. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot's view: It's the goddamn weirdest book you'll ever read. ROBERT SHUSTER


An Elemental Thing
by Eliot Weinberger
New Directions, 194 pp., $16.95

It may be a platitude to say that everything is connected, but it can still be difficult to enact. Eliot Weinberger's unclassifiable book of short, poetic essays spans a nearly inconceivable range of subjects: from a compact biography of Muhammad to a meditation on Greenland ice; from Empedocles' metaphysics of love and strife to transcriptions of birdcalls in Papua New Guinea—and much, much more. It's also a crystalline guide to the history of various cultures and religions. Frequently bordering on the fantastical, the details that Weinberger assembles quick-shift like poetry between metaphors and the literal. Lyrical, deadpan, slyly subversive, and jaw-droppingly erudite, An Elemental Thing puzzles over hardened categories in order to expand an appreciation of all that they inevitably exclude. ALAN GILBERT


The August Wilson Century Cycle
by August Wilson
TCG, 10-volume box set, $200

August Wilson was a big man, a man of solid substance, and the 10 plays that make up his life's work—one for each decade of the 20th century—constitute one of the bigger achievements in American dramatic literature. Now published complete by Theatre Communications Group, with the last two to be written appearing in book form for the first time, the box of 10 hardback volumes makes a parcel of fitting solidity and weight; few contemporary playwrights could match its contents for substance. Wilson's chronicle of a century's changing life in Pittsburgh's Hill District has become a permanent part of American theatrical converse. On the page, it gives off a power redoubled by the reader's ability to pull out an earlier or later volume for comparison, hunting the innumerable buried interconnections that, once discovered, seem to give Wilson's work even greater stature. MICHAEL FEINGOLD


Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila
by Paul Rambali
Serpent's Tail, 315 pp., $20

Equal parts sports biography, political exposé, and probing character study, Barefoot Runner pays vivid tribute to a forgotten chapter of Olympic history. Why should we still care about Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia's first gold medalist? Because his unprecedented back-to-back marathon wins in 1960 and 1964 officially forced the "developed" world to take postcolonial Africa seriously for the first time. Author Rambali's fascination with this royal bodyguard turned world-class athlete revolves as much around Bikila's transforming relationships with his Swedish trainer and the Emperor Haile Selassie as around Bikila himself. The meticulously researched tale of visionary collaboration between three very different men offers unusual insights about Selassie's government and how it might've avoided destruction by class warfare and Cold War poli-tricks. CAROL COOPER


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz
Riverhead Books, 335 pp., $24.95

A decade after his legendary story collection Drown, Díaz seems like a different writer, but just as strong—where the earlier book was dead-serious, gory, and cinematic, Oscar Wao uses a light touch and incisive comedic sensibility to tell the story of a fat Dominican nerd from New Jersey who can't get a date; a Dominican dictator who can't not get a date; an immigrant family creaking and snapping under the weight of both; and a fukú the size of Hispaniola. JAMES HANNAHAM


Christine Falls
by Benjamin Black
Henry Holt & Co., 340 pp., $25

In the proud tradition of Kingsley Amis (a/k/a Robert Markham), Cecil Day Lewis (a/k/a Nicholas Blake), and Stephen Spender (a/k/a Agatha Christie— all right, we made that one up), respectable writer John Banville has commenced writing thrillers under a pseudonym. As Benjamin Black, the Booker Prize–winning Banville made his genre debut with Christine Falls, a Dublin- set novel in which pathologist Quirke investigates the death of a young woman. Satisfyingly plotted and resolved, the book is most remarkable for its shadowed evocation of the 1950's city and the religious, political, and family machinations that made it run. Sinister priests and baby-smuggling rings might tempt lesser men to melodrama, but Black swathes the action in near-Beckettian gloom. ALEXIS SOLOSKI


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