The Best of 2007

Voice writers pick their favorite 20 books of the year

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts
by Clive James
W.W. Norton, 768 pp., $35

Cultural Amnesia is possibly the first collection of criticism to deal with both Mao Zedong ("The rediscoveries [of Mao's atrocities] were succeeded by a further forgetting, and the same holds true today") and Tony Curtis ("His Sidney Falco is one of the definitive performances of the American cinema: the galvanic answer to the perennial question of what makes Sammy run"). Not to mention just about everything in between: Mario Vargas Llosa, Dick Cavett, G.K. Chesterton, and Raymond Aron are raised aloft; Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Leon Trotsky take hits from which their reputations will never recover. James is the greatest cultural critic of our time; he's what you'd get if you crossed the DNA strands of Edmund Wilson and Pauline Kael. ALLEN BARRA


Ice by Vladimir Sorokin NYRB, 321 pp., $23.95

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

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Let's be honest: The novel, as a form, is not getting any younger. In an age of staid conventions, few writers have done more to invigorate and expand the possibilities of narrative fiction than Vladimir Sorokin, who has made it is his business, over the past 25 years, to probe and dissect the ulcerated psyche of the Russian people. It's difficult to summarize the plot of Ice, only the second of his novels to be translated into English, without making it sound like the fantasy of a violent and heretical Scientologist. Let's just say there are abductions, millenarian prophesies, and an alien super-race—and that, somehow, it works. GILES HARVEY


The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader Pantheon, 996 pp., $39.95

By all accounts, Kingsley Amis never shut up. Whether he was belching, farting, impersonating animals, or making sounds altogether more civilized, the life of the great comic novelist would appear to have been a roaring cataract of garrulousness. To his son, Martin, he was an "engine of comedy"; Philip Larkin, his closest friend and lifelong correspondent, told him that he "lived in a world of the most perfectly refined pure humour." This new biography, the third to appear since Amis's death in 1996, does a magnificent job of showing us not only the incorrigible joker, but also the womanizing alcoholic who often seemed to relish the tragic spectacle of his own disintegration. GILES HARVEY


The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved
by Judith Freeman
Pantheon, 353 pp., $25.95

If Chandler were alive, Freeman would be in jail as his stalker. In her obsessive study of the novelist's life and work, she has tailed him and his wife (18 years his senior) to the 30 homes they shared around Southern California during 30 years of marriage. As she sits in her car outside the bungalows, shacks, and vacant lots the couple once called home, Freeman, a novelist herself, speculates with exquisite sympathy on the ways that love, alcohol, womanizing, guilt, honor, and—most of all—an acute sense of place (and alienation from place) went into Philip Marlowe, turning his Anglicized American creator into the ultimate L.A. writer. RICHARD B. WOODWARD


No One Belongs Here More Than You
by Miranda July
Scribner, 205 pp., $23 Indie darling Miranda July—best known for her idiosyncratic performance pieces and films, including Me and You and Everyone We Know— furthered her reign as queen of quirk this year with this wonderful debut short-story collection. Each piece, written in a minimalist, first-person voice, explores the basic human need for love and understanding with the delicate mix of humor and heartbreak that is July's specialty. A lonely woman imagines sex with Prince William; elderly people take swimming lessons in a kitchen; an epileptic seizure becomes a lusty moment. Like many of the tales, the beautifully crafted "Something That Needs Nothing," about a teenage girl's route to becoming a peep-show stripper, takes cringeworthy encounters to the max, making it uncomfortable to read but hard to put down. ANGELA ASHMAN

Nobodies
by John Bowe
Random House, 304 pp., $25.95

Slavery is alive and well and living in Florida. Bowe chronicles the ordeals of Mexican migrant workers whose Middle Passage is a cargo van across I-10 to Florida; a group of imported Indian workers who couldn't leave their Oklahoma firm; and women in Saipan, a sweatshop and prostitution heaven. This eye-opening exposé will deprogram anyone who thinks worker abuse and human rights are not urgent, contemporary issues. Bowe writes without sentimentality or preachiness, just keen observation and harrowing detail. JAMES HANNAHAM


Novels in Three Lines
by Félix Fénéon
NYRB, 174 pp., $14

History acknowledges Félix Fénéon (1861–1944) as the editor of Rimbaud's Illuminations, a regular at the Mallarmé salon, and a dashing anarchist who may or may not have detonated a bomb that accidentally deprived the poet Laurent Tailhade of an eye. And now, thanks to a shrewd feat of translation by Luc Sante, Fénéon will be remembered for authoring one of the finest volumes of poetry in 2007. Novels in Three Lines assembles the 1,000-plus faits-divers published throughout 1906 in the Paris daily Le Matin. Fénéon transformed a minor mode of journalism into a major literary art, distilling current events into terse, evocative snapshots: "After a misstep, then tumbling from one outcropping to another, Rouge, a mason, of Serriéres, Savoy, who was picking herbs, fractured his skull." Think of them as the missing link between the meticulous enigmas of Symbolist poetry and the thing-based integrity of Imagism. Read them, preferably in small daily doses, for endless, unnerving beguilement. NATHAN LEE


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