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

Details

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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


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

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


Petropolis
by Anya Ulinich
Viking, 324 pp., $24.95

Anya Ulinich's Petropolis is a coming-of-age story, a novel about outsiderness, about being a Jew and an immigrant, a Lost Girl trying to find the father who left when she was a child. That Ulinich steers clear of sentimentality may seem like a minor miracle. It's the real trick of Petropolis, and she pulls it off by sending her heroine—an awkward, intelligent teenager from Siberia who becomes a mail-order bride—on a comic odyssey through a United States populated almost entirely by desperate characters. Among Ulinich's talents are inventiveness and a light touch with dark material. But it's her remarkable observations of both Russian and American culture that make this one of the debuts of the year. EMILY WEINSTEIN


The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
by Naomi Klein
Metropolitan Books, 558 pp., $28

In The Shock Doctrine, journalist Klein trains her sharp investigator's eye upon the flaws of neoliberal economics. This meticulously researched alternative history, ranging from economist Milton Friedman's "University of Chicago Boys" to George W. Bush, brings Klein's argument into the present. Using stirring reportage, she shows the ways that disasters— unnatural ones like the war in Iraq, and natural ones like the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina—allow governments and multinationals to take advantage of citizen shock and implement corporate-friendly policies: Where once was a Sri Lankan fishing village now stands a luxury resort. The Shock Doctrine aims its 10-foot-long middle finger at the Bush administration and the generations of neocons who've chosen profits over people in war and disaster; the effect is to provide intellectual armor for the now-mainstream anticorporatist crowd. LENORA TODARO


Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector
by Mick Brown
Knopf, 453 pp., $26.95

That lovin' feeling, of course, is gone, gone, gone. Rock 'n' roll's most bombastic and mercurial architect remains a deeply unhappy man who made everyone around him deeply unhappier, dismissed as a volatile recluse long before the murder trial and the mesmerizing knife-in-the-light-socket Afro he flaunted in the courtroom. He's now both a golem and a laughingstock, but as pop, and pop culture, evolved from the Ronettes to the Beatles to the Ramones, he was also a majestic, unquenchabletalent, and Brown's prodigious bio treats all three sides of the coin with equal respect. Painstakingly researched and elegantly written, Tearing Down will make you glad you never met Phil, and yet grateful for the unimpeachable tunes that compose the legacy he's all but pissed away. ROB HARVILLA


Varieties of Disturbance
by Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 219 pp., $13

In this National Book Award–nominated collection, the typical story— or is it a poem?—concerns a mind thinking one thing . . . and then another thing. Then a third. Not some ordinary mind, fortunately, but the charming, witty, and neurotic MacArthur "genius" grant–winning brain of Lydia Davis. Her genre-stomping vignettes are rooted in activities as mundane as letting the cat in or checking the answering machine, but they always reach out to reveal the profundities hiding behind our furniture. JAMES HANNAHAM


What the Dead Know
by Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 376 pp., $24.95

Though Lippman is best known to contemporary crime-fiction buffs as author of the quirky, low-key Tess Monaghan series, it's her too-infrequent, superior stand-alone novels that assure her place in the pantheon. What the Dead Know ? tells of the sudden, seemingly inexplicable reappearance of one of a pair of teenage sisters who went missing at a suburban shopping mall decades ago. Now one of them is back—but is she really Heather, as she claims, or a clever imposter? And where is sister Bethany? Lippman's engrossing story is more than an intricate, protracted puzzle-plot, though, thanks to her keen eye for telling detail and compassion for her often-troubled characters. Like Ruth Rendell or Robertson Davies at their most deceptively prosaic, Lippman shines most when it appears she's trying least. LD BEGHTOL


The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon
HarperCollins, 432 pp., $26.95

The joys of Yiddish are plentiful, not least for inspiring Michael Chabon's absorbing novel The Yiddish Policemen's Union, apparently sparked by a copy of Dover's Say It in Yiddish. Chabon imagines a Jewish state, not in Israel but in Sitka, Alaska, a frozen plain bestowed upon the refugees during World War II and now about to revert back to U.S. control. As Chabon's wiseguy hero, Detective Meyer Landsman, muses, it's "a strange time to be a Jew." Chabon adorns his involving mystery with nuanced characters and one-liners as good as Hammett's. As overstuffed as a blintz, the book may falter toward the end, but it's vunderlekh all the same. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

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