Agree, or don’t.
The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2007 list will be published in the December 9 edition of their Book Review section, and is already online now. It’s an important list; most of the titles traditionally get a bump in sales from all the people looking for book gift ideas.
But not everyone’s taste leans the NYT way, and while we’ve got a lot of admiration for “the gray lady"—especially her commitment to book reviewing and reporting—we beg to differ with some of the choices. So SN&R’s staff critics (which basically amounts to, in addition to the usual suspects, everyone in the editorial department) joined in to offer up our choices for the best books of 2007.
Feel free to argue with us; we’d love nothing more, contentious pack that we are. Or don’t argue, and just take the list along when you go off to do your holiday shopping at the nearest independent local bookstore.
Melinda Welsh‘s picks:
1) The Assault on Reason, Al Gore (Penguin). Gore mounts an evisceration of the Bush presidency and examines why we can’t seem to solve problems in American anymore. Hint: Our national dialogue has gotten utterly bizarre.
2) The Zookeeper’s Wife, Diane Ackerman (Norton). A beautifully written biography-that-reads-like-fiction of Antonia Zabinski, the wife of a zoo keeper in Warsaw who worked for the Polish underground during WWII. The Zabinski’s sheltered hundreds of Jews from the Nazis, hustling them in and out of animal cages at their bombed-out zoo.
3) Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming, Paul Hawken (Viking Press). An optimist discovers an unnamed movement that might save us from ourselves.
4) The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon (HarperCollins). A wonderfully funny and under-appreciated classic by Chabon. Who else would place a Columbo-style cop drama in a fictional Jewish settlement in Alaska?
5) Falling Man, Don DeLillo (Scribner). DeLillo’s mastery of story and language gets us closer to the depth of what happened to us all on 9/11, than any of the other authors who’ve tried.
6) Varieties of Disturbance, Lydia Davis (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Wonderful in its regular brevity and inventive detail, Davis’ “Kafka Cooks Dinner” is especially funny-slash-worthy.
Kel Munger‘s picks:
1) For the Confederate Dead: Poems, Kevin Young (HarperCollins). I just can’t say enough good things about this collection. Young is a remarkable poet; his work here covers so much ground and weaves together so many schools of poetics that he’s redefining American poetry.
2) Back on the Fire: Essays, Gary Snyder (Shoemaker & Hoard). Legendary poet of the Sierras Gary Snyder turns his hand to prose, ranging from polemic to meditation, in this collection of essays. His observations of deep “earth-time” are invitations to humility.
3) Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind, Bruce Watson (Knopf). Clear, concise, readable, and certainly thought-provoking, this is history that lives in the present.
4) Everything You Know About God Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Religion, Ross Kick, editor (The Disinformation Company). This huge anthology ranges from funny to sad to frustrating to absolutely infuriating, but it’s always informative. Worth the price just for the Neil Gaiman version of that weird story in Judges.
5) Tokyo, Year Zero, David Peace (Knopf). This novel of a Japanese detective in the wreckage of post-WWII Tokyo isn’t so much a whodunit as a whoisit. Identity, self-deception, the chaotic aftermath of war keep this murder mystery humming, and Peace wields language like a poet.
6) The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo (Random House). Ever wondered how “just regular folks” end up in grinning poses next to atrocities, whether it’s piles of corpses at Auschwitz or stacked-up detainees at Abu Ghraib? Zimbardo knows. He’s the guy who oversaw the Stanford experiment, in which a group of perfectly “normal” college boys turned into abusive prison guards in a matter of days, necessitating a quick end to the observations. Read this book and lose your sense of moral superiority.
And from Jonathan Kiefer, not a list, but a rant (because he’s the kind of guy who just can’t be saddled with a silly old format):
Yes, the ‘07 fiction harvest brought new DeLillo, new McEwan, new Chabon, new Mailer, new Roth, new Denis Johnson. But you know what? I’m tired of those bullying big shots (No offense, Norman; RIP, old lion). Give me the never-lazy, never-disappointing, never-hyped short fiction of William Trevor. Cheating at Canasta: Stories (Viking) is the latest collection from the so-called “Irish Chekhov,” which is to say, the writer of perfect short stories who happens to be from Ireland and not Russia. These dozen tales are typically exacting and firm and satisfying, with all the Trevor trademarks: the dignity (and indignity) of the ordinary, the richness of real inner life, the dark Irish silence.
In making favorites lists, it’s kind of a no-brainer to single out Sacramento native Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings (Drawn and Quarterly), the graphic-novel compilation of three issues of his comic Optic Nerve. But hey, you could stack a dozen “indie” films on top of each other and still not equal Tomine’s keen observation, epigrammatic characterization, rhythmic storytelling, elegant imagery and dark, rueful humor. It’s about young, selfish urbanites screwing up their own and each other’s lives. What’s not to love? Here’s my Q-and-A with Tomine from October.
Or, for another souvenir from the frontier between words and images, how about Claudia J. Nahson’s The Art of William Steig (Yale University Press)? That’s right, it was he who originated Shrek, though you’d never know it from the movies. Steig also wrote and drew the children’s book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, which broke my heart when I was young and still does, plus much more. For more than 70 years, within the cranky whimsy of his calculatedly unstable lines, Steig synthesized the urbanity of his New York upbringing with the weird, hilarious, eastern-European sensibility inherited from his Jewish immigrant parents. This vivid, conversational portrait reveals, among other things, “one of his central insights—there is much to be dissatisfied with in the word.” Um, yeah. Plus, there’s a foreword by Maurice Sendak.
I’d been waiting for and was delighted by the arrival of Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). This one feels a lot like a new classic. In my experience, people of Icelandic ancestry have excellent taste. Alex Ross isn’t Icelandic in any way, but some of his appreciators are. Take Björk, who called Ross’ book “incredibly nourishing.” Or my colleague Edward Dunn, who called him “irrepressible.”
That’s exactly it: Ross writes on twentieth-century composers and what they mean to us (yeah, even you) with such vigor and beauty and joy that the learning-averse, lowbrow-chic mafia can pretty much kiss his ass. Great stuff; “edifying,” as Ed says.
Which brings me to Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts, by the unrepentant highbrow Clive James (Norton). This hefty 876-page tome amounts to a syllabus, yes, but what a syllabus. Can any book written in this or any year provide as direct a route to real enlightenment as James’ assembly of wise, funny, passionate, personal, erudite, creative, curious, humanist biographical sketches of relevant cultural figures from the past hundred-odd years? To take a random-sample handful of its subjects, there’s Freud, Duke Ellington, Beatrix Potter, Tony Curtis, Anna Akhmatova, and G.K. Chesteron, who coined what would seem to be Cultural Amnesia‘s modus operandi: “to set a measure to praise and blame, and to support the classics against the fashions.” This book serves my craft, my life.