The Year’s Best Reading (Part Two)

As the turn of the year approaches, we’ve asked our contributors to share with us the books — whether new or old — that provided their richest reading experiences in 2007. (Click here for Part One of The Year’s Best Reading)

The book that has captivated my reading attention this year is Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West’s remarkable 1941 account of her journeys through Yugoslavia in the preceding decade. At more than 1,200 pages, it is an enormous, imaginative, profoundly intelligent exploration of history, politics, landscape, philosophy, and human nature. It is as well an unparalleled personal narrative in which memory, observation, rumination, and learning are woven into a tapestry of eloquence that is both compelling and magnanimous.

Romance Book of the Year: Readers of genre novels know exactly how a book will end. Only the very best authors can surprise them, for example, by creating a Hamlet who delays in the middle of a standard revenge tragedy. Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Natural Born Charmer is that romance novel: one that surprises the reader into thinking that the genre promise will fail. She opens with a woman in a beaver costume and $18 to her name, hitching a ride from a football player/underwear model in an Aston Martin. Costume off, the woman, Blue Bailey, wears black muscle shirts and biker boots; the gridiron star, Dean Robillard, wears Prada aviators. They’re beyond the odd couple. “Makeup,” Dean says. “What happened? You look almost female.” “Thanks,” she shoots back. “You look almost straight.” Their conversations are screamingly funny, from-the-trenches warfare. Yet by the end we’re aching for the pairing to work. Like any brilliant romance, Natural Born Charmer fulfils its genre promise in spades: making us remember — and honor — our pleasure in happy endings.

Charles Bukowski, Living on Luck: Selected Letters 1960s-1970s, Vol. 2. I love the poetry of Charles Bukowski. I love the fiction of Charles Bukowski. I love the recorded voice of Charles Bukowski. I love the whole legend of Charles Bukowski. But what I really, really love are his letters. In these pages we find the raw, essential man without even a minimal public fa?ade. Writing to friends, publishers, fans, lovers, and fellow authors, Bukowski is alternately warm and chilly, despairing and ebullient, romantic and cynical, mercenary and high-minded. Working stiff, drunk, artist, layabout, self-promoter, self-denigrator, he gushes forth unmediated stream-of-consciousness fantasias and reportage, all utterly stripped of cant or delusion. As a freelance writer myself, I find his situation (here in Volume 2, he’s at last getting some deserved success) and his reactions to his plight to be utterly exemplary, a shining beacon amid all the marketplace and academic bogs. I want to quote nearly every sentence, but here are just three, from the letter dated October 6, 1962: “Yes, the giants are gone and it makes it a little tougher when you stare down at the white paper. Before the death of the giants you used to think, well, they don’t expect anything from me anyhow. Now there is this hole and the hole must be filled and we don’t know how it will be done or who will do it.”

This time next year, Sam Mendes’s adaptation of Revolutionary Road will hit theaters, reuniting Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who played Titanic‘s doomed lovers a decade ago. Here, they are Frank and April Wheeler, doomed lovers of an entirely different stripe. If you haven’t read Richard Yates’s biting critique of postwar suburbia, published in 1961, do it now, before the movie comes out. The novel is unsettling and bleak, but also bleakly funny — a perfect winter read.

Two new books I enjoyed this year didn’t get the attention they deserved. Hartsburg, USA, the second novel by David Mizner, uses a school board race in a fictional Ohio town to dig beneath the tired dichotomies (conservative/liberal, religious/secular, red state/blue state) that flatten political discourse. It manages to be funny, compassionate, and relevant all at once. Jennifer Block’s Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care investigates the rise of C-sections and induced births in American hospitals; it’s a revealing read, highly recommended for parents-to-be.

Of all the books I read in the last 12 months, three stand out for one reason: they had character. More precisely, they had characters. The authors of these fictions so carefully, lovingly crafted their imaginary people that, for the space of a few hundred pages, they became as real as the person next to me on the subway. A Miracle of Catfish, the last novel by Mississippi writer Larry Brown, was still unfinished at the time of his fatal heart attack in 2004, but longtime editor Shannon Ravenel patched together the pieces, and now we have a “novel in progress” that turns out to be Brown’s southern-fried masterpiece. The book sprawls across a year in the life of about a dozen characters, including 72-year-old Cortez Sharp, who digs a pond and fills it with catfish; a down-on-his-luck fellow named Tommy, who runs a fish-stocking business and who secretly slips a giant catfish into Cortez’s pond; eight-year-old Jimmy, who lives down the road from Cortez and whose sole happiness in life is riding his new Go-Kart; and Jimmy’s daddy, a factory worker stuck in the rut of blue-collar depression. Eventually, these lives — not to mention that of Ursula, the Moby-Dick of catfish — intersect in ways great and small.

The trio of characters in my other favorite novel of the year, Ron Carlson’s Five Skies, also demonstrate what happens when strangers collide, as three men spend a summer building a motorcycle stunt ramp at the edge of a remote river gorge in Idaho. It’s a patiently moving narrative about the value of hard work and the way flawed men come to grips with their personal demons. Rebecca Barry’s “novel in stories,” Later, at the Bar, may wear a Cheers-like veneer, but don’t let that fool you. Her characters — patrons of a bar in Upstate New York — are frequently as funny as sitcom comedians, but they’re also filled with the weepy pathos of jukebox ballads: failed marriages, one-night stands, scrapes with the law, terminal illness, loneliness, and pent-up anger. Barry’s debut succeeds largely on the merits of her pared-down style and her obvious love for the characters she’s created. As a reader, I shared that love.

An erudite but engaging history told in beautifully crafted prose, Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century is easily the most recommendable volume on the classical music of modern times. Ross, a staff writer for The New Yorker, weaves a fascinating tale, deftly challenging established narratives while placing music squarely within the century’s calamitous history. If you’re proficient in Pollock and Pound but don’t know Schoenberg from Shostakovich, this is the book for you.

In contrast to Ross’s evenhanded approach, Charlie Savage’s Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy declaims its point of view on the cover. Savage has impeccable credentials — a summa cum laude degree from Harvard, for starters — and he’s produced a work that combines skillful reportage with an alarming message. I came away gravely concerned for the welfare of our Constitution, and you too will find much to ponder in this political page-turner.

Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Filled with enough ideas for three novels, this tale of Jews in Alaska — in an alternate history in which Israel didn’t make it — is full of characters trying to hold onto a world that’s melting before their eyes, like snow on their boots. The elegiac tone is countered by characters like the leading schlemiel, Meyer Landsman — and by Chabon’s obvious joy in the Yiddish language. Sure, the plot goes off the rails three-quarters of the way through, but Chabon redeems himself with a lovely feat of literary sleight-of-hand in the book’s final pages, transforming the titular organization of his book from a tattered labor collective to the hopeful cleaving of two Jews.

Also worthy: $8228.40 and a Metrocard. Since 2002, Dororthy Gambrell (the brilliant Internet cartoonist responsible for “Cat and Girl”) has been accepting donations of five dollars and up: send her money, and she’ll send you a cartoon of how she spent it. The collected drawings, surprisingly, make for an autobiography as compelling (and financially obsessed) as The Andy Warhol Diaries.

I am not, by nature, a foodie. My life has proceeded without ever reducing a sauce or even braising a piece of meat. That all seemed so complicated, particularly when I could just throw some ingredients into a large, bowl-like object, stir it around a bit, and call it a meal. But I am a bookworm, and this year, David Kamp’s history of the American food movement, The United States of Arugula, used that point of entry to, for better or for worse, raise my culinary consciousness. Kamp’s book begins with America’s first French restaurant and ends with Wolfgang Puck, and Mario Batali, and sushi, and free-range chicken, and the Food Network. Along the way, it offers capsule biographies of every major chef, primers on most of the major restaurants, and in-depth explorations of nearly all the fads. In doing so, it gives a major but oft-unexamined aspect of life a rollicking history and fascinating context. It actually makes eating more fun.

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. Beah returned to his Sierra Leone village one day to find it under attack by anti-government rebels. He saw his friends and neighbors fleeing in terror. Beah ran away, too. He roamed the war-torn countryside seeking food and safety. The Sierra Leone Beah vividly describes is pockmarked by abandoned villages and strewn corpses, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. At age 13, Beah was forcibly conscripted into the Sierra Leone army, handed an AK-47, plied with cocaine, and trained to kill. About his brainwashing, Beah writes, “Killing had become a daily activity.” Rescued by UNICEF, Beah underwent psychological rehabilitation, gradually getting beyond the nightmares of war and grieving the loss of his family and childhood. Beah ultimately leaves his devastated homeland, beginning a harrowing journey that ends in New York City. Anyone wanting to understand the human consequences of war would be wise to read Ishmael Beah’s horrific, unforgettable odyssey.

Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner. Legacy of Ashes is an exhaustive, eye-opening, and infuriating history of an agency acting in secrecy and without accountability. Two-time Pulitzer winner Weiner presents a bleak narrative of bungled covert operations, blatant criminality, systemic lying to the president and public, interagency squabbling, and breathtaking incompetence. The CIA has been repeatedly surprised by world events, including China’s intervention in the Korean War, Castro’s relationship with the Soviets, the Iranian Revolution, the rise of militant Islam, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and more. Weiner concludes with three critical questions that still haunt the agency: “How do you run a secret intelligence service in an open democracy? How do you serve the truth by lying? How do you spread democracy by deceit?” After six decades of CIA disasters, meticulously described by Weiner, we’re still waiting for answers.

Fire on the Prairie by Gary Rivlin. This past November marked the 20th anniversary of the death of Harold Washington, the first African-American mayor of Chicago, and one of the most fascinating politicians of the second half of the 20th century. The anniversary prompted me to return to one of my favorite political books of all time, Fire on the Prairie, a chronicle of the Washington years written by reporter Gary Rivlin. The book is about much more than the feuds and fights of local politics in the City of Big Shoulders. It’s a book that’s ultimately about the fraught relationship between our tribal impulses of communal solidarity and the vision of a multiracial democracy. It’s about the limits and potential of ethnic politics and the political perils and challenges of civil rights north of the Mason-Dixon Line. With just the right mixture of empathy and critical distance, Rivlin tells a tale little known outside Chicago, but one that bears profoundly important lessons for everyone who aspires to live in a functioning democratic society.

Javier Marias is one of those authors who, for reasons mysterious, has never gotten the attention he deserves on American shores. The Spaniard’s 1992 novel A Heart So White, in particular, has pulled off a rare feat: it is a masterwork of suspense in which, paradoxically, relatively little happens. Like so many of Marias’s narrators, his protagonist Juan is by profession an interpreter; he makes his living off of the inadequacies of language. The plot hinges on the long-ago suicide of Juan’s aunt, who was also (and I swear it’s less convoluted than it sounds) the previous wife of Juan’s charismatic father Ranz. Theirs is a father-son relationship fraught with ambivalence, and Marias captures brilliantly how words can be agents of secrecy rather than clarity. Still, more memorable even than the facts of the story is Marias’s ability to reduce the experience of time to its barest elements. His genius is that he achieves an almost infinite fracturing of the story’s action without ever sacrificing narrative tension. Sentences, full of Marias’s signature winding parentheticals and incantatory repetition (in this case, the titular refrain is borrowed from Macbeth), manage to capture the actual logic of the mind as it unfolds in time – that inward, insidious burrowing of unwanted revelation.

Three books stand out in memory. First, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, which is not only very funny and very smart but compares to Henry Roth’s work in how brilliantly it transposes the logic and cadences of a foreign language — in both cases Yiddish — into English.

Then there was Doris Kearns Gooodwin’s Team of Rivals, a superb study of Lincoln’s relationships with the men he first defeated for the Republican presidential nomination and then appointed to major cabinet positions. My pleasure was enhanced by watching the current GOP aspirants flail away at each other with far less bonhomie.

And finally, an oldie, Out of the Night, by Jan Valtin. A bestseller when it first appeared in 1941, it traces the author’s life as a Commmunist revolutionary and Comintern agent organizing dock strikes around the world and serving in many prisons before becoming a disillusioned party renegade and fleeing from Hitler’s and Stalin’s hit men. A remarkable slice of life and death.