07 January 2008

Top Books of 2007

When the Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2007 came out at the beginning of December, I had read exactly 1, and it was Harry Potter. (I read another, Call Me By Your Name, just before 2008.) I don't tend to read a lot of books the year they come out. Occasionally (Indecision) it's to avoid the hype, but usually it's because I live under a little rock, and get my books from friends' bookshelves and recommendations that send me to the library. I don't read lots of *old* books, just not brand spankin' new. But I read pretty much constantly (as in, I'm always in the midst of some book, not, sadly, that I'm constantly reading it), and this year I read a lot of wonderful things. A few not-so-wonderful things - I've said it before and I'll say it again: "The Emperor's Children is full of thin, flat, frustratingly shallow characters, and had a manipulative, forced ending," and Bee Season ruined a really fantastic first 9/10ths with an ending I just couldn't handle - but a few books that really blew me away. I didn't read enough (just 25 and a half,* though one was 1006 pages long!) to produce a top ten, but here are five, and then some.

Top 5 Books, 2007 (in the order in which I read them)

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. I read this book right on the heels of seeing Jesus Camp, and it was a powerful combination. I was a solid agnostic beforehand, and still am, but this book made me passionate, and proselytizing. Despite a few (very few) dodgy leaps of logic, it's a remarkably well-argued book. It also introduced me to my favorite alternative to the Church of the FSM:

The journalist Andrew Mueller is of the opinion that pledging yourself to any particular religion 'is no more or less weird than choosing to believe that the world is rhombus-shaped, and borne through the cosmos in the pincers of two enormous green lobsters called Esmerelda and Keith.'
Sometimes, so am I.

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead. There's something elusive about this book, something like getting the story through smoke or fog. There are books you watch like movies, books you swim in (see below), and there are books that are like remembering a dream. This is a book that's like remembering a dream, set in a sort-of-1950s sort-of-New-York, a little noir and a little magical, and also some racial themes if that's your sort of thing. My sort of thing is beautiful writing, captivating mystery, and confident story-telling and world-creating. Also, elevators were magical for about a week after I finished. This book is amazing.

Harry Potter and the Whatever the Last Book Was, by JK Rowling. Yeah yeah yeah, I know. This won for the coveted fifth spot on the list over The Broom of the System, a decision I'll never be 100% okay with. I've always loved the Harry Potter books, from reading the first two in one day. (I was working at Barnes & Noble when the fourth book came out, and after working the midnight release party, I thought, Maybe there's something to this.) I've always loved these books, but this one took things to a new level. [If you haven't read this book, you probably don't care about spoilers, but if you deal with Harry Potter the way I deal with DVR'd "Project Runway," stop reading and just know that you have a fantastic book waiting for you.] The way Snape's character played out was beautiful and ambiguous and a kind of sophisticated writing and characterization that was new to the series. Yes, the culmination of the series was important, for the reading habits of millions of eight-year-olds, and for every individual reader who loved these characters for howevermany hundreds of pages, but whatever. Just for when I realized, after the fact, why Snape told Harry to look him in the eye as he (Snape) died, and the terrible sadness of that realization, this book makes the list.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith. What I said before about there being some books you want to swim in? This is the book I was talking about. One of the best examples of what a novel can do, the psychological and emotional insight into multiple characters and stories, the weaving, purposefully meandering narrative, that you can't get like this from any other medium. The way this book flows between characters is... is the kind of thing that makes me sit staring at a blinking cursor, unable to explain how awesome it is. This book is fucking awesome. There.

Call Me By Your Name, by André Aciman. After I finished Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (1006 pages!), I asked James what I should read. I almost always go to James for books, but I usually peruse his shelves, see what strikes my fancy, see what fits my mood. This time I just asked him to bring me a book. I don't know if it was the cover (orange?) or the size (slim), but I wasn't feeling it. Until about the fourth paragraph, when the slippery sense of time kicked in, and then the circling, returning musing that gives the book its strange, breath-held momentum, and I was sold. Despite an ever-so-slightly wonky ending, this book knocked me out. (This book is somewhere between swimming in it and living it, and living it as if you're dreaming the character is you.) It evokes infatuation with a power that made it a little hard to breathe, and when I wasn't desperately longing to be in love with someone like that, I was desperate to be in Italy, which also gets its fair share of almost pornographically sensual description.

Honorable Mentions:
The Namesake
The Broom of the System
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Fun/Informative/Terrifying/Depressing Back-to-Back Nonfiction Reading:
Fast Food Nation
The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved

This was a really good year for reading. It's the first time I've kept track of a year's books, so I can't really compare, but to have read so many astoundingly good novels all in one year feels special. If there's that much good writing out there that I can do this every year, then this world is a wonderful, lucky, beautiful place.

*Letter Perfect; The Emperor's Children; The God Delusion; Little Children; Kafka on the Shore; Stardust; The Namesake; The Intuitionist; Eat Drink and Be Healthy; [half of] Shakespeare Alive!; Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; The Broom of the System; apartment therapy; Bee Season; Fast Food Nation; On Beauty; Thursday Next: First Among Sequals; The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America's Underground Food Movements; The Golden Compass; The Subtle Knife; The Amber Spyglass; Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell; Death & Taxes: Hydriotaphia & other plays; Call Me By Your Name


Isaac said...

My god, I love Zadie Smith. Have you read WHITE TEETH? That's my favorite of hers. I also liked THE AUTOGRAPH MAN.

Adam said...

That's just absurd. There are no such things as green lobsters. Esmerelda and Keith are crayola-red, and anyone who says otherwise is a heathen.

Your blurb has, however, sold me on The Intuitionist. There are no elevators in my life here, but I'll risk missing the magic and give it a go as soon as I finish the two I've been juggling. I hate having more than one book going at once...it's dizzying...and I think a third might cause my brain to implode.

anna said...

i'm four fifths of the way through cloud atlas and totally enamored of it. and i have this little voice (my memory?) saying, wasn't jaime crazy for this a few years back?

Jaime said...

Isaac - On Beauty is the only Zadie Smith I've read so far. I've heard not-so-hot things about The Autograph Man, though. But at least White Teeth, definitely.

Adam - Reading more than one book at a time is insanity. I never believe people who say they do that.

Anna - Yes! Well, I loved *parts* of Cloud Atlas. That middle section was entirely frustrating. But he's an amazing writer. Black Swan Green and even his earlier and kinda batshit crazy Number9dream are both fantastic.

Briel said...

White Teeth is really very good. Different from On Beauty which I wasn't crazy about as much. But read White Teeth - and I bet you a dollar that you'll have to blog about it in January of 2009.

Anonymous said...

Call Me By Your Name affected me exactly as you described and I have not fully recovered still-a year later. My best book of the year.