Thursday, December 13, 2007

Best books of 2007

This year had a lot of great books in it. I discovered Joan Didion and read a bunch of her stuff; I read three Richard Fords, whom I have loved since college; and I read a bunch of books from the middle of the century that showed that there is never really anything new under the sun. And of course The Road, which was utterly harrowing and technically amazing. Of all the books I read, these were my favorites (in chronological order):

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman
The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Interloper by Antoine Wilson
The Emporer's Children by Claire Messud
Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks
Stoner by John Williams
The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
Butcher's Crossing by John Williams
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The Innocent Man by John Grisham

Of those, my absolute favorites would be Stoner, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

I hadn't heard of John Williams until New York Review of Books started republishing his novels in extremely good-looking editions. I read two of his books this year and both made it to my list. He writes so cleanly, with such economy, about things I don't know a thing about. Stoner was about the life of a man who grew up in the midwest and became an English professor out there in the first half of the 1900s, adopting a career that his farmer parents can't understand. The book is short, but swiftly covers events in his entire life. To tell the truth, his life is somewhat sad in many ways -- bad marriage, alienated from his kid, thwarted at work by academic politics. But his stoicism, and passion for his work, and sheer resilience become admirable, and by the time the book ends you're left a surprising affection for this poor old sack of a man, who by then seems no less than heroic. This book reminded me of The Namesake, and I devoured it over three days in August. Amazing.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem was better than all the other Didion stuff I read this year; she was reporting on the counterculture of the 1960s as an open but skeptical observer, writing with such intelligence and humor and creativity. I've tried to copy her style at times here, like when I wrote about the JT concert over the summer. The highlight of the book was the final essay, "Goodbye To All That," about her departure from New York -- when she realized her time as a young adult in the city was inevitably winding down. It rang extremely true and seemed like an prophesy as well as an elegy.

Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
was simply amazing. I wrote about it in January when I was reading the book. I admired Murakami's gutsiness and bizarre creativity -- who knew you could be so weird in mainstream fiction? Yet the work is consistent and believable and emotional. I find his protagonists so easy to relate to, despite their troubles and dabbles in magical realism. I'm really glad I found him and have plenty of books to catch up on.

A great year of reading. For our trip to wintry Armenia in a couple weeks, L and I have stacked up on the Russians: she'll be tackling the new translation of War and Peace, and I'll be filling an embarrassing gap in my knowledge by taking on Crime and Punishment. I hear both books are breezy and hilarious. Happy New Year!

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