The Year in Books
Slate picks the best books of 2007.
Christine Kenneally, contributor
As soon as I finished Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I asked my husband to read it, I mailed a copy to my mother and sisters, and I insisted that five other friends buy it. The book is unforgettable. Born in Somalia to a conservative Muslim family, Hirsi Ali was raised by a severe mother and a more liberal but often absent father. The family lived through a number of strict regimes, which either endorsed or enforced punishing women for infractions like walking on the street without a man or having an opinion about scripture. When she was five years old, Hirsi Ali's grandmother arranged for her to be clitorectomied without anesthesia. Despite all this, Hirsi Ali flees an arranged marriage and grows into a decorous and indomitable human being. Infidel elated me, and it threw me into a funk: I couldn't stop wondering how someone can develop a mind of her own when government, friends, and family actively try to suppress independence. Completely different books that also made me think about free will and identity were Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley and The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. * I was initially annoyed by both, but only because I had been intending to write a book about neuroscience and brain plasticity. Too bad for me—Begley and Doidge do a great job presenting the recent history of the field.
Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor
The legal books that most changed the landscape this year are probably Charlie Savage's book Takeover, Jack Goldsmith's The Terror Presidency (excerpted in Slate), and Jeff Toobin's The Nine. Each of these books shine much-needed light on how the notion of the rule of law has changed so dramatically in America, and why it has happened with so little comment. Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe is an amazing, illuminating read that rockets around from science to God to politics to love and legend at twice the speed of light. Finally, there's a reason Eat, Pray, Love rocked the best-seller lists this year: Even if you can't quite find your way to the top of the mountain, how lovely to fall in love with the tour guide along the way. Annie Hall meets the Buddha. What's not to love?
Timothy Noah, senior writer"Best" would be pushing it, but the book that gave me the most pleasure in 2007 was published in 1889. I'd been meaning to read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat for decades, having been told repeatedly that it was one of the great comic novels. And so it turns out to be. The plot will not tax your intellect. Three idle Englishmen and a dog named Montmorency, feeling vaguely out of sorts, take a boat trip down the Thames and proceed to demonstrate in various ways the lure of that least-appreciated of seven deadly sins, sloth. The humor, though British to the core, is deliciously reminiscent of Mark Twain at his best; much of Three Men in a Boat reads like Huckleberry Finn would if the latter's more profound themes were removed. Jerome's masterpiece is no match for Twain's (published five years earlier; I have no clue whether Jerome ever read it), and it doesn't aspire to be. But it's just the thing to pull out this holiday season when your nearest and dearest start to drive you mad.
Meghan O'Rourke, literary editor and "Highbrow" columnist
In a year notable for middling contributions by first-rate novelists, Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke stands out. As Slate contributor Jim Lewis noted in the New York Times, it has all "the armor and accoutrements of a Major Novel: big historical theme (Vietnam), semi-mythical cultural institution (military intelligence), long time span (1963-70, with a coda set in 1983), and unreasonable length (614 pages), all of which would be off-putting if this were not, in fact, a major novel."Tree of Smoke is messy and long, but it also has a brio you can't fake, and its off-kilter treatment of the depredations of war seems more relevant than ever. For those daunted by its length, try Angels, an earlier Johnson novel that treats the later picaresque adventures of Bill Houston, also a character in Tree of Smoke.
Meanwhile, for readers interested in poetry—or for urban sophisticates fond of wicked slyness—I'd recommend Frederick Seidel's remarkable Ooga-Booga, which came out late in 2006 but has aged beautifully. Seidel writes about sex, wealth, capitalism, motorcycles, and lewdness with a satiric glint and a catchy music. No wonder the first person to write an Amazon review of Ooga-Booga was a motorcyclist, not a poetry aficionado.
Robert Pinsky, poetry editor I second Ann Hulbert's nomination of A Free Life, Ha Jin's first book set in the United States, which tells the story of a Chinese family remaking themselves as Americans. But it's way more interesting than that may sound: If this cunning work is an "immigrant novel," it transforms the genre. The narrative unfolds on such an intimate, domestic scale, with such urgent, character-driven interest—like a supersubtle, Chinese-American telenovela—that it takes a while to realize that this is also an epic.
Ha Jin's previous novels have been epic in more obvious ways: War and politics disrupt and govern human lives in Waiting, War Trash, The Crazed. In A Free Life, the Tiananmen Square massacre propels the fate of the central character Nan and his family, but the subject is culture itself. In a quiet, yet audacious style—maybe it should be called "magical plainness"?—Ha Jin transforms his account of the family's tribulations, rises, and conflicts by including a thread of artistic ambition. Nan becomes a poet, struggling to write in English, with poems supplied and written by his creator: compelling, flawed, sometimes comical works, slipped in as effectively as plot elements of sex, money, migrations, and returns. The hunger to make art is made so compelling, and so convincingly embedded in the American immigrant experience that poetry, in this story, seems somehow, mysteriously—I swear—to embody American life itself, amplifying the ironies and promises of the words "a free life."
David Plotz, deputy editor Martha Raddatz's The Long Road Home reduces the incomprehensibly enormous disaster of the Iraq war to a human scale. The Long Road Home is the Black Hawk Down of Baghdad, a minute-by-minute account of the U.S. Army's first, catastrophic battle with insurgents in April 2004, told from the point of view of fighting grunts and officers, as well as the wives back at Fort Hood. Like Black Hack Down, it's an incredibly gripping battle story, filled with sublime moments of courage and resourcefulness, and it's all the richer for showing how the events in Iraq upended families at home in Texas. But Raddatz's signal achievement is to capture in real time the moment an easy war suddenly went terribly wrong. She shows us our troops blindsided by a Shiite insurgency they knew nothing about, stranded in neighborhoods they couldn't navigate, set upon by a local population they couldn't remotely understand. It's shattering, a beautiful bummer of a book.
Jody Rosen, music critic
I loved The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography From the Revolution to the First World War, Graham Robb's panorama of the "undiscovered continent" outside Paris that gradually, but never completely, succumbed to the capital's imperial influence. Robb debunks the mythology of a monolithic France profonde, excavating centuries' worth of lost local color, from Pyrenean dancing bears to the hundreds of languages and dialects—Francique, Avranchin, Issorien, Shuadit—which the Abbé Grégoire ordered "exterminated" in the interest of national linguistic unity. Sentimental foodies may be shocked to learn that "for tourists who ventured beyond Paris, the true taste of France was stale bread … fossilized crisps that had to be smashed with a hammer." It's momentous revisionist history, but Robb brings it off with a light touch—in elegant prose, with the authority of a historian who is as much field researcher as bookworm. Robb did much of his investigating on bicycle trips around France: "The itinerary of the cyclist recreates, as if by chance, much older journeys: transhumance trails, Gallo-Roman trade routes, pilgrim paths, river confluences that have disappeared in industrial wasteland, valleys and ridge roads that used to be busy with pedlars [sic] and migrants." I'll return to this book many times, I'm sure—gliding into the past on Robb's two-wheeled time machine.
Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic There are many books published every year about architecture and planning, but few that stand the test of time. One that has, and which I reread this year, is Jane Jacobs' bracingly argued The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961. It's hard to think of a recent book on the subject that has been the object of so much veneration—we are all Jacobites now—although I sometimes wonder at the fervent admiration of planners and architects, since the author consistently and relentlessly repudiates city planning and design. As Roger Montgomery once observed, Jacobs was basically a libertarian conservative who would let market forces determine the shape of the city. (It's worth recalling that her book began as an article in Fortune.) How does Death and Life stand up after almost 50 years? While the book still rings true about the perils of large-scale planning, its author was hardly omniscient. She did not anticipate that private real-estate interests—not planners or municipal officials—would become the major force shaping our cities. Nor did her vision of social and economic diversity play out—most successful urban neighborhoods are wealthy enclaves rather than the rich mixtures of economic classes she advocated.
Amanda Schaffer, "Science" and "Medical Examiner" columnist I did not expect to fall for A Life Decoded, the autobiography of Big Biology's notorious bad boy, Craig Venter, who raced the government to sequence the human genome and infuriated much of the scientific establishment. But the man has stories to tell, and his swaggering self-presentation is riveting, though not necessarily for the reasons he might expect it to be. Venter paints himself as an underachieving beach bum who found focus while serving as a medic in Vietnam, massaging the open hearts of the wounded. Returning home, he remade himself into a star researcher, eventually finding his way to the National Institutes of Health. There, his interests shifted to rapid gene sequencing and he began to butt heads with famous researchers like James Watson, co-discoverer of the double helix. The rest of the story is well-known: Venter left the NIH and used private money to run a competing genome effort (even proposing, with utmost chutzpah, that the government work on sequencing a mouse instead). Venter's mythmaking escalates as the tale progresses. He's still settling scores and trying to refute the notion that he was in it for the money. Still, Venter's aggressive iconoclasm looks better in hindsight. His ideas were groundbreaking, and the sequencing work got done faster than it would have without his provocation. And thanks to his self-aggrandizing drive, we now have an inside look at the braggadocio that can sometimes turn out to be good for humankind.
Laura Shapiro, contributor I like to make sure I have a book by Susan Faludi close at hand at all times, and right now it's The Terror Dream. Faludi has the best eye for evidence I've ever seen in anyone who reports on the vast, verdant field of American misogyny, and to watch her go to work on the sexual politics of 9/11 is invigorating. First she gives a precise, relentless analysis of how the Bush administration and the media rewrote a disastrous failure of leadership, foreign policy, intelligence, and rescue equipment to fit a template that's been around since the 17th century: trembling maidens, dark-skinned assailants, American heroes. The second half of the book is the fascinating back story. Here Faludi traces through history an immensely successful literary genre known as the Indian captivity narrative. Apparently every woman who survived the experience made haste to publish one of these tales, and eventually they were woven into the core mythology of the nation—though not as they were first written. Instead, popular culture over the centuries transformed the tough, resourceful women who wrote the original accounts into helpless victims waiting for John Wayne to show up. Faludi slashes away with gusto at all this historical revisionism, and I was especially happy to see her climb into the ring for a long-overdue bout with Nathaniel Hawthorne. Reader, she mauled him.
June Thomas, foreign editor When I heard that British lesbian-feminist writer Anna Livia had died in her sleep this summer, I rushed to re-acquire her books, which I'd somehow lost over the years. Rereading her fiction, especially the early work written in the 1980s, was like slipping back in time. The short-story collections Incidents Involving Warmth and Incidents Involving Mirth, and her early novels Relatively Norma and Accommodation Offered, are spot-on evocations of the London "women's community" and of how earnest, miserable, and utterly necessary feminist organizing was back then. She was extraordinarily funny without ever making fun of people who didn't deserve it, and her work had a clear, simple moral: Every woman deserves honesty, love, and kindness. That kind of writing has gone out of fashion, which is a terrible shame.
Michelle Tsai, "Explainer" columnist When I quit my job to go freelance, none of my friends could understand why I complained unendingly about working at home instead of at the office: I missed the stupid meetings, the birthday cupcakes, and especially the group procrastination. The next time someone scratches his head at my disgruntlement, I won't say a word—I'll just hand him a copy of Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End. I second Torie Bosch's endorsement of this exuberant debut novel because it demonstrates, with equal parts hilarity and nostalgia, how office life turns out to be both more absurd and more heartbreaking than anyone ever expects.
Jacob Weisberg, editor I've been recommending two books all year: What is the What (published in 2006) by Dave Eggers and Cultural Amnesia by Clive James. The former is an astonishing feat of sympathetic ventriloquism. Eggers channels the voice of the captivating Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng so transparently that you forget there's a third party between you and the terrible story of a boy growing up during a genocide. It's a moving tale about courage and survival in Africa—and also in America. Clive James' book (excerpted in Slate as "Clive's Lives") offers a different kind of humane witness. It's a collection of idiosyncratic sketches of artists, thinkers, and miscellaneous figures, largely considered in terms of how they responded to threats against freedom, mostly in the 20th century. I can't remember when I've learned as much from something I've read—or laughed as much while doing it. Books probably can't make you a better person. But these two might be exceptions.
And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers: Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy, by Dan Gross (excerpted here); If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear, by Melinda Henneberger; God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens (excerpted here); Halflife: Poems, by Meghan O'Rourke; Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, by Witold Rybczynski (excerpted here); and The Ultimate George W. Bushisms: Bush at War (With the English Language), by Jacob Weisberg. Click here to see a complete list of recent books by Slatesters.
Correction, Dec. 14, 2007: Christine Kenneally originally and incorrectly identified the author of The Brain That Changes Itself as Vincent Doidge. The author is actually Norman Doidge. (Return to the corrected sentence.)