The Year in Books
Slate picks the best books of 2007.
Michael Agger, associate editor We can't very well expect books to change our lives, but they should certainly poke us now and then. Tom Hodgkinson's The Freedom Manifesto, a sequel to his cult classic How To Be Idle, presents its credos as a lark: Play the Ukulele! Death to the Supermarkets! Stop Moaning! Fling Open Your Doors! But the joshing tone belies a work of crafty scholarship and radical intent. Hodgkinson leafs through various malcontent movements including the Stoics, the situationists, and the back-to-the-landers to "bring three strands of thought together into a philosophy for everyday life; these are freedom, merriment, and responsibility." (Hodgkinson is an existentialist.) He finds his intellectual groove in a bohemian appreciation of the medieval, a time when workers had autonomy, beer was spiced with berries, and merchants were looked down upon as ungodly and crude. This is amusing stuff, and occasionally jolting. I can think of no other book where Marx is correctly labeled a trustafarian and Catholics are praised for their ability to party. It's also a book arriving at an opportune time, as another British import, The Office, has enhanced America's appreciation for the absurdity of work. Hodgkinson's manifesto is, in my estimation, the show's missing manual.
Arthur Allen, contributor Good Germs, Bad Germs, Jessica Snyder Sachs'enthralling synthesis of research into the nasty and nice bugs that inhabit our bodies by the trillions, gives the best explanation I've seen of the "hygiene hypothesis." That's the notion, born in 1989 with David Strachan's article in the British Medical Journal, that the absence of common early-childhood diseases has caused children's immune systems to go haywire, leaving them more susceptible to asthma and other allergic disorders. Sachs fills in the picture with a vivid account of how sanitation, vaccines, and antibiotics have "partially restored humanity's pre-civilized state of health" by reducing the lifetime burden of inflammation—but at a price. The downside is that public health and scientific medicine did their job by "crudely sweeping away life's harmless, immune calming bugs along with the disease causing, inflammatory ones. The result appears to be a redirection of immune aggressiveness to the 'imagined' threats in allergens, and perhaps the body's own health cells." As Sachs effectively moves through the scientific literature, she shows that for good, allergy-free health, we don't need a revival of infection; we do need exposure to colonies of nonpathogenic bacteria, which help produce a "biochemistry of tolerance." The important thing, as Sachs quotes Nobel laureate Josh Lederberg as saying, is to start "thinking of a human as more than a single organism. It's a superorganism that includes much more than our human cells."
Reza Aslan, contributor Ed Husain is one of the most gentle, unassuming souls you could meet. So it comes as a bit of a shock to read The Islamist, the gripping memoir of his years as an active member of a radical religious group in the United Kingdom. The book tells the story of a shy, deeply spiritual, British-born South Asian boy who, like so many of his peers, turns his back on the apolitical Muslim faith of his parents' generation in favor of the more politically active Islam of radical movements like Hizb-u Tahrir.
Husain gradually becomes one of the movement's principal recruiters, rallying other young British Muslims like himself to transform England into an Islamic state ruled by Shariah law. Ironically, Husain's journey toward puritanical fanaticism comes to a halt after he travels to Saudi Arabia and glimpses for himself what a society built upon Shariah actually looks like. Only then is he able to reconcile his identity as a Brit and as a Muslim, which leads him to a deeper, truer understanding of his faith. This is a wonderful book, one that, in some ways, functions as a who's-who of Islamic radicalism in the United Kingdom. What's more, by recounting his personal experiences inside radical Islam, the book goes further in addressing the question of why so many young British Muslims are turning toward Islamism than the dozen or so academic tomes recently published on the subject.
Emily Bazelon, senior editor During what he calls the "unhappy years" from 2002 to 2006, David Shulman, an Israeli professor at Hebrew University, did some of the harder work of his country's peace movement: clashing with police and settlers to deliver food and medical supplies to Palestinian villages. In his excellent record of these years, Dark Hope, Shulman vividly describes the small bands of Palestinians who live in caves in the Hebron Hills. While they try to tend sheep and goats, as their people have for centuries, Jewish settlers scatter tiny blue-green pellets of poison amid the grazing grounds. Shulman bears "moral witness" to such misdeeds, Avishai Margalit writes in this provocative review. The author knows that the Palestinians also "stagger under a burden of folly and crime," but says, "my concern in these pages is with the darkness on my side." By making Israeli culpability his unrelenting focus, Shulman, who immigrated to Israel from Iowa in 1967, provides abundant evidence to support his argument that Israel's occupation is self-destructive and morally corrosive. It's a sober account, and not exactly fun to read, but all too instructive.
Christopher Benfey, art critic I've been dipping into two offbeat books that combine cleareyed reportage with exotica run wild. Félix Fénéon, an art critic who hobnobbed with Mallarmé, spent much of 1906 writing miniature summaries of news items to fill out newspaper columns. Assembled by his longtime mistress, and tautly translated by Luc Sante, Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines is violent, ironic, and sometimes just plain weird: "Frogs, sucked up from the Belgian ponds by the storm, rained down upon the streets of the red-light district of Dunkirk." More slithering lowlife can be found in Judith Magee's luminous The Art and Science of William Bartram. Long before Audubon, Bartram wandered through Cherokee outposts and Florida river basins, circa 1776, filling his notebooks with quasi-surrealist renderings of bobolinks and frolicking alligators. Bartram's pictures are beautifully reproduced in Magee's volume, and she makes a good case for his scientific expertise. It's easy to see why Bartram's idiosyncratic work stoked the feverish fantasies of Coleridge and Wordsworth.
Paul Berman, contributor One of the great things about New York is that, during the last 75 years, the city has generated its own brand of arts criticism. This style came out of Partisan Review and the 1930s intellectual scene, and has always rested on a set of instincts, habits, and principles, to wit: a conversational prose; a disdain for academic fads; a belief that any given field of art naturally blends into the other fields; a belief that arts criticism touches on the philosophy of history; an easy acquaintance with continental Europe; an allergic hostility to totalitarian doctrines and people who march in parades; a love for the high-innovation American arts; and a dislike for the sappy, the fake, and the sentimental.
Such has been the tradition, which is doing better than you might suppose right now. Alex Ross has just made a first-rate contribution to it, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, his episodic history of modern art music, which also happens to be (this is my point) a history of more than music: a history of the spirit of the century. If you read Ross' book together with New Art City, a book from two years ago by Jed Perl, the New Republic art critic—two encyclopedic surveys by critics with different sensibilities, Perl more astringent, Ross more genial—the whole modern era spreads before you, as seen from New York.
Torie Bosch, religion editor With The Office's current season likely cut short by the writers strike, there's a definite lack of workday-angst-driven entertainment out there. Then We Came to the End, a bitingly funny novel by Joshua Ferris, fills that void. The book, narrated almost entirely in the first-person plural, takes place at a Chicago advertising firm toward the end of the dotcom bubble. The employees gossip to fill the workless days, spending equal time focusing on the petty—who stole whose chairs—and the serious—who might have cancer; what former employee might return to shoot up the place; and who might be next to "walk Spanish," as they refer to being laid off. Their conversations, and even their actions—spying on a former employee who spends her days in a McDonald's, mourning her murdered child—are mean-spirited. But when it seems that they're becoming too cruel, Ferris reminds you that each character is just acting that way out of desperation. They have unexpected pregnancies, marital troubles—problems that seem all the more daunting because of the uncertainty of continued paychecks. Then We Came to the End is cynical, dark, and ripe for cinematic adaptation—or for The Office writers to imitate when they finally return to the job.
Stephen Burt, contributor Seriously Christian but not doctrinaire, mystical without setting intellect aside, angry over political matters without ever growing stale or shrill, and more often joyful than any other living poet of his powers, Donald Revell, in his recent collection of poems, A Thief of Strings, may have constructed the only language of ecstasy that makes sense for our secular, self-doubting age. In this first book since Pennyweight Windows, the confident odes and records of religious visions are also testimonies of love (for his son, for Christ, and for old movies), communions with an endangered natural environment (in Nevada, in "Eden Cemetery," in the middle of a baseball game), and messages from heaven, rendered in free verse with distant echoes of Walt Whitman. A watery "Landscape Near Biloxi, Mississippi" becomes, in Revell's eyes, both a welcome memorial to civil rights martyrs and a glowing record of the bloody instincts in every human heart: "Even as a sweet boy in the gunwales,/ The god is a destroyer./ Doe-like at the calm, cool, waters,/ The goddess is a maw." Revell insists that human intellect, however we use it, will not let us grasp the important truths, which he finds sometimes in religious practice, sometimes in contemplating fauna, flora, or a cloudless sky. An unrhymed sonnet makes vivid, without apology, what has to be called an eco-friendly epiphany: "I am the grass I dreamed I was," Revell begins, and concludes: "I lay my head beside the broken animal./ Our eyes meet. The world belongs to him."
Tyler Cowen, contributor The Hollywood writers' strike, and the accompanying prospect of a movie and TV shutdown, has cast new attention on screenwriters and scriptwriters. If you want to know how the writers' union came to assume its current importance, there is now a place to go: Marc Norman's readable and comprehensive What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting. Among other topics, it covers the breakdown of the studio system, the anti-communist blacklist, the peak of the writers' union in the 1970s, and the role of George Lucas in diminishing the influence of writers. If you recognize Marc Norman's name, it is probably because he won a screenwriting Oscar for Shakespeare in Love.
The unheralded science book of the year is In the Company of Crows and Ravens, by John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell. Crows are smarter than you think, and crows have co-evolved with mankind to an astonishing degree. The already-forgotten translated work of the year is the conceptual, dreamy, smart, and funny Theory of Clouds, the prize-winning French novel by Stephane Audeguy. Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives is at this point an obvious pick, but it's worth reiterating that it is one of the best Latin American novels ever.
Amanda Fortini, contributor On a gray weekend afternoon this summer, I was procrastinating by snooping around some neglected bookshelves at the office space I rent, when an old library book, its bright '70s cover overlaid with glossy laminate, caught my eye. I opened to a page at random, and from the first few sentences—simple, rhythmic, true—I was hooked: "She didn't like me. So I phoned her every day. I announced the new movies, concerts, art exhibits. I talked them up, excitements out there, claiming them in my voice. Not to like me was not to like the world." The book was Leonard Michaels' 1975 collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. I finished it that afternoon, and felt I'd made a great discovery. A week later, when I saw a copy of his newly reissued Collected Stories at a bookstore, I realized Michaels had already been discovered. I bought and read the collection; my enthusiasm deepened. I love this book for the addictive pleasure of Michaels' sentences, their musicality and propulsive energy. His grown-up characters and their grown-up conflicts also come as a welcome (if at times uncomfortably true to life) respite from the literary fashions of recent years—the whimsical magic realism, the forced quirkiness, the late-20s characters in various states of arrested development. Read Michaels for his nimble way with language, but read him, too, for his honest perceptions of the unlit, unexamined crannies of the psyche: its abject motivations, petty resentments, and perverse pleasures.
Ruth Franklin, contributor Shalom Auslander's losing-his-religion memoir, Foreskin's Lament, is unorthodox in every sense of the word. Brought up in a community of ultra-religious Jews, he was taught early on that, in the words of a kindergarten song, "God is here, God is there, God is truly everywhere!" As Auslander tells it, the God of his rabbis and his parents is a wrathful, capricious figure who torments those who disobey him—Moses, for instance, who died before reaching the land of Israel because he "had sinned, once, forty years earlier. His crime? Hitting a rock." Not believing is apparently impossible, so Auslander hilariously invents a more unusual rebellion: After a rabbi tells him that a young boy's sins are ascribed to his father, he begins to break Jewish law in every way he can (masturbating, cursing, riding on the Sabbath, shoplifting) in the hope that God will take revenge on his abusive father. Foreskin's Lament—the title refers to Auslander's vision of Jews estranged from their communities as foreskins wandering the world, "brutalized" and cast off—has provoked criticism for its unforgiving portrait of Orthodox Judaism, from the forbidding rabbis at Auslander's yeshiva to the author's passively pious mother (who can more easily cut her son out of her life than stand up to her cruel husband). But Auslander's angry humor masks a dark portrait of a little boy with perhaps the ultimate persecution complex.
David Greenberg, "History Lesson" columnist History Lesson readers know how I tend to carp about the common and pernicious assumption that if academic work is serious, it has to be dry or jargon-filled. So I'm happy to recommend to nonscholars two works of U.S. history published last year that began as dissertations. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, by Michael A. Lerner (which I reviewed here), and The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public, by Sarah Igo. Lerner's achievement is to rescue Prohibition from its status as historical curiosity and to show how the fight for its repeal, based in Gotham, marked an important episode in the reconceptualization of the liberal agenda. He does this, moreover, through the kinds of hilarious and fascinating tales of the boozing life in the 1920s that you'd hope for in such a volume. Igo's book takes what might strike some as an arcane topic—the role of social-science surveys in Americans' lives—and makes it revelatory. She not only zeroes in on some of the most compelling figures of the mid-20th-century survey business—Robert and Helen Lynd, who co-wrote the Middletown books; George Gallup; and the good doctor Alfred E. Kinsey—she also argues persuasively that their very use of polls and similar measurement mechanisms came to shape the way we think about ourselves, as individuals and as Americans.
Melinda Henneberger, contributor My family was glad when I finished the book I loved best this year, because it was so good I kept reading bits of it aloud. Luckily for them, this doesn't happen often. So don't be deterred when I tell you that W.S. Merwin's The Folding Cliffs is an epic poem about what 19th-century Hawaiians called "the separating sickness," when we still called it leprosy. Or because in form, it is a single gorgeous 325-page sentence, punctuated only with dashes—as God intended, if you ask me. Merwin's language is so lush and his narrative so intense that reading it is like falling into whitewater; even if you want to stop, you can't. Published just nine years ago, this was a wildly up-to-the-minute choice for me, set in the century when most of my favorites were written.
One book of our own time I wish I hadn't waited to read is And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts' investigative masterpiece about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when everyone but Larry Kramer and some unfunded researchers put their fingers in their ears and hummed while people were dying. Another is John T. McGreevy's Catholicism and American Freedom, a reminder of how exotic evenhandedness has become, especially in a history of religion and politics, and how bracing it can be. Of new fiction, I liked my friend Laura Lippman's What the Dead Know, inspired by the 1975 disappearance of two sisters from a Baltimore mall. And surely the best bumper sticker: "I'd rather be reading Flannery O'Connor."
Ann Hulbert, contributing editor and "Sandbox" columnist I hope this isn't a symptom of a helicopter parent, but one of my pleasures these days is reading some of what my (very large) children are reading, in school and out. So I recently read "Bartleby, the Scrivener" for, if you can believe it, the first time, and reread some Emerson. My son had recommended War Trash, and I finally got around to that amazing novel as part of a self-imposed mini-immersion course in Ha Jin's work. I also read his almost perfect first novel, Waiting (which won the 1999 National Book Award and the 2000 Pen/Faulkner prize), and his new novel, A Free Life. Jin, who arrived in the United States in 1985, is one of those rare immigrant authors who writes in English. To appreciate what a prodigious accomplishment that is—and to discover a truly original writer—I recommend reading all three of his books, in chronological order. Jin's earlier novels are such impeccable creations that you'll take his fluency almost for granted. And then you'll be taken aback, at least I was, by the sprawling awkwardness of A Free Life, a self-portrait of an immigrant writer who sets out to write in English (and run a restaurant and do all sorts of other things, too). But in the awkwardness lies the revelation: In this book, Ha Jin lets us look behind the seemingly effortless mastery to experience the disorientation—and inspiration—that accompany the feat of the imagination he has tackled—not just living, but creating, in another language.
Fred Kaplan, "War Stories" columnist I second Paul Berman's endorsement of Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise. It's a sprawling tour de force—a collage of biography, political history, cultural analysis, and musicology—about the great composers of the past 100 years, from Richard Strauss and Mahler to John Adams and Björk. Neither ramshackle nor reductive, the book has the force and scope of a heroic symphony in its own right. Ross assumes rudimentary knowledge of music (if you don't know what "modal" or "diatonic" means, you might take a look at Wikipedia); and though he lists some recommended recordings in the back, an accompanying CD would have been helpful. Still, though this is a learned and scholarly book, it's not at all an academic one. Ross writes so engagingly and evocatively that the tale flows, and the spirit of the music shines through, with or without study aids.
P.S.: I've just learned that Ross has put up on his Web site brief audio excerpts of some of the works he discusses in his book. Here's the link. It's worth checking out.