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.
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.