Thursday, November 29, 2007

A Surprising Top 10

The release of the The New York Times' 10 Best Books of the Year list is always a call for excitement among independent booksellers and their customers. The selections usually tilt towards literary fiction and thought-provoking nonfiction. It's a welcome respite from the plethora of pandering lists that you'll see in places like USA Today or on which feature marginally written novels and celebrity biographies. The books the Times selects often break out and become bestsellers in independent stores.

Yesterday, the list was released on the New York Times website and there were some expected titles but also many surprises. Probably the two easiest to predict books on the list were Denis Johnson's epic Vietnam-era novel Tree of Smoke and Jeffrey Toobin's penetrating look at the United States Supreme Court The Nine. Johnson has been a darling of critics and booksellers since the 1992 release of his short story collection Jesus' Son. Tree of Smoke, his first novel in nearly 10 years, won the National Book Award and is being hailed as his masterpiece.

In an unusual twist, two translated novels made the list. You could see this as a comment on how weak of a year for fiction it was in the United States and England, or perhaps it's just that there is a growing appreciation for foreign novelists. The Savage Detectives by the Chilean author Roberto Bolano was translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Bolano died in 2003, but his reputation has been rising steadily in the last few years as the small publisher New Directions has released four of his books. With the publication of The Savage Detectives, it is now becoming apparent that Bolano was a true powerhouse in world fiction. It's too bad that we are just catching up to him. Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses is a Scandinavian novel that is set in Oslo. I feel a bit foolish about this one. Last Saturday a customer upbraided me for not having any Per Petterson in the store. "What kind of bookstore is this?" he harangued. "Not a Norwegian one," I thought at the time. It seemed pretty good that we'd sold nine copies of the book. Now I hope we can sell a few dozen more.

The fiction list also featured my favorite novel of the year, Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. I wrote a full blog on that book on May 6th. Man Gone Down, a debut novel by Michael Thomas, rounds out the fiction side of the list. Thomas' novel, which examines four days in the life of a desperate black writer, was first published in paperback. Traditionally, paperback originals have really struggled to get critical attention. It's a real accomplishment for Thomas and his publisher Black Cat that they were able to catch the eye of The Times, first in a front page review in the spring and now in the Top 10 list.

The Imperial Life in the Emerald City
by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is the one political tome to make the list. Chandrasekaran, A Washington Post journalist, discusses the Bush administration's arrogance in its attempts to govern Iraq. The miracle is that Chandrasekaran was able to provide a thorough accounting in just one book. Any discussion of Bush arrogance in governing the United States would run several volumes.

Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise is easily the most ambitious of the nonfiction titles. Ross, The New Yorker music critic, tells the history of the 20th century through the eyes of classical music. In an interview that he did for the New York Times' podcast, Ross spoke eloquently on both classical music and historical movements and weaved them together beautifully. Rarely do we see such an erudite, original and entertaining look at history.

The last two nonfiction titles are wildly divergent examples of what creative writers can do with biographies. The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh by Linda Colley is a look at an obscure 18th century travel writer. Hardly anything is known of Marsh's personal life and only one book of hers survives. Instead, Colley looks at the world she lived in and just how a woman of that era could travel to the exotic locales that Marsh visited. She examines Marsh's three months as a Moroccan captive. The other biography is actually a memoir. In Little Heathens, Mildred Armstrong Kalish writes of her childhood memories on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. The whole world is reduced to one small place in the Midwest for Kalish, but it is still suffused with wonder.

Happy reading. The list will appear in the December 9th edition of The New York Times Book Review. The 100 Notable Books of 2007 will appear in this Sunday's edition.

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