Saturday, January 12, 2008

Top 20 Books I Read in 2007

I've been posting book reviews in here for most of the year. Here's a compilation of my top twenty--fiction (12) and non-fiction (8). The titles are linked to their pages in


Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2002) was the best book I read of any kind in 2007 and one of the 10-20 best novels I've ever read. Eugenides' sprawling tale of the Greek immigrant experience as told by recovering hermaphrodite Calliope Stephanides is rollicking, insightful, fascinating and often hilarious. Calliope/Cal is the best fictional narrator I've met since John Irving's T.S. Garp.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (2007) was other than Harry Potter VII, probably the most eagerly anticipated novel of 2007. In my view, transplanted Afghani-American author Hosseini outdid his previous publishing sensation The Kite Runner in this touching story of life over 40 years in Afghanistan from the perspective of two women. Less sentimental and dependent on coincidence than The Kite Runner, Hosseini's new book provides a poignant and often harrowing look at the life of females in the Islamic world.

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (2006) was the most readable novel I encountered in 2007, averaging about one-and-half days per reader in my household. Gruen takes the reader under the big top of a Depression-era traveling circus for a show an order of magnitude more entertaining than Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's current version. Truth proves to be just as strange as fiction, as Gruen populates the story with vignettes discovered in her research about circus life of the era.

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver (1988) was this fine author's first novel and first of two stories (along with Pigs in Heaven) about Taylor Greer and her young charge Turtle. Kingsolver's writing is impressive in so many ways. As a trained biologist she handles the botany implied by the title effortlessly, as she does the touching relationship between adult and child. Her first-hand knowledge of Kentucky and Arizona, her two homes, also shines through. The Bean Trees is a wonderful book for readers of all ages.

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns (1984) came to me via my ninth-grader's summer reading list. After being diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, Ms. Burns wrote this novel about life in small town Georgia during the early years of the 20th century based on the recollections of her grandfather. The result is a warm and funny book that shimmers with authenticity of place and time.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (2001) is another debut novel from my daughter's summer reading list. (I'm impressed by the literary acumen of the high school English department.) Enger tells a story set in rural Minnesota during the 1960s about the fascinating Land family, spiritual father Jeremiah, asthmatic son (and narrator) Reuben, violent older son Davey, and precocious daughter Swede. A highlight is Swede's ongoing epic poem about the Old West. Peace Like a River is a well-written and touching novel about family and the nature of miracles--touching even to a reason-based UU like me.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (2007) was his much awaited followup to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Chabon's fabulous imagination is again the centerpiece of his Jewish whodunit wrapped in the alternate history of a US-leased Sitka District in Alaska inhabited by Jews who lost the Israeli war for independence in 1948. The world of an imagined Judeo-Eskimo community is a particular treat. Chess and a kosher Mafia fit into the story as well. Free your mind and enjoy the amazing talent of Michael Chabon.

On Chesil Beach by British author Ian McEwen (2007), more novella than novel, is an intensely personal story of the sexual intiation of a newlywed couple on their honeymoon in the U.K. of the 1960s. Almost uncomfortably intimate with his characters at times (but without becoming pornographic), McEwan makes an excellent point about the impact of communication or lack thereof in a relationship. For adults only.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007) was my introduction to this celebrated author. His unadorned, almost free verse style fits well with a bleak story of a man and his son in the U.S. after some sort of apocalyptic event that devastates both the population and the landscape. About the same time as I read The Road, I watched the Italian movie Life Is Beautiful . While more comic in nature, the story arc and the relationship between Guido and Joshua in "Beautiful" took me back just a month to the story of father and son in "The Road." I highly recommend both the novel and the film.

The Company by Robert Littell (2002) provides a captivating look at the history of the CIA and KGB during the Cold War through the adventures of both fictional and historical characters. You'll recognize Kim Philby, the Hungarian revolt, the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan among other historical characters and events. Fictional spies recruited from Ivy League colleges work their way through the ranks to play roles in all the mayhem. The Company is my favorite spy novel, though I haven't read many.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (2005) tells the story of Lily and Snow Flower, two "old sames" in 19th century rural China. This complicated relationship, akin to marriage between two women in parallel with traditional male/female marriages) carries on for 70-plus years. The two women communicate using the nu shu language (unknown to men) on their "secret fan." Ms. See writes both prose and poetry adeptly as she tells the story of this little-known aspect of Chinese history.

Spud by John van der Ruit (2007) was a publishing sensation in van der Ruit's native South Africa. He tells the coming-of-age-at-boarding-school story of young John "Spud" Milton, so nicknamed for the slow pace of his pubescent development, who develops in many other ways as he struggles to survive in a world of crazy classmates, sadistic upperclassmen, drunken teachers, from whom his only escape is the occasional weekend visit to the maniacal world of his parents and grandmother, Wombat. Mostly hilarious to non-boarding school veterans, and both hilarious and relevant to such graduates, Spud is a waiting joy for both teenage and adult readers.

Fiction Honorable Mention - What is the What by David Eggers, Jesus Out to Sea: Stories by James Lee Burke, Going Postal by Terry Pratchett, Landsman by Peter Charles Melman, Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult, The Master and Margarita by Michael Bulgakov, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, and Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver.


The Innocent Man by John Grisham (2006) - I've already posted a review of this important book in here twice and on Here's a link to the dadlak review.

Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero by David Maraniss (2004) - I had trouble reading this excellent biography of the late baseball star and Puerto Rican icon, Roberto Clemente, because I knew it would end tragically. Near the end of his Hall of Fame career, a plane carrying both Clemente and relief supplies from Puerto Rico to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua crashed into shark-infested waters off the island. Maybe by delaying reading about his death I could somehow delay its reality, or at least its renewed emotional impact. Clemente helped me understand how a great baseball player, who was so much more than that, journeyed to his fateful and heroic end.

In The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth E. O. Wilson (2006) appeals to fundamental Christians (as one of which he was raised) to consider the commonality of their beliefs--that the miracle of creation, whether made by God in seven days, or evolved after the Big Bang over a period of billions of years, is something worth saving. He goes on to demonstrate how humans, the supposed lords of the earth, depend of the rest of nature for their continued existence. Whether you come at the subject from the scientific or religious perspective, or from somewhere in between, you'll gain a broad perspective on the issue of global sustainability and mankind's role in the struggle. Highly recommended to all readers--middle school on up--even a 5th or 6th grader with a strong interest in nature could enjoy and learn from Wilson's short but powerful book.

1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose (2007) - The most personal book I've read about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans is this collection of newspaper columns from New Orleans Times Picayune writer Chris Rose. Proving that living somewhere involves more than occupying a house there, Rose seemingly suffers the trauma of all New Orleanians, even though his own house and family endure essentially no damage from the storm (other than a four-month relocation of wife and children to Maryland). The title refers to words painted on the side of a house as a message to recovery crews. More than a year after the storm, the words are still on that house. 1 Dead in Attic stands as a chronicle of the Katrina's impact on one man and his city.

Nine Hills to Nambonkaha by Sarah Erdman (2003) is a wonderful first-person account of a young Peace Corps worker's experiences in Ivory Coast in 2000 and 2001. She served as a health care worker, primarily trying to teach the village women about prenatal health and infant care. AIDS became an issue while she was there. Erdman shows maturity beyond her years in her efforts to relate with people of all ages and stations in a little village as remote from her private school upbringing as could be imagined. Both her work with the local people within their culture and her writing skills are inspiring, hopefully enough so to cause other young people to serve the world and themselves in similar fashion.

The Subway Chronicles: Scenes from Life in New York by Jacquelin Cangro (editor) (2006) - You'll recognize some of the authors in this entertaining collection of essays surrounding the New York City subway system--Calvin Trillin for sure, novelist Jonathan Lethem and others, but many of the essays result from Ms. Cangro's successful website--launched after an idea born at Thanksgiving dinner with friends--and as such are written by hoping-to-be-published writers. Ms. Cangro has done an admirable job with the material--chasing the pace and style of the essays to keep the subject fresh for the reader. The book also offers a feel for the psyche of the urban dweller--folks who live their life without a car--an unimaginable state of being in the small town or suburban life (or even big city like LA or Houston) that has come to dominate American culture.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama (2006) - As an almost lifelong Democrat, I was a ready-made candidate to enjoy Barack Obama's second book. Obama's comfortable writing style almost makes you forget that you're reading a policy outline, though he does provide a good deal of background about his views on the Constitution and about his personal experiences. What's especially encouraging is his even-handed approach to issues--carefully considering and respecting where those who might oppose his position are coming from. I encourage people from all political backgrounds to learn more about Senator Barack Obama. The Audacity of Hope is a good place to start.

The Cold War and the Color Line by Thomas Borstelmann (2001) focuses on the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson during the U.S. civil rights era. Borstlemann describes how America's racial segregation, and support of European colonial powers and the segregationist regime in South Africa hampered it as third world countries as they chose between capitalist/democratic systems and the Communist model. Bortelsmann also notes that the presidents doing the most in support of civil rights were those who grew up in the South--Truman desegregated the military; Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act, and both Carter and Clinton took a strong interest in the rights of both African-Americans and blacks in Africa. On the other hand, the presidents raised outside the South (Eisenhower in Kansas, Kennedy in Massachusetts, Nixon in California, Reagan in Illinois and Bush in Connecticut) viewed racial equality as a secondary issue at best, or in some cases even worked to reverse past gains. Highly recommended to students of history and race relations.

Non-Fiction Honorable Mention - Bagels and Grits by Jennifer Moses, Breach of Faith by Jed Horne, Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Not sure where to post this but I wanted to ask if anyone has heard of National Clicks?

Can someone help me find it?

Overheard some co-workers talking about it all week but didn't have time to ask so I thought I would post it here to see if someone could help me out.

Seems to be getting alot of buzz right now.