The Year's Best Reading: 2007

We launched the Barnes & Noble Review at the beginning of October. In the three months between then and now, we have had the pleasure of presenting the work of a growing list of superb critics and reviewers. I hope you’ve benefited as much as I have from their astute appraisals of books, both current and classic. As the turn of the year approaches, we’ve asked them to share with us the books — whether new or old — that provided their richest reading experiences in 2007. The resulting list of recommendations ranges from Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf to Michael Chabon and Ruth Rendell, from the letters of Charles Bukowksi to Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s romance Natural Born Charmer, from 20th-century music (Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise) to 21st-century military history (Jeremy Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army). 


All told, the list of books encompassed in our Year’s Best Reading is an intriguing combination of erudition and enthusiasm, one that is likely to add a few volumes to your “to be read” pile, as it has certainly done to mine. (Please note: don’t miss out on Part Two of this feature). 

James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief 


Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal by Ben Macintyre. It’s been a long time since a book has made me as happy as Agent Zigzag, the story of Eddie Chapman, rogue of many parts: cashiered guardsman, safecracker, blackmailer, escape artist, would-be writer, and indefatigable Lothario. Brooding in prison in Jersey when the island was occupied in 1940, Chapman volunteered to serve as a German spy to get back to England. After extensive training by German spymasters, he was parachuted into Cambridgeshire as a saboteur, whereupon he turned himself over to MI5, who polished him up as a double agent — a job he performed with courage, ingenuity, and panache. Macintyre, who writes with brisk wit and narrative brio, has drawn on recently declassified intelligence files for this astonishing account. His relish for Chapman, a man who would “do his duty while merrily picking your pocket,” is palpable, as is his feeling for England’s trials in that perilous time. 



This was a great year for debut novels — books by Dinaw Mengestu, Daniel Alarcon, and Joshua Ferris all come to mind — but Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men was the biggest revelation of them all for me. Set in Libya during Qaddafi’s rise to power, the novel charts the slow dissolution of a family through the eyes of a young boy who knows his father is involved in something that could put the family in grave danger. As the life Matar’s narrator was born to recedes, all the tiny fractures normal to a boy’s coming-of-age — feeling possessive and protective of his mother, resentful of his father — turn into lethal points of betrayal. Matar is a beautiful writer — his prose is precise and controlled yet never without suppleness — and the way he tells this story gives it the atmospheric color of a painful memory, painfully revisited. 


If you have a sneaking feeling you have that it’s all connected — the way reconstruction in Iraq cost so much and did so little, the failures of New Orleans, the feeding frenzy on coastline after the tsunami, the enormous gap between haves and have-nots in South Africa — you will find a powerful sense of connection in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. In this take-no-prisoners polemic, Klein argues that the spread of free market capitalism around the world has depended upon shock and trauma, whether it’s natural or military, and that when those elements haven’t existed organically they have been imposed from outside, as in the CIA-backed Pinochet coup in Chile in 1973. Drawing on massive amounts of research, Klein shows what happens to communities when a one-size-fits-all theory of economy is imposed from above — and the results are, well, shocking. 



No doubt the victim of severe seasonal affective disorder, I recommend — only to fans of violent fictional homicidal psychopathology (those moviegoers who flocked to the Saw series and Hostel, for example, and those who loved reading American Psycho) — The Seven Days of Peter Crumb by Jonny Glynn. This novel, by a young British writer/actor, was imported by Harper Perennial. It’s the story of a violent nut, the title character, who, as a delayed result of the death of his own daughter, Emma, hammers and stabs and slashes his way through a week of London mayhem, which includes surviving a terrorist bus bombing. Peter Crumb has an indwelling alter ego who savagely and acerbically and often hilariously tells his rather decent other half what to do. One of my favorite passages is the narrator’s imagined answers to a Q&A with an actress that he finds in a women’s magazine. A sample: Q. “What would your motto be?” A. “Keep out of reach of children.” This is a grotty, almost Lucian Freud?like descent into a sort of decayed hell of the self. It’s horrifying but also, I’m almost sad to say, often brilliant. 



You’ve got to love Virginia Woolf. Her dense modernist novels — Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves — offer up all the knotty pleasures you could ask for. So how is it that this committed formalist could also create one of the most enchanting, utterly delightful fantasies: Orlando? Woolf’s concerns for temporal disjunction, as well as her dogged themes of personal identity, may be found here as well, but Orlando presents experimentation on a platter. It’s as funny, engrossing, and ultimately moving as it is beautifully composed. More proof that the only label that fits Woolf’s multi-sided literary personality is just plain brilliant. 



It’s dangerous to judge a book by its cover, but that’s the first thing I did when a copy of Alison McGhee’s novel Falling Boy arrived on my doorstep. The neon-yellow lettering of the title and the bright-blue cover seemed to promise an entertaining read, so imagine my surprise when this slim tome delivered so much more. Falling Boy not only perfectly captures the awkwardness, heartbreak, and longing of misfit children looking for some sense of truth; it also opened my eyes to McGhee’s powerful skills as a storyteller, a painter of crystalline images and creator of unforgettable characters. Falling Boy is less about what it means to be a superhero than what it means to hope one comes along — and how to hope and feel in the midst of endless waiting. 



The Last Mughal, The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857 by William Dalrymple. This landmark volume is that rare object, a serious and groundbreaking historical work that is also accessible to a large public. Drawing on 20,000 virtually unused Persian and Urdu documents in Delhi’s National Archives, The Last Mughal is the first significant English-language account of the so-called Great Indian Mutiny of 1857 written from the Indian perspective: until now, Dalrymple says, historians “tended to use only English-language sources, padding out the gaps, in the case of more recent work, with a thick cladding of post-Saidian theory and jargon.” Dalrymple’s exquisite prose is innocent of all such sins. The author centers his tale on the last Mughal emperor, who was exiled by the vengeful British and whose death in 1862 brought his 350-year-old dynasty to an end. This book, Dalrymple writes, “is not a biography of Zafar so much as a portrait of the Delhi he personified, a narrative of the last days of the Mughal capital and its final destruction in the catastrophe of 1857.” 


Pages from the Goncourt Journals by Edmond and Jules de Goncourt. Upon reading the Journals of the Goncourt brothers, Christopher Isherwood (no mean diarist himself) reflected that “Here, gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry. To keep such a diary is to render a real service to the future.” It is true, for the Goncourts (Edmond, 1822-96, and Jules, 1830-70) knew everybody and went everywhere in Second Empire Paris: palaces, artist’s studios, brothels, and slums. Beginning their journal entries on December 2, 1851 — the day Napoleon III staged his coup d’?tat — they continued writing together until Jules’s death from syphilis in 1870, after which Edmond went on alone, providing superb eyewitness accounts of the Siege of Paris and life under the Commune. The Goncourts counted Zola, Flaubert, Degas, Rodin, Daudet, Sainte-Beuve, Baudelaire, and many luminaries among their friends and wrote about them with an unsparing exactitude that contemporaries thought libelous. Edmond defended himself: “I love the truth,” he said, “and am trying to tell it as far as one can in one’s lifetime, that is in homeopathic doses.” The recent New York Review Books reissue is reprinted from a selection and translation by the late scholar Robert Baldick; it captures all the beauty, excitement, sleaze, and debauchery of 19th-century Paris. 


Consequences by Penelope Lively. My favorite novel of 2007 is Penelope Lively’s Consequences, perhaps the best book this humane, gently philosophical novelist has yet produced. Like all of her works (which include Moon Tiger, Spiderweb, According to Mark, and a memoir called Oleander, Jacaranda), this one displays an overriding concern with history: Lively is acutely aware of the long view, the evanescence of experience as it morphs into some new form, while understanding that life’s essence remains unchanged. Consequences tells of three generations of women but in no way conforms to the typical “family saga” formula: each of the three protagonists is depicted in an intensely personal manner, and their combined story reflects the enormous changes that have overtaken English society between 1935 and today. Lively’s seductively simple prose conveys timeless truths; she is one of the masters of the modern domestic novel. 


The Water’s Lovely by Ruth Rendell. Ruth Rendell is to my mind the best living writer of suspense in the English language — I would even go farther and say she is one of the very best English writers in any genre. She is particularly adept at social comedy and sociological observation: her nineteen novels featuring the wise, humane Chief Inspector Wexford (a thinking woman’s sex symbol), written over a period of more than four decades, collectively present a chilling picture of the changing condition of England. Rendell also writes creepy psychological thrillers under the name of Barbara Vine. Her most recent book to be published in America, The Water’s Lovely, is well up to standard: two London sisters, haunted by their stepfather’s mysterious death some ten years previously, find the secrets of their childhood coming back to threaten their adult happiness. As with all of Rendell’s novels, readers will want to gobble this down at one sitting. 


Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. “The often-overlooked subplot of the wars of the post-9/11 period is the outsourcing and privatization they have entailed,” writes Jeremy Scahill in his grimly fascinating account of the headlong rise of an obscure North Carolina company to become the Praetorian Guard in the Bush administration’s so-called global war on terror. Scahill’s bestselling account has done much to focus public attention on Blackwater’s disturbing history, which encapsulates the revolution in military affairs that has occurred in the last few years — “the most sweeping privatization and outsourcing operation in U.S. military history.” Unaccountable to the military hierarchy and the U.S. taxpayers who foot their hefty bills, Blackwater functions as a powerful private army operating outside of any law, and it continues to pull in ever-more-lucrative federal contracts despite the numerous scandals that have occurred even since the book’s publication ten months ago. This is required reading for anyone concerned with how our country wages war. 



If you like your armchair travel to be on the grittier side, then there’s no better place to start than the work of Ryszard Kapuscinski, the legendary Polish journalist who died in 2007. His seven books translated into English make up one of the most essential, if depressing, travelogues of our time — a landscape of war, revolution, poverty, and despair. And he accomplishes his journeys on the paltry budget of a Communist state press agency, which means cheap hotels, shaky airplanes, and sketchy guides. But Kapuscinski always manages to be where the action is: the fall of Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, the soccer wars in Latin America, the final days of the shah in Iran, the civil wars in Angola. His last book, Travels with Herodotus (2007), is also his most reflective, since the ancient Greek writer’s History was Kapuscinski’s vade-mecum throughout his travels. And it forms the perfect analogue to Kapuscinski’s work: Herodotus’ masterpiece was never intended to be a fact-driven and definitive chronicle. Like Kapuscinski, Herodotus was a compulsive wanderer, trying to fathom unusual and often violent cultures. More important, they both would agree with the old Italian saying, “Se non e vero e ben trovato” (If it’s not true, it’s well founded). Kapuscinski, like Herodotus, realized that in mythmaking and storytelling lies a higher form of truth. 



My absolute three favorite reads this year? Two contemporary meditations about cultural memory and one cultural storehouse of myth. 


Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Iranian American Porochista Khakpour, is touching, witty, and timely — an exploration of fathers, sons, and Iranian cultural identity for the generation that moves from shah and revolution to the post 9/11 world. Things burn in it, and language often does, too. 


Revisiting a troubled southern landscape, where crosses burn on lawns, Pulitzer Prize?winning poet Natasha Tretheway exhumes suppressed histories and uneasy memories in Native Guard, her exquisitely framed un-burial of black Civil War soldiers and of the difficult memory of her mother’s murder. She alternately — and wisely — interrogates history and memory even as she celebrates their force. 


Those with the time to hunker down with a deeply rewarding tome should consider Ovid’s Metamorphoses. When it comes to cultural memories, it’s the mother lode. It’s an old book, entering its third millennium of existence. But 2,000 years after it began circulating — and its author was exiled to the outskirts of the Roman Empire — Ovid’s anti-epic remains a dark and fresh meditation on narrative and narrative change. Intricately woven tales-within-tales still unfurl in ways as complex as Ariadne’s fabled tapestry. Myths about emperor-like gods exacting their will on hapless mortals go on being both rich and unsettling. The fact that all of the myths seem weirder and far less vanilla than one remembers them — that’s the hook. Try the translations of either Rolfe Humphries or Charles Martin. 



One of the year’s most diverting reads came under a deceptively intimidating title. Ben Wilson’s The Making of Victorian Values: Decency and Dissent in Britain: 1789-1837 is no dusty history but a scholar’s romp through a time of sexual and cultural upheaval — just before the arrival of Queen Vicky seemed to herald the end of the party. And a party it was: Byron may have been the Elvis of the Regency, but he was far from the only one shaking his hips. Packed with anecdote but bolstered by serious analysis, Wilson’s book puts the buttoning-up of the Victorian era that followed in entertaining and enlightening context.