The Year in Books
The Nov. 26 edition of Newsweek included a 4,700-word advertisement--um, cover story--about the Kindle, Amazon's handheld reading device, titled "The Future of Reading." What the magazine really meant, though, was plastered across the cover: "Books Aren't Dead: They're just going digital."
Of course, putting "book" and "dead" that close together in large font recalls all those other prognosticated deaths of the past 40 years: painting, modernism, democracy, rock, literature, irony, etc. Doomsday journalism, like shock capitalism, certainly sells--"The Future of Reading" has more than 100 online comments and counting (wonder what sort of rate that would garner in Gawker's pay-per-traffic scheme?)--but it's just as self-defeating. Yes, it's a certainty that how we read and publish--as well as who provides text in all its forms--is going to change radically during our lifetimes, but let's not cast our cherished paper and hard covers to the extinction ghetto just yet. Fret not, fellow bibliophiles: The book isn't going anywhere.
It's not merely a matter of generational economics: Sure, perhaps it's only older folks who fetishize vinyl LPs and their analog cover art and recording quality while the youth of today download music peer-to-peer, but it wasn't a bunch of fortysomething white guys with glasses waiting in line to score the new Harry Potter book. As long as we have hands and noses, chances are books--the technological rave of the A.D. millennia--will have a place in our lives. Something about cozying up in bed to scroll through the latest best seller on a 10.3-ounce electronic device with a six-inch diagonal display doesn't sound that, well, cozy.
Besides, are we going to digital mark a digital file instead of dog-earing a page? Does this mean we'll no longer haphazardly come across somebody else's 50-year-old margin notes? Would the death of the book mean the end of dust jacket and paperback cover art and illustrations? More importantly--for all of us who haven't puked forth our first book just yet--just where in the hell am I supposed to autograph an electronic file?
All snark aside, the best argument for the future survival of the book is that writers might want to see a physical manifestation of their work. Call it ego, call it reductive reasoning, call it misplaced Marxist ideals about seeing an actual product produced by their labors, but books-as-objects are just nice to have around. If that makes us Luddites, so be it. Don't get me wrong, I'll be the first in line whenever people smarter than me develop a USB-type bioport that allows you to download terabytes directly into your brain, but I'll still want the bookshelf at home. And here's 10 titles from 2007--as determined from weighted ballots from CP critics John Barry, Raymond Cummings, Eric Allen Hatch, Joab Jackson, Bret McCabe, Zak M. Salih, and Wendy Ward--that you'd find on it. (Bret McCabe)
1 Tom Perrotta The Abstinence Teacher (St. Martin's Press)
We are not the sum of our convictions, as much as we'd all like to believe otherwise. And The Abstinence Teacher swaddles this harsh lesson in a slyly whimsical exploration of values in the American exurbs. A fortysomething divorced high school sex-education teacher incurs the wrath of the local conservative community by being just a little bit too straightforward in the classroom on matters libidinal--telling her students that some people enjoy oral sex and that condoms don't always break. She then finds herself unexplainably attracted to her daughter's soccer coach, a born-again Christian recently saved from the heady but ultimately toxic life of being a rock 'n' roll musician. Characters are never whom they first appear to be, and the seemingly mysterious life forces that tug on them repeatedly propel this novel into unexpected and fresh directions. (Joab Jackson)
2 Laura Lippman What the Dead Know (William Morrow)
Laura Lippman knows how to spin a compelling crime tale harrowing enough to weird you out without quite crossing the line to full-on atrocity--or that just might be the voyeuristic reader's justification for slowing down and checking out the underbelly of the society she exposes in her novels. In What the Dead Know, two teenage sisters disappear from Security Square Mall 30 years ago; a stunned woman picked up for a hit and run claims to be one in the present day. Weaving together the past heartache and dissolving marriage of the girls' parents since they went missing, one of the sister's memories (we don't really know which one), the present mystery woman's affect on the lives of those people trying to help her (a hospital social worker, a cop, and an attorney) along with sex crimes, Mexico, identity theft, and infidelity, no one is left out and no one is left alone until the chilling end. (Wendy Ward)
3 Don DeLillo Falling Man (Scribner)
No, Don DeLillo hasn't written the Great American Sept. 11 Novel, but he has written a stark work that deals with the terrorist attacks in typical DeLillo fashion. Both the title character (a performance artist who poses as a falling body in various parts of the city) and the cosmopolitan family coping in their respective ways with posttraumatic stress suggest Sept. 11 as a sociocultural event that we can't quite get enough of--even as we try to suppress it through gambling, infidelity, and therapy. Finishing the book, what lingers is not so much the way that DeLillo interprets Sept. 11 as the way he describes it; the novel's final pages, with their jarring visceral detail, are enough to unnerve even the most desensitized reader. Decades from now, when Sept. 11 becomes less a recent memory and more a historical event, Falling Man might turn out to be a quaint relic. Reading it now, however, is like packing rock salt into a gaping wound. (Zak M. Salih)
4 Junot Diaz The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead)
Do we really need another writer of trans-cultural emo-lit telling us, a little disingenuously, how tough it is to have parents who speak two languages? And do we really need to know what those people eat, in italics? Probably not. But, even while shuttling between New Jersey and the Caribbean, Junot Diaz leaves that genre in the dust. The jewel in his crown is a full-tilt narrative voice, which somehow manages to shift gears between dialects, pop culture, and literary English so smoothly that he appears to be creating a new vernacular. His voice is forceful, quirky, and self-confident in a way that channels a sort of nerdy, Dominican Henry Miller. But the resemblance ends there. Diaz isn't out to re-create himself; instead he focuses his energies on a multicultural panorama crammed with memorable characters. In addition to the title character, a memorable and nerdy autodidact, they include the firecracker Lola (Oscar's sister) and self-effacing Yunior (Oscar's roommate), both of whom share narrative duties. Then he crosses generations and national boundaries to take us to Trujillo's Dominican Republic and Lola's own firecracker of a mother. Characters, story lines, and languages pop out of the woodwork, always driven by Diaz's exuberant, colored prose. At 300-odd pages, it's a quick, two- or three-night stand. (John Barry)
5 Martin Amis House of Meetings (Knopf)
The cynically belletristic bad boy of 1980s British literature has gone off and done the last thing anybody quite expected of him: Martin Amis penned a controlled, subtle, moving, and modest piece of fiction. House of Meetings chronicles a love triangle between two brothers, who both end up in a gulag during Stalin's Soviet Union, and the sensual Jewess from their hometown. Amis being Amis, the novel is neither linear nor prosaic, and like Amis at his best, Meetings at its core is about a man trying to come to terms with the wreckage that he calls his life. But where Amis' pyrotechnic command of the English language in novels such as London Fields or The Information might have rubbed some readers the wrong way, House of Meeting is restrained, aiming for the gravity of the Russian masters who so obviously influenced this. (BM)
6 Michael Chabon The Yiddish Policeman's Union (HarperCollins)
The patron saint of genre fiction in American letters, Michael Chabon's experiments with "baser" forms of fiction either capture your imagination with their gosh-wow zaniness (such as his editing of McSweeney's two pop-fiction collections) or let you down with their shallowness (such as Gentlemen of the Road). File The Yiddish Policeman's Union under the former. Chabon's alternate future--in which Europe's displaced Jews set up shop in a remote corner of Alaska instead of the Middle East--serves as the setting not just for a nifty detective thriller but also, get this, a commentary on the perpetual fracas in Palestine and Israel. Progressive political messages are much easier to digest when mixed with Jewish gangsters, mysterious executions, covert political cabals, and a doomsday plot involving the Jewish messiah. Chabon's neo-noir adventure leaves you floored that someone out there, among the overcrowded shelves of puffed-up literary novels, can still tell a damn good story. (ZMH)
7 Steven Hall The Raw Shark Texts (Canongate)
First-time novelist Steven Hall is probably at a crossroads. With The Raw Shark Texts, he's come up with a spooky, fascinating premise for a novel. The story opens on a blank page--literally--and progresses as the central character tries to piece his life together while avoiding a memory-devouring Ludovician shark. Hall's imagination is restless and bold, so much so that at this point a movie adaptation is in the works. Whether this leaves Hall himself dead in his tracks is certainly a question worth asking. For the moment, though, his work is ambitious, challenging, and readable, with a cookie-cutter love story at the core that the central character is left trying to revisit. The most memorable character is the shark itself, the ominous devourer of words and memory at the novel's center. The Raw Shark Texts is imperfect but fascinating, and so is its creator. And anyone reading this will wait eagerly--and maybe with a little trepidation--to see where Hall's heading. (JB)
8 David Michaelis Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography (Harper)
The work of Berkeley Breathed and Gary Larson is more grossly surreal, Garry Trudeau's more explicitly political, and Aaron McGruder's more racially informed than Charles Schulz's pint-sized child soldiers ever were; worldly/pop-cultural sophistication certainly didn't become Peanuts. Yet, in its 50-year run, the feature originally titled Lil Folks set an unassailable funny-pages gold standard: the surface cuteness of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the gang turned them into iconic, corporate-pitchman figures despite the air of anguish, futility, and hopelessness suffusing the strip. David Michaelis' incisive, masterful work outlines the profile of a pathologically contradictory figure as likely to overstate his own lack of significance as he was to neglect his children or air his personal problems in code scant inches from Cathy and Prince Valiant. Dig in, and you'll discover more than you ever wanted to know about Schulz: that "Peanuts" is persistently rooted in Schulz's Minnesota upbringing, the stubbornness and workaholic ethic of his immigrant forebears, and his lifelong obsession with Citizen Kane, plus much, much more. (Ray Cummings)
9 William T. Vollmann Poor People (Ecco)
Most of us couldn't hang with William T. Vollmann's approach to tourism. The man lingers in the poorest slums of the world's poorest nations until he's sampled that region's most devastating drugs, most exotic diseases, and, yes, its most downtrodden women-of-the-evening. He's courted much criticism in the past for his fascination with prostitutes--and, to be sure, prostitutes a-plenty pop up in this meandering, intuitive rumination on global poverty--but credit Vollmann with striving to overcome well-intentioned liberal platitudes about the "other" and get down in the trenches, gleaning globs of hard-won wisdom from some of the world's unluckiest people: Chernobyl clean-up crewmen are just the tip of the iceberg. The very human warmth and equally human outrage at the core of it all is shattering--as is the outstanding quality of the writing. Give this guy a Nobel already. (Eric Allen Hatch)
10 Jennifer Belle Little Stalkers (Riverhead)
So maybe you gotta have a soft spot in your heart for Woody Allen to really dig Jennifer Belle's latest novel, Little Stalker. Her protagonist, Rebekah Kettle, sure has a thing for New York's grumpy filmmaker Arthur Weeman, a spot-on tribute to Allen, in this wonderfully written tale of rumor and humor. Kettle is a novelist stuck with writer's block until she meets a charming old woman who lives in an apartment in perfect stalking distance from Weeman's own and who is unlucky in love until see meets a hot paparazzo. While Kettle finds meddling her easiest job description as she avoids writing a new book that might keep her literary star shining (her breakout was seven years ago), her father and a writer bitch/friend step in to advise and interrupt. Composing letters to Weeman from an imaginary tween girl takes over where Kettle's book number two should be, and with Little Stalkers, Belle works a fiction as true as the headlines. (Wendy Ward)
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