In no particular order, here, in my opinion, are the best books of 2007:
Richard Russo's "Bridge of Sighs" is an expansive and intriguing story about ordinary people in a small New York town, Thomaston encompassing their entire lives, told with flashbacks and different voices. The story starts when the main characters are in their 60s and then works back. Russo's prose is enthralling, and this book is the fictional masterpiece of the year.
• Kate Christensen's "The Great Man" is an ingenious novel about art and aging. The focus is Oscar Feldman, a fictional 20th-century New York painter, who is deceased. Two biographers think his artistic life is worthy of study, so they search for documents and interview the women in his life his wife, his mistress and his sister (also a painter). All are past the age of 70 and notable for their intellect and sexiness.
• Colin Cotterill's "Anarchy and Old Dogs" is a delightful tale of 73-year-old Dr. Siri Paiboun, "the reluctant national coroner of Laos," who tries to identify the body of a man who turns out to be a retired, blind dentist, killed by a logging truck in front of the post office. He was delivering a letter written in invisible ink. The coroner's best friend, Civilai, a senior member of the Laos politburo, is also in his 70s. The two bounce off each other with wit and color. Count this one as a happy discovery.
• Carol Muske-Dukes' "Channeling Mark Twain" is a stunning tale about a poet named Holly who volunteers to teach a workshop in a New York women's detention center. Based on the author's own experiences, the narrative is filled with tension, humor and realism. One of Holly's students claims to be a direct descendant of Mark Twain and tries to prove it by speaking in a steady stream of words taken from Twain's writings.
• Christian Jungersen's "The Exception" uses the voices of four women characters who work together in a small nonprofit organization in Copenhagen, where they disseminate information about genocide. When two of them receive death threats, they assume they are being harassed by Mirko Zigic, a Serbian torturer and war criminal, because they have recently written about him. As time goes on, tensions increase among the women and they start to suspect each other of making the threats. This is a brilliant study of conflict in the workplace, masterfully written by a second-time novelist whose work has been translated from Danish.
• Danielle Ganek's "Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him" is a light, conversational novel about a crisis in the art world. After a painter is killed before his artistry is officially appreciated at an art gallery showing, strange things happen. Although the artist is almost completely unknown, his death, combined with an unusual, large painting, sends the New York art world into a spin. The characters are funny and diverse, and surprises keep popping up, giving the book genuine charm.
• James Lee Burke's "The Tin Roof Blowdown: A Dave Robicheaux Novel" is about Katrina, the storm that peeled the face off southern Louisiana. The hero is Jude LeBlanc, a "sojourner in the Garden of Gethsemane." LeBlanc is a priest who is also a morphine addict, and his Lower Ninth Ward congregation is hit hard by Katrina. The story includes looters on boats, refugees on rooftops and black diamonds stashed in drywall. Burke, a master of the crime novel, gives the reader chills with this one.
• Michael Ondaatje's "Divisadero" is this gifted novelist's sixth work, set in northern California, Nevada and, eventually, south-central France. It begins in the '70s with a makeshift family: a father, his daughter and two orphans (a girl and a boy), and it ends with a poet/novelist named Lucien Segura. The book deals in many layers of feeling and memory, and the writing by the author of "The English Patient" is superb.
• Thomas Mallon's "Fellow Travelers: A Novel" is a historical novel that is not only entertaining but of major importance. The book astutely deals with the anti-communist witch hunt of the '50s and enlarges upon it to make clear historically that it was also an anti-homosexual period of American history, a time when anyone who just might be homosexual could be drummed out of any government post.• Lynn Stegner's "Because a Fire Was in My Head" is a tragic story about a young girl who loses her father, destroying a special bond. After growing up in the tortured environment of an insane mother, she breaks loose to live on her own, but the result is even more tragic as she repeatedly chooses the wrong man, then abandons the children produced by those unions. The author's insight and writing style are mesmerizing.
• Jeffrey Toobin's "The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court" is the best book yet about the country's highest court and its current justices and some of their more important cases. Toobin discusses the habits and personalities of those who preside over the court. Unfortunately, he cannot reveal his sources, said to be current or former clerks and a few of the justices themselves. Toobin is a little too sure of himself and makes historical judgments that may not stand the test of time but it's an enjoyable read.
• Alastair Campbell's "The Blair Years: The Alastair Campbell Diaries" is the first look back on the 10 years Tony Blair served as prime minister of Great Britain, written by his former press secretary. An experienced journalist, Campbell put a well-considered, well-written entry into his diary every night, offering clear and clever insight into Blair, his decision-making process and his interaction with world leaders. This is a keeper of inestimable value to historians.
• Sun Shuyun's "The Long March: The True History of Communist China's Founding Myth" is remarkably interesting revisionist history. The author, a historian and documentary filmmaker, has written an extensively researched book about the march of 1934, as the communist Chinese army tried to elude Chiang Kaishek and his Nationalists by marching 8,000 miles to the yellow, barren plateau of northwest China. Mao Zedong is revealed as a cruel dictator who purged his own people from the start.
• Jurgen Neffe's "Einstein: A Biography" (translated by Shelley Frisch) tells the fascinating story of who many think is the greatest mind of the 20th century. Neffe is a German biochemist and journalist. His book is fresh, thematic, extremely well-written and translated into idiomatic English and is scientifically first-rate. It is so much better than the generally more well-received Albert Einstein book written by American Walter Isaacson, which is textbookish and dull.
• Robert Stone's "Prime Green" is a brilliant memoir about the '60s. Enmeshed in the beatnik generation, drugs and all, Stone was lucky enough to emerge unscathed. He narrates a delicious piece of social history with unmistakable eloquence and writes about overcoming brain surgery in 1963 (before CT scans) and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward starring in a film made from his first novel, "WUSA," which he describes as akin to "an indifferent episode of 'Matlock."'
• Pauline W. Chen's "Final Exam: A Surgeon's Reflections on Mortality" is written by a physician who is caring and emotional. She writes that she discovered early in the practice of medicine that while she had hoped to save lives, she was destined to spend a great deal of time "living among the dying." So she developed the ability to comfort the bereaved, even embracing those who sobbed at the loss of a loved one.
• Daniel Tammet's "Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir" is a most unusual and well-written memoir a candid look into "The Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant." Now, at 28, Daniel Tammet, who is British, is gifted in the ways that are known to us such as calculating numbers in his head but he also suffers anxiety, loneliness and uncertainty. Tammet draws a parallel to his life and that of Lewis Carroll, a mathematician who wrote "Alice in Wonderland."
• Michael Frayn's "The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe" is a remarkably interesting philosophical book. Frayn, a novelist and playwright, asks the central question: What would the universe be like if we were not here to say something about it? He is especially interested in language. Anecdotally, he discusses fiction, thinking, syntax, analogy and dreams.
• John Lukacs' "George Kennan: A Study of Character" is a compact volume about the life of an "extraordinary man" who was largely unknown to most Americans. Kennan wrote 17 books and scores of essays and articles, and his memoir at the age of 60 won a Pulitzer Prize. He was the originator of Containment, the foreign policy philosophy the Truman administration used to fight communism.• Tim Weiner's "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" is already a multiple prize-winning book in which the author calls the CIA a failure as a spy service. He provides a mountain of information to prove his case and blames every American president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush for allowing this to happen. The author notes that the CIA "misapprehended the intentions and capabilities of our enemies, miscalculated the strength of communism and misjudged the threat of terrorism."
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