December 31, 2007

Personal essay: The Year in Books, 2007

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)


The Year in Books: 2007

So first, a few reminders before this essay begins:

1) CCLaP is essentially a one-man operation right now, which means that I was only able to get through a mere fraction of all books that were published in 2007. This is not nearly a comprehensive look at the entire publishing industry, but rather a highly selective look at the 50 or so books I in particular got to read and enjoy this year.

2) Speaking of which, don't forget that CCLaP actually started up in June of this year, meaning that this first year's list of eligible books is actually half the size of future ones. Expect 2008's final list to be more around the 100 mark.

3) And also don't forget that I review books that were published up to 18 months ago, meaning this is not only a look at 2007's books but also the second half of 2006.

4) If you haven't yet read the Ridiculously Long Guide to CCLaP's 10-Point Scoring System, I'd encourage you to do that first. And for that matter, you might want to read the CCLaP Manifesto as well, if you haven't already.

5) And finally, let's not forget that I've always been kind of uncomfortable with the adding of a fake competitive element to the arts; I believe this to be one of the best things about the arts, in fact, that instead of a simple objective "best" and "worst" that can be chosen (like sports, for example), there is room for all kinds of different artists to connect profoundly with all kinds of different audience members. My scores here should always be taken with a grain of salt, with the long-form essays being much more important as to understanding whether that book really will appeal to you in particular or not.

That said, I guess let's start with...

The Best of the List
By coincidence, exactly ten books of the 50 or so I read and reviewed in 2007 received a score of 9.5 or above; you can generally count these as the "best" books I read this year. The list includes the following, presented in alphabetical order...

After Dark, by Haruki Murakami
After Dark, by Haruki Murakami
This Japanese master of the surreal and darkly humorous was in fine form this year, presenting what I consider a great novel for those new to his style to gently ease their way in. Mostly a character study of various random folks awake in the middle of the night, in a sketchy area of Tokyo long after the trains stop running, the slim novel also contains just enough weirdness (and with this weirdness partitioned off into its own section) to let those who are uncomfortable with cutting-edge work slowly worm their way into the unique outlook on the world that Murakami has. Curiously Victorian, curiously international, this is a great little story for both long-time fans and new ones.

Glasshouse, by Charles Stross
Glasshouse, by Charles Stross
How astounding is science-fiction author Charles Stross, anyway? Not only does he kick out a full-length commercial novel each year like a robot, but each of them turn out to be brilliant as well, with Stross now either being nominated for the Hugo Award or actually winning it more times than I can even remember. And once again, in the last year he's kicked out yet another amazing one, an unofficial sequel to his highly popular Accelerando (or at least a book that builds on the theories being discussed in that one). Set among a barely recognizable humanity 700 years in the future, this "hard SF" novel manages to take on teleportation, replication, genetic manipulation and a hundred other brain-bending topics, while still managing to be both wickedly funny and a devastating attack on the Bush administration and all his neocon goons.

Grand Avenues, by Scott Berg
Grand Avenues, by Scott Berg
This nonfiction general-public history book by the Washington Post columnist tells the story of Washington DC, the United States' national capitol, and of the curiously relevant story behind its chaotic founding -- the first time in US history that people tried to combine governmental destiny and free-market capitalism, a delicate combination that still continues to be the main modus operandi here in America, sometimes to great detrimental effect. But it's also the story of Pierre L'Enfant, the whiny and arrogant French architect who first drew up the plans for this built-from-scratch city; it effectively made him a "city planner" a hundred years before the term was even coined, something that went well at first but then soon crashed and burned, because of a team of politicians and business owners ultimately clashing against the "delicate genius" of the offensive L'Enfant. It's a great reminder of how important the fine art of politics is when it comes to grandiose plans and expensive creative projects, and how no artist can really live in a vacuum when tossing around budget numbers that get into the billions.

Jamestown, by Matthew Sharpe
Jamestown, by Matthew Sharpe
The big surprise of the year, a dazzingly witty experimental novel that has gone over like gangbusters with the Oprah crowd, and that many think has a serious chance of winning this year's Pulitzer, which would be a major coup indeed for small press Soft Skull, who originally put it out. It's essentially a retelling of the real founding of Jamestown, in honor of its 400th anniversary, the very first English settlement in America, which nearly snuffed itself out because of incompetence and a complete ignorance of the wild; but here Sharpe tells the story through the crooked and twisted lens of a post-apocalyptic America, where the "Native Americans" are actually mutated survivors of a nuclear event, and the English settlers actually a motley band of Mad-Max-style adventurers, part of a gang in the ruins of Manhattan who are out looking for uncontaminated food and other supplies. Now add Sharpe's mastery of the English language, his display of a half-dozen different literary styles, and his skillful look not only at the "real" story but how the legend has come about over the centuries through unreliable testimony, and you have yourself one stunning book indeed.

Radiant Days, by Michael FitzGerald
Radiant Days, by Michael FitzGerald
One of two books on this list that I'm so very glad made it, because of it being an obscure book by a basement press with hardly any promotional money to spend; also one of only two books at CCLaP this year to earn a perfect 10. It is on the one hand the look at an individual person, a dot-com prick in the 1990s who is convinced by a good-looking European in the Bay area to impulsively move to the Balkans; there he is confronted smack-dab by the Yugoslavian civil war that was raging at the time, an experience that not only was he not expecting but that he also doesn't have the slightest clue how to react to. At the same time, though, this is also a much grander story, that much like the best of Graham Greene records the events of a former Empire right at the end of its imperial years (England in Greene's case, Bush-era America in FitzGerald's); a look at the uneducated, arrogant, foolish, naive, fat and soft and lazy citizens that all empires end up churning out in its most bloated days (i.e. the years right before they permanently crash and burn). A stunning book, one you should go out right this minute and buy, especially because of this being a struggling basement press that needs your money.

Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk
Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, by Chuck Palahniuk
This veteran of weird indie-lit was at it again in 2007, turning in a story obviously influenced by his previous Fight Club but just so good on its own as well. Like much of his other work, this novel ostensibly starts as a straight-ahead story: the oral biography of an infamous disease-transmitter in America named Buster Casey, obsessed with rabies-infected animals as a kid, roaming the landscape as an adult while playing a dangerous game with friends called "Party Crashing." But also like a lot of his work, there is an entire second story taking place under the surface as well, one that's best left a secret which is why I won't mention anything about it here, but one that just socks you in the gut by the time everything is said and done, and makes you very glad you sat down and read it. Stop referencing Palahniuk, you hipster doofus, and actually read some of his work!

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Let's face it, that this is the book 2006 and '07 will be remembered for: winner of last year's Pulitzer, the one that gave Oprah fainting spells, the one that people have frankly been going apesh-t for, no matter who they are and what kind of work they usually like. And it's easy to see why after you read it -- because this post-apocalyptic thriller is no less than an entire indictment of Bushism from the ground up, a book that will teach future generations about these years as profoundly as Arthur Miller's The Crucible now teaches us about the McCarthy years. It's not for kids, that's for sure, and don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise; this look at a post-nuclear planet that is slowly going extinct dips pretty regularly into nightmare territory, and includes some of the most horrific and sickening imagery that you will ever find in a freaking Pulitzer winner. This is the other book in 2007 that got a perfect 10 at CCLaP; if you're not one of the millions who have already read it, you really should.

Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, by Stephen Marche
Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, by Stephen Marche
This is the other book I'm particularly glad to see make this list, yet another tiny little release from a tiny little company from an obscure author that is nonetheless simply brilliant. In this case it's smartypants academic writer Stephen Marche, whose newest manuscript is in fact a complex fake history of a British colony that never actually existed, supposedly in the North Atlantic and combining both the superstitious aboriginal culture of the South Atlantic with the lighthouses and wool sweaters of the Irish coast. But more than that, it's a look at their history through the specific filter of the island's literature, a long and proud tradition that stretches more than a century, from their Victorian penny-dreadful days through Modernism, revolution, independence, postmodernism, and now a diaspora. Marche writes several stories, in fact, representing each of these fake moments of "Sanjania"s fake history, while still stretching along old cultural references that are alluded to over and over; he also pulls it all together with fake academic notes, fake literary criticism, even a fake introductory overview and fake photographs of the actual island. It'll make your head spin, this one, just how amazing and dense it is; it was a real treat to accidentally stumble across it earlier this year.

Three of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson
The other book of 2007 that everyone is talking about; winner of this year's National Book Award, from the author of a previous book (Jesus' Son) many consider one of the best of the last 25 years, a grand and thick Herman-Wouk-style epic adventure about Vietnam, as viewed from the standpoint of two dozen different characters coming at it from two dozen different backgrounds and attitudes. It's an overwhelming book, both conceptually and from the sheer page number (seriously, give yourself four to six weeks to read it); one of those books that committees love giving awards to, especially considering how undervalued Johnson has been among the academic community for most of his career. And don't forget, Johnson has a very unique writing style that simply rubs some people the wrong way; if you can't stand either David Mamet or slam poetry, you need to stay away from this 600-page military-friendly behemoth.

The Uses of Enhantment, by Heidi Julavits
The Uses of Enchantment, by Heidi Julavits
And finally we have the latest novel by the editor-in-chief of McSweeney's-owned literary journal The Believer, a book I picked up earlier this year on a whim at my neighborhood library; and boy, am I glad I did, in that it turned out to be that occasional book having absolutely nothing to do with me or my life but that I found nonetheless obsessively compelling. Set among a rich cold matriarchal family along the east coast, the novel takes a look at a mousy teenage girl who is supposedly abducted for six weeks, repeatedly raped, and then sent back home with no memory of the affair. But after examination, a Freudian psychiatrist claims that the girl is making it all up, a theory that the girl publicly confirms and that leads to the doctor creating an entirely new pop-culture term ("Hyper-radiance," limited just to mousy New England girls, a way of coping with their budding sexuality within a repressive environment, which in the 1600s actually manifested itself as demonic possession). Oh, but then an anti-Freudian feminist doctor comes along and posits the opposite -- that the abduction and rape was real, that the girl was deliberately referencing literary projects from the past as a desperate cry for help, and that she needs to "take back her story" from those evil males who would steal it from her, all of which the girl also publicly confirms. So who's right? Or is it a third possibility? And if so, why would this mousy teenage girl deliberately lie in public three separate times about it? It's a great look at young sexuality, the creative urge, and the yearning of mousy New England girls to break free of repressive environments, a book you definitely do not need to be a mousy New England girl to deeply enjoy.

Five Great Controversial Books
As those who have read up on CCLaP's scoring system know, the books here that receive scores in the 7 and 8 ranges can often be better than the ones in the 9 range; it's just that these books are controversial ones, with a split audience that either loves them or hates them, which is why I feel it's unfair to give them higher scores than they get. Nonetheless, here are five books definitely worth your attention, depending on who you are...

dermaphoria, by Craig Clevenger
dermaphoria, by Craig Clevenger
This intriguing near-future noir, featuring a complex Memento-type plot centered around the overdose of a designer drug that doesn't actually exist, is also told in a highly stylized poetic way, sure to turn many people off from page 1 and with them never really catching back on. If you can find the groove of Clevenger's story, though, you're sure to be rewarded with this infinitely layered look at love, destiny, duty and the nature of reality, as well as marvel at the level of metaphor he pulls off precisely through the fever-dream drug-induced hallucinations of our addled anti-hero. Recommended for those who like David Lynch and Christopher Nolan.

The Exception, by Christian Jungersen
The Exception, by Christian Jungersen
It's a devastating criticism of the radical-liberal NGO community of northern Europe, written by a radical-liberal NGO veteran from northern Europe! Zuh? Originally published in his native Denmark, this novel has stirred up trouble no matter where it's gotten released -- it's a convincing argument for why haughty anti-war intellectuals shouldn't be getting too high and mighty about America and Bush these days, because in fact it's human nature that leads us to do terrible things, not geography or race. And indeed, as seen through this surprisingly violent psychological thriller set in a Copenhagen non-profit organization, it's not the Hitlers and Bushes of the world that cause evil in the first place; according to Jungersen, it's all the rest of us living our normal lives, who commit a string of small moral lapses each day that eventually add up to one big evil society. Highly recommended for the snotty liberal soapbox orator in your own life who needs to be taken down a couple of pegs.

Jezebel, by Lesley Hazleton
Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible's Harlot Queen, by Lesley Hazleton
You know that big evil pagan hussy from the Bible? You know, the one who supposedly brought about the fall of Israel? Yeah, turns out that she was actually kind of a modern hero, or so claims Hebrew scholar and Middle East journalist Lesley Hazleton, a woman who practiced with her husband a form of cultural tolerance and political detante in ancient times, leading to a half-century of peace and prosperity in the biblical Middle East. And in fact what changed all this, according to the author, was the prophet Elijah, portrayed as a hero in both Judaism and Christianity but according to Hazleton not much more than the West's first radical fundamentalist, destroying the long-term peace in order to instigate a monotheistically inspired holy war, one still going on there thousands of years later. So yes, in other words, it's a book-length argument going directly against one of the most cherished elements of Jewish passover lore; a smart book, don't get me wrong, one based on fact and history, but one that will highly upset a number of people nonetheless. Recommended for those not carrying a lot of religious baggage around with them.

The Possibility of an Island, by Michel Houellebecq
The Possibility of an Island, by Michel Houellebecq
Michel Houellebecq hates you! Yes, you! And that's all the more reason to read Houellebecq's work, of course, because he is not only so pinpoint precise but also laugh-out-loud hilarious with his various observations about how much humanity sucks, whether that's the preening women or simpering men you're talking about, the elderly which should be killed or the youth who should be forcefully turned into prostitutes. He's the very definition of the word 'controversial,' in fact, which among other things led to a court trial in Europe a few years ago to determine whether a previous novel of his (2002's Platform) was guilty of inciting racial violence. This newest novel, then, is a sneakily-disguised fictional memoir of all the things that happened during that real-life trial, told not only in the present day but also partly as a far-future post-apocalyptic science-fiction tale, about a Heavens-Gate-type religious cult that turns out to have been right all along. Bizarre, filthy, brilliant, and guaranteed to offend you at least once before you're done, or else you're not paying close enough attention.

The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya
The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya
Okay, let's face it, that this simply deserved a better score than it got, a victim of being one of the first books I ever reviewed here before my score system had been thoroughly "calibrated." In actuality started way back in 1986, originally published in its native Russia seven years ago, this "modern fairy-tale" takes a satirical if not bloody look at the last twenty-five years of Russian history, told through the lens of a post-apocalyptic Moscow which has reverted into a Dostoevsky-like village of uneducated peasants. Now, there's a whole string of prerequisites involved with eventually being a fan of this book; you need to already understand recent Russian history, Russian arts and culture, Moscow geography and landmarks, and the various famous and influential Russian poetry to come down over the ages, before this book will be the deeply entertaining experience that led to it becoming such a blockbuster in its native country. If you're like me though and have only a beginner's understanding of these subjects, you can still enjoy its wry wit and ingenious framing device. Recommended for those who like to take on a dense challenge every so often in their pleasure reading.

Books That Deserve a Second Chance
And then here are five books reviewed this year that perhaps deserve to get looked at again; where perhaps time has led me to think better of them than when first reviewed, or were perhaps defended vigorously via email and comment by their passionate fans. They include...

The Dissident, by Nell Freudenberger
The Dissident, by Nell Freudenberger
I admit, I'm still frustrated with the lack of follow-through concerning the great set-up of Freudenberger's first novel, which ostensibly combines the burgeoning underground art movement of late-'80s China with the consumerist environment of modern Los Angeles, in what was sold as a dark Franzen-like comedy of errors but that I thought really just went nowhere by the end. But her fans have gone on to argue that I missed the great characterizations seen in the book, as well as the rich environment created, which I concede I did. Also, I guess it turns out that a lot more people take contemporary performance art more seriously than I do; really, people? Naked 21-year-olds hanging upside down from crucifixes while being slapped with raw slimy fish in the middle of a freezing warehouse on the industrial edge of town? I don't think such crap is worth culturally debating, but it turns out that a lot of people disagree with me.

God Is a Woman, by Ian Coburn
God Is a Woman, by Ian Coburn
I didn't exactly give this basement-press book a bad review when it first came out, a supposed real guide to dating by Chicago stand-up comedian Ian Coburn, but in reality more of a insider's look as to how a comedian's mind works, of how they take all the black and nasty bits of life around us and warp them into hilarious jokes to tell on a stage. A miraculous thing has happened since then, though, which is why I wanted to mention this book again; it has gone on to briefly hold the title of #1 comedy book at Amazon Canada, accomplished almost entirely through the rabid intensity of his fans, who have organized blog-writing campaigns and more to complement Coburn's relentless touring as a comedian. It's an amazing and heartening story to see from the underground arts, of fans who believe in a book enough to help that author get it that much attention; it's worth revisiting the book just for that alone, in my opinion, not to mention its surprising depth and laugh-out-loud humor.

Growing Up Moffett, by Sarah Moffett
Growing Up Moffett, by Sarah Moffett
Okay! Maybe an atheist isn't the best person to review a saccharine-sweet Christian memoir! I admit it, okay?! Sheesh, Moffettes, will you leave me alone now? I still contend that this self-published memoir about cancer, death and the grieving process has a slew of beginning problems, and that Moffett would've greatly benefitted (as most self-publishers would) by hiring an outside professional to actually be their editor; but it's also true that Moffett has some of the most vocal and passionate fans out of all the authors reviewed here in 2007, and that they love this book in a way I'm obviously missing. I'm not officially giving it a thumbs-up myself, but I'm saying that it's definitely worth taking another look at.

Hairstyles of the Damned, by Joe Meno
Hairstyles of the Damned, by Joe Meno
Again, I didn't give this much-loved "indie-rock novel" exactly a bad review originally, but did complain about its "indie-rock novel" gimmicks -- the top-ten lists, the mix-tape lists (oh, all those mix-tape lists), the overuse of handwritten typefaces and a lot more. But as a number of people have gone on to point out, even I admit in that review that I used to like such novels a lot more when I was younger, and that my review in this case skewed too heavily towards middle-agers who have already had their fill of such projects. That's a fair criticism, and I'll own up to that; that those in their twenties are sure to like Hairstyles of the Damned a lot more than I did, and I should've pointed that out more. Besides, for an essentially basement-press book to eventually sell 80,000 freaking copies (and counting), something has to be going right, right?

On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
Meh! I still don't understand what all you people see in that McEwan fella anyway; but the truth is that a lot of you do, that I was one of the only critics on the planet to pan this book in 2007, and that in this case I'm simply going to have to accept the fact that I'm in the slim minority here. So in other words, yes, you should probably end up checking out this book if you haven't, even if I in particular couldn't freaking stand it.

The CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Award
Ah, and finally, behold the start of a brand-new and historic tradition! Since I'm such a big fan of genre work, I thought it'd be fun each year to single out a small list of such books I particularly enjoyed, which unfortunately didn't receive very good raw scores here precisely because of them being genre books. (For those who don't know, part of what makes up a book's score here at CCLaP is how much it will appeal to a general audience versus a specific one.) Note that like the Peabody, the number of winners changes from year to year (and did I just compare a guilty pleasure award to the Peabody?); this year's winners of the CCLaP Guilty Pleasure Award include...

The Chess Machine, by Robert Löhr
The Chess Machine, by Robert Löhr
It's a rousing historical drama about 1700s southeastern Europe! No, wait, it's a witty steampunk caper, based on the actual curious case of a fake chess-playing machine from those years! No, wait, it's an interesting character drama about what kinds of people would actually attempt to pull off such an elaborate ruse! Stop! You're all correct! This endlessly inventive novel hit all the right notes with me, as a Boing-Boing-reading, Second-Life-playing, Web 2.0-mocking technophile who just happens to be into all this specific stuff; if you're specifically into this stuff too, you deserve it to yourself to take a look at this book, although if you're not you can safely skip it without having to feel guilty.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo
A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, by Xiaolu Guo
"Pettus, why don't you ever review chick-lit here? What do you have against chick-lit, Pettus? You got something against love stories or female authors, Pettus?" No, I've got nothing against love stories or female authors, people, only projects that are freaking stupid, and unfortunately most of the stuff that gets marketed under that oh-so-reviled "chick-lit" moniker (the endless pink covers, the endless frilly typefaces, the endless Mod cartoons) is endless dreck that should've never been put out in the first place. Instead, "Sex In the F--king City" fans should check out more novels like this one, that delivers on all the steaminess and emotions that come with the sex act and relationships, but without once ever insulting you or insisting that you accept a flesh-and-blood Cruella DeVille as an actual real-life literary character. Stop caving to the stereotype, ladies! You can like silly romantic things and still be intelligent; this book proves it!

Infoquake, by David Louis Edelman
Infoquake, by David Louis Edelman
Regular readers will know that I'm a real science-fiction junkie, and that although I try to maintain a balance at CCLaP I do end up returning to that genre again and again; and when it comes to that genre, not many other books this year pleased me as much as Washington DC web developer Edelman's first novel, which became not only a surprise hit and prompted a three-book contract, but also became a surprise Campbell Award nominee as well. Essentially a far-future tale where a whole lot has happened, where free-market capitalism is "re-discovered" and subsequently treated with all the reverence we treat ancient Classicism, this dense story is literally a genre fan's dream; an entire universe with an entire glossary full of backstory, and even with an expansive website devoted to those who want to know more, allowing fans of such expansive universes to really wallow in all the details of it all. Not the best-written story around, for those who aren't hardcore SF fans; but for those who are, this fan-turned-professional delivers in spades everything a lover of smart science-fiction would ever want.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman
Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman
Oh man, this is about as guilty as guilty pleasures get -- an entire novel from an academically-trained PhD about superheroes, written in both a witty deconstructionist style (ala The Specials, The Tick, The Incredibles, etc) but also as a legitimate Dark Age rumination on superheroes themselves (ala The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, The Authority, etc). Did you not get a single reference I just made? Stay the hell away from this novel! For the rest of you, though, you're going to find a lot to obsessively enjoy in this very erudite yet hilarious look at freaks in tights.

Anyway, that's it for CCLaP's look at the year in books for 2007; and as always, I encourage you to leave your own notes about this list, as well as your own picks for book of the year, as a comment at the bottom of this entry. Thanks for such a great year, everyone, and I do hope that you'll be able to come back by regularly in 2008 as well.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:19 AM, December 31, 2007. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |