Recommended Books Read in 2007

December 26th, 2007

This list came about because Vaquero asked the members of our e-mail list to send us the titles of books they most liked reading in 2007. This wasn’t a round-up of 2007′s best published books, but rather, whatever the members had read and thought worth recommending to others. Here’s my list, broken into fiction and non-fiction. That all the titles are linked to amazon isn’t because I’m enrolled in their kickback program (I’m not.) Don’t care if you buy from amazon or anyone or at all. But their database is there, and it is convenient for all of us to use.

Fiction

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra is a huge novel — nearly 900 pp., packed with characters, and flashbacks. It never drags, is always interesting; you are always wanting to know what comes next. It’s a policier-detective-mystery-gangster novel, written by an Indian author, all characters Indian, all locations foregrounded in India. It is also, appropriately, considering India’s cultural and political history as the jewel in the British Empire’s crown, a conscious inheritor of the grand English Victorian 3-decker novel, notably, George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

There’s a glossary of names and vocabulary that is as long as a slim modernist novel itself, both necessary and worthwhile for the reader, as well as interesting in itself. As another signal of how good this book is, you wish the author had made the glossary longer, because, as with a Tolstoy novel, after some chapters when you’ve become familiar enough with the characters and the milieu, and you no longer need the glossary, whole new sets of questions are set off in the reader’s mind that call for yet more glossary entries.

This novel is the one of all those I’ve read in the last 5 years perhaps, that I’ve enjoyed the most thoroughly, on the most number of levels, particularly because it throws open windows and doors into unfamiliar worlds, which is what fiction can do better than anything else, particularly if taken in tandem with the food and what makes the people, for whom those worlds are common reality, laugh. There is a lot about food in Sacred Games, and a lot of laughing.

With the exception of the Díaz and Chandra titles, these novels all are what the publishing industry categorizes as genre — sf/f, mysteries, historical. These are shelved by bookstores, and libraries too, in sections separate from each other, as well as safely segregated from the shelves labeled “literature and fiction.” These novels may not appeal, then, to those without a taste for the genres; on the other hand, since 9/11 there are fewer novels published outside of genre that this reader can be bothered with; notably, there’s no stomaching any in the cascade of novels that is currently being published about 9/11, in the competition among our ‘literary novelists’ to own the catastrophe that signaled the end of the world as we knew it.

So, it’s worth noting that the Junot Díaz novel informs us of the Dominican Republic’s cruel history via constant referencing sf/f genre and pop culture, and that Sacred Games was lauded by those who review ‘serious’ fiction and literature, because Chandra, like Díaz, has a prior reputation as a ‘literary’ author with ‘critical acclaim.’

Another point of interest is that hardly anyone sent in fiction titles. However, two others did include The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as well as Vaquero and myself, and another list member recommended Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. Perhaps genre fiction is more highly regarded, and of greater interest to the general reading public than some might believe.

Now here’s my non-fiction list of recommended titles.

Non-Fiction

Which titles, fiction and non-fiction, would you recommend out of your own reading in 2007?
Love, C.

17 Responses to “Recommended Books Read in 2007”

  1. Sherwood Smithon 26 Dec 2007 at 4:30 pm

    I really need to try that Chandra. Thanks for the reminder.

    I’d have to think about lists…not the non-fiction as I’ve been reading a great deal of that, and most of it is fairly specialized stuff. (And I don’t have time or patience to type it up.)

    Fiction? My inclination is to think first of things that haven’t been talked about Everywhere. But should be. Like Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny. This sequel to Farthing is a remarkable, and I think brilliant novel. It is constructed like Farthing but it is not even remotely the same story over and over, as sequels sometimes can be.

    In this alternate Britain, peace was made with the Nazis, with the result of fascism bleeding over into English life. In this particular novel, we have Inspector Carmichael again, this time having to foil a plot against the life of Adolf Hitler. The alternating POV is again a young woman, but utterly different from good-hearted, clumsy Lucy. Walton riffs off the Mitford sisters, but it would be a mistake to assume that Viola and her sibs can be swapped one-for-one with the Mitfords. It’s the peculiar psychology of their upbringing and relationship that she contrasts so beautifully with a kind of Stockholm-syndrome situation. It’s a riveting, sometimes disturbing book, which I found impossible to put down.

    In YA, I was annoyed to discover that one of my top reads was actually a 2006 book. This was Conor Kostick’s Saga, about a teen-age punk airboarder with no memories, who lives with a bunch of outcast kids. Ranged against them are the forces of oppression, but Kostick doesn’t settle for cliche even though this is a novel for kids. Then, just as you’re figuring out the setup, the borderland between worlds opens up. It’s great reading–if I were a teen now, it would have blown me away.

  2. Constance Ashon 26 Dec 2007 at 6:15 pm

    Well, as stated, titles recommended do not need to be, maybe even are encouraged not to be, books published in 2007. Books need to be remembered and recalled in the years post their publication too!

    Love, C.

  3. Kate Elliotton 28 Dec 2007 at 3:23 am

    At the beginning of the year I tried to keep an accounting of all the books i had started, finished, or given up on, but that lasted perhaps one month, maybe less.

    And I’m not sure how many books I actually finished. Non fiction read for research need not always be finished, of course; one might read several chapters that focus on the things one needs and let the rest go for the time being. Still, I don’t get that full sense of satisfaction unless I read the book in its entirety. Additionally, I look at the half read books around the house and can’t recall whether I was reading them this year or in 2006, etc. I seem to have become a great half-reader of books.

    And as for what year any given book is published – that’s way too much for me to keep track of. I’ll try again with a list in 2008. Hope springs eternal.

    Meanwhile, here are a few fiction titles:

    Sherwood Smith, INDA and THE FOX
    Glenda Larke, THE AWARE and its sequels, and HEART OF THE MIRAGE
    Katharine Kerr – actually, I think I read THE SPIRIT STONE in ms in 06; however, I just finished reading 517 pages of what may be published as THE SHADOW ISLE in spring 08, and it’s wonderful.
    Kim Stanley Robinson, SIXTY DAYS AND COUNTING

    I know I’m missing stuff, not to mention the To Be Read pile. Plus I’ve been reading fiction out of the library so because I didn’t note it down, I can’t recall it off-hand.

    Non-fiction? Oy. Lots of partials, here.

    E.C. Pielou AFTER THE ICE AGE: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America – oddly, one of my favorite reads of the year, as it is amazingly for the subject matter written in a lively manner that makes it as readable as a novel

    Nicholas Ostler – EMPIRES OF THE WORD: A Language History of the World – really really good book and for me deeply illuminating – this guy must be brilliant

    Susan B Hanley: EVERYDAY THINGS IN PRE-MODERN JAPAN: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture. Dream-come-true book for the fantasy writer. Well -written, and full of the right kind of details.

    Paul Farmer: PATHOLOGIES OF POWER: Health, Human Rights, and the New War on the Poor. I took Twin B to see Dr. Farmer give a lecture back in, oh, March. I gotta say, Farmer is one of the three most impressive people I have ever come into contact with (don’t ask me who the other two are–it’s a figure of speech). This book is brilliant, profound, angry, and important.

    Patrick R McNaughton: THE MANDE BLACKSMITHS: Knowledge, Power, and Art in West Africa. Good stuff. Anthropological, so an interesting contrast to Robert Thompson’s FLASH OF THE SPIRIT, whose Yoruba chapter I found excellently useful but the Mande chapter became a bit too mannered in that particular academic way for my taste; I can go farther down that road with anthropologists, I guess, their language and way of approaching the situation being more familiar to me.

    Not everything, but enough for now. I know there is stuff i would put on this list if I only had a brain.

  4. Kate Elliotton 28 Dec 2007 at 3:24 am

    Or a list.

  5. Kate Elliotton 28 Dec 2007 at 3:25 am

    And I must say, I am going to pick up SACRED GAMES asap.

  6. Constance Ashon 28 Dec 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Flash of the Spirit is so dense. The more you know yourself, the easier it is to read. But yes, it is not an ‘easy’ read, though it is essential.

    A lot of interesting titles on the list of what you recall; must look into that Farmer title, Pathologies of Power (there is way too much of that going around these days).

    Chandra’s book seems to have made an impression.

    Here’s an interesting essay http://bostonreview.net/BR25.1/chandra.html by Chandra himself in the Boston Review, that addresses certain issues about being an author writing about his heritage within another nation, and how those at home in India perceive him.

    Love, C.

  7. Kate Elliotton 28 Dec 2007 at 9:07 pm

    I don’t mean easy or hard. I find Flash of the Spirit dense, definitely, and impressively so (he really knows his stuff), but not difficult in that sense – he’s a very good writer so he’s an “easy” read as far as that goes. And there’s clearly lots of stuff where i don’t get all the layers because i don’t know the material.

    I think mannered is the word I mean; it’s not a criticism, just that now and again I’ll hit a phrase and I’ll roll my eyes because it’s so academesic in a particular way. I can go farther down that road with anthropology and, I suppose, history, because it’s more my schtick, but even there, there can be a threshold that i can hit at times–so I guess I mean not academic in terms of hard as much as in terms of approach and phrasing. And I admit (not related to Thompson) that I have little patience for the whole post-processural thang. But that’s just cultural materialist me.

    overall, though, I think my best of 2007 has been The Wire. We’ve just started watching Season 4 on Netflix. I think Season 3 may be my favorite, if that’s even meaningful because the first two seasons are excellent also, but the little details – the levels down to which they were putting in details – in Season 3 just blew me away.

  8. Constance Ashon 29 Dec 2007 at 3:29 pm

    Maybe we need a topic that is the best of what we watched in 2007?

    My favorite season so far of The Wire is season 2.

    I have the first disk of season 4 here; I’m waiting to be less sick-stupid to watch it though.

    I watched so much good material on dvd this year. I watched far more dvds than I read novels. My non-fiction stayed about the same, I think.

    Love, C.

  9. Kate Elliotton 29 Dec 2007 at 11:22 pm

    We’ve watched 6 eps of Season 4 so far, and so far so good; interesting movements, and there seems to be a fair bit of deliberate paralleling this time around. I really love this show.

  10. Sherwood Smithon 30 Dec 2007 at 1:24 am

    Hoo boy am I ignorant, I have no idea what The Wire is.

    Talk a little about it, please?

  11. Kate Elliotton 30 Dec 2007 at 2:29 pm

    The Wire is an HBO series, short form (that is, each season is 12 or 13 episodes, and each season provides a complete story arc), dealing with cops and criminals in Baltimore. It is not episodic tv; that is, while each individual episode has a kind of a shape, they aren’t little short stories of themselves. You really have to see the entire season, in order, to get everything that is going on. It’s like Deadwood or Rome in that. They’re basically telenovelas.

    I’m not into cops and criminals shows, but this one really gets down much more fully into characterization, motivation, and the real lack of black and white in any of these contexts. The writing is strong, but for me what really gets me is the level at which the writers layer in details to fully evoke the world they’re depicting and the way people function in that world. It’s just an exceptional piece of world-building and narrative form.

    The first couple of eps of The Wire season 1 are slow, so you have to get through that basic set up. If you do find yourself fully caught by, say, ep 3 or 4, then you’re good for the ride. I love this show.

    I will note that it is violent, foul-mouthed, and by season three graphically sexual (in realistic ways, some of which aren’t nice – that is, women offering sex in exchange for drugs), and that there aren’t a ton of strong roles for women and the secondary roles for women are not nearly as strong as the secondary roles for men. But it is testament to how good a show it is that I am willing to accept that they did not have the ability to go there or did not want to (season four gets into the schools and we begin to see many more strong secondary women characters) and appreciate what they are giving me.

    Constance? Your take?

  12. Constance Ashon 30 Dec 2007 at 6:00 pm

    The Wire is based on a book. “The Corner: A Year In the Life of An Inner-City Neighborhood,” by David Simon and Edward Burns. The latter knew his Baltimore inside-out; he was a cop on the city’s force. I read the book when it came out, on the basis of hearing interviews with both of them. The book was filmed as a series for HBO a few years later, using both real people from Baltimore and professional actors.

    Then the HBO series team (‘The Wire’ was created by David Simon; executive producers, David Simon and Nina Kostroff Noble; co-executive producers, Joe Chappelle and Ed Burns; producers, Karen Thorson and George Pelecanos) then decided to develop The Wire ; they used many of the same professional actors in this series as they did in the previous show.

    Like Alice I’m not a fan of cops and gangstas and druggies and the noir streak of this nation that gets wider every decade since post WWI.

    But there are so many exceptions to that by now that maybe it no longer is true. Noir is what we’ve become: all corruption. As the head of Baltimore’s dockworkers union puts it with such sadness and bewilderment in season 2 of The Wire: Once this was a country that made things, things that the whole world wanted and bought, real things. Now it’s about putting your hand in the other guy’s pocket.”

    It’s just the best distillation of what too much of the country and the world has become, best writing, best acting, most multi-layered, and never takes the easy way out. But — there is so much humanity and compassion, still tiny moments of triumph, of love, of communication and connection. Friendship. It’s America. We see what had been best about it. We see how greed, basically, has allowed the worst of it to come to the fore.

    As Alice said, it might take an episode or two to feel it out, and decide if it is right for you or not. That seems to be the case for almost all arc seasonal television, even Buffy.

    I’ve recovered enough from whatever bug caught me Christmas Eve to start watching Season 4.

    Season 5, and the last one, has wrapped — this one is set in Baltimore’s media – newsworld.

    Season 1 was “The Corner;” the drugs, the trade, the junkies, the cops, the prisons, etc.

    Season 2 was the docks and local and immigrant (Greek and Russian gangsters) gangs, bringing the global trade home in criminality too.

    Season 3 was the legal system.

    Season 4 is the schools.

    Season 5 is the newsroom.

    The team is now looking at trying to do an arc New Orleans series. Simon grew up in NO.

    Love, C.

  13. Aliette de Bodardon 31 Dec 2007 at 10:41 am

    “Sacred Games” was just awesome. I thought I was going to be sloughing my way through it, but instead I raced through it in a week. It’s got everything. (I didn’t even notice there was a glossary, though…didn’t bother me at all)

  14. Debbie Whiteon 02 Jan 2008 at 12:45 pm

    Not that anyone asked for my opinion, but I tried to watch The Wire because I’d heard a lot of good things about it. I really tried to like it but found it hard to get around the distraction of the characters constantly using bad words. I even managed to put up with that until two characters kept saying “fuck” in every sentence and then the scene switches to another two characters and they kept saying “fuck” in every sentence. I thought, “How can the series really be that original and groundbreaking if they can’t even mix up their bad words some and at least give different characters different favorite bad words?” So I never made it past the first disk from Netflix. Maybe it’s my loss, but you’ll have a hard time convincing me of it.

    As for some of the books I enjoyed reading in 2007 and would recommend:

    For fiction:

    The Privilege of the Sword
    by Ellen Kuskner

    Beka Cooper: Terrier
    by Tamora Pierce
    (though I like her previous books better)

    Inda
    by Sherwood Smith

    For non-fiction:

    The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon
    translated by Ivan Morris

  15. Kate Elliotton 03 Jan 2008 at 3:03 am

    Debbie,

    I never figure that everyone will like the same stuff, or even that they should, or that it means anything if they do or don’t except people will and do have different tastes.

    So I think your perspective is a valuable one, to set against Constance and myself.

    Also, the swearing is definitely enough to put people off.

  16. Charleson 03 Jan 2008 at 3:51 pm

    The Wire, in my opinion, has been the best show on television, hands down, for the past 4 years. I really enjoyed the Sopranos, but I think The Wire far surpasses that show.

    As for why, well, pretty much for the same reasons stated by Kate and Constance.

    As for the language, yes, it is often foul, but realistically so. As the series progresses they worked in the street slang that seems to be unique to Baltimore.

    For nothing else, The Wire deserves watching just to study some brilliantly crafted characters.

  17. Edwardon 09 Jan 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Chandra needs to find an editor a good editor. I read red earth and pouring rain and it could have lost 200 pages

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