It's that time of the year again. Here it is - my made once, checked six times list of favorite reads from 2007:
1. What Was Lost
It's practically a given. The best book in the Booker longlist will not make the shortlist. The best book on the shortlist (which this year was Animal's People) will not win. This year's prize 'the judges must be blind' prize for most deserving book of the year goes to Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost (my review here) - a hilarious and scathing critique of consumerist society, combined with the bittersweet story of an incredible little girl, with an unsolved mystery thrown in for good measure and the most compelling evocation of a child's perspective I've read in years. What more can you ask for?
2. The House on Boulevard Street
Another 'should have won but didn't' book (it was nominated for the National Book Award but lost to Robert Hass's Time and Materials). Kirby's poems can seem rambling and whimsical (see an example here), but concealed behind their conversational charm is a level of mastery few of us can aspire to. Kirby may be one of the few poets living who can tell a joke in a poem and make it work. To read The House on Boulevard Street is to become acquainted with one of the most hypnotic voices writing today - an experience not to be missed, if only for the laughs.
3. The Biplane Houses
Ah, Murray. Anytime that man comes out with a new collection it's almost certain to find a place on my list of top reads, and Biplane Houses is no exception. To see why, go here.
4. Exit Ghost
You knew this one was coming, didn't you? Okay, so it's not the best book Roth has ever written. It's not even the best thing he's written this decade. But it's a new Zuckerman novel, and almost certainly (though you never know with Roth) the last, and Nathan Zuckerman is to me what Harry Potter is to most people. Besides excruciating as the He / She bits of the novel are, the rest of the book is intriguing, meditative, ferocious and wildly over the top. In other words, classic Roth. (my review here)
5. The Savage Detectives
And speaking of bravura performances, the find of the year for me is Roberto Bolano. I'm only about two-thirds of the way through The Savage Detectives as I write this, but I knew it was going to make this list after the first twenty pages. Bolano combines Latin American flamboyance with the bummed-out coolness of the Beats, creating a prose style that reads like Llosa meets Burroughs and a world where Rimbaud and Valery and Parra come mixed with blood and drugs and alcohol, all described in a dozen different (and distinct) narrative voices. It's like reading marijuana.
6. Cheating at Canasta
Reading William Trevor is like listening to chamber music - some exquisite sonata in A minor, a world of depth and longing rendered in sombre, pitch-perfect tones. The stories in Cheating at Canasta (many of which will be familiar to regular readers of the New Yorker) showcase, in their graceful melancholy, the consummate craftsmanship of a modern master. If you love short fiction, this is one book you can't afford to miss.
7. Modern Life
2007 also provided me the opportunity to renew what is fast becoming an obsessive love affair with the work of Matthea Harvey. Whether they're describing the travails of Robo-Boy (a heartbreakingly human android), exploring futuristic dystopias or just riffing on the everyday world, Harvey's poems are, in a word, electrifying (literally so - in 'Free Electricity' she tells the story of a girl who finds sockets growing all over her body and ends up becoming a source of free power for the world). Set in landscapes surrealistic and science fictional, her poems are ecstatic celebrations of the both language and imagination, fragments that capture the anxiety and wonder of the everyday world even as they push the boundaries of what poetry is capable of.
8. Missing Kissinger
If you are interested in short fiction (see no. 6 above) then the other person you should read (if you haven't already) is Etgar Keret - whose punchy, weird, violent and delightful stories are like nothing else. Missing Kissinger recycles a number of stories from his earlier collections, but it's still a phenomenal read, and a great place to start if you've never read Keret before.
9. Brother, I'm Dying!
Another National Book Award nominee. Edwidge Danticat's non-fiction account of the life and deaths of her father and his brother is a moving memoir that combines the personal and the political, juxtaposing the growing violence in her Haitian homeland and the betrayed promise of a new life in the United States against a delicately told story of family and relationships, all-delivered in clear-eyed, confident prose.
10. After Dark
Finally, I can't end this list without including the inevitable nod to Haruki Murakami - whose new novel After Dark (my review here) is a welcome edition to his oeuvre, and one of the most engaging explorations in perspective in fiction that I've ever read.
Honorary Mention: Half of a Yellow Sun
There's only one reason Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's breathtaking novel about the Biafran war isn't on this list - it was published in 2006. It's an engrossing and poignant book, however, full of rich characters, vivid descriptions and some truly marvelous writing.