Year-end book lists frustrate me. They’re published reminders of the thousands of new pages I didn’t have time to read because I was busy analyzing “The Kite Runner” for a course, or finishing half-read novels from the year before. (Or, to be honest, because I was perusing friends’ – and friends of friends’ – book choices on Facebook.)
But I read the lists all the same; from the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of the Year to the Literary Review Bad Sex in fiction short-list, the latter really not as racy as it is confusing. Lists arriving earlier in the year provide some time to procure books to read over break in a post-finals, post-family holiday stupor. But the ones that come a little later, at the beginning of the new year, more or less suggest material for plane rides and weekends before the endless game of catch-up begins again. For those of you especially crunched for time – or spending a lot of it on that devil social networking site – here’s a short list of some bigger, as well as more obscure best-ofs, to scan during the first lecture of this semester.
For bad sex, on paper: The Literary Review’s “Bad Sex” award short-list
The organizers call it the UK’s “most dreaded” literary prize, and reading the parts that inspired the great works to be nominated for “Bad Sex” can be a truly dreadful but also quite funny exercise. Try historical figures singing of “the ultimate triangle, whose angles delve to hell but point to paradise” or – worse – “The Hound . com(ing) to life. Right in her mouth” (from Christopher Rush’s “Will” about young Shakespeare and Norman Mailer’s “The Castle in the Forest,” respectively). When awards were announced, Mailer became the first author to take the honor posthumously. But the other unfortunate sex scenes are worth a look, too. The short-listed passages, available online on the The Guardian’s website, include robot sex (“The Stone Gods” by Jeannette Winterson), sex between two extremely overweight people giving “the smell of asparagus and related greenery” (“Absurdistan” by Gary Shteyngart), and some extended metaphors about birds singing Mozart (“Girl Meets Boy” by Ali Smith). Note: Ian McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach,” while making standard top tens and the Booker Prize shortlist, was longlisted here.
For simply agreeing with your favorite pundits: Slate.com “The Best Books of 2007”
Slate polled a number of its editors and regular contributors for their personal favorites. As a result, readers get two memoirs tied to Islamic fundamentalism (“The Islamist” by British author Ed Husain, about his personal experiences with radical Islam, and “Infidel” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, which has sparked all sorts of controversy for the Somalian expat). There are a number of books also on the standard top tens – like Denis Johnson’s Vietnam-inspired “Tree of Smoke,” and Ha Jin’s “A Free Life” – a science book or two and a couple that weren’t published last year at all (but Slate editors seem to do what they want). Slate’s architecture critic Witold Rybczynski recommends famous urbanist Jane Jacobs’s “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” published in 1961 – an especially interesting read if you ask, as Rybczynski does, how the book holds up, looking at the slow “deaths” of certain great American cities since “Death and Life’s” publication.
For tastes that are beyond me (but I know they mean a lot to other people so here it is): Publishers Weekly, Top Manga of 2007
While looking for Publishers Weekly’s best of the year, I found, instead, its suggestion of ten titles that made 2007 a “year to remember” in manga, or the Japanese comic form. In tribute to Junot Díaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” which has made the New York Times’s 100 Notable Books list as well as my own list for 2007, here’s the top five of the comics that hero Oscar would have loved.
5. “Incredible Change-bots” by Jeffrey Brown – “American mecha á la Transformers as interpreted by Jon Stewart,” the trade rag says.
4. “Suppli” by Mari Okazaki – the struggles of 20-something Japanese career women, in comic form.
3. “MPD Psycho” by Eiji Otsuka and Sho-u Tajima – According to PW, “violent by necessity.”
2. “Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms” by Fumiyo Kouno –” A reminder of where manga came from, and the conditions it grew out of.”
1. “Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White” by Taiyo Matsumoto – a coming-of-age story about street kids and, apparently, the best of the year.
For the thinking reader: The Economist magazine’s books of the year 2007, fiction and memoirs. McEwan’s “On Chesil Beach” makes this list (for good reasons and not for weird fornication, though the book is about an imperfect wedding night). So does the seventh and final Harry Potter book, and Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union,” which didn’t really get stunning reviews, but the Economist seems to like it. The premise is great: What would happen if instead of Israel, the Jewish homeland “is a 60-year lease on a dodgy bit of Alaska”?
For further consideration:
The New Yorker music critic Alex Ross unpacks the last century through classical music in “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century.” And Oliver Sacks’s “Musicophilia” teaches us about music and its effects on the brain. Both have garnered thumbs-up (with Ross’s tome winning him a spot on the New York Times’ top-ten overall this year). But what about Carl Wilson’s investigation of the Celine Dion phenomenon in “Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste”? Wilson tries to explain her popularity, conjectures that hating Celine is not an aesthetic choice as much as it is an ethical one, and reveals a few things that may make you question your favorite producers: Timbaland and Prince are both fans – figure that one out.
Chou only had time to write this beacuse she deactivated from Facebook. E-mail her your picks at firstname.lastname@example.org