This year I again wonder if limiting my list of books of the year to those actually published during the year is the right standard. There were a couple — Michael Arlen’s Passage to Ararat comes to mind — that would have made the list but for the fact they were published before 2007. Adhering to the theory of tradition unhampered by progress, though, this year’s list consists exclusively of books first published in calendar 2007.
I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon, Crystal Zevon. This made my mid-year list and remains top of the heap. The book borrows extensively from Zevon’s own diaries and note-books, giving it a slight autobiographic feel. But his ex-wife supplements the tale extensively with interviews with dozens of fellow musicians, family members, friends, lovers and others, giving us a more objective view. As a result, it truly provides perspective on Zevon’s music and private life.
Two works deserve honorable mention. The first indicates why I wait until year end before posting my list. I finished Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer over Christmas. It may be among the most extensively researched and thorough biographies I’ve read in some time and one which expressly recognizes that those talking about Parsons today may well have vested interests. Kudos also to the memoir Songs from the Black Chair, Charles Barber’s first hand account of struggles with mental illness.
Favorite novel (non-SF)
This is probably the toughest category of the year. I read plenty of good fiction this year, most of it in translation. Maybe the quality speaks to why nothing stands head and shoulders above the others. There are, though, three I highly recommend. Listed alphabetically, they are: Christian Jungersen’s The Exception, Laila Halaby’s Once in a Promised Land and Antonia Arslan’s Skylark Farm. There’s no common theme among them other than the kind of writing that makes you forget you’re reading a book. Coming close behind is one on which I blow somewhat hot and cold but is still worthy of a mention: Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach.
The list also brought about a somewhat surprising realization. Even though I buy the vast majority of books I read (or get them from publishers or publicists), I got each of these from the local library. Only McEwan’s work is from a “big name” author. It’s refreshing to know that it in allocating its money amongst the various demands and needs, the library is investing in quality fiction.
Favorite SF work
I’m really going to cop out here, changing the category from favorite novel to favorite “work.” That’s because I just was so impressed with the anthology The SFWA European Hall of Fame. It is the SF work I most enjoyed reading this year and that seems to come to mind most frequently. If I have to actually pick a novel, I’m going to do the same bail out I did at midyear and pick two: Brasyl by Ian McDonald and Blindsight by Peter Watts. As I said before, both cover such a wide range of ideas that you at times stop reading simply to ponder them.
Although lengthy and not light reading, the nod goes to The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia by Orlando Figes. It is hard to believe that a look at what everyday private life was like in Russia during the Stalin years could be any more thorough or better researched. Honorable mention goes to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, a look at a Court in transition that requires an interest in where this country is going more than an interest in the field of law.
Perhaps a guy shouldn’t pick on the dead but given the fact he won this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction award for the same book, I don’t think my award will matter. Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest took an interesting concept — the story of Hitler’s childhood from the perspective of the demon assigned by the devil to supervise him — and made it vapid.
As usual, there were a lot more books I wish I’d read but what would a new year be without fairly full TBR shelves?
How many times I learned
That the greedy just get greedier
While the vulnerable get burned
“Accidentally Like A Martyr,” Warren Zevon, Preludes