Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Favorite Books of 2007, Part I

Since it’s still pretty early in the year, I decided to reflect on my year in reading for 2007 and compile a list of my favorite books of last year. The books I’ve included are my favorites of the books I read in 2007. This is not a list of what I think are the best books of 2007: some had been sitting on my book shelves for a few years waiting to be read, and no doubt some of my favorite books that came out in 2007 will be my favorite reads of 2010 or so. These books are favorites in different ways – some were fun, entertaining reading, others the sorts of books I’ve found myself repeatedly thinking about ever since, some profoundly moving – but they’re all books I’m passionate about in one way or another.

In reflecting on my favorite books of the year, I’m struck by several things:

1. There’s a lot of fiction on my list. The novels and short fiction I enjoy most provide much more than escapism, but there’s no doubt that like many readers, one of the things I enjoy about fiction is the temporary reprieve from whatever I’m stressed or worried about. I suspect so much fiction shows up on my list this year in part because I’ve been stressed and worried about some major things this year, most notably my grandmother’s long battle with throat cancer, and ultimately her death in late November, and a series of episodes of illness and serious pain for my partner, and ultimately his own diagnosis with cancer, surgery, and continuing chemotherapy.

2. Most of my favorite books last year were written by men. I’m not quite sure what’s up with that. It does not fit my long term reading patterns and likes. Certainly, if I think of the ethnographies (as a cultural anthropologist, probably the type of book I’ve read the most of over the course of many years) that have been my favorites or most influenced my thinking (not necessarily the same things), the majority have been by women writers, even if I’m not really sure why that’s the case, either. One conjecture is that I read not just a lot of fiction last year, but a lot of male-written fiction, and I think you could argue (though you could also very easily over-generalize) that male written fiction is often more escapist than female written, and maybe that’s appealed to me over the past year without my quite realizing it. Or maybe it’s just the sort of random pattern that can crop up whenever you’re dealing with small samples. Even though I read considerably more books in any given year than the average person (as I would presume would be true for any academic), the set of books I read in a given year, much less my favorites among them, is too small a sample to make much of in terms of quasi-statistical generalization.

3. There’s not much anthropology on the list. Only three books were written by anthropologists (Asad, Dumont, and Sánchez Piñol), and one of those, Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin, was a novel, and only one, Dumont’s Under the Rainbow was an ethnography.

This is not a statement on my part about the state of the discipline. I read several ethnographies that were good, but didn’t quite grab me as favorites. (I’m not going to list them – I at least know better than to piss people off by listing books that I thought were bad, mediocre, or okay but not great.) Most of my reading for pleasure was devoted to fiction this year, as noted above. I also had quite a kick during part of the year reading books that were not strictly speaking anthropological ethnographies, but were in one way or another “writing culture,” and several of those works do show up on my list below.

4. Most of my favorite novels have one or two things in common. I’m not a huge fan of science fiction, although I’ve read a lot of it, and some of my all-time favorite books fit into the genre. For a genre based on the notion of wholesale imagining of alternate realities, I tend to find most science fiction shockingly conventional.

Most of my favorite fiction does tend to share with science fiction the imagining of alternate realities, that things could be significantly different than in my own particular situation. (This is not, at least at this point in my life, because I’m particularly unhappy with my life, but more because I find it intellectually engaging.)

Most of my favorite fiction tends to do this in one of a couple ways, either by having some of the qualities of magical realism or surrealism, where the reality depicted is in many, if not most, ways congruent with our “real” world, but functions, and in a matter of fact way, in significantly different ways in some respect, or by taking the world as we tend to know it and spinning out the ramifications of “what if” questions (What if everyone went blind at once? What if a plague of zombie-ism broke out around the world?).

Without any further adieu, the first half of my favorite books of 2007 (in alphabetical order):

1. Talal Asad, On Suicide Bombing, Columbia University Press.

Not exactly a fun read, but a thoughtful rumination on terrorism, suicide bombing, and reasons for a sort of Western preoccupation with suicide bombing.

2. Alessandro Baricco, An Iliad, Knopf.

I’ve discussed Baricco’s version of the Iliad on two occasions on this blog: “Uses of Myth” and “Myth, Mythic Literacy, and Contemporary Culture.” It’s a nicely done telling, not quite a translation, of Homer’s classic.

3. Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, Crown.

This is one of the “What if” novels I mentioned above, and I think it’s apparent from the title what the “what if” is. In addition to being an entertaining zombie yarn, this novel is also formally interesting, as it is presented as if an actual oral history collected among survivors of the Great Zombie War.

4. Octavia Butler, Fledgling, Seven Stories.

The only vampire novel on my favorite books of the year list (and yes, I did read other vampire works). Everything I’ve ever read by Butler, including Fledgling, has been smart and what I’d describe as “light” – not light in the sense of fluff or lacking substance, but in the sense of being fleet, with its prose providing for a fluid, quick read. (Although in other ways being extremely different from each other or from Butler, two other favorite writers that have this quality, at least for me, are Ismail Kadare and Imre Kertesz. For all three, I’ve had the experience of surprising myself by reading long, substantive works in quite short periods of time, in contrast to the “heaviness” or density of prose of some other favorite writers. For example, I find myself not so much bogged down [that would imply something unpleasant] but considerably slowed by the prose of Orhan Pamuk or José Saramago.)

5. Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek, and other stories, Vintage.

I can’t put my finger on exactly what I found so engaging about this story collection, but it’s quite good. Not having something more substantive to say, I’ll engage here in non sequitur and note that the title story’s title refers to one of my favorite place names: Woman Hollering Creek near San Antonio, Texas. (Another favorite place name that I tend to associate with it is Hungry Mother State Park in Southern Virginia.)

6. Joan Didion, Salvador, Lester & Orpen Dennys.

Published in 1983, this is a beautiful and extremely unsettling account of an unsettling place in the early 1980s.

7. Jean-Paul Dumont, Under the Rainbow: Nature and Supernature among the Panare Indians, University of Texas Press.

The only ethnography on my list, I had been meaning to read this older work from the 1960s ever since I picked it up in a used book shop in Boston a few years ago. It has one of the coolest chapter titles ever, “Time and Astrosexuality,” has plenty of wonderfully baroque structuralist diagrams, and does what many of my favorite ethnographies do – it vividly characterizes a particular culture that is fascinating in its complexity (and really it is complexity of both the Panare and Dumont’s text that is fascinating).

8. Sesshu Foster, Atomik Aztex, City Lights.

This is the “trippiest” novel I’ve read in a long time. (William S. Burroughs’ The Western Lands, which involves Billy the Kid and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, is perhaps more “trippy,” but I read that probably 15 years ago when I was on a brief Burroughs kick.) The main character is an Aztec warrior in an alternative universe/time line in which Aztec ritual and magic had enabled the survival of that empire, and in which the protagonist aids the Soviets in the defense of Stalingrad against the Germans in WWII, and in which he is destined ultimately to be sacrificed atop a pyramid. At the same time, the main character is in our universe, or at least one very like our own, a Mexican-American slaughter house worker in Southern California.

9. Jean Hatzfeld, Machete Season: The Killers in Rwanda Speak, Picador.

I previously wrote of Hatzfeld’s book (“A Typology of Genocide”). This is an important book, both in shedding light on one of history’s worst genocides through the voices of some of the killers themselves and in its analysis of genocide and other ethnic violence.

10. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, Vintage.

Some reviews critiqued and/or dismissed this book as a conservative revision of the Enlightenment. Certainly, Himmelfarb offers a conservative perspective on the Enlightenment, e.g. in her emphasis on the importance of religious writers in the American strain of the Enlightenment, but unlike Fox News, this careful and often insightful book is fair and balanced. For example, it makes equally clear the role of those same religious writers in contributing to the separation of church and state in the U.S., and Himmelfarb’s book makes more clear than anything else I’ve read how liberal Adam Smith could be (in both the sense of classical economic liberalism and the contemporary sense of social liberalism), and how different he could be from contemporary neo-liberals and neo-conservatives who so often invoke him.

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