And so, the year's best reads, in alphabetical order of the author's name:
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson
Octavian Nothing is a book that subtly, quietly, without drawing much attention to itself, breaks your heart. It's an almost impressionistic narrative of sorrow and despair, a muted, soft spoken account of horrific cruelty. It's got a plot worth noting, too: narrator Octavian is brought up in pre-revolutionary Boston by natural philosophers seeking to study the African's susceptibility to education and culture. In the wake of the discovery that he and his mother are slaves, Octavian makes several attempts to rebel against his fate, at one point even running away to join the revolutionary fighting forces (an interesting sub-plot in the novel focuses on the importance of capitalism--and the right to own people--to the revolutionary cause even as some of the people fighting for it repudiate slavery). But the novel lives in its quieter moments, in its exploration of Octavian's misery and the hopelessness of his situation. A sequel is in the works, and the title suggests that Octavian has adventures ahead of him, but even if neither of these were true, Anderson's novel would be worth reading simply for the unflinching way it gazes into an unspeakably ugly chapter of human history.
- Ink: The Book of All Hours by Hal Duncan
Or, to be precise, the entire Book of All Hours, comprising Ink and its preceding volume, 2006's Vellum. Neither stands on its own, and in fact I was somewhat underwhelmed by Vellum when I read it last year--Duncan's literary pyrotechnics impressed me but left me cold. Ink not only resolves and ties together the many plotlines established in Vellum, it also creates a more-or-less coherent narrative out of them. The result was to retroactively raise Vellum in my estimation, to suck me into its world and make me care about its characters. From a cool, yet ultimately cold, work, Ink turns The Book of All Hours into a sweeping epic, a genuine joy to read. The plot is far too tangled to describe--it involves parallel universes, alternate histories, gods, demons, a book that describes all of human history and the people (usually multiple versions of the same archetype) who seek to rewrite it. Miraculously, it all comes together into something that not only makes sense but is appealing on the simple level of a love story--the whole grand exercise can be said to boil down to two people finding each other. A significant portion of what makes Ink (and Vellum) worth reading is the satisfaction in watching Duncan accomplish something very difficult with only a few missteps, but in the end he's also told a good story--which elevates The Book of All Hours from admirable to excellent.
- Intuition by Allegra Goodman
I think this is probably the book of 2007, and all the more enjoyable for coming completely out of left field. I wasn't expecting great things from a novel about political maneuvering in a cancer research lab, but Goodman's novel blindsided me. Devastatingly smart, impeccably well-written and characterized, and never less than fascinating, it's a cut above not only the rest of the books I read this year but also most of the other books on this list. Goodman has the gift of delving into a pocket universe--in this case, a lab thrown into turmoil when one post-doc's promising results are questioned by another--and making its insignificant squabbles seem momentous and earth-shattering. Intuition is a passionate novel about a subject that most of us tend to think of as dispassionate and even boring. With a minimum of fuss, Goodman explores everything from the politics of alleged meritocracies, through gender dynamics in academia, to the chaos that ensues when outside interests start interfering with research. She's also a dab hand at characterization, peopling her novel with vivid, three-dimensional characters, most of whom are unlikable but also so true to life that we can't help but feel for them. Reading Intuition is like examining a drop of water under a microscope--what seems like tranquility is actually teeming chaos--and once you've taken a look, it's impossible to turn away.
- Oh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet
Millet's novel--equal parts political tract, historical pamphlet, relationship drama, religious fantasy and rollicking comedy--is not the kind of novel one reacts to moderately. In 1947, three scientists intimately involved with the development of the American atom bomb--Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard--are whisked away from the first atomic test and deposited in 2003 Santa Fe. They team up with a depressed librarian and her dubious landscaper husband, and set off on a globe-trotting adventure to explore the ramifications of nuclear proliferation and, ultimately, campaign against it. Take it or leave it, and whatever you do don't read this novel expecting an explanation of the above-mentioned weirdness. Do, however, read Oh Pure and Radiant Heart for Millet's exquisite prose and her sharp sense of humor, for her delicate exploration of characters both historical and imaginary, for the fascinating history of nuclear proliferation she interweaves with the narrative, and ultimately, for her courage in telling such a ludicrous, nonsensical story and never losing faith in it. I have reservations about the novel's ending, which reestablishes the familiar status quo, but even they aren't enough to undercut its powerful effect.
- James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips
Talk about unoriginal: everyone and their sister have praised Phillips's biography to high heavens, most of them when it came out in hardcover last year, and I'm such an infrequent reader of both nonfiction and biography (I think it's possible that Phillips's book is the first biography I've ever read) that I don't know what I can add to their words. Phillips takes a fascinating story--the life of Alice B. Sheldon: explorer, artist, soldier, intelligence agent, psychologist, author--and presents it with a comprehensiveness that is all the more impressive for seeming so effortless. She covers everything from Sheldon's family history (her parents, and mother especially, were as fascinating as she was) to analysis of her fiction and correspondence, under the Tiptree alias, with luminaries of the 70s SF scene. The picture she paints of Sheldon is that of a brilliant, conflicted woman at odds with her upbringing, her sexuality, perhaps even her gender. I'm not sure how accurate Phillips's reading is, but it is certainly well-presented, and for those three of you who still haven't read this book: do so now.
- Whites by Norman Rush
I've already listed two of the six stories from this collection in yesterday's best stories post, so it is perhaps not too surprising that the collection itself gets a nod on the best books list. Rush, the author of two sprawling, digressive, borderline-plotless and utterly brilliant novels, turns out to be equally--perhaps even more--gifted at writing short stories. The pieces here are polished to a jewel-like sheen, every word and sentence in their place and not one unnecessary instance of either. Rush's strongly-plotted stories explore the lives of ex-pats in 1980s Botswana without ever descending into moralizing. Story comes first, and it is through story, not in spite of it, that Rush makes his political points.
- Spaceman Blues by Brian Francis Slattery
Possibly the most benevolent, kind-hearted novel I've read this year, which is an odd thing to say about a story that ends with the alien conquest of Earth. The truth is that plot is the least compelling reason to read Spaceman Blues, and even its main character, Wendell Apogee, is less interesting than the stuff that goes on the novel's sidelines and borders, the minor characters whom Slattery explores with an intimacy that belies the novel's slim page count. Slattery loves his characters--victims and villains, criminals and cops, native New Yorkers and immigrants, humans and aliens. He delves into their souls and exposes their secret desires, makes us love them too and wish for good things for them. But the greatest love in the novel is towards New York itself--or at least Slattery's somewhat fictionalized and mythologized version of it, complete with an underworld suspended by steel cables from the city's roots--which Slattery explores with painstaking affection, describing its neighborhoods, history, rivalries, and landmarks. The result is an exuberant, exhilarating, intense novel.