THE DESCENDANTS | By KAUI HART HEMMINGS | Random House
The Descendants was one of the best first novels I have read for years (and the first book I have ever read that was set in Hawaii). Wife in coma, husband copes with his wayward teenage daughters — that’s the premise, but the greatness of the book lies in Hemmings’ impeccable control of tone. It’s deadpan, hilarious and moving. If under-publicized means “not yet published in the U.S.,” then I would also include Andrew Anthony’s polemical memoir The Fall-Out (Cape), an account of the impact of 9/11 and its aftermath on the consciousness of a middle-aged English journalist of liberal disposition. It is also a brilliantly accurate and unflinching diagnosis — pathologist’s report, actually — of what L.A. resident Tim Roth rightly calls “a disgusting wreck of a place” (a.k.a. contemporary Britain).
THE LONG EMBRACE: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved | By JUDITH FREEMAN | Pantheon Books
If you think there’s nothing more to be said about Raymond Chandler, just read this eccentric, beautifully written exploration of the great crime novelist’s mysterious relationship to his much older wife, Cissy. Chasing the ghost of their obsessive, peripatetic marriage — they lived in nearly 30 places in L.A. alone — Judith Freeman not only helps us see Chandler’s work in a new way, she does the same for the city he mythologized. This is a great book about Los Angeles, made all the greater because this crack literary shamus goes down these mean streets with bracing curiosity, riffing on whatever catches her fancy — gimlets, weird signage, corrupt cops, downtown architecture, storefront churches, even the 1920s vogue of women doing housework in the nude.
SOMEDAY THIS PAIN WILL BE USEFUL TO YOU | By PETER CAMERON | Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus and Giroux
For the life of me, I cannot figure out why Peter Cameron’s astonishing novel is being sold as a Young Adult novel. Granted, the charmingly neurotic and endearing, proto-gay, boy-genius, first-person narrator, James Sveck, is 18 and muddling through a long hot summer before he’s supposed to matriculate at Brown (and, of course, he doesn’t want to go), which is to say a ripe angsty hero for YA readers; and granted, as YA fiction (where lately so much innovative and risky literature is being published), the book will open up city living, the gallery world, online dating, existential geekdom and the conundrum of sexual identity for its target audience in fresh new ways. But my fear is that Adult Adult readers will overlook what is possibly one of the all-time great New York books, not to mention an archly comic gem (that’s LOL to the YA set). Sveck leapfrogs Holden Caufield into the 21st century, and it’s about time Peter Cameron, the urbane, astutely observant author of Andorra, The City of Your Final Destination and The Weekend gained the wider audience he richly deserves. So I take back what I said: With young folk facebooking each other about STPWBUTY, maybe they’ll end up igniting a Cameron craze.
TEN DAYS IN THE HILLS | By JANE SMILEY | Alfred Knopf
While Jane Smiley can hardly be called an under-publicized writer, her novel Ten Days in the Hills was largely blown off by the critics as a windy, bloated snore about some navel-gazing Hollywood types who get stuck in hellishly boring conversations about movies and George Bush for 10 days straight, while cooking and screwing and noshing on vegetarian fare in a house in the Hollywood Hills (think The Decameron on coke). No one I talked to could be bothered reading it. Too bad. It’s a witty book, full of fun and a scathing condemnation of Bush’s utterly immoral war. Smiley also managed to write some of the best sex scenes ever penned by a woman, hot and sweet, and so frankly stimulating it made me want to just put the fiction aside and get down to the real thing.
OUT STEALING HORSES | By PER PETTERSON | Graywolf Press
Despite its appearance on several year-end lists (including The New York Times’ Ten Best Books of the Year), and receiving the Impac Dublin award, Per Petterson’s beautiful, quiet novel of love and family and what might be called mystery still got less attention than dozens of far lesser books. That’s in part because Petterson is a Norwegian of limited recognition, and his publisher, Graywolf Press, is no Random House. But there may be no better novel published in 2007 than this story of 67-year-old Trond, just moved into a cabin in the near-woods and, through a chance encounter with someone from his youth, nudged into looking back on his past and the tragedy that changed their lives. Out Stealing Horses is as still and smooth and strong as a good liquor, and you feel its sad warmth long after.
THE EXCEPTION | By CHRISTIAN JUNGERSEN | Nan A. Talese
A sinister Danish sibling to Joshua Ferris’ National Book Award–nominated office novel Then We Came to the End, Christian Jungersen’s The Exception provides a bleak and brilliant dissection of not only office life, but the seeds of human evil. A best-seller in Europe, but notably absent from the major “Best Books of 2007” lists, The Exception reads like an intellectual thriller and, without drifting into didacticism, provides a deeply troubling treatise on how antipathy and violence link the smallest workplace cruelty with history’s greatest crimes. By combining gun-toting assassins and e-mail death threats with extended essays on the problem of evil and the nature of genocide, Jungersen has written one of the few novels that will be enjoyed by fans of both John Grisham and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
RADIANT DAYS | By MICHAEL A. FITZGERALD | Shoemaker & Hoard
Radiant Days received a few notices when it came out early this year, but most of them were bad. The problem, it seems, is its protagonist: a dot-com burnout who, driven by libidinous impulses, goes from San Francisco to Budapest to Croatia at the tail end of the Balkan conflict. FitzGerald, however, doesn’t intend for his American abroad to be a sympathetic character; rather, he’s a portrait of American depravity disguised as righteous entitlement. To paraphrase Chevy pitchman John Mellencamp: He is our country. Limned with passages of outrageous beauty, sublime violence, and a climax you won’t soon forget, Radiant Days might have flown under the radar, but it scores a direct hit.
THEN WE CAME TO THE END | By JOSHUA FERRIS | Little Brown and Co.
I loved this novel about an ad agency going downhill at the end of the 1990s’ advertising boom. Amid layoffs, the employees have romances, play practical jokes on each other, engage in petty rivalries (sound familiar?). They hate each other, but love each other, but hate each other. It’s delicious to witness the subtle turns between those states. The book is also deeply, deeply funny. Ferris tells the story in the first person plural “we,” which should be annoying, but isn’t. Then We Came to the End is a love song for the modern-day workplace.
CREEM: America’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll Magazine | By ROBERT MATHEU and BRIAN J. BOWE COLLINS | HarperCollins
When I was 15, my mother made me throw away my Creem archive because she didn’t want to move it into the new apartment, so I haven’t revisited these articles in a long time. I’m glad I can now. Kids, let me tell you how it used to be: Music journalism was a vital adjunct of pop culture, and fans read this stuff because it was witty, savage, irreverent, and didn’t smell like publicity jive. Great pictures too. Love those fake Dewar’s ads!
WHAT WE SAY GOES: Conversations on U.S. Power in a Changing World | By NOAM CHOMSKY and DAVID BARSAMIAN | Metropolitan Books
All by himself, Noam Chomsky is the Beatles of all smart guys. And he has been since 1969, when, at the age of 41 — one year older than John Lennon would ever become — he published his first political, non-linguistics book, American Power and the New Mandarins, about the brutal vulgarities of U.S. foreign policy toward the Vietnamese. Ever since then, Chomsky’s books have been circulating through university dorm rooms with the same underground alacrity that R&B 45s used to during the late ’50s and early ’60s, refreshing in their honesty and mind-blowing for the contempt they showed toward the well-mannered bullshit of the mainstream. What We Say Goes is David Barsamian’s eighth book of interviews with Chomsky and is as breezy to read as any Jann Wenner Rolling Stone interview. The only difference is that when you come away from a Wenner interview, you never feel as if you might be capable of emulating the talent of the person he is interviewing. With Barsamian, however, you do, in fact, come away able to play a competent version of Won’t Get Fooled Again. If that isn’t enough, the mere fact that time has done very little to mellow Chomsky’s intellect is enough of a feat to attract anyone who thrills to the profound heroism of longevity.
STORMING THE GATES OF PARADISE: Landscapes for Politics| By REBECCA SOLNIT | University of California Press
Rebecca Solnit reconstructs the terrain of the essay with the intimate flesh of memoir, and a firm journalistic spine. Scattered with stunning black-and-white photographs, this collection challenges us to take in the natural and material landscapes that inform our cultural identities and interpret them in a language both political and artistic. In these eloquent prose portraits, local landscapes and national narratives intersect in ways that are at once beautiful and destructive.
LISTEN AGAIN: A Momentary History of Pop Music | An Experience Music Project Book | Edited by ERIC WEISBARD | Duke University Press
This collection of essays on subjects ranging from ORCH5, a Stravinsky phrase turned synthesizer blip that helped forge the sound of early hip-hop, to James McKune, a record collector who single-handedly invented the Delta-blues genre, deftly analyzes marginal and telling moments in pop history. Listen Again is a brilliant reimagining of last century’s most accessible art form.
MY LOBOTOMY | By HOWARD DULLY and CHARLES FLEMING | Crown Publishers
Dr. Walter Freeman, a self-proclaimed expert in psychosurgery, once assaulted the brains of 25 women with an icepicklike tool, scrambling their frontal lobes with promises of a “cure” for mental illness — all in one day. Freeman, driving across country in his “lobotomobile,” went on to perform thousands of other surgeries. One patient was 12-year-old Howard Dully, who, with the journalist Charles Fleming, now tells his incredible story, from family rejection (when Freeman failed to “fix” him) to living in mental institutions to dealing with alcoholism, drug abuse and prison. It is in retaking his past that Dully ultimately finds peace, and his place as a kind of laureate for the lobotomized.