Journal: The Top 20 Books by the Village Voice

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Here's a sample of the Village Voice's top pick of 2007 . . .

The Best of 2007

Voice writers pick their favorite 20 books of the year

December 4th, 2007 6:37 PM

All About H. Hatterr

by G.V. Desani

NYRB Books, 318 pp., $15.95

Imagine a schnockered Nabokov impersonating The Simpsons' Apu while reeling off tales of an Anglo-Indian Don Quixote, and you get some sense of Desani's wacko masterwork—a hilarious mix of slapstick misadventure and philosophic vaudeville, voiced in a manic Hindu-accented English so jagged and dense it makes you dizzy. A 1948 bestseller in England, sporadically reissued since then, and now in the NYRB home of the almost-forgotten, the author's only novel follows the idealistic naïf H. Hatterr on his wisdom-seeking quest, in which he encounters (among other nuts) the malaria-mad mystic Giri-Giri, a scheming sage who deals in used clothes, and Charlie, the steak-loving lion. To paraphrase T.S. Eliot's view: It's the goddamn weirdest book you'll ever read. ROBERT SHUSTER

An Elemental Thing

by Eliot Weinberger

New Directions, 194 pp., $16.95

It may be a platitude to say that everything is connected, but it can still be difficult to enact. Eliot Weinberger's unclassifiable book of short, poetic essays spans a nearly inconceivable range of subjects: from a compact biography of Muhammad to a meditation on Greenland ice; from Empedocles' metaphysics of love and strife to transcriptions of birdcalls in Papua New Guinea—and much, much more. It's also a crystalline guide to the history of various cultures and religions. Frequently bordering on the fantastical, the details that Weinberger assembles quick-shift like poetry between metaphors and the literal. Lyrical, deadpan, slyly subversive, and jaw-droppingly erudite, An Elemental Thing puzzles over hardened categories in order to expand an appreciation of all that they inevitably exclude. ALAN GILBERT

The August Wilson Century Cycle

by August Wilson

TCG, 10-volume box set, $200

August Wilson was a big man, a man of solid substance, and the 10 plays that make up his life's work—one for each decade of the 20th century—constitute one of the bigger achievements in American dramatic literature. Now published complete by Theatre Communications Group, with the last two to be written appearing in book form for the first time, the box of 10 hardback volumes makes a parcel of fitting solidity and weight; few contemporary playwrights could match its contents for substance. Wilson's chronicle of a century's changing life in Pittsburgh's Hill District has become a permanent part of American theatrical converse. On the page, it gives off a power redoubled by the reader's ability to pull out an earlier or later volume for comparison, hunting the innumerable buried interconnections that, once discovered, seem to give Wilson's work even greater stature. MICHAEL FEINGOLD

Barefoot Runner: The Life of Marathon Champion Abebe Bikila

by Paul Rambali

Serpent's Tail, 315 pp., $20

Equal parts sports biography, political exposé, and probing character study, Barefoot Runner pays vivid tribute to a forgotten chapter of Olympic history. Why should we still care about Abebe Bikila, Ethiopia's first gold medalist? Because his unprecedented back-to-back marathon wins in 1960 and 1964 officially forced the "developed" world to take postcolonial Africa seriously for the first time. Author Rambali's fascination with this royal bodyguard turned world-class athlete revolves as much around Bikila's transforming relationships with his Swedish trainer and the Emperor Haile Selassie as around Bikila himself. The meticulously researched tale of visionary collaboration between three very different men offers unusual insights about Selassie's government and how it might've avoided destruction by class warfare and Cold War poli-tricks. CAROL COOPER

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Díaz

Riverhead Books, 335 pp., $24.95

A decade after his legendary story collection Drown, Díaz seems like a different writer, but just as strong—where the earlier book was dead-serious, gory, and cinematic, Oscar Wao uses a light touch and incisive comedic sensibility to tell the story of a fat Dominican nerd from New Jersey who can't get a date; a Dominican dictator who can't not get a date; an immigrant family creaking and snapping under the weight of both; and a fukú the size of Hispaniola. JAMES HANNAHAM

Christine Falls

by Benjamin Black

Henry Holt & Co., 340 pp., $25

In the proud tradition of Kingsley Amis (a/k/a Robert Markham), Cecil Day Lewis (a/k/a Nicholas Blake), and Stephen Spender (a/k/a Agatha Christie— all right, we made that one up), respectable writer John Banville has commenced writing thrillers under a pseudonym. As Benjamin Black, the Booker Prize–winning Banville made his genre debut with Christine Falls, a Dublin- set novel in which pathologist Quirke investigates the death of a young woman. Satisfyingly plotted and resolved, the book is most remarkable for its shadowed evocation of the 1950's city and the religious, political, and family machinations that made it run. Sinister priests and baby-smuggling rings might tempt lesser men to melodrama, but Black swathes the action in near-Beckettian gloom. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts

by Clive James

W.W. Norton, 768 pp., $35

Cultural Amnesia is possibly the first collection of criticism to deal with both Mao Zedong ("The rediscoveries [of Mao's atrocities] were succeeded by a further forgetting, and the same holds true today") and Tony Curtis ("His Sidney Falco is one of the definitive performances of the American cinema: the galvanic answer to the perennial question of what makes Sammy run"). Not to mention just about everything in between: Mario Vargas Llosa, Dick Cavett, G.K. Chesterton, and Raymond Aron are raised aloft; Walter Benjamin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Leon Trotsky take hits from which their reputations will never recover. James is the greatest cultural critic of our time; he's what you'd get if you crossed the DNA strands of Edmund Wilson and Pauline Kael. ALLEN BARRA

Ice by Vladimir Sorokin NYRB, 321 pp., $23.95

Let's be honest: The novel, as a form, is not getting any younger. In an age of staid conventions, few writers have done more to invigorate and expand the possibilities of narrative fiction than Vladimir Sorokin, who has made it is his business, over the past 25 years, to probe and dissect the ulcerated psyche of the Russian people. It's difficult to summarize the plot of Ice, only the second of his novels to be translated into English, without making it sound like the fantasy of a violent and heretical Scientologist. Let's just say there are abductions, millenarian prophesies, and an alien super-race—and that, somehow, it works. GILES HARVEY

The Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader Pantheon, 996 pp., $39.95

By all accounts, Kingsley Amis never shut up. Whether he was belching, farting, impersonating animals, or making sounds altogether more civilized, the life of the great comic novelist would appear to have been a roaring cataract of garrulousness. To his son, Martin, he was an "engine of comedy"; Philip Larkin, his closest friend and lifelong correspondent, told him that he "lived in a world of the most perfectly refined pure humour." This new biography, the third to appear since Amis's death in 1996, does a magnificent job of showing us not only the incorrigible joker, but also the womanizing alcoholic who often seemed to relish the tragic spectacle of his own disintegration. GILES HARVEY

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