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The 12 best books of 2007

The Sturdy Dozen

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A recent study said one in four Americans read no books last year — a rather appalling statistic.
So bibliophiles, unite, as we look back at the best and most diverse books of the year.
Let's get literate!

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ADOLESCENT
The Dangerous Book for Boys [Buy Now]
By Conn and Hal Iggulden
Collins, 288 pages, $24.95

This book is the rarest of gems — it teaches boys how to be boys.

In an age when video games are the norm and playing tennis means turning on the Wii, boys have forgotten their roots — and some of the magic of childhood.

The Iggulden brothers originally published this in England in 2006, but this is the updated American edition. Soon your son will be fashioning complicated knots or palming a coin.

And while it's unlikely your boy will actually end up needing to know how to tan a skin, better prepared than not.

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BIOGRAPHY
Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography [Buy Now]
By David Michaelis
Harper, 672 pages, $34.95

This eye-opening look at the life of a man dedicated to making us laugh (and sometimes think) reveals Schulz as a profoundly unhappy and depressed man who turned the comics industry on its head.

Discouraged from being an artist by his parents and his teachers, Schulz persevered nevertheless, in some cases writing and drawing his own life into his work, such as an extramarital affair that came to the papers in the form of Snoopy's crush on a girl dog.

Schulz detested the name Peanuts, but was forced to use it by his publishing syndicate.

The book contains 250 Peanuts strips, in addition to memoirs, interviews, and personal correspondence.

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RELIGION
god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything [Buy Now]
By Christopher Hitchens
Twelve Books, 307 pages, $24.95

You could go either way with this book — a gift for the atheist on your list or corroborating evidence for the fundamentalist you wish would get a little more educated.

Hitchens, a long-time, vocal critic of religion, pontificates emphatically that all that religion leads to is bad, quoting Orwell's statement that "a totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy."

He comes down on everyone from the Dalai Lama to Mother Teresa, leaving only Martin Luther King, Jr., as a positive religious leader.

If this book has a flaw, it's that it is, ironically, too preachy. Hitchens' fundamentalist atheism sometimes leads him astray.

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FANTASY
The Name of the Wind [Buy Now]
By Patrick Rothfuss
DAW Hardcover, 662 pages, $24.95

Rothfuss' debut novel is an epic beginning to a trilogy full of all the folklore, fantasy, and fighting you could ask for. It has romance and horror, and is as absorbing as anything I've read lately (though really time-consuming).

Legendary fighting man Kvothe, hero or villain, depending on who's telling the story, is presumed dead, but he's really a quiet country innkeeper. One night, a storyteller known only as Chronicler arrives at the inn and guesses Kvothe's true identity. He convinces the legend to tell his story, and this first book covers his childhood years with his family, murdered by the evil Chandrian, his time as a street rat in a large city, and his years at "The University."

Its abrupt ending will frustrate the hell out of readers who want to know what happens next.

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WAR
Vietnam Zippos: American Soldiers' Engravings and Stories (1965-1973) [Buy Now]
By Sherry Buchanan
University of Chicago Press, 176 pages, $25

Unfortunately, it's difficult not to write about war these days. Indeed, many of today's bestsellers cover the war in Iraq, the government's dealings and misdeeds, and on and on ad infinitum.

This book is quite different. Soldiers in Vietnam often used their Zippo lighters as canvases to write about the horrors they were experiencing and their frustration at being stuck in the jungle in the chaos that was the Vietnam War.

As one soldier scratched, "We are the unwilling, lead by the unqualified, doing the unnecessary for the ungrateful."

An excellent look at the Vietnam War through the eyes of the soldiers who were there.

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SCIENCE
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain [Buy Now]
By Oliver Sacks
Alfred A. Knopf, 400 pages, $26

Sacks is a well-known medical researcher who has brought us some of the more accessible books about medicine and science through his gentle, narrative style. Musicophilia serves to bring to mind the role, conscious or unconscious, that music plays in our lives.

Some examples are drawn out, others short, but there is a reverence for how music affects the brain throughout. Of particular note is the story of a man who is struck by lightning and suddenly develops a passion and talent for being a concert pianist.

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THRILLER
The Face of Death [Buy Now]
By Cody McFadyen
Bantam, 464 pages, $24

Something evil this way comes. The sequel to last year's Shadow Man, McFayden's hero FBI Special Agent Smoky Barrett is struggling to recover from the death of her family and best friend. Now, she has to get back on her feet and help a 16-year-old foster kid who has been stalked by a serial killer since she was six. He murdered her biological family and dog back then; now he's killed her latest foster family, and turning to Barrett may be the only way she survives the stranger's blood lust. A compelling page-turner.

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AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Look Me In the Eye: My Life With Asperger's [Buy Now]
By John Elder Robison
Crown, 304 pages, $25.95

Robison, brother of author Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors), is an exceptional individual who overcame the alcohol abuse of his father and mental illness of his mother all while dealing with Asperger's Syndrome — a high-functioning form of autism.

With a brain hard-wired not to pick up social or facial cues, Robison seems destined for failure until some junior high teachers convince him to fix some audiovisual equipment, leading him to a world of switches and circuitry and allowing him to function in a world that doesn't require him to recognize emotion.

As an adult, John sets about convincing others with Asperger's that they don't have anything wrong with them, but have to learn to get along with who they really are.

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ROCK 'N' ROLL
Clapton: The Autobiography [Buy Now]
By Eric Clapton
Broadway, 352 pages, $26

Although it has the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll you'd expect, Clapton's autobiography is really a story of recovery, and of a wild boy who's grown into a gentleman who hunts, fishes, and collects contemporary art. Still, there's plenty of juicy material, especially in the early years with the Yardbirds, Cream, and solo. A rock fan's must-have for the season.

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COFFEE TABLE BOOK
Creature [Buy Now]
By Andrew Zuckerman
Chronicle Books, 300 pages, $60

A bit pricey, but well worth it for the nature-lover on your list. With 175 beautiful, interesting, weird, and wild animals from rhinos to mandrills, these pictures are unusually presented, all against a white background so you can really see the details in the animals rather than get diverted by their natural surroundings. It's a bit surreal to see these creatures out of context, but it's magic to the eye and worth your money.

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COMICS
The Sopratos: A Pearls Before Swine Collection [Buy Now]
By Steve Pastis
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 128 pages, $10.95

I am not generally a fan of the comic strip, far preferring the comic book or graphic novel, but Pearls Before Swine has me reading the funnies again.

The only way to describe it is that it's bizzarely random, and I've spent a number of mornings with my coffee trying to figure out what it is that makes me laugh so hard.

With a cast of characters from the animal world, some of whom speak only in broken sentence fragments, Pearls Before Swine is the best thing since Bloom County and The Far Side.

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CHILDREN'S
Skippyjon Jones and the Big Bones [Buy Now]
By Judy Schachner
Dutton Juvenile, 32 pages, $16.99

Holy Guacamole! Skippyjon Jones may be for kids, but it'll have you rolling.

The kitten who's been known to think he's a chihuahua is off on another adventure via his closet, looking for dinosaur bones. But when he runs into his old friends the Chimichanga Gang (for whom he defeated the Burrito Bandito several years ago), it's a joyful reunion — until a T-Rex shows up and El Skippito must save the day again.

This one's a delight for kids of all ages.

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