It's our job to help you separate the year's literary wheat from the chaff, but not even serious bookhounds have time to read everything. This year, I couldn't find time to read a couple of acclaimed novels which would likely be on this list if I'd gotten around to them: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz and Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. With that caveat, here's one booklover's picks for the best of '07.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins). Chabon's wildly imaginative novel assumes that Franklin Roosevelt's proposal to resettle Europe's Jewish refugees in Alaska was carried out. The author, exuberant as usual, serves up a whole world that's foreboding but oddly familiar in a story that mixes political speculation with questions of exile, identity and love. The whole thing is wrapped in the form of a 1940s hard-boiled detective novel, complete with snappy dialogue, dead wiseguys, chess fanatics and, quite possibly, a messiah. This fun-house mirror version of a noir novel is a cross-genre classic.
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi (St. Martin's Griffin). Bertozzi's graphic novel is a beguiling murder mystery/fantasy set in 1907 Paris where musical, literary and visual artists Erik Satie, Gertrude Stein, Georges Braque, a foul-mouthed Pablo Picasso and friends discover a secret stash of blue absinthe that allows those who drink it to travel inside paintings. Bertozzi, finally, is writing about how modernists radically changed the way art relates to "real life," but he does it in a way that's more fun than a barrel of Cubists.
Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon (HarperCollins). It's 10 years after the end of an unnamed South American country's brutal civil war, which left tens of thousands of people missing. A Sunday radio show -- "a program for missing people" hosted by a woman named Norma, whose husband disappeared during the war -- becomes a national phenomenon. Then, someone brings information that leads Norma to think her husband is still alive. Alarcon's prose is energetic and often spellbinding, as is the author's empathy for his characters who continue living despite their conflict-ruined lives, and start a new cycle of common dreams of a free, peaceful life.
Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake (Shoemaker & Hoard). Lace Ricker, her husband Jimmy, and their three sons and daughter are a hard-living family struggling to survive in Southern West Virginia, where coal companies are destroying large sections of the Appalachians via "mountaintop removal mining." Lace fights the company, as her family finds itself in strange, new, defiled landscapes, living an intricate and oddly creative form of poverty. Lyrical portrayals of the landscape vie stylistically with Pancake's often stream-of-consciousness narrative. This is a daring book, filled with insights, poetry and grit.
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster). It makes sense that Burke -- that most poetic of mystery writers, and creator of Louisiana lawman Dave Robicheaux -- would write the first great post-Katrina novel. The plot, involving looters who pillage a gangster's house after the storm and a failed priest last seen trying to rescue trapped parishioners in the Ninth Ward, is gripping. Burke is magnificent in the way he harnessed his talent to his anger and sorrow over the profound tragedies -- human, social, ecological, economic and national -- of New Orleans' devastation.
Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA by Tim Weiner (Doubleday). Compelling, maddening and ultimately frightening, this National Book Award winner confirms -- in detail and from impeccable sources -- what we've suspected since 9/11: The CIA is chronically short on solid intelligence and has been plagued by incompetence and bureaucratic inertia since Day One. Half-baked ideas, reckless projects and a culture of butt-covering have led to an agency in dire need of being gutted and re-imagined.
The Wild Trees by Richard Preston (Random House). A fascinating look at the dedicated subculture of people who climb and explore the world's tallest trees -- the 350+-feet tall redwoods of northern California. After developing safe techniques for climbing to the upper reaches of "the blue whales of the plant kingdom," these explorers discovered that the giant trees are hosts to many other life forms including fern gardens, berry bushes and rhododendrons that grow out of the accumulated soil on the redwoods' branches, as well as birds and bugs seen almost nowhere else. The trees' canopies are often divided into foliage "caves," creating a maze-like environment most humans have never imagined.
Prime Green by Robert Stone (Ecco). Award-winning novelist Robert Stone's memoir of the 1960s often resembles his later novels: hard living, the rough-and-tumble, hallucinatory landscapes of the counterculture, and the decay and violence of war. Highlights include his job as a writer at sleazy tabloids in New York, a 1971 trip to Vietnam as a journalist, and, in between, a lengthy stint with Ken Kesey and his bus-touring Merry Pranksters. This is one of the very few accounts of the now-mythologized 1960s that conveys the sprawling sense of possibility and hope so many felt then, even as some, like Stone, noticed that things also seemed to be breaking apart around them.
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Knopf). Haitian-born novelist Edwidge Danticat's tight prose practically shoots sparks in this beautifully crafted, riveting memoir. She tells a family story of her parents moving to the United States while she stayed till age 12 in Haiti with her father's brother Joseph, a formidable man and dedicated pastor who eventually also flees his country for the States. This is a quick, albeit intense, read, charged with history and political drama that speaks eloquently to both the immigrant experience in America and the complexities of families anywhere.
Imperial Life In The Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Knopf). A Washington Post journalist tells a revelatory, horrifying, and at times hilarious story of life within the surreal bubble of the Green Zone at the beginning of our botched occupation of Iraq. Ineptitude was the rule in Baghdad, usually perpetrated by political appointees who thought they had lucked into cushy jobs, only to find themselves fearing for their lives and trying to figure out which contradictory orders to follow -- which often led, of course, to very real (and very expensive) tragedies.