2007: Year in Review
During this past year, I received more than 1,500 books. Of those, almost 500 were featured in this column. Picking the best and worst of the year was not an easy task, but after several weeks of sifting through past reviews and revisiting some of the better books, I finally selected 10 of the best and a short list of others that merit special mention. The Laurels and Hardly Books of 2007 are listed in no particular order.
“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, $24.95)
Weisman, an award-winning journalist and University of Arizona professor, wrote one of the most discussed books of 2007. He poses a simple question: What would happen if human beings were removed from the planet? He draws on the expertise of engineers, atmospheric scientists, art conservators, zoologists, oil refiners, marine biologists, astrophysicists, religious readers and paleontologists to imagine a world without people. Highly entertaining, this remarkable book features some of the most imaginative reporting in years.
“1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina” by Chris Rose (Simon & Schuster, $15)
In this book, published on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist Rose chronicles the chaos, horror and unrelenting sorrow that consumed the city as it struggled to rebuild its neighborhoods and unique culture after one of the most destructive storms in United States history. The author details everything from his personal experiences of depression and addiction, to the dark, grim accounts of lost lives and dashed hopes.
“The Library of Congress World War II Companion” edited by David M. Kennedy (Simon & Schuster, $45)
The staff of the Library of Congress, the world’s largest library, joined forces with Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Kennedy to produce an authoritative and uniquely engaging volume in 12 informative and highly readable chapters that cover almost every aspect of the great conflict. A treasure trove of facts, figures, anecdotes and unusual vignettes, this is an indispensible source for those who wish to better understand the seminal World War II era and its consequences that continue to reverberate throughout our world.
‘The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps: The Best Crime Stories from the Pulps During the Golden Age – the ’20s, ’30s & ’40s” edited by Otto Penzler (Vintage Crime, $25)
This bold, comprehensive collection is so unexpectedly good, it left skid marks across my brain. Weighing in at more than 1,000 pages and 3.8 pounds, it contains more than 50 stories and two novels, featuring top stories written by such talents as Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler and Cornell Woolrich. Lifted from the back issues of America’s most celebrated pulps, this nonstop collection packs all of the punch and surprise of a smoking revolver.
“The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible” by A.J. Jacobs (Simon & Schuster, $25)
Although we have more than an abundance of people in this country who love to thump the Bible and quote Scripture, how many of us would have the courage to actually follow the teachings literally? Jacobs, a secular Jew living in New York City, carefully read the Bible – several versions of it – and then made a list of 700 rules he would try to obey for one year. This fascinating book is the insightful, witty, heartfelt story of his experience.
“Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener’s Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand” by Scott Calhoun (Rio Nuevo, $22.95)
Award-winning gardener Calhoun constructed an adobe home near the Rincon Mountains. After completing the structure, he looked at the beaten dirt in his back yard and was almost overwhelmed about how to proceed. After all, what do you do with a yard full of sun? Passionate, gritty, and wise, his book provides a guide to extreme gardening, along with extensive plant and resource lists. This is nothing less than a celebration of our region’s native plants and an inspiration even for those of us who are cursed with brown thumbs.
“Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (HarperCollins, $26.95)
Several years ago, the Kingsolver clan left Tucson and set up housekeeping in Appalachia where they resolved to spend a year growing their own food. If that wasn’t possible, they’d at least buy from local producers. This wonderful account of their experience is written with such grace and wit, it has all of the comfort and warmth of a leisurely visit with a cherished friend on a shady front porch. Barbara Kingsolver is a national treasure and her book is an absolute joy.
“The Devil’s Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial that Ushered in the Twentieth Century” by Harold Schechter (Ballantine Books, $27.95)
This was my favorite true crime book of the year. Gripping and atmospheric, this is the shocking story of a notorious double-murder that involved members of New York’s high society during the early years of the last century. Schechter brings to life this incredible case with such flair, one can almost hear the hissing of the gaslights in the elegant townhouses, bordellos, ritzy restaurants and shabby opium dens of early 20th-century New York. Meticulously researched and crisply written, this is an insightful, exciting book written by a historian at the top of his game.
“Clapton: The Autobiography” by Eric Clapton (Broadway Books, $26)
There is a simple explanation why Eric Clapton’s autobiography has soared to the top of the best-seller lists and remained there for more than two months. It is honest, wrenching and genuine. In fact, it might just be the best autobiography of its type ever written. Clapton pulls no punches as he reveals the intimate details of his life, including his addictions, his messy divorce from Patti Boyd and the tragic death of his 4-year-old son, Conor.
“Long Time Leaving: Dispatches from up South” by Roy Blount Jr. (Knopf, $25)
This is an almost perfect collection of essays, a satisfying blend that is scholarly, raunchy and biting. Blount, who has written more than 50 books, is a panelist on NPR’s “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me,” a columnist for the Oxford American and a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly. He describes himself as a Southern Cracker but makes it quite clear that he is hardly typical. For example, he is pro-choice, favors gay marriage, and is against teaching creationism in public schools. He also opposes the carnage that is the war in Iraq. He writes with authority and wit. If you’ve never read him before, sprint to the nearest bookstore because it’s time you did.
“Sacco & Vanzetti: The Men, The Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind” by Bruce Watson (Viking, $29.95)
“The Gravedigger’s Daughter” by Joyce Carol Oates (ECCO, $26.95)
“The Big Book of Boy Stuff” by Bart King (Gibbs Smith, $19.95)
Books continue to be published that are hateful and mean-spirited. Two I received, read, but not considered fit for review:
“If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d be Republicans” by Ann Coulter (Crown Forum, $24.95)
“An Inconvenient Book” by Glenn Beck and Kevin Balfe (Threshold Editions, $26)