December 27, 2007

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Hippo’s book picks of 2007
We liked ’em at the time, and looking back, we still like ’em
Reviewed by Lisa Parsons lparsons@hippopress.com

Yeah, we’ve got your The World Without Us and A Long Way Gone, just like everybody else. And we’d probably have the Oscar Wao novel if we’d read it (do we look like we have all the time in the world?). But what you really need is a best-of-2007 list that has maybe a graphic novel in it, maybe a New England photography book, maybe at least one thing you haven’t heard of before.

Presenting Hippo’s favorite books of 2007.

Fiction
The Black Diamond Detective Agency, by Eddie Campbell (First Second Books, 2007, 138 pages)
Black Diamond really is a novel, a “picture novel” as the cover describes it. This suspenseful tale is set at the end of the 19th century in the American West. The characters are a satisfying mix of corporate types and imperfect others: the gangster hero; his mentally ill wife; a detective who has been mute for years, and Sadie, the artist who draws faces for the detectives. The art work is very painterly, with color and shading emphasized. With tight writing and dynamic pictures the mystery unfolds to its solid ending; it even has a humorous anticlimax.

Pontoon, by Garrison Keillor (2007, Viking, 248 pages) A great opening sentence begins this newest Lake Wobegon story: “Evelyn was an insomniac so when they say she died in her sleep, you have to question that.” Despite some shortcomings, the book mostly lives up to the promises of that clever-yet-grounded, sentimental-yet-humorous opening. The plot is classic Keillor, Midwesternly zany and touching deep truths about people. A warm, cozy-ish, funny tale.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, By J.K. Rowling (Scholastic, Inc., 2007, 784 pages) Rowling recovers the fumble of Half-Blood Prince with the pleasingly adventurous Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The action is swift and satisfying and what you’ve been waiting for shows up: Dumbledore’s secrets, Snape’s motives and a heist that involves a half-blind dragon and a piggyback-riding goblin. We also get Rowling’s trademark exposition of shaky continuity and logic but it’s nowhere near the groaning slog of book six. Unexpected redemptions occur, an incongruously well-written fable sneaks in and an exceptionally fulfilling epilogue round out the most interesting (if not the best-executed) and moving Potter tale of the septilogy.

#1 in Fiction
Spook Country, by William Gibson (Putnam Adult, 384 pages)
Sci-fi’s elder statesman delivers a mortal blow to cyber-punk, the very sub-genre he propelled to fame, with this novel so futuristic that it all happens last year. It’s a delicate weave of plots and characters, a remarkable work of fiction and design. So deeply resonant is Gibson’s sense of environment that possibly he will be seen first as one of the great writers of place and not just as the coiner of “Cyberspace.” Spook Country may never be Gibson’s flagship novel, but hopefully it will be recognized as his best.

Nonfiction
New Hampshire: 1603-1776 (Voices from Colonial America), by Scott Auden (National Geographic Society, 2007, 109 pages) To start with, New Hampshire was where colonists went when they got kicked out of Massachusetts for not being religiously “pure” enough, and explorers were hunting for a bountiful Lake of the Iroquois said to exist to the north. As for the Revolution itself, New Hampshire, uniquely among the 13 colonies, hosted no battles during the Revolution, unless you count a little tiff at the Castle of William and Mary. This entry in National Geographic’s “Voices from Colonial America” series provides an interesting overview of the colonial period here and should be handed out to all newcomers.

Thoreau’s New England: Photographs and Selections by Stephen Gorman (University Press of New England, 2007, 84 pages) Stephen Gorman seems to let the camera focus just the way your eyes would, so the scenes come to life. The photographs in this book are all full-color, mostly one per page, each accompanied by a Thoreau quote. Both Gorman and Thoreau are good observers of nature; in a brief introduction Gorman explains his love for what he calls “Thoreau country.” Whether he’s pointing his camera at a colonial house, a footpath, a guy in a canoe or a pile of leaves, Gorman has an impressive touch.

The No Asshole Rule, by Robert I. Sutton, Ph.D. (abridged, narrated by the author; Hachette Audio, 3 hours on 3 CDs) Here’s a surprising amount of depth and good advice about dealing with people who make you feel like dirt. Sutton holds a Ph.D. in organizational psychology and consults for corporations, but his principles apply anywhere. Key points: (1) Having a few misbehavers around helps remind people how not to be; (2) Remember that we are all temporary jerks at times; it’s the chronic hardcore cases that matter; (3) They attract others like them; (4) The bigger the gap between haves and have-nots, the worse the haves act. A definite plus for this CD is that it’s read by the author, whose passion for his subject comes through in his voice.

30,000 Years of Art: The story of human creativity across time and space (2007, Phaidon Press, 1,064 pages)
This huge heavy book only costs around $30 (it looks like a lot more). It presents artworks in chronological order, starting with 28,000-year-old cave paintings. The pictures are large enough so you can really appreciate the art. There’s an index and a glossary of terms, helping to keep the material perfectly accessible to lay readers; the text guides you with insight into the art and the artists’ lives. And there’s a timeline showing which forms of art were prevalent when. Settle into a comfortable chair for this one.

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman (Thomas Dunne Books, 324 pages) Without humans, the world would look a lot like western New Hampshire. The World Without Us, in its vision of an Earth where we have been lifted out and the rest of nature remains, tells us a lot about the world as it is now. All manner of our engineering, from sidewalks to skyscrapers to the Panama Canal, requires constant maintenance. Even things we consider “wild” or “natural” (crops, farm animals, feral cats) are the result of generations of development by humans. Weisman explains these things in a straightforward, non-preachy way that will make the non-science-minded wish they could take college biology again. His writing is engaging and the story is as page-turning as a detective mystery.

Without a Map, by Meredith Hall (Beacon Press, 248 pages) After a brief romance, 16-year-old Meredith Hall in 1965 finds herself pregnant and shunned. She is forced to give her baby up for adoption, never allowed to even see her son. Everything in her life becomes defined by her sense of abandonment and betrayal. In Without a Map, the New Hampshire native bares her soul without wallowing in self-pity. She focuses on her relationship with her parents, her sense of self, and her firstborn, who finds her after he comes of age. Her recounting that meeting and the way that fragile relationship is cultivated is especially poignant. 

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007, 229 pages) Ishmael spent more than a year as a young teenager running from rebels and the army in Sierra Leone. He was pressed into service by an army troop and became a guerilla addicted to “brown-brown” (cocaine mixed with gunpowder. Most of A Long Way Gone describes Ishmael’s life before and after he was forced to fight; he takes only 25 pages to describe the horrors and habits of his life as a guerilla. This brevity and the relative lack of interior dialogue throughout the book are as telling as the narrative. The sparse prose gives the sense that he wrote this memoir as much to mark his passage out of hell, in case he should again have to wander there, as he did to enlighten us.

Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Free Press, 2007, 353 pages) Infidel tells of Hirsi Ali’s transformation from devout believer to her eventual renunciation of the faith when she understands the harm Islam perpetrates, especially on women and through terror. Hirsi Ali endures civil war, female mutilation, and life in four troubled African nations before escaping an arranged marriage by seeking asylum in the Netherlands. While the book’s events are dramatic, her tone is understated and elegant. Reading Infidel is like sitting down with a revolutionary hero who thinks she is just doing her job as a human being.

A Game as Old as Empire: The Secret World of Economic Hit Men and the Web of Global Corruption, edited by Steven Hiatt (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007, 250 pages) For folks who have precious little time to read but serious interest in discovering Just What Exactly Is Going Wrong With This Country, A Game as Old as Empire is the only book you need seek out. It exposes such realities as the catch-22s attached to “humanitarian aid” packages for Third World countries that keep them in perpetual debt and enrich First World countries by keeping imports cheap. Texas Monthly editor S. C. Gwynne contributes a jaw-dropping account of his days as a young gun in banking, relating how easy it was to manipulate his incompetent superiors into rubber-stamping multi-million-dollar loans for an already insolvent regime in the Philippines. Later, activist Greg Muttitt examines corporate scrapping over the Iraqi oil pie.

#1 in Nonfiction
Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, by Pauline W. Chen (Knopf, 2007, 217 pages plus notes)

We all need to reflect on mortality, and who better to join in that reflection than someone who’s groped around in the chest cavity of a living human? Pauline Chen, a highly successful surgeon, explains in Final Exam how doctors, herself included, can become worse than anybody at handling death. Surrounded by it though they are, doctors are deeply trained to avoid death at all costs. Their training takes the natural human aversion to death, which if anything they might already have extra helpings of (why, after all, are they in this business?), and enshrines it in their psyches. Doctors become like robots programmed with one instruction: Don’t let anything die.

That’s a valuable thing, for which we pay Chen and her peers highly and thank them profusely. Without their work, many of us would be dead who prefer not to be. Yet we pay a terrible price for that success. And that is: when it comes time to die, the one person you thought could handle it, the person you expected to have special insight, is missing. Once they know you’re going to die, they move on to a patient they can actually (as they see it) do something about.

One of the best parts of the book is when Chen describes her own apprehension about getting close to dying patients or friends — her difficulty in sitting with them, her hesitancy to tell them all she knows (do they want to hear it?), her procrastinating on sending them cards — it’s a relief to see how doctors, despite their place on a well-earned pedestal, are like the rest of us.

Don’t let anything die, indeed, and yet, “When asked what they would request for themselves if diagnosed with a terminal illness, the overwhelming majority of doctors choose to limit or withdraw life-sustaining therapy.” It’s a conflict that needs airing out, and Chen’s book is a good start. She points to hope in the form of new training programs and broadening attitudes. Put simply, none of this is easy for anybody, but it’s worth the effort.

Final Exam is a fast read with plenty to stop and think about. It’s essentially a series of personal stories from Chen’s experience with patients, colleagues, organ donors and one special cadaver: a book full of insights most of us would otherwise never have access to.

Pauline Chen was UCLA’s “Outstanding Physician of the Year” for 1999 and now lives near Boston.


Judged by their covers
The New York Times (whose best-books list overlaps not at all with ours) has a blog at www.thebookdesignreview.com, where folks have been voting about which books have the best-looking jackets. There’s a link to the blog publisher’s favorite book designs of 2007, 2006 and 2005. One of this year’s faves was the cover design of Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History, written by UNH’s own Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

The future!
And here are some books to look forward to in 2008:
Fiction
Jan. 22, Duma Key, by Stephen King
March 4, Change of Heart: A Novel, by Jodi Picoult
April 1, This is the Part Where You Pretend to Add Value: A Dilbert Book, by Scott Adams
April 8, Certain Girls, by Jennifer Weiner
April 22, The Whole Truth, by David Baldacci
July 21, The Dangerous Days of Daniel X, by James Patterson & Michael Ledwidge
September, The Maze of Bones, by Rick Riordan (first installment in The 39 Clues, the series Scholastic — really, what are they smoking? — is trying to force into Harry Potter’s footsteps of success)

Nonfiction
Feb. 4, Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me, edited by Ben Karlin (former executive producer of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report)
April 25, A Healing Touch: True Stories of Life, Death, and Hospice, by Richard Russo
April 29, Yum-O! The Family Cookbook, by Rachael Ray
Aug. 5, Time Matters: Understanding the New Psychological Science of Time, by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd.