Sportscasters! Can’t live with ’em, can’t shoot ’em (outside the state of Texas, that is). At a baseball playoff game a couple of years ago, one of them cozied up next to me and asked if I always brought a book with me to baseball games. He seemed to think it was the funniest thing he’d heard of since the Fox News ”Fair and Balanced” slogan. Books at baseball games! Har, har, har! In fact, I take a book almost everywhere. Books are the perfect entertainment: no commercials, no batteries, hours of enjoyment for each dollar spent. What I wonder is why everybody doesn’t carry a book around for those inevitable dead spots in life.
When it comes to reading, almost every year is a good one for me, but this one was particularly juicy. Below are the top 10 books that I read in 2007. And keep this in mind: Every single book on the list is available right this minute — if not at your local bookstore, then at your favorite one online. Get ’em, honey. If not for yourself, then for someone else (no Christmas present is as nice as a book…except maybe for that new Jaguar your Uncle Stevie has been longing for). Or do it just because writers also have to eat. And now, with no further ado:
10. The Ghost, Robert Harris: Ex — prime minister Adam Lang (who sounds a lot like ex-PM Tony Blair) is writing his memoirs with a ghostwriter when he’s indicted for war crimes. Lang’s wife is randy and his previous writing partner died under highly suspicious circumstances. Christine Falls (by John Banville, writing under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black) may have gotten the ink this year, but The Ghost has got the goods.
9. The Terror, Dan Simmons: A brilliant, massive combination of history and supernatural horror. Being marooned in arctic ice with nothing to eat but your shoes (or — gulp — a helping of shipmate stew) is bad enough; the unseen white monster stalking the nights is worse. Put a log — or, better yet, two — on the fire while you read this one.
8. Fieldwork, Mischa Berlinski: I’ve already written about this one, and once is enough. Suffice it to say there hasn’t been a more readable story about religions in conflict since Somerset Maugham created Sadie Thompson. The fact that Berlinski gives the Christians a fair shake is a breath of fresh air.
7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling: Not perfect, but who cares? No series of fantasy novels has been brought home with such panache (and courage!) since C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. And while we’re at it, who cares if Dumbledore’s gay?
6. Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen: For pure story, this colorful, headlong tale of a Depression-era circus simply can’t be beat. Heroes, villains, romance, a wild-animal stampede! Big fun from page 1.
5. Bridge of Sighs, Richard Russo: Small-town lives are elevated to big-time triumph and tragedy by Russo’s prose; there’s laughter and tragedy, but no condescension. Dickens would have applauded.
4. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon: Is it possible to combine Raymond Chandler and Isaac Bashevis Singer? In an alternate-universe version of Alaska, yet? It seems you can, if you’re as talented a fantazyor as Chabon. While respecting the conventions of the detective story, he spins an immensely satisfying yarn that combines chess, murder, and politics. Another plus for the reader: a colorful spectrum of Yiddish cuss words and put-downs.
3. Hollywood Station, Joseph Wambaugh: The Catch-22 of police novels, Station swings from slapstick to tragedy and back. Wambaugh knows plenty about the underside of Hollywood life — from dopers panhandling as Batman and Darth Vader on the Walk of Fame to strangely lovable meth tweakers. Yeah, he loves cops…but it’s tough love. And I loved this book.
2. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson: Think you don’t need another long novel about Vietnam? Tired of novels that try to explain the ’60s? Yeah, gimme five. Only Johnson reinvents all that stuff in a long, mysterious, breathtakingly poetic story that turns out to be as much about the Iraq mess as about Nam. In the book’s best — and extended — sequence, Johnson gives a chilling ground-level account of the Tet offensive. Call it Apocalypse Then.
1. Twilight, William Gay: Think No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy, and Deliverance, by James Dickey… then double the impact. It starts with a gruesome discovery in a small country graveyard (can you say “crazed necro-philiac undertaker”?) and finishes with a terrifying chase through some of the most surreal landscape you will ever encounter. Teenage hero Kenneth Tyler is immensely appealing (not to mention resourceful); his opposite number, the psychopathic Granville Sutter, is both gruesome and psychologically believable.
Honorable mentions? Yeah, we got ’em: Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris; The Godfather’s Revenge, by Mark Winegardner; The Shotgun Rule, by Charlie Huston. Grab any or all of these titles, and enjoy. They go down particularly well at the ballpark, during those boring pitching changes.