What we were reading: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows--or at least that's how about 12 zillion of us spent the weekend of July 21. But beyond the biggest book release of the decade (and for many Potter fans, the best in the series), 2007 was one of the best years for reading in recent memory, highlighted by two years-in-the-making novels that fulfilled nearly every expectation and went on to win the two big fiction awards of the year: Denis Johnson's vivid and hallucinatory NBA-winning Vietnam epic, Tree of Smoke, and Junot Diaz's dazzling and compassionate Pulitzer-nabbing tale of an overweight Dominican "ghetto nerd," The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Speaking of expectations fulfilled, Khaled Hosseini followed up one of the biggest paperback phenomenons of the decade with a second novel that was just as good and just as popular. And expectations surpassed? The mythically cryptic financial oracle Alan Greenspan, whose aura was not yet dimmed by the late-decade meltdown, wrote a memoir that was actually clear, charming, and even a little dishy. We also witnessed the explosion of the first of the late Roberto Bolano's giant masterpieces into English, Alan Weisman's bestselling, well-reported vision of environmental speculative nonfiction, and an allegorical story from a tiny press that would go on to become Amazon's bestselling religious book (and bestselling non-Harry Potter novel of any kind) of the decade. Some reviews from the front lines:
- David Ignatius on Tree of Smoke: "To write a fat novel about the Vietnam War nearly 35 years after it ended is an act of literary bravado. To do so as brilliantly as Denis Johnson has in Tree of Smoke is positively a miracle.... Johnson, a poet, ex-junkie and adventure journalist, has written a book that by the end wraps around you as tightly as a jungle snake."
- Kakutani on Oscar Wao: "An extraordinarily vibrant book that’s fueled by adrenaline-powered prose, it’s confidently steered through several decades of history by a madcap, magpie voice that’s equally at home talking about Tolkien and Trujillo, anime movies and ancient Dominican curses, sexual shenanigans at Rutgers University and secret police raids in Santo Domingo."
- And on Deathly Hallows: "True to its roots, it ends not with modernist, 'Soprano'-esque equivocation, but with good old-fashioned closure: a big-screen, heart-racing, bone-chilling confrontation and an epilogue that clearly lays out people’s fates. Getting to the finish line is not seamless ... but the overall conclusion and its determination of the main characters’ story lines possess a convincing inevitability that make some of the prepublication speculation seem curiously blinkered in retrospect."
- Ilan Stavans on The Savage Detectives: "The Savage Detectives alone should grant him immortality. It's an outstanding meditation on art, truth and the search for roots and the self, a kind of road novel set in 1970s Mexico that springs from the same roots as Alfonso Cuarón's film "Y tu mamá también." ... Having spent years studying linguistic varieties across the Americas, I've never come across a chameleon talent like Bolaño's. He writes in a Mexican Spanish with an Iberian twist but an impostor's accent. How ironic that the best Mexican novel of the last 50 years should have been written by a Chilean... The classics are often imperfect, and The Savage Detectives, though inexhaustible, is messy and perhaps overly ambitious. Only one thing matters: Bolaño had the courage to look at the world anew."
- Barbara Liss on Then We Came to the End: "That sound you hear is the thud of manuscripts hitting trash cans all across America. For that thank Joshua Ferris and his wicked first novel, Then We Came to the End. It's the book a hundred million people working in office hell wish they had written.... This is no jokey, print version of the television series The Office. No less than his hero DeLillo, Ferris understands what it means to be disaffected in America. Now he may come to understand how it feels to be a major American novelist."
Sneak your vegetables: How could a niche cookbook (which shows parents how to sneak vegetables into their kids' food) end up as our #4 bestseller of the year? Thank you, Oprah. (And thank you, celebrity husband.) Jessica Seinfeld's Deceptively Delicious became a colossal hit after an Oprah rave, and then stayed in the news after Sneaky Chef author Missy Chase Lapine accused Seinfeld of what her husband famously dismissed as "vegetable plagiarism." Meanwhile, was Deceptively Delicious a mere flash in the pan? It's strictly anecdotal evidence, but I can report that more than two years after pub date, my home menu in the past week included both chickpea-crammed chocolate chip cookies and squash-infused spaghetti sauce, both straight from the book.
Water-bombing mom: After spending most of 2006 dominating the UK bestseller lists, The Dangerous Book for Boys, the guide to lost kid knowledge by the brother team of Conn and Hal Iggulden, became a mammoth hit in the US as well, spawning dozens of imitators. No one, however, has quite managed to match the video trailer for the book, which we still love to watch because, completely by coincidence, it features an Amazon product manager (and moonlighting actor) as the dad:
Top Five 2007 Amazon Bestsellers: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Dangerous Book for Boys, Deceptively Delicious, StrengthsFinder 2.0