DeFlip Side #76: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2007


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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

It kind of sucks when you’ve been doing something long enough to mark milestones. It means you’re getting old. So it is with some reluctance that I now present DeFlip Side’s 10th annual Best and Worst Reads segment, where I give you a rundown of the best and worst genre books I’ve read in the past year.

It’s hard to believe I wrote my first “Best Reads” back in DeFlip Side Vol. 1 Number 3, chronicling my literary picks of 1998. Things were a little different back then. As part of a media-themed webzine, I didn’t limit things to only genre works. I had categories like best non-fiction, best general fiction, best biography. But I streamlined the segment for its Destinies debut; five best and one worst, and if it ain’t genre-related, I don’t talk about it—which has turned out to be a good thing, because it was getting tedious, forcing myself to read biographies and other crap I normally wouldn’t just for the sake of the list.

Yet even with this shortened format, I’ve still managed to praise and pan around 100 books to date–not counting the ones I’ll be discussing tonight. As for that, remember that the books weren’t necessarily published in the last year, which is why I’ve always called it my Best Reads, and not Best Books. Now let’s get on with the list for 2007!

Book 5) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Tales by Washington Irving.

See what I was telling you about publishing dates? You don’t get much more old school than Washington Irving, and though everyone knows the story of Icabod Crane’s mad dash from the headless horseman, I’d be willing to bet that only a scant handful of you have actually read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Hell, I was only motivated by a trip along the Hudson last Fall, where most of Irving’s literary creations still live and breathe.

The good news is that Irving’s actual writing still lives and breathes as well; it’s witty and folksy and flowing and surpassingly readable by modern standards. Irving was a literary superstar in his day, and he remains in a class by himself.

Book 4) Funny Papers by Tom DeHaven

I actually read Funny Papers for the second time in 2007, which now leads to this DeFlip Side first. I’ve never chosen a re-read book for best reads, but I just couldn’t resist. The only reason Funny Papers didn’t make the list when I initially read it in 2004 was because, as much as I loved it, I loved it’s sequel, Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies, even more. So when forced to choose, I went with Derby. But after reading it again in 2007, it’s past time I gave Funny Papers it’s due.

Funny Papers is the first of a triptych of novels by Tom DeHaven that examines America’s 20th Century through the lens of the comics industry, specifically the Sunday funnies that once were as big and binding a national pastime as baseball. In Funny Papers we meet Georgie Wreckage, a newspaper illustrator working in New York around the turn of the last century who has a penchant for taking on the most grisly assignments. But when his series of illustrations of a homeless boy named Pinfold and his dog Fuzzy spark a national craze, Georgie is taken off the news beat and forced to chronicle their further—increasingly fictionalized—adventures in the Sunday funnies.

Funny Papers features a wonderful cast of characters, played against the backdrop of America in it burgeoning industrial infancy, which also heralded the burgeoning ideals of the American Dream—a dream, which DeHaven deftly and unsanctimoniously reminds us, is often achieved at a price. If you liked Michael Chabon’s Adventures of Kaviler and Clay, then you’ll probably like Funny Papers.

Book 3) American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is figuring prominently in my best of lists for 2007. The movie adaptation of his story Stardust took the number two spot in my top five film picks for 2007. Now his novel American Gods ranks a solid third in my book picks.

A prime example of urban fantasy done well, American Gods follows the story of Shadow, a man whose wife dies in a car crash the week before he is due to be released from prison. While en-route to her funeral, Shadow meets a wily old man who calls himself Wednesday and agrees to work for him as driver and bodyguard. But as one bizarre experience leads into another, Shadow begins to realize that there’s more to Wednesday than meets the old man’s glass eye, and that he has become involved in events of literally cosmic proportions.

Of course anyone familiar with the etymology of the word Wednesday will have little trouble figuring out who Shadow’s boss really is. And the panoply of mythic figures and gods—both old and new—that litter Gaiman’s modern American pastoral provide satiric and sometimes biting insights on the direction in which our society is heading. But the book’s allegorical flare is amply tempered by the all-too-human Shadow, who is the everyman antihero through and through, but who somehow manages to avoid the hackneyed stereotypes attendant to that character archetype. Kudos to Gaiman for pulling that off successfully, and for a book that is well-written and satisfying on many levels.

Book 2) Accelerando by Charles Stross
This is Stross’s third time on my best reads list in two years. He clocked in last year at both second and forth place for his comic spy fantasies The Atrocity Archives and The Jennifer Morgue. Accelerando is a marked departure from those works, science fiction as hard as it comes, dealing with nothing less than that holy grail of techno-geekdom, the Singularity.

For the uninformed among you, the Singularity is supposed to mark the turning point at which technology becomes smarter than humanity and ushers in a future time when societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we can’t even imagine what will happen from our present perspective. Proponents of the Singularity use the term posthumanity a lot. But since it is by it’s very nature unknowable, most Science Fiction writers have written around the Singularity or avoided it all together. Not so Stross. He grabs this metatechnical bull by the horns and takes readers on the ride of their post human lives.

The book follows the exploits three generations of the Macx family, beginning on the verge of the Singularity and extending into the far-far future, when humanity has given up physical existence for eternal life in information space. Now take my simple explanation and throw in a lot of informed technical talk and a multiplicity of ideas so original that each could sustain an entire novel in itself, and then you get an idea of Stross’s prowess as a writer. If you enjoy hard speculative Science Fiction, it doesn’t come any harder or more speculative than this.

Book 1) The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow.

Delightful and brilliant are the words that best describe this book, which posits that not only can readers love their books, but that books can love their devoted readers—and takes the wonderfully creative leap of making a book the story’s narrator. And not just any book, but that seminal and somewhat arcane work of science, Issac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.

The Principia’s object of devotion in this case is Jennet Stearne. Jennet’s father works as a Witchfinder Royal, testing the guilt of women who have been denounced as witches. When Jennet sees her beloved Aunt Isobel tried and executed for her scientific experiments, she vows to use the same scientific principles to construct an argumentum grande that will disprove the existence of witchcraft once and for all.

It is a mission that defines the rest of her life, gaining steam as she arrives in the United States just in time to witness the Salem Witch Trials; after which she is kidnapped by Indians, liberated by a besotted postal worker and eventually stranded on a desert island with a young Ben Franklin, with whom she conceives a son; and as may seem inevitable, Jennet is eventually put on trial for witchcraft herself, by her brother Dunstan, who has carried on the family trade.

These are just the broadest strokes of plot that drive a wonderfully rich, complex narrative—with many hilarious and insightful asides provided by the ever droll and pompous Principia. If you’re looking for an intelligent book that will provide a truly enriching reading experience, look no further than The Last Witchfinder.

So that’s the top five. Now is usually the time that I give you my biggest disappointment. But this year it turns out not to be a book so much as a realization. I’ve always called Ursula K. Le Guin my favorite author, since A Wizard of Earthsea is my favorite book; yet I’ve read very little of her other work. I decided to rectify that and over the last couple of years I have been working my way steadily through her earlier books. And here’s what I realized: while I admire her books and find them edifying on an intellectual level, I just don’t find them to be all that much fun. It may sound like a trite distinction, but I need some sizzle with my steak. And Le Guin’s stories usually take place in harsh and muted landscapes where struggle is the norm. It can get to be a downer at times. I still think she’s a wonderful writer, and plan to read everything of hers I can get my hands on, but rather than calling her my favorite author, I will henceforth refer to her as the author who wrote my favorite books.

Now let’s dry our tears and hit the final category, Worst Read of the Year. This year that distinction goes to a novel The Time Masters by Wilson Tucker. I grabbed this book for free at the last I-Con, and now I know why they were trying to get rid of it. It follows the exploits of Gilbert Nash, a private detective who arouses the suspicion of the government when a scientist working on a top secret rocket project hires the PI to track down his missing wife. It just so happens that Nash is an alien who’s been stranded on Earth for 10,000 years, and—surprise, surprise—the scientist’s wife is the only other alien survivor from the same crash. And she’s been manipulating technological advancement in an attempt to get home. And Nash wants to stop her, for some reason. But I don’t really remember why, and that’s the book’s biggest failing—it lacks anything at all memorable. So I don’t so much hate it; I’m just completely ambivalent about it, which is even worse, because it prevents me from flinging really great insults, which can be so much fun! Apparently, Wilson wrote a whole series of Gilbert Nash books. I plan never to act on that knowledge.

So there you have it. The best and worst reads of 2007. And I’m not going to lie, it was an iffy year as best, with most books earning a solid two and half stars: a tad better than fair, but not quite making it to good. Still, I wouldn’t characterize tonight’s picks as the best houses on a bad block. They were all very good in their own ways and I recommend them highly.

And if you’ll indulge me, in honor of the ten year milestone, I’d like to recap the top reading choices from the decade passed. Here are the best of the best, so to speak:

1998: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

1999: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

2000: Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose

2001: Perdido Street Station by China Mieville

2002: Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

2003: Giant Bones by Peter S. Beagle

2004: Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies By Tom DeHaven

2005: The Other Wind by Ursula K. Le Guin

2006: Misery by Stephen King

2007: The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow

I’ve enjoyed bringing you my picks over the past decade and look forward to doing so in the decades to come. And though I’ve been asking you to do so for the last ten years and none of you has, if you read any of these books based on my recommendations, please e-mail me and let me know what you think. The e-mail address is cdeflip@yahoo.com. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.

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