Sweet reads

Books: 2007 in review
By JON GARELICK  |  December 17, 2007

TREE OF SMOKE: Even if you think you're done with Vietnam novels, Johnson's book could change your mind

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are 10 of the best works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry the Phoenix wrote about in 2007.

Vikram Chandra | Sacred Games
Chandra, now a teacher at UC-Berkeley, takes us on a 900-plus-page portrayal of contemporary Mumbai (formerly Bombay), following the stories of, among others, a gangster whose life could be right out of the Bollywood films he loves and a divorced Sikh police detective in his mid 40s. Sacred Games alternates first-person chapters from the gangster’s point of view with third-person narratives of the detective’s investigation. But as you’d expect in a book of this length, the author is prone to digressions, and the Dickensian epic sprawl could make you feel at times that you’re holding the entire teeming city in your hands.

Mike Dash | Satan’s Circus: Murder, Vice, Police Corruption, And New York’s Trial Of The Century
“Trial of the century” might be going a bit far, and yet the 1912 murder conviction of a New York City police lieutenant deserves its innings. For one thing, he didn’t do it. But this tale of judicial miscarriage is merely the tantalizing underpinning for historian Mike Dash’s portrait of turn-of-the-century New York’s demi-monde, and the Lower West Side neighborhood known as Satan’s Circus, where gambling, prostitution, graft, and a host of ethnic rivalries worked hand-in-glove with the city’s elected establishment. Dash’s account is a tour de force of scholarship and entertaining storytelling that lets the 21st century in on the lawless details of how the 20th began. This is what history writing should be.

Denis Johnson | Tree of Smoke
Denis Johnson has given us so many maimed and suffering souls in the past 25 years, he could fill a trauma ward. Now, with this National Book Award winner, he gives us his “apocalypse now”: a big, slow-motion epic about America’s experience in Vietnam. Even if you think you’re done with Vietnam novels, Tree of Smoke could change your mind. Not only does it re-create the jungle’s ooze and the paranoid warble of a war being micro-managed by the CIA, it encapsulates the long horrible fallout in prose as good as any Johnson has written.

Norman Mailer | The Castle in the Forest
Having taken on such larger-than-life figures as Marilyn Monroe, Gary Gilmore, Pablo Picasso, and Jesus Christ, Norman Mailer, in his last published book before his death at 84 on November 10, turned to Adolf Hitler. But he takes his subject only up to the age of 13. We learn how Hitler’s beloved mother cleaned his asshole, how he organized war games with the local kids, how he was initiated into something dank and demonic by a hermit in the woods, how his experiments in masturbation inspired his toothbrush moustache. The theories of Good and Evil, God and Satan, history and fiction, don’t always convince, but the Mittel-Europäisch melodrama, with its Grimm-like uncanniness and the author’s rollicking, ribald, grave-reeking voice, does. Would that he had lived to write the sequel.

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