There's not much consensus when it comes to the best books of the year. Only one work of fiction-Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - appears on as many as three of four critics' lists detailed here. Curiously, while The New York Times enshrined the Vietnam novel as one of its five best fiction reads of 2007, the Los Angeles Times did not rank it among its more than 20 selections. Go figure. Better yet, go read and decide for yourself.
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies. A careful, deceptively simple novel of war and moral consequence: 17-year-old barmaid and daughter of a shepherd befriends a German prisoner of war.
Falling Man by Don DeLillo. Few other writers could dare to capture the shadowy cataclysm of 9/11 and pull it off with such masterful precision.
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. This sprawling, acid-mad Vietnam novel is Denis Johnson at his visionary best: muscle-bound prose.
The Gathering by Anne Enright. The nine surviving siblings of the Hegarty family are in Dublin to bury their brother, who walked into the ocean to end his pain. The narrator, his sister, delivers a memory-laden story full of Enright's shimmering prose.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. A newly married couple in mid-20th-century England, bringing their worries and their pasts to their wedding night, try only to connect. The result is a cello suite of sadness, encompassing an entire swath of English culture and the legacy of roads not taken.
Cheating at Canasta: Stories by William Trevor. This collection of stories is so finely wrought and delivered with such confidence that even their most shocking consequences possess the inevitability of truth unfolding.
Journals: 1952-2000 by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. These sometimes stirring, occasionally sad, and often sardonic writings across the five decades from Harry Truman to George Bush form a labor-intensive public-works project for his fellow historians.
Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA by Tim Weiner. This history points to the flaws in intelligence leading up to the Iraq war as merely the latest major misstep by the CIA, a bureaucracy that has rarely accomplished its central mission since its birth, the author argues.
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat. This modern-day memoir tells the story of two Haitian brothers, the writer's father and uncle. It finds sad but poetic truths in the relentless hardships of Haiti and its people.
Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis. This biography of the comic strip legend feels written from the inside out, despite the author never having had the opportunity to interview Schulz.
Ralph Ellison by Arnold Rampersad. The acclaim that greeted Ellison's 1952 debut novel Invisible Man consolidated his status as a cosmopolitan, certified New York intellectual. But the sparkling achievement, and the honors that followed, bore their own cost over the ensuing decades.
Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution by Woody Holton. A populist vision places the book among recent revisionist studies that have given prominence to grassroots agitation in the origins of the American Revolution and the Constitution.
Finn by Jon Clinch. Huck not only finds Pap, but Huck is half black-a brilliant embodiment of the liminal spot in which he lives, that chaotic Missouri boundary between freedom and slavery.
The Last Cavalier by Alexandre Dumas. Full of melodrama and coincidence, shamelessly studded with every possible romantic cliche. But it's absolutely wonderful.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan. The story of a wedding night. It takes on subjects of universal interest and creates a small but complete universe around them.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano; translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Not since Gabriel Garcia Marquez has a Latin American redrawn the map of world literature so emphatically.
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. 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 this is positively a miracle.
Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee. Today, at the remove of a century, she seems greater than many earlier critics allowed.
FDR by Jean Edward Smith. A model presidential biography.
Ralph Ellison: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad. Rampersad's chronicle of Ellison's long, turbulent and finally peaceful marriage is the most compelling and troubling part of this book.
The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts. The resources of the sea are as limited as those of land and air, and our penchant for exploiting them to the point of extinction is appalling.
The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story by Diane Ackerman. A lovely story about the Holocaust might seem like a grotesque oxymoron. But here is a true story - of human empathy and its opposite - that is simultaneously grave and exuberant.
NEW YORK TIMES
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas. This first novel explores the fragmented personal histories behind four desperate days in a black writer's life.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson. Translated by Anne Born. In this short yet spacious Norwegian novel, an Oslo professional hopes to cure his loneliness with a plunge into solitude.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. Translated by Natasha Wimmer.
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. Layoff notices fly in Ferris' acidly funny first novel, set in a white-collar office in the wake of the dot-com debacle.
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The author, a Washington Post journalist, catalogs the arrogance and ineptitude that marked America's governance of Iraq.
Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. Kalish's soaring love for her childhood memories saturates this memoir, which coaxes the reader into joy, wonder and even envy.
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin. An erudite outsider's account of the cloistered court's inner workings.
The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History by Linda Colley. Colley tracks Marsh across the 18th century and several continents.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross. In his own feat of orchestration, The New Yorker's music critic presents a history of the last century as refracted through its classical music.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
Away by Amy Bloom. A refugee from the Russian pogroms crosses North America in the 1920s in search of her lost daughter, in a novel that combines an immigrant's tale with the road novel, the love story and the ghost story.
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo. In this "tapestry of a novel, " an aging painter, kidnapped and stashed in a trunk as a child, grapples with "a cosmography of good and evil" in an upstate New York town.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. A "panoramic ... achingly personal" tale of a nerdy sci-fi writer whose fantasies about attracting girls give way to the tale of his mother's rape.
Cheating at Canasta: Stories by William Trevor.
The Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels. The late author's collected short fiction is "hypnotizing."
The Empress of Weehawken by Irene Dische. A "rollicking tour" of the inner and outer lives of a Christian refugee from Hitler's Germany who brings her "high-toned ... ideals and snobbery" to the "less civilized" New Jersey suburbs.
Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski. In Berlinski's affecting and atmospheric first novel, a young journalist traveling in Thailand and obsessed with the story of a murder committed by a gifted anthropologist plunges into the world of missionaries and tribesmen and encounters a tragic misunderstanding.
Five Skies by Ron Carlson. This novel - Carlson's first in 30 years-revolves around three damaged souls (an aging rancher, a guilt-ridden engineer and a runaway teenager) who come together one summer to build a stunt motorcycle ramp in a gorge.
The Gathering by Anne Enright.
Jamestown by Matthew Sharpe. In this "wild, violent, mordantly hilarious" post-apocalyptic novel, refugees from a ruined Manhattan venture down I-95 to the 400-year-old site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
Like You'd Understand, Anyway: Stories by Jim Shepard. These stories, set in such diverse places as 1980s Chernobyl, the 19th-century Australian outback and Earth orbit, are "an eclectic overview of human experience ... on both epic and intimate scales."
Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon. In an anonymous South American country, a "nation at the edge of the world" and emerging from civil war, a radio station reconnects callers with their missing loved ones.
The Ministry of Special Cases by Nathan Englander. In 1976, a Jewish couple in Buenos Aires search for their son, who has become one of los Desaparecidos - "the disappeared" - in Argentina's Dirty War.
Red Rover by Deirdre McNamer. The lives of two Montana brothers who rode the prairie as boys diverge in World War II. On their return from the war, the older, who had been a spy in Argentina, dies under mysterious circumstances.
Remainder by Tom McCarthy. A man who has lost his memory after an accident sets about re-creating his life in unsettling ways.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union: A Novel by Michael Chabon. Chabon's first major novel since "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" is an alternative-history murder mystery set in a fictional Jewish state that was set up in Alaska as a "safe zone" for European Jews after World War II.
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.
Twenty Grand: And Other Tales of Love and Money by Rebecca Curtis. In this bleak, often funny debut story collection, characters - female, most often - yearn for something more than their lives provide.
Zeroville by Steve Erickson. A young filmmaker finds a home - and a vision - among the outcasts of Hollywood in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s."
Big Daddy: Jesse Unruh and the Art of Power Politics by Bill Boyarsky. This biography of Jesse Unruh shows how the powerful speaker of the California Assembly exerted charm and political muscle to enact fair housing and civil rights laws and build highways, canals and schools.
The Birthday Party: A Memoir of Survival by Stanley N. Alpert. Alpert was kidnapped in 1998 in Manhattan after his 38th birthday party; his memoir of the experience is "like watching a slow-motion train wreck - difficult to look at but impossible to turn away from."
Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat.
Circling My Mother by Mary Gordon. This portrait traces the seismic shifts in women's lives in the 20th century.
Don't Go Where I Can't Follow by Anders Nilsen. An "exploration of terrible grief, this graphic memoir is neither comic book nor narrative but something in between.
"The Happiest Man in the World: An Account of the Life of Poppa Neutrino" by Alec Wilkinson. This tale of a drifter who crossed the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Ireland on a homemade raft is a celebration of a self-determined life.
House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest by Craig Childs. On this trip through the homelands of the ancient Indian tribes now called the Anasazi, Childs ponders crumbling kivas, pottery and bone fragments, trying to fathom why these people suddenly disappeared.
The House That George Built With a Little Help From Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty by Wilfrid Sheed. Sheed's survey of American popular music in the last century "mixes biographical anecdote, cultural history and high-wattage moonbeams of critical insight that light up the old standards."
Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl by Steven Bach. This biography of the appallingly ambitious Nazi filmmaker becomes a broader meditation on the relationship of art and power, showing
Riefenstahl as complicit in the society she sought to document.
The Long Embrace by Judith Freeman. This account of Raymond Chandler's long love affair with Cissy Pascal, a married woman who later became his wife, is really "an exploration of ... two relationships-Ray and Cissy, Chandler and Los Angeles."
Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer. Lehrer argues that contemporary findings about the brain are foreshadowed in the work of eight iconic 19th- and 20th-century authors and artists.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century by Alex Ross.
The Second Civil War: How Extreme Partisanship Has Paralyzed Washington by Ronald Brownstein.
The Los Angeles Times' national affairs columnist accuses both the Democratic and Republican parties of adopting a "scorched-earth strategy," making reasoned debate impossible.
Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics by Rebecca Solnit. This essay collection from the activist writer examines the issues shaping the politics and culture of the West.
Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court by Jan Crawford. The ABC News reporter takes "the richest and most impressive journalistic look" at the US Supreme Court in decades.
Travels With Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski. The late Polish journalist meditates on his extraordinary life as a foreign correspondent and honors the ancient Greek historian who first inspired him.
(Shanghai Daily Jauary 25, 2008)