One book critic's list of the year's most pleasant surprises

Posted: Friday, December 21, 2007

2007 saw some terrific new fiction by old pros (Paul Theroux, Mario Vargas Llosa) and newer pros (Andrea Levy, Arthur Phillips), along with powerful memoirs by Tom Bissell, Edwidge Danticat and Gunter Grass.

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But for my best of 2007, I've concentrated more on the surprises: the books that expanded rather than confirmed my notions of what a particular author had to offer.

"Call Me by Your Name" by Andre Aciman. The noted memoirist ("Out of Egypt") tries his hand at fiction with a novel about a 17-year-old boy who, in an idyllic Italian coastal town, falls for one of his academic father's visiting male graduate students. The result is a tender-tough story of headlong love and awkward timing that reads like a cosmopolitan variation on Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain."

"Fieldwork" by Mischa Berlinski. This seriocomic tale about anthropologists and Christian missionaries pursuing separate agendas in the northern wilds of Thailand was the best first novel I read all year. A finalist for the National Book Award.

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist ("The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay") outdid himself with this ambitious whodunit/alternate history in which Sitka, Alaska, has served for the last 60 years as a home to 3.2 million displaced Jews. For all its wild invention, the novel holds up an eerie mirror to our own unsettled world.

"The Empress of Weehawken" by Irene Dische. Dische is a delightfully offbeat writer, and this quasi-autobiographical novel is the perfect place to make her acquaintance. In it, she takes on her Catholic-Jewish family's history as refugees from Hitler's Germany - seeing it not through her own eyes but those of her Catholic grandmother (the "Empress" of the title).

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan. I've had reservations about McEwan's fiction in the past, but this short novel, about a honeymooning couple who discover they're a disastrous sexual mismatch, knocked me out. Its quiet precision and depth of sympathy set it well apart from the tricks and shock effects of some of McEwan's other novels.

"My Mother's Lovers" by Christopher Hope. Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee have tried to address the messy subject of post-apartheid South Africa in their recent fiction. But neither has pulled off what Johannesburg-born Hope does in this picaresque heartbreaker of a novel, about a no-nonsense air-conditioning salesman who's bent on deflating the glamour of his aviatrix mother's era and giving an honest account of the reality behind it.

"The Complete Stories" by David Malouf. The biggest shock The New York Times Book Review gave me all year was when they relegated this milestone collection of Australian short stories to a fiction-in-brief roundup instead of giving it the front-cover treatment it deserved. Brisbane-born Malouf can be simultaneously humorous and sobering, sensitive and brutal, worldly and regional. This book provides an excellent introduction to his work.

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