2007 was a grim year for the book industry, but not for the books themselves. As newspapers took deep cuts out of their literary sections in a mad dash to save their business model, and the publishing industry got its last dose of Potter, a pack of terrific books traveled just below the radar. Here is a subjective list of the very best of those books (in no particular order), by my yardstick the must-reads of 2007.
Dinaw Mengestu's heartbreaking, exquisitely made The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears tells the story of three African refugees finding their way in Washington, D.C. long after they've given up on realizing their wildest American dreams.
There is a rightness and terrible melancholy to every sentence of Hisham Matar's debut novel, In the Country of Men, which tells the story of a young boy who is entrusted with a secret much larger than himself, and reveals how in times of political duress everyday betrayals can become lethal.
Don DeLillo's Falling Man is the only novel about 9/11 that recreated the trauma of that day and turned it into a new aesthetic. Here was the first abstract expressionist novel, the Great American Novel on barbiturates.
Funny, wry and always closely attuned to the lives of women and especially mothers, Helen Simpson is the U.K.'s answer to Lorrie Moore. There is nothing flashy to her latest collection, In the Driver's Seat—the stories turn and arc just as they're supposed to and always come to a satisfying conclusion. It's the after-effects, however, that are worth dialing in for—and the laughs, which are plentiful.
Good books seldom say they can change the course of an election, but Francisco Goldman's gripping and important new book, The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, which recounts the story of the murder of a Roman Catholic human rights activist in Guatemala and the political theater which ensued, just may change the course of that country's current affairs.
In her towering polemic, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein shows how the free-market ideas associated with Milton Friedman have spread often through catastrophe (as in Thailand, post-tsunami, and in New Orleans, post-Katrina) and at the point of a gun (as in Chile in 1973 and Iraq today).
For every hour you worked as a temp, for every minute you've slaved at that job so far beneath your intelligence level, for every slight you've taken from a maniacal, perhaps sadistic boss, the late Swiss writer Robert Walser's finally published The Assistant will be a balm and a salve.
Occasionally bitchy, often brilliant, full of anecdotes that make you realize the surrealists had a thing or two in common with bloggers of today, John Richardson's ongoing study of Picasso is far more entertaining than almost any biography on the market, let alone of Picasso. His latest volume, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, is superb.
Last month, the New York Times finally ran a review of Michael O'Brien's lovely and wonderfully urban new poetry collection, Sleeping and Waking, and the book has now sold out of stock almost everywhere. So if you see a copy, nab it, because there wasn't a more limpid book of poetry published in 2007.
He's been with us for a decade but Walter Mosley's Los Angeles detective, Easy Rawlins, may be done after the publication of his 10th installment, Blonde Faith. This is a terrific book about a city that has never quite come together from the perspective of a man who has seen, perhaps, a little too much of its underside.
John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.