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Originally published December 14, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 14, 2007 at 10:41 AM


Michael Upchurch's favorites of 2007

There are two problems with any book critic choosing his or her picks for the year. One: It isn't humanly possible to read more than a fraction...

Seattle Times book critic

There are two problems with any book critic choosing his or her picks for the year.

One: It isn't humanly possible to read more than a fraction of the candidates out there.

Two: Even with the books you've read, you keep changing your mind about which ones you liked best.

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 Günter Grass.

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. And I've kept my choices to seven. These are the books I'd gladly sit down and read all over again if time allowed:

"Call Me By Your Name" by André Aciman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). 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 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). 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 freelance writer adrift in Chiang Mai, tipped off to a story about a "wry old murderess," uncovers a whole history of ideological rivals passionately contending for the same tribal hearts and minds as they go about their missionary/anthropological "fieldwork." A finalist for the National Book Award.

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins). 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 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). 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). The tone throughout is one of antic exuberance, despite the often touchy and traumatic topics Dische tackles.

"On Chesil Beach" by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). 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. "On Chesil Beach" lets you inhabit the perspectives of both its protagonists with a frankness that illuminates not just their own predicament but something essential in the nature of human connection.

"My Mother's Lovers" by Christopher Hope (Grove). 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. Hope can be hilarious, but he's also aiming for your solar plexus in this big, rambunctious book.

"The Complete Stories" by David Malouf (Pantheon). 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. Like John Cheever, Eudora Welty and Alice Munro, he finds rich meaning in fragmentary anecdotes and teasing truths in moments that shine yet decline to reveal all their secrets. This book provides an excellent introduction to his work.

Michael Upchurch:

He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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