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January 6, 2008

Year-End Picks

At the end of each year, Newsday asks a few of its regular reviewers for a short comment listing some of their favorite recent books.

The resulting piece -- which ran a week ago, on December 30 -- will probably not be available online for all that long. And so

Here's my bit:

It's not that David Michaelis'"Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" (Harper) is a flawless book. While reading it, I took my mental blue pencil to the repetitious bits. And I can well believe the complaints of some who knew the cartoonist that Michaelis' portrait underplays his more relaxed and amiable side. Even so, "Schulz and Peanuts" is an absorbing biography of one of the great figures in the history of American pop culture. I found myself thinking about it for weeks after reading it. You can never look at the strip the same way again.

Nor will you see the daily news in quite the same light after reading Tim Weiner's"Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" (Doubleday). Weiner's account of six decades in the life of the American intelligence community is both riveting and chilling. Drawing on internal evaluations of activity by "the Company," Weiner traces a history of rather profound incompetence. I put it down with a suspicion that the crew in Langley, Va., heard about the end of communism via CNN.

While of narrower appeal, Julian Bourg's"From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought" (McGill-Queen's University Press) is one of the best and most interesting works of intellectual history I've read in a while. The "events of May" were part of the worldwide upheaval in 1968: an alliance of students and workers came close to overthrowing Charles de Gaulle's government.

Over the following decade, numerous French thinkers moved from invocations of"the Revolution" to discussing human rights and moral responsibility; some undertook a complex and ambiguous return to religion. A few American pundits have written about this development - usually in a vapidly editorializing way. Bourg's account of it is richly researched and stimulating, and deserves a bigger audience than it will probably get.

Always a difficult call to make. It doesn't appear that the picks any of us made tended to overlap. But it's been surprising to find how much these particular books stayed in mind for weeks or months after I read them, so I'll stick by this choice.

Just got one of the copies of The Savage Detectives from the Library of Congress, so with luck I'll soon have some idea what all the shouting is about....

Anybody else have favorites books of 2007 to recommend?

Posted by smclemee at January 6, 2008 4:30 PM


I liked the Weiner book too - especially the startling stuff about the Indonesian bay of pigs and the massive bribery of the Japanese gov. Thought it needed a stronger finish, however.

I'm glad you are taking up The Savage Detectives! I'm going to start By Night in Chile soon.

But ... I have to put in a word for an oddly overlooked book. Costa's translation of The Maias hardly got mentioned in any list, and I find that puzzling. Maybe people don't want to read 800 page accounts of decaying Portugese families - but they should! Here's a good review.
Nobody cares about the 19th century Iberian novel, but Clarin's La Regenta and de Queirós' The Maias are as good as any novel written elsewhere in Europe. I'm looking at you, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina!

Posted by: roger at January 6, 2008 8:44 PM

Michaelis's book is definitely one of the impost important of the year and I reviewed it with great enthusiasm when. Having said that though as I've been slowly rerading it and attending to the complaints of Schulz's widow and some of his kids, I've become more skeptical. It's not just that Schulz's more relaxed and amiable side was give short shrift: really his entire second marriage and his relationship with 4 of his 5 kids was scanted over. I think the problem is that Michaelis decided to give priority to the oldest daughter and Tracey Claudius (Schulz's onetime girlfriend); so much of the narrative is framed from their perspective, with other contrasting voices (who had a very different persective) being more or less silenced.

Posted by: Jeet Heer at January 12, 2008 12:02 PM

My impression is that it wasn't a matter of the biographer "silencing" anybody so much as it was at least some of them deciding not to cooperate. So it goes. I share a lot of your reservations about the book, and had a few myself while reading it. Still, I think it will color how we understand "Peanuts" from now on, in ways that seem to enrich it quite a bit.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at January 13, 2008 12:03 PM

La Regenta was great even in translation (and you didn't stretch credibility by bringing the Sentimental Education into the fray), so I thank you for the recommendation, Roger.

Scott, the Schulz family and friends have been pretty direct about their attempts to cooperate. As far as I can gather, they just followed what they figured would be Schulz's wishes in not blocking or suing the biography's author. If you found the book compelling, you'll probably find their testimony compelling as well.

Posted by: Ray Davis at January 14, 2008 10:40 PM