"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s been a tranquil year in the book industry: no big fabrication or plagiarism scandals, à la James Frey or Kaavya Viswanathan, and consequently no dramatic denunciations on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” O.J. Simpson’s bizarre “hypothetical” confession, “If I Did It,” was finally published after the copyright had been transferred to the family of Ronald Goldman; in the end, it achieved little more than the destruction of the career of one of publishing’s premier carnival barkers, editor Judith Regan. (She’s now suing her former employer, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.)
But if the book world provided relatively little tabloid fodder in 2007, that doesn’t mean that graver problems aren’t afoot. The National Endowment for the Arts just released another of its depressing surveys of American reading habits, revealing that one in four of our fellow citizens had not read a single book in the preceding year. Meanwhile, the National Book Critics Circle’s Campaign to Save Book Reviews has been tirelessly documenting — and protesting — the withering away of book coverage in our magazines and newspapers.
What fragments can we shore up against this ruin? Well, there’s the single, powerful fact that in 2007, books remained the most consistently refreshing, illuminating, diverting, original and enriching sources of entertainment in our lives. This is Salon’s 11th best-books list, and it was as hard to whittle our short list of hundreds of titles down to just 10 as it has been every year for the past decade. And that’s after conflicts of interest obliged us to eliminate two terrific new books from former Salon editors — “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years” by Salon founder David Talbot and Scott Rosenberg’s “Dreaming in Code: Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software.”
Our criteria for this list have always been a little idiosyncratic. We leave it to other critics to try to suss out which titles will wind up on college syllabuses or cited in footnotes by future generations. To make our list, a book has to keep us up late and be the first thing we reach for when we open our eyes in the morning. These are the books we thought about on the way to work and rushed through our dinner dates to get back to at night, the books we blocked out whole weekends to read and propped up next to our bowls of breakfast cereal. However beautiful an author’s prose or important his or her subject matter, it doesn’t go on our list unless we sigh every time we close the cover and just can’t wait to open it again. We hope you’ll agree that these titles fit the bill.
Video: Laura Miller on literary marriages
“The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Díaz
The title character of Díaz’ first novel is an obese Dominican-American geek living in New Jersey, with a baleful, dying mother, a devoted punkette sister and a heart full of thwarted romance. With grace and brio, Díaz conjures a world that encompasses everything from streetwise Spanglish to Dungeons and Dragons, campus politics to immigrant family saga. And guess what? It all fits perfectly, because, as it turns out, there is no better analogy for Rafael Trujillo, the fearsome real-life Dominican dictator, than Tolkien’s Sauron — no matter how far Díaz extends the metaphor, it keeps on working; “What’s more sci-fi than Santo Domingo?” Oscar asks. And what fantasy could be more heartbreaking than the yearning of an oddball “ghetto nerd” (or anyone else for that matter) for perfect love?
“Sacred Games” by Vikram Chandra”
At the beginning of Chandra’s vast, electrifying second novel, Mumbai’s most notorious gangster dies in a strange, cube-shaped bunker after a shootout with the police; the rest of the book tells us why. The man in charge of unearthing the truth is a courtly, middle-aged Sikh police detective named Sartaj Singh, who follows the trail through a dirty, maddening, glorious city that rivals Dickens’ London in ruthlessness and vitality. Mumbai may be violent and trashy, drunk on Bollywood dreams and choking on its own smog, but it’s the real hero of this story; Chandra clearly loves it to distraction even when it horrifies him. The villain is not a criminal, really, but fanaticism in all its forms, and the battle is literally between life and death, between those who understand that this world is necessarily chaotic, flawed and painful and those whose craving for order, calm and purity make them so very, very dangerous.
“Then We Came to the End” by Joshua Ferris
“We, too, thought it would never end,” say a group of ad agency employees in late-20th-century Chicago, speaking of the Internet- fueled economic boom. Joshua Ferris, a former adman himself, has written his first novel entirely in the first-person plural, capturing the way a bunch of mismatched strangers, when thrown together in an office, can learn to function as a single, organic entity. Or not. “Then We Came to the End” is a deeper, sharper, sadder version of that popular Thursday-night sitcom, filled with recognizable types — the office intellectual staying late to work on his novel, the conspiracy theorist, the woman who knows all the gossip, the guy everybody distrusts, the talented boss they all regard with slightly awestruck incomprehension. There are intrigues over Aeron chairs and paranoia once the layoffs begin, as well as intimations of tragedy throughout. Against the odds, and half the time against the will of the people involved, a single, organic entity does emerge, but what to do with it? Ferris has taken one of the unsung experiences of modern life and delicately exposed its complicated, conflicted heart.
“Tree of Smoke” by Denis Johnson
The Vietnam novel to end all Vietnam novels, Denis Johnson’s celebrated (and misunderstood) epic takes all the genre’s clichés, from the dangerously naive CIA officer to the feral tunnel rats to the cigar-chomping colonel who thinks he can win this thing, and runs them through a blender. The result recasts the war not as a tale of American hubris and Cold War skullduggery gone wrong, not even as a tragedy belonging to a specific place or time, but as a titanic clash between two fundamentally different ways of understanding the universe and how it works. That collision plays out through shattering battle scenes and sweaty afternoons in tin-shack bars, through the after-dinner philosophizing of deluded spies and the calculations of villagers just trying to make it to the next planting season. Johnson’s magnificent vision is less tragic than cosmic, the story of history repeating itself not because we don’t understand, but repeating itself whether we understand it or not.
“The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” by Michael Chabon
During World War II, the Roosevelt administration briefly considered resettling Europe’s Jewish refugees in Alaska. Michael Chabon’s soulful alternate-history novel dreams up what the world might have looked like if that scheme had played out. In a bustling, if well-bundled, Yiddish-speaking community in Sitka, a burnt-out homicide cop named Meyer Landsman investigates the death of a junkie chess-player who might have been the promised Messiah, and gets on the bad side of the district’s Hassidim-run organized crime syndicate. The novel offers lots of genre fun — snappy dialogue, action and suspense — yet it’s all seamlessly married to a searching consideration of Jewish identity. What would it mean to be a Jew in a world where the Holocaust never happened and the state of Israel didn’t exist? Are human beings the products of history, or does our essence transcend it? These are weighty questions for a book that’s so entertaining, but Chabon’s themes never overload his frame. Like the very best dancers and magicians, he makes it look easy.
“The Father of All Things” by Tom Bissell
The two books about Vietnam on our list this year prompt a question: When is a war truly over? Can a soldier ever really “get out”? Tom Bissell‘s engrossing memoir about his relationship to his father, a Vietnam veteran, offers a sobering illustration of how a war’s legacy can extend across generations. Tom Bissell wasn’t born until after his father returned from Southeast Asia, yet in his mind the collapse of South Vietnam and the crumbling of his parents’ marriage are “endlessly connected.” At the heart of “The Father of All Things” is a journey the two men took together to Vietnam, 40 years after Bissell’s father last set foot in that country. By turns hilarious, grief-stricken, perplexed and enlightening, Bissell’s account of that trip offers a new understanding of the war, one designed for all those Americans who, though too young to remember it, still live in its shadow.
“Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations” by Georgina Howell
Born into Victorian wealth and propriety in 1860s Britain, Gertrude Bell abandoned convention in her 30s to become a mountain climber and explorer, crisscrossing the Arabian desert on her own in the years before World War I, excavating archaeological sites, befriending chieftains and sheiks and writing best-selling books about her adventures. Her political expertise and influence in the region were so prized by Winston Churchill that after the war she became, with T.E. Lawrence, the chief architect of modern Iraq. Unfortunately, her personal life was less successful; ill-fated love affairs and family tragedies took their toll. A woman of great physical courage, panache and intelligence (she spoke six languages, wrote and translated poetry, drew maps for the British Army and photographed ancient ruins), Bell is a dream subject for any biographer, and Howell turns her story into a ripping yarn, complete with detailed accounts of Bell’s early, life-and-death exploits while mountaineering in the Alps.
“Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA” by Tim Weiner
Before Sept. 11, most Americans (not to mention foreign nationals) would probably have described the Central Intelligence Agency as a puppet-master operation with eyes everywhere, skillfully manipulating world events from behind the scenes. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, and the revelations of faulty intelligence contributing to the buildup to the Iraq war, we’ve caught a glimpse of a different but equally troubling CIA. Tim Weiner’s fascinating and masterfully reported “Legacy of Ashes” locks this new image in place. It reveals an agency chronically and often disastrously short on solid intelligence, and all too prone to embarking on half-baked covert operations with little concern for the long-term consequences (or even the short-term ones). Weiner, working from impeccable sources, documents that the CIA’s recent bumblings represent more than just a temporary difficulty adjusting to the post-Cold War world; incompetence has been a major problem since the agency’s inception. The implications of this story are scary (America is in desperate need of a decent overseas intelligence service), but the telling is never less than compulsively readable.
“The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved” by Judith Freeman
Raymond Chandler — the supreme master of hard-boiled prose and founder of the bruised-romantic school of noir heroes — is also the poet laureate of the seedy side of Los Angeles. Judith Freeman, a novelist fascinated by the intersection between Chandler’s detective fiction and his real life, became curious about the writer’s unusual marriage to a woman almost 20 years his senior. Material on Cissy Chandler’s life is scarce (her husband burned all her papers after her death), so Freeman decided to exercise her fiction-writer’s skills on the clues that remain: a long inventory Cissy kept of Ray’s collection of glass animals, a remark he made about his wife’s habit of doing housework in the nude, a handful of photographs and poems, etc. Most evocative are the excursions Freeman makes to houses and apartments the Chandlers rented throughout the city (the couple moved a lot), extended wanderings through a city that seems both lost and timeless. Her version of L.A. is as moodily unforgettable as Chandler’s, a fitting tribute to the “new kind of American loneliness” born there and the man who made it his muse.
“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman
“Imaginative” is not a word customarily applied to environmental reporting, but Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us” deserves that praise. Rather than trying to dent our apathy with dire images of melting glaciers and megahurricanes, he takes the opposite approach, describing how quickly and utterly the planet would be changed if the human race simply vanished. Within days, New York’s subway tunnels would flood, leading to the corrosion of steel supports and the eventual collapse of the streets: Lexington Avenue “becomes a river.” Suburban subdivisions fare no better, shattered by frozen pipes and devoured by mold and termites. Our cats would do just fine, but the dogs … not so much (too dependent on humanity and vulnerable to larger predators). The earth’s air and water would soon sweeten without us around to poison it, but our plastic crap, all those bottles and bags, will be sticking around until some microbe figures out how to turn them into lunch. For some reason, this doomsday scenario is more thrilling than depressing, perhaps because it beguiles us into doing what often seems beyond our power — picturing a much healthier planet — and considering a less drastic way to get there.
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What were your favorite books this year? Discuss them here.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)