The Best Books of 2007

The World Without Us


10. AGENT ZIGZAG by Ben Macintyre
If this rollicking bio were fiction, you'd call it far-fetched. In 1941, a charming English con man, thief, and womanizer named Eddie Chapman was apprehended by the Nazis and recruited as a spy. But after parachuting into a British celery field, Chapman promptly turned double agent, launching his fabulous, albeit short-lived, career as a dashing player in world history. Ben Macintyre's chronicle reads like top-flight John le Carré, but it's all true.

9. THE WILD TREES by Richard Preston
Richard Preston's subject is the primeval redwood forest canopy of northern California, and the handful of quirky souls obsessed with ascending to this world hundreds of feet above the ground. As Preston writes, a man falling 100 feet from a sequoia lands with a ''deep, wet boom'' and probably won't get up again. After finishing Trees, you'll understand why someone might think that's a risk worth taking.

8. BORN STANDING UP by Steve Martin
Another humorist with a complicated inner life, Steve Martin crafts a smart, sweet memoir of his two decades as a stand-up. He focuses primarily on the evolution of his giddy sensibility, with brief interludes about his love affairs and crippling panic attacks. There were nights when Martin couldn't eke a chuckle from his audience, but his memoir kills.

7. SCHULZ AND PEANUTS by David Michaelis
He wasn't a particularly good man, Charles ''Sparky'' Schulz, but for 50 years he churned out the most beloved comic strip in American history. In this definitive life, David Michaelis explores the tortured soul behind the endlessly winsome Peanuts.

6. TWO LIVES by Janet Malcolm
Janet Malcolm's little book about writer Gertrude Stein and her lover, Alice B. Toklas, folds together dishy biography, refreshingly blunt criticism of Stein's work, plus intriguing journalistic forays into the insular world of Stein scholarship. It's hard to know how to classify Two Lives, but a gem is a gem is a gem.

In a review of George Saunders' terrific essay collection, The New York Times mocked the ''Midwestern Sweetness of the Author's Soul.'' Chalk it up to East Coast Snark. Whether he is critiquing the media or patrolling with reactionary Minutemen on the U.S.-Mexico border, Saunders tries to understand before he attacks; he looks for common ground with his subjects; he resists conspiracy theories. You can call it sweet. You can also call it sensible and refreshing.

4. DOWN THE NILE by Rosemary Mahoney
In 1998, at the age of 38, Rosemary Mahoney decided she wanted to paddle down the Nile, alone, in a rowboat. Her sharply written account of the experience illustrates the challenges of buying even a dinky little boat in Egypt (especially if you're a Western woman), introduces us to a series of memorable characters, and brims with the exhilaration of setting oneself an outrageous goal, then achieving it.

3. HOW DOCTORS THINK by Jerome Groopman, M.D.
Calling the practice of medicine ''a mix of science and soul,'' Dr. Jerome Groopman meditates on his experiences as both physician and patient. Why, he asks, do doctors so often make disastrously wrong diagnoses? Why don't they listen more attentively to patients? And how do a doctor's feelings about a patient play into treatment decisions? His answers are fascinating and sometimes disconcerting.

2. THE NINE by Jeffrey Toobin
Jeffrey Toobin's unlikely page-turner, about the Supreme Court under William Rehnquist and John Roberts, balances analyses of major cases (Bush v. Gore gets extensive, scathing treatment) with irreverent accounts of the justices' personalities. Sandra Day O'Connor insisted that staffers join her in salsa-dancing classes to keep fit; Clarence Thomas feels that traveling by RV makes him a better judge; David Souter writes only with a fountain pen. Toobin's best-seller is almost as amusing as it is important.

1. THE WORLD WITHOUT US by Alan Weisman
If the human race were to suddenly disappear, what would become of the planet we've shaped and scarred? This is the thought experiment Alan Weisman assigns himself in his stirring book. A few of his conclusions: Skyscrapers would be overtaken by foliage and collapse; warmhearted dogs would perish; sly house cats would thrive. And the world would never be free of plastic baggies. Is it depressing to contemplate Earth after mankind? Strangely, not. ''The only real prediction you can make is that life will go on,'' says an extinction expert interviewed by Weisman. ''And that it will be interesting.''

NEXT PAGE: EW picks the five worst books of 2007


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