Completing my favorites, 2006

A list of books I enjoyed reading this year and probably would happily read again. The oddity, for me, is that I mostly remember slogging through nonfiction after nonfiction, most of it having to do with the Iraq War. Yet the vast majority of books that first leapt to mind in compiling this list were the novels and short-story collections.

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart.
A funnier, sharper book than his debut, The Russian Debutante's Handbook (here, rendered as The Russian Arriviste's Hand Job): A fat, young Russian-American heads home but then can't get back to the rap music and South Bronx Latina he loves because his mobster father knocked off an Oklahoma businessman. So Misha heads to Absurdistan instead because he might be able to buy a black market visa in a country that falls apart just as he arrives.
Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta.
Spare, coolly observant and smart. A somewhat settled, mildly-lefty, middle-class pair of adults who rarely even see each other turn out to have been a radical couple who triggered a political bombing in the '70s. Now the woman's teenage son begins to uncover clues to her real identity. The best post-DeLillo novel on domestic terrorism and consumer culture.
The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers.
Too long and not his best, but still a fascinating rumination on the human brain, family and our connection to wildlife: A truck accident near a prime whooping crane sanctuary in Nebraska sends the young driver into a coma; when he awakes, he has no memory of the event or of this strange woman who's helping him and claims to be his sister. She calls in an Oliver Sachs-like neural scientist who only makes things worse. The National Book Award finally caught up with the brilliant Mr. Powers.
The People's Act of Love, by James Meek
The most unusual, most haunting thriller of the year, certainly the best Russian-based, noir-ish novel since Gorky Park. Czech regiment is stranded in Siberia at the tail-end of the Russian revolution in a town with a religious sect whose members castrate themselves to be like angels. A murderer, a possible madman has escaped from a nearby Siberian camp. And then the Bolshevik army shows up. Dark, poetic, almost other-worldly. Oh, and I forgot to mention: The sect and the stranded Czech regiment are based on history.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.
His starkest, most nihilistic novel yet, heartbreaking in its simplicity and cold, Beckett-like beauty. Pushing their little cart of canned goods, a man and his young son try to survive in a nuclear-wintry world of hungry cannibals and roving bands of thugs. It's something like Lone Wolf and Cub set in the Southwest.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl.
All right, she's beautiful, young and irritatingly brilliant and her novel about a genius teenage daughter, her wandering, history-prof father and the murder they become involved in is too precociously clever and Nabokovian-derivative by half. But hell, it's still a lot of fun to read.
Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky.
A novel of French Jewish refugees and World War II, this has the emotional heft of Tolstoy. Amazingly old-fashioned in its human detail and historic sweep, yet it works; it pulls you in.

At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, by Taylor Branch.
It has been Mr. Branch's contention through his Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil Rights trilogy that we Americans shouldn't think of them as the '50s or the '60s but as "the King Years": His account has been so moving that when the reader finally reaches Memphis, 1968, he can't accept what he knows is coming.
The Beautiful Cigar Girl: Mary Rogers, Edgar Allan Poe and the Invention of Murder, by Daniel Stashower
No doubt there have been richer, more profound historical-biographical studies this year, but Cigar Girl is highly enjoyable as a biography of Poe, a study of the period's literature and crime and a reflection on the nature of literary mystery. Mr. Stashower cuts back and forth between the real-life murder of Mary Rogers and Poe's miserable life as he struggles with his great invention, the detective story, trying to use it solve the Rogers case and gain some measure of financial stability.
Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West, by Hampton Sides.
Kit Carson and the near-destruction of the Navajo: The stories have been told before, but this is an epic history, and Mr. Sides does a remarkably rich job of contrasting and intertwining the two cultures as the illiterate trapper and scout, married twice to Native Americans, ends up leading the tribe's slaughter. A tremendously vast narrrative but one that Mr. Sides keeps (mostly) under control to great effect.
Flaubert: A Biography, by Frederick Brown
This is actually more like "Flaubert's Life and Times" or "Flaubert and His Friends." Mr. Brown, a biographer of Zola and a writer on the French stage, knows the period, knows the secondary characters, so what we get is a (sometimes too) full tapestry of the age and how 'the bear of Croisset' fully fit in it, despite his grumpy-hermit ways.
The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright.
Of all the books on Iraq and terrorism that I read the past year (State of War, State of Denial, The End of Iraq, Fiasco, Cobra II, One-Percent Doctrine), Mr. Wright's stands out for its human narrrative and journalistic depth., the way he's managed to interview bin Laden's school chums and sisters-in-law as well as the only Arabic agents our intelligence community had. He tracks bin Laden and Zarqawi on the one side and CIA and FBI agents on the other until they all come together at the burning towers. It's a catastrophe that didn't have to happen.

And (see below, 'tis the season) these were my previous citations for:


>Some Fun by Antonya Nelson

Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara by Ben Fountain


The Fate of the Artist, by Eddie Campbell

Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel

Also: The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation, by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon.

December 3, 2006 12:21 PM | | Comments (1)



Thanks for the excellent list. I too was weary of Iraq books this year, but unlike you, I lazily turned to old favorites rather than investigate what else was new. I'm looking forward to reading several of your recommendations.


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