Saturday, December 30, 2006

Favorite Books I Read in 2006

In 2006 I had one of my strongest years of reading since college, spurred partly by my job which constantly kept me focused the latest books. The world of book blogs has also made it easier to stay more interested in literature. In the end, I could have ranked any of the top 8 in the top spot, depending on mood.

1. The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
I'd stopped daring to hope that gay fiction could be this smart, this sexy and this well-written all at once. Hollinghurst has gotten big attention for his latest book, The Line of Beauty, and from what I understand it's a novel that the mainstream literary world can feel comfortable with. You can't say that about this book. I'm appalled there are so few published reviews of the book. I should have read this ages ago, but I'm glad I waited. This one just renewed me.

2. (tie) Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
When it comes to novels, I'm fussy about my entertainment. I love British fantasy, but Tolkien was my first exposure and it spoiled me for life. If it isn't smart, with top-notch intelligence and prose, forget it. I've got better things to do. Susanna Clarke, however, gave me weeks of effortless enjoyment this year--her sense of humor (witty, slightly silly), her plotting, her twists on traditional fantasy tales, for me it all adds up to bliss. I enjoyed every page.

4. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Cloud Atlas wowed me and made me a believer in Mitchell. Black Swan Green seems so effortless. It's so memorable, so layered and evocative. As with Cloud its unique structure just sings, amplifying the story, but it's much less showy. So graceful. I can hardly wait to see what he does next. In the meantime, I plan to read the book he tipped his hat to, here, Le Grand Meulnes.

5. Ship Fever and Other Stories by Andrea Barrett
I adored Servants of the Map a few years ago and so I picked this up when I needed a solid book, and I hoped Barrett (like Mitchell) could be counted on. It was excellent, one to be savored. I love the way Barrett has carved out this niche for herself, the way she covers this beat (scientists and their inner lives) so thoroughly and with such depth and care. So exciting. I'm saving her novel Voyage of the Narwhal for another rainy day when I desperately need a strong work of fiction.

6. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
So consistently good--so smart and entertaining and insightful, just excellent satire. I felt very much implicated. Each of the main stories worked for me. The Complete Review goes a little too far but makes an excellent point: "This is what fiction should be like: solid, approachable, well-written, etc. But because so little of contemporary American fiction is The Corrections can be seen as a shining example of what fiction can be, rather than a good but relatively unremarkable example thereof." Imagine a year which can produce an American novel of this calibre every month.

7. Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
Presenting a radically different model of short story than the character-driven one I'm used to, this collection inspired me. Sometimes these slender little creations took more work to read than I expected, but they also truly inspired me. Definitely something for the literature lover only.

8. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
One of the major literary events of the year was the U.S. publication of Nemirovsky's World War II era manuscript. Since she was killed during the Holocaust, I was worried her work would stay in the shadow

9. The Turning: Stories by Tim Winton
It was a bit of a thrill discovering this book: though better-known in the Commonwealth (twice Booker-nominated), he's all but unknown here, which made the book feel like a juicy secret. This collection of literary short stories is stunning for its earned insights into the lives of its Western Australian characters, and I enjoyed the way many of its stories are linked by related characters.

10. The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan
An invigorating look at four plants that humans have a special relationship with: the chapter on tulips was a bit of a dud, but I learned so much from the chapters on the apple, cannabis and the potato. Stimulating.

Honorable Mentions:
Everyman by Philip Roth - Dark and depressing, economical and profound.

The Planets by Dava Sobel - I was prepared to deal with the downgrading of Pluto when the news came, thanks to Sobel's delightful book.

Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann - A European bestseller which it may be unfair to describe as Pynchonesque (certainly seems to merit comparison to Mason and Dixon in subject if not style or length) but more than fair to call a joy to read.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - A classic I'd never read--I was fascinated by the implicated narrator, the gothic/romantic setting and story, and the way in which the second generation of characters resolves the conflicts of the first.

Last Evenings on Earth by Roberto Bolano - Reminded me of Borges at times (he often mentions Spanish language writers and takes writing as a subject), but he definitely has a distinctive voice. A few of the stories did little for me, but some were knockouts. My favorites were the ones that least invited autobiographical readings: "Henri Simon Leprince" and "A Literary Adventure."

Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - Strong story and an excellent realization of Conan Doyle's realtionships and psychology.

Several short stories by Ambrose Bierce - In between books I read a bunch by Bierce (including "Chickamauga," "The Damned Thing," and "An Occurence at Owl Creek") that surprised me. They helped me bridge the gap between Poe and Crane.

Winkie by Clifford Chase
Magic for Beginners: Stories by Kelly Link
Starred reviews all around for Winkie which had a few good ideas but was terribly executed. Crap, really. Link has been hyped to the skies but her fantasy stories explore weirdness for the sake of weirdness and are, to my taste, shapeless, pointless and witless.

Top 5 Graphic Novels

I read so many strong graphic novels this year, I had to make a separate list.

1. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel
I loved this book so much I had to create this separate list to give it the top ranking it deserves.

2. The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner
Amazingly inventive storytelling.

3. The Watchmen by Alan Moore
The only truly great book I've read by Moore so far.

4. The Quitter by Harvey Pekar, art by Dean Haspeil
Excellent coming-of-age story, in some ways a good companion to Roth's Everyman.

5. Mom's Cancer by Brian Fies
A webcomic so good it became a book.

Honorable Mentions: Black Hole by Charles Burns, Flight Vol. 1 (Various), La Perdida by Jessica Abel, Banana Sunday by Root Nibot and Colleen Coover

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