My ten best are not the ten best new books. I may not even have read them all in 2006. I’m a lousy recordkeeper, and there’s no one, like a literary IRS who cares enough to keep me honest. So here’s a list, not necessarily in order.
1. Passion by Jeannette Winterson. Enchanting story set in Napoleonic times. There’s so much poetic prose and sensuality in this story you almost forget about the blood and the pain of a soldier caught in the Little Emperor’s fateful Russian campaign. Get to it.
2. Love, Etc. by Julian Barnes. Barnes is a unique storyteller, and no book better illustrates his innovativeness than the form of Love, Etc. The story is told alternatively in monologue by different characters speaking to an unidentified audience. Probably, but not certainly, a counselor of some sort. It’s a complicated love triangle, and the story changes with each monologue, not just from character to character. Characters’ own versions change with each telling.
3. Arthur and George by Julian Barnes. The form here is much more conventional than Love, Etc., but it’s no less full of surprises and wonder.
4. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. Noticing a trend here? Parrot is a pretty old book, but I’m slow sometimes. I expected something much more fictional, but was unexpectedly delighted to find almost a treatise on Flaubert’s life and work written in the voice of a narrator whose life and attitude is so opposite the French sensualist you wonder at first why he’s attracted to him. You do find out and are glad for it.
5. The Power Book by Jeannette Winterson. Winterson’s theme of adultery and lost love is sometimes wearying, but here it is enchanting. The power book refers literally to the laptop the writer is using, and metaphorically becomes the mind of the writer writing. Not a new approach to a story, and something I generally steer away from as narcissistic. However, Winterson makes the whole enterprise more about how the human mind and heart works rather than just how the sacred creature the writer does the sacred act of creation.
6.The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey. Nothing literary about this one, except that it’s written in lively, vivid prose. It’s a story about shark-watching–research off the Farallone islands near San Francisco. The Great White is the particular species of shark under investigation, and Casey is a journalist who becomes obsessed with the project. There’s a healthy meal of history, privation, and adventure with a plate of suspense for dessert.
7. With Malice Toward None–The Life of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen B. Oates. The biography is about twenty years old now, but I’m just getting to it. I hadn’t read a life of Lincoln since I read Sandburg’s long ago. It deserves all its plaudits. Of note, I think, is that Lincoln’s arguments against the Mexican War when he was in congress sound remarkably similar to today’s arguments against the Iraq invasion–bogus justification for a preemptive strike into a sovereign nation. In 1846, it was for territorial gain. In our case, for oil. I guess.
8. Team of Rivals–The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This one is not old, and I found it a fascinating look at how Lincoln pulled off the old adage about keeping your enemies close to you. Every one of his original cabinet members either despised him or wanted his job. And they took every opportunity to slip a knife into his or each others’ political ribs. His ability to balance their animosities and ambitions was a major reason for his success in prosecuting the Civil War.
9. Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich. If you’ve read my blog on Erdrich, you’ll know why this is on the list. Erdrich’s cast of characters in a Faulkner-like imaginary geographical setting has assumed mythic literary proportions. This one follows the fortunes and feelings of four wives of one man, all of whom end up snowbound with one another. Sounds almost like a sit-com setup, doesn’t it? But this is Louise Erdrich, so it’s no trivial T.V. half-hour.
10. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich Easily the funniest book I’ve read in years. But not comical in the sense that it digs deep into the psyche. Little No Horse is a reservation. The report is the last in a series of letters the resident priest has been sending to the Vatican for decades. The book explores all the mysteries that surround the incidents that are the subject of the report.
11. Disgrace by Paul Coetzee I did a blog on this one, too. In conjunction with my reading of Rushdie’s Shame. No book ever deserved a prize more than this one deserved its Booker. Prose as spare and precise as Ishiguro’s, a presence in the protagonist’s psyche as complete as McEwen’s, action and suspense worthy of a glossy-covered thriller. This is my first go at Coetzee, and I’m off for more.
12. Saturday by Ian McEwen. McEwen does more than any other writer to inhabit the profession of his characters. In this cases, he’s chose brain surgery, and according to a medical man I know, he’s done it just right. Too, he’s playing to his strength here, which is to follow the intricate patterns and processes of human thought and feeling. My main complaint about him in other works I’ve read is that in his fascination with his characters’ psyche he often wanders away from the action. Not so here. I have some minor problems with the way the plot develops, but Saturday is overall a masterful performance by an author who is undoubtedly one of the finest of the age.
So my ten best have morphed into twelve. I told you I was a bad record keeper. I’ve probably left off a few that should be there, but no reader can lose with any of these, so do yourself a favor and pick one up.