12.23.2006

Best Books of the Year?

In the spirit of writing about the best books of the year, let's write about the best books of the year! But first, let's be venomous and write about the not-best!

2006 Most Overrated: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Non-2006 (but read in 2006) Most Overrated: The Sportswriter, by Richard Ford

Now that that that that unpleasantness is done with, onto the fun! I read too few 2006 books, but recently raced through

2006 Winner: Richard Powers's The Echo Maker

completed just after finishing my first experience of RP's work, Galatea 2.d'oh!, unlike which The Echo Maker is good! I recommend it (it being TEM!)! Didn't like the ending of The Echo Maker very much, which was disappointing since the ending is more or less the point of four hundred pages, but those first 350 are easily awesome enough to nudge Mr. Powers ahead of the rest of the field. Carrot to Mr. Powers!

I also read this year, very tardily, the surprisingly excellent and much more enthusiastically recommended!!!!

Non-2006 Winner: Bright Lights, Big City, by Jay McInerney

Happy Reading! :)))))))))

23 comments:

the plunge said...

Dunkeys, quit the plunge baiting! As I aptly demonstrated several posts ago, The Road is a fine, fine book and while perhaps not a canon classic, it's definitely one of the best literary books out this year.

The most overrated book of 2006 is *without question* : Emporer's Children. It is beyond pretentious and for the life of me and I can't figure out what people like about it.

Best book of 2006: Revolutionary Road, which is the best book of this 200-year period and therefore by default this year's best book.

ps i didn't finish empire's children but a friend assured me I was right.

El Gordo de Amore said...

Although I'm sure Dunkeys will point out why I am wrong:

Best of 2006: Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day -- within a few pages, there was a Replacements reference, then a talking ball of electricity.

Best non-2006: Gob's Grief -- Chris Adrian -- super cool, and also with quite a bit about electricity. With Pynchon, this, and The Prestige, I feel like it is the year of Tesla.

Best Graphic Novel: Lost Girls, Alan Moore. Not something you can read on a subway, or in front of your grandmother, and I'm probably on some law enforcement list for getting it, but it's a great reimagining of the storys of Dorothy, Alice, and Peter Pan.

Grendel said...

This makes me embarrassed to realize how few new books I read. Why do I always reach for a classic When The Time Comes? I hope to do much better in the new year -- starting off with The Road, which I received for Christmas.

Best "newish" book by someone I don't know read in 2006 : The History of Love, Nicole Krauss

Runner up "newish" book by someone I don't know read in 2006: The Russian Debutante's Handbook, Gary Shteyngart

Best 20th century book read in 2006: Oxherding Tale, Charles Johnson

Best 19th century book read in 2006: David Copperfield

And plunge is right: Rev Road should be required reading for all writers.

Trevor Jackson said...

Best book I read in 2006, published in 2006: Visigoth by Gary Amdahl (I think this is the only book that fits this category, for what it's worth. Weird.)

Best recent, but non-2006 book read this year: Prep. Read in about three days, fast fast fast for me. Couldn't stop.

Classic I read for the first time that was pretty freaking amazing: The Great Gatsby.

Other classic I finally got around to: Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. You think Harry Potter pissed the fundies off? They're going to freak when these movies are released.

Also, Revolutionary Road is the best novel documenting post-war suburbia. Without Yates, no A.M. Homes, no Tom Perotta, no Tobias Wolff.

Trevor Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Trevor Jackson said...

Whoops.

Books I'm looking forward to reading next year that I got as gifts:
The Prestige
The Exquisite
The Best American Comics 2006
The Open Curtain

If you're looking for ideas of what to read next, let me plug this list.

Grendel said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Grendel said...

Re: The Exquisite: If anyone has actually read some Laird Hunt, please post and give me the lowdown. Suddenly his name keeps coming up in different contexts, and always in a positive light. As Agent Cooper (approximately) said, "When two or more events occur in close proximity, we must always pay strict attention."

Grendel said...

btw, when you google "dunkeys" Google asks: Did you mean duck?

the plunge said...

But two or more events *always* occur in close proximity.

Grendel said...

What the devil are you on about? They may occur far apart. Or maybe I misunderstand you. If so, it just means we must always pay strict attention -- to everything.

traca de broon said...

You forgot to mention, Grennie, that the events need to be related.

Only because I can't sleep and not because I want to drag this out, I googled the actual quote: "Gentlemen, when two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention." -Dale Cooper

Grendel said...

Right. That's what I meant to say.

dunkeys said...

Quack! . . . er, let's get focused here, peeps: another entry for disappointing book of 2006 is

Absurdistan, by Gary Shteyngart

which I enthusiastically began in flight last week and enthusiastically put down. Why is the Russian Debutante book good? I'm curious.

Second -- tell more about the Yates book!

Third -- the movie Children of Men is really good, but not nearly as good as it could/should be!

(which might lead to a movie posting soon . . . .)

Grendel said...

Wait -- are you saying you haven't read Revolutionary Road? You march yourself down to a used bookstore, sir, and pick that puppy up. Go on. This is not one of those books where you have a choice about maybe you'll read it, maybe not.

Russian Debutante's is good because it's funny and shows a keen perspective on American absurdity. It also has a plot. But it is a first novel, and you can tell. That's disappointing to hear about Absurdistan.

In the middle of the night, I finished David Copperfield and started The Road. I don't recommend such a move. Absolutely jarring to go from lovingly crafted rich luxurious hilarious eloquence to frowning grim clipped minimalism, half of which isn't even set in sentences. I'm getting used to it, but I have to keep asking myself, now, why is this considered good writing again? And I don't have a good answer. The plot has sucked me in, though, so I'm not going anywhere.

the plunge said...

Ah man, I got pulled into The Road right away. Maybe I'm weird. You didn't like the bit on the first page about the nightmare beast "with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders?"

Yeah maybe I'm weird.

Grendel said...

I did smile at that line. Every page or two there is a startling image, or a perfectly described thing. It was just quite a stylistic downshift, especially in the middle of the night.

cek said...

What does "it is a first novel, and you can tell" mean? How can you tell? What gives it away? In other words, and I think this leads us into a different discussion that perhaps deserves its own thread, what are the hallmarks of a first novel? Are they all bad? Should we try to avoid them? Are they even avoidable so long as you are, in fact, writing a first novel, as I imagine many of us are?

Grendel said...

I had a feeling I was gonna get in trouble for that. I was being a bit flip, true, and I'm not sure I can articulate what I was getting at. This thread is as good a place for such a discussion as anything. The point is to converse about stuff like this.

When I think of a first novel, my thoughts travel initially to This Side of Paradise, which I read after Gatsby, the collected stories, Tender Is the Night, and even The Beautiful and Damned. It was maybe backwards, but it gave me a different perspective on that early work, namely, how good did he end up being, and how does that compare to how good he started out being?

I take that as my standard for first novel also because it has a couple of the hallmarks I associate with first novels:

* It's about a young person. I hesitate to say "coming of age," but really that's what it is. Fall from innocence, trials of morality and ethics, feeling one's way in the adult world, making decisions, living with the consequences.

* It feels autobiographical. Amory went to Princeton, Scott went to Princeton. Etc. It's hard to see Amory as anyone other than Scott. He took himself and probably added bits and pieces of people he met at Princeton. It's like an art student nailing down a self-portrait before moving on to portraits. Speaking of portraits, this is exactly what James Joyce did, too.

This poorly delineated formula also fits Russian Debutante's Handbook: Appears to closely track the experience, first-hand or second-hand, of the author. Subject matter: himself. Time period: young. Fill in the details as you like.

Nothing wrong with any of that. But I'm not young anymore, even though 40 is the new 30 and we must never, ever forget that (until 10 years from now). So there is a certain curmudgeonly, impatient aspect to my reading preferences that certainly wasn't there 15 years ago. I have less time for the tribulations of others' youth, because I got so darned much out of my own -- unless they seem sufficiently different. I loved Running with Scissors (book, not movie) because he had such a deadpan take on outrageous circumstances. Angela's Ashes: loved it, lapped up every sentence.

What are some other first novels? I'm limited by my own idiosyncratic picks, of course. Americana. There's one. Also had little patience with that one. Compare it to White Noise. It's almost like many novelists have to get their own young years down before they feel ready to begin creating characters from something other than the material of their own egos.

Maybe what I'm really saying is my taste in fiction is moving toward older characters as I get older. I lived it up in my youth. I saw and did things in high school and college and, to be candid, into my 20s, and to be very candid, into my 30s, that were better than most anything I've ever read. I have reached a point of satisfaction in my understanding of the arc of moving from youth to adulthood, under my own terms, that probably affects my ability to appreciate the musings on that topic from the majority of people writing their first novel. I suppose that sounds arrogant. Maybe it is. Can't help that. It's the truth.

Many people on this blog are writing their first novel, including me, including you. I, and maybe I'm making a horrible mistake, am trying to skip over that first novel tractor beam of available material. Much of what I wrote in the workshop was just the kind of thing you find in first novels. Heh, we don't have to go into detail about that stuff. I had to get some of it out of my system. Now I fancy I'm grabbing at big themes, big ideas, ancient threads, archetypes. I am probably failing, but it's what I'm trying to do.

But back to Russian Debutante. The writing is, in places, brilliant. The man is impressive. I laughed out loud, often and sincerely. I look forward to the guy's career. He seems to be the real deal. I enjoyed it, for what it's worth, much more than I enjoyed This Side of Paradise, and look what happened to that fellow. However, the arc traveled by the protagonist is not the most interesting arc to me anymore, or at least it wasn't wrung for everything that could have been wrung out of it. Just to take an example: he naturally struggles with joining up with lawbreakers. He's good at marketing and wants to impress girls and make money and what he finds in Prava seems to suit his talents well. But the tension in that is not ratcheted up tight enough. He doesn't reflect enough, in my opinion, on the consequences of the path he's taking, on the likely results of his actions. The way he pays lip service to his moral qualms adds to the comedy, of course, but it subtracts from my inclination to identify fully with him. Some people haven't read it, and my wife is reading it right now, so I won't go into detail about my final disappointments with the book. In short, it failed to reach the level of maturity that I would have found more satisfying. Compare his journey to Humbert's in Lolita, though -- which is what I do with most anything I read that involves self-deception and rationalizing away the keys to solving psyche troubles -- and you get a sense of how much more, it seems to me, there is to be squeezed out of something like that.

I didn't mean to carpet bomb the entire subset of first novels. Taking my own experience as I struggle through mine, it's amazing that anyone completes a first novel at all. I stand, truly, in deeply respectful admiration of everyone I know who finished a book of fiction. That, of course, includes you, cek. I wish I had published a book when I was your age! I wish I had been on the track you are on. But I guess I had other priorities. In my years I have come to see some critical filters emerge in my own taste that I never would have suspected would emerge. But I don't claim these qualify as a solid stance for denouncement of anything. I'm still working through what it really is that makes me like a book or not. And if that material I piled up in some of my more foolish and bawdy early adventures may come gushing out of me some day, I'll totally take back everything I just said here.

Grendel said...

Let me add one more thing: the shining value of my own life's escapades, if rendered in prose ostensibly as fiction, would not be anywhere near as interesting to other people as it is to me. Which is, I suppose, exactly my problem with many first novels.

Okay, one more other thing: Prep was just brought up in my household. And Prep, I thought, did succeed more than the majority of first novels, because she did wring a great deal out of the material. She did get into people's psyches, she did render other characters as full and complicated, she did reflect fully on what was happening in Lee's life. The fact that the writing felt so real, more real than real, and managed to break out into the realm of incredible awkwardness, was quite enough to push the book past my filters and keep it interesting. So it can be done, even for a sometimes crusty ogre like myself. It's just not done often enough.

Traca just reminded me that Frankenstein was a first novel. If they were all like that one! How in the world a 19 year-old wrote such a stunning beast I'll never understand.

Confederacy of Dunces also springs to mind as a stellar first novel.

traca de broon said...

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is another amazing first novel, even more so because the author was all of 23 when she wrote it.

cek said...

Thanks, Grendel. I wasn't trying to get you in trouble, or even be pointed. I was just genuinely curious.

Happy New Year!

bR said...

Books! I remember books! They're those things I used to read before I had a child, right?.