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Book Digest: December 18, 2006

Year-end lists may be meaningless--but they're also irresistible. Robert Birnbaum gives into temptation with his favorite books from 2006.

Let me just say that I am not a fan of lists and their masquerading as service journalism—though many 21st-century post-industrial homo ludens rely on lists to navigate the shit-streams of information that threaten to capsize our tiny strange boats—which is not the same thing as being force-fed a steady diet of lists of every conceivable stripe on every imaginable triviality. Year-end lists are particularly suspect as they are offered up as the implicit best [blank]s of [year]—a dubious category in many ways and I can assure you, most certainly in the world of books.

Having said that, I cannot resist the temptation (with my sharp-eyed editor’s prompting) to offer up my own list of books from the past year. And in case this fact has escaped you, this enterprise is very much about moi and all variations on the leitmotif of me—which depending on your own sensitivities and idiosyncrasies may not be as onerous as such self-indulgence suggests. Or then again it may be.

One more thing. There is no claim here that these books are the best or great or in any way is an imperative implied. Nor does it make you a failure or illiterate if you haven’t or don’t read them. This is simply a random, spontaneous grouping of books that on this particular day in December I recall (no easy feat, by the way) gave me great pleasure and reaffirmed why I have enjoyed reading most of my life. That’s simple, right?

Miss Kansas City by Joan Frank
Last summer I was waiting for AAA to jump-start my car and I found a copy of Joan Frank’s first novel in my back seat (one of my few personal rules is to always have a book or two stashed a way, in cases of unanticipated waiting or delays)—which I picked up and was committed to by the third paragraph. I liked it so much that I asked Oscar Villalon if I could review it for the San Francisco Chronicle. Joan has a new novel coming in the spring 2007, which I have dipped into and found quite readable. Look to this space for more on that book in the coming spring.

Melville: His World and Work by Andrew Delbanco
Andrew Delbanco of the literary Delbancos (which includes brother Nicholas and niece Francesca) is a well-regarded educator and scholar who, despite my resistance to long biographies, had me engrossed in his life of Herman Melville, surely America’s most misunderstood and undervalued author. This is a smart, illuminating, and thoughtful book that gives context to Melville’s odd place in American literature. Also, it avoids the turgid prose to which many literary scholars are prone.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This young Nigerian novelist’s second effort is a masterful novel encompassing the period of the Biafran war in the late ‘60s. She writes well and tells a good story with a cast of sympathetic characters from the continent whose travails the first world ignores.

Gallatin Canyon by Thom McGuane
I have been following McGuane’s writing since his novel (and film) 92 in the Shade, and was so moved by this story collection that I attempted one of my occasional excursions into the degraded practice of newspaper book reviewing. Also, I am pleased to have this opportunity to tout my 2002 conversation with McGuane, which has been collected in Conversations With McGuane. OK, I did warn you this is about me.

Voices of Time by Eduardo Galeano
This Uruguayan writer, activist, and avid soccer fan is the author of the seminal Open Veins of Latin America and Memories of Fire. In Voices of Time he re-contextualizes a selection of his past writings and notes—which is an interesting gesture. If you know Galeano this is a fine refresher course; if you don’t, this is a sweet primer to the true original.

A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell
The explosion of memoirs in the past few years has led to their genrefication, and has also led to memoir fatigue or overload. Which this effort by literary critic Caldwell does well to cure. Methinks shimmering and evocative prose and a good story to tell goes a long way toward this book’s success. Caldwell is a smart and funny lady—which also makes her one of the few critics I find worth reading (meaning I learn something from her).

The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford
Installment three of Frank Bascombe’s story is the best yet. (Ford insists this is the last one.) Frank is 56, twice-married, and burdened with cancer. He is still smart and funny and a keen-eyed observer of America, viewing life as he does through the sharply focused lens of a real-estate player.

The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz
Princeton historian Wilentz puts the juice and marrow back into the story of America and takes on the taken-for-granted democratic impulse in the nascent republic known as the United States.

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos
There are a handful of crime writers who rise above the stigma of genre. Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Michael Connelly, Chuck Hogan, Thomas Perry, Michael Gruber, and George Pelecanos are in that group. The Night Gardener is as fine a novel as he has created. Plus, he has been involved with HBO’s The Wire (now in its fourth season), which, if you are not aware, is one of the best video narratives—dare I say—ever?

The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez
Though I have owned Sigrid Nunez books as they have been published, this was my first chance (who can explain the vagaries of one’s reading habits) to read her. This is a masterfully constructed story, with intensely complicated characters and a fluid plot line. I expect to talk with Nunez early next year, so stay tuned.

The Blind Side by Michael Lewis
Mike Lewis is as good a reporter as there is in America: He knows a good story and he delivers it with grace, economy, and a fully fleshed-out context. This is the tale of a black teen giant who is taken off the streets of Memphis, adopted by a white Evangelical family, ends up at Ole Miss, and is predicted to be a high choice in the NFL draft. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala
Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala’s first opus, which won a Los Angeles Times award for a first novel, takes on the little attended issue of child soldiers and delivers an impressively realized story.

Everyman by Philip Roth
Roth’s take on old age and death. Not for the faint-hearted, but it does deliver the bad news with Roth’s characteristic accuracy. (“Old age is like the plague.”) If I recall correctly, the notices were not kind to this book. So who are you going to believe?

* * *

On one more personal note let me say that part of my sense of the joys of reading is that they take place in a kind of imminent present. So recalling the pleasures of the above books is part of an admixture that has to do with my anticipation of reading forthcoming books by Jim Harrison and Jonathan Rabin and Robert Stone and Norman Mailer and so on—I see it as a never-ending story. So happy new and old years!

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