Thursday, December 21, 2006

More Best of 2006 lists

It’s remarkable how personal reading can be. When I surf through the lit blogosphere I am constantly amazed at the number of fabulous writers I have never heard of, writers who have small but dedicated followings. Take, for example, this list of underappreciated writers. I am unfamiliar with most of them, yet clearly they are doing exemplary work. It’s like everything else in contemporary American culture: certain authors are lauded by the media and they are the ones who sell books. The others have to overcome this huge silence that accompanies their work.

Which is why I am delighted to share four separate Best Books of 2006. (You can see my list here.) These lists were compiled by very different readers with very different tastes. Yet all of them adore books. I respect their taste. I am delivering their thoughts in their raw form so you may see their musings.

Elaine Smith is a woman with one of the most highly developed aesthetic senses I have ever met. She’s a designer of sorts, or more accurately a decorator who appreciates the one-of-a-kind. She also has a dry sense of humor and makes the best waffles I have ever eaten. She lives in Oakland.

Here are the books I most enjoyed reading and/or greatly admired this year:

Donald Antrim "The Afterlife"

David Mitchell "Black Swan Green"

Dan Chaon "You Remind Me of Me"

Jonathan Ames "Wake Up, Sir"

Knut Hamsun "Growth of the Soil" & "Mysteries"

All random choices . . . there are explanations if you want any. The Knut Hamsun ("Growth of the Soil") was given to me by an interior designer. I was so baffled by her giving it to me, I had to read it.

Then bought "Mysteries". Both so odd, but interesting.

My mother insisted I had to read You Remind Me of Me -- and again, so bewildered I had to read it.

Excellent. Excellent.

"Wake Up, Sir" I found in my purse. An old friend passing through town had given it to me; I forgot about it for months and then just started reading it.

Read it like snorting a gram of coke with a similar effect: insanity; uncontrolled laughing all by myself -- in bed in the middle of the night.

Black Swan Green was narrated by a stutterer. Had read a book narrated by an autistic and another by a Tourettes sufferer. Figured it was time to give the stutterer a voice. It was beautiful.

The Donald Antrim just gave me faith in the reality that there are writers out there who can craft a perfect sentence, not wallow in self-involvement, yet still examine their own feelings and get into the complexities of others' (in this case his mother.)

Dan Chaon's book -- one more thing -- blew me away in terms of the writing, and again, very painful story; his similies were astonishing; the story was rough, but compelling. I love books about (apparent) losers.

The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud, in contrast, a book about a bunch of hyper-privileged people in New York -- annoyed me. Couldn't feel much sympathy or interest for any of the characters. And it didn't impress me that her writing was so precise she NEVER EVER EVER split an infinitive.

Cindy Snow is a world traveler who spends her down time reading and working at A Great Good Place for Books in the Montclair section of Oakland. What I love about Cindy is that she appreciates both highbrow and lowbrow literature. She loves a mystery as much as she loves literary fiction. (And since I am a secret reader of chick lit, I can relate)

Hi Frances, here is my list. Not in any order.

The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud.

By a Slow River, Phillipe Claudel

What is the What by Dave Eggers (and i am not an Eggers fan-and i was tired of it by the end but i would include it)

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

I also really enjoyed Talk Talk by T.C. Boyle although i don't think it was one of the BEST books.

Betsy Blumenthal works for Kroll Associates, a security consulting firm that works on some interesting cases. Everyone tells me I am a voracious reader and know a lot about books (which I do.) However, when I met Betsy and we started talking about books she kept bringing up fabulous tomes that I had never heard of. She reads a lot of non-fiction. I already plan to read some of the books she recommends here.

I read Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo, the acclaimed English children’s author with my son. It is great for 5-7th grade. A historical novel about WWI. 2 brothers and their lives in England and in combat. I do not want to ruin the punch line however it is worth noting that the author was inspired to write this book because approximately 300 British men were executed by the British for insubordination during the war. As my son said, “but they are on the same team.”

This prompted many questions about WWI and so I then read Barbara Tuchman’s, The Zimmerman Telegram. A page turner which spells out what the US finally did get involved in the war. A fantastic book which read like a thriller.

Another oldie but goodie that I reread was Switch Bitch by Roald Dahl. The 4 short stories each have a bizarre twist which catches you by surprise. A fun read.

I read Tom Nagorsky’s Miracles on the Water. A true account of the ship The City of Benares and its ill-fated voyage in 1940 from England to Canada. A third of the 400 passengers were children evacuees whose parents anguished over whether or not to take advantage of their lucky lottery draw and put them on a ship across the Atlantic and have them live with strangers until the war was over OR keep the children in England and pray they survive the bombing.

I read the book in 15 hours; I could not put it down and sobbed during much of it.

Lastly, The Looming Tower,by Lawrence Wright. A very well-structured and researched book on the personalities and personal history of the Al Qaida leaders. Who knew for instance that Omar Sharif grew up in the same enclave in Cairo as Zahawi? In many ways he makes the world very small, perhaps too small.

Lastly, Chin Up Girls! A book of women’s obituaries from The Daily Telegraph. A charming, inspiring book which you can put down and pick up at leisure.

Nancy Chirinos is the kind of reader publishers love: when she hears of a good book she’ll rush out and get it in hardback instead of waiting for the paperback edition. As her friend, I love this inclination because she’s also generous and passes books on! Nancy is an educator by profession and a voracious reader. You can see she mixes up classics with contemporay literature. Here is her list:

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt (Shakespeare bio)
Desert Queen by Janet Wallach (bio)
March by Geraldine Brooks
Northranger Abbey by Jane Austen
I Married a Communist by Phillip Roth
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathon Safran Foer
The Keep by Jennifer Egan
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon

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