Top 10 Books of 2006
By John Freeman
1. 2006 was so crowded with megawatt names in American fiction that it was easy to overlook (in my opinion) that the best fiction came from overseas. The very best of these imports was Alaa Al Aswany’s hilarious and terribly sad novel, The Yacoubian Building (HarperCollins, paper, $13.95), which depicts a cross-section of Egyptian life around the Gulf War as Dickens would, had he have been an Egyptian, of course.
2. I was also kept up late and woken up early by Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury’s Gate of the Sun (Archipelago, hardcover, $26), the tale of a Palestinian man dying in a refugee camp, having his life story told back to him by his best friend. It’s a masterpiece—the Midnight’s Children of the Arab-Israeli conflict—and it will break your heart.
3. It’s sort of ironic in this day of age, when most of our communication is by e-mail or even text message, that 2006 should bring two incredible collections of letters. The Letters of E.B. White (HarperCollins, hardcover, $35) were reissued this month, featuring a decade more of correspondence with the likes of John Updike and Andy Rooney. It shows the beloved writer growing old with all the grace and wit one might suspect. “As one who turned eight-five in July,” he wrote to a friend in 1984, “I have a message for you: Don’t fall down.”
4. By contrast, The Collected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (Henry Holt, hardcover, $32.50) told us quite a bit about the gimlet-eyed war correspondent that none of her writings would reveal. She was a sucker for love. Following her through war zones, across continents, and in and out of marriage with Ernest Hemingway, we discover that she loved with the same pell-mell passion that she attacked a story. And yet she did it all with grace. “I do not feel I am the size or shape of a woman who should burst into tears about anything,” she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, “ever.”
5. Whoever thought an outbreak of cholera in 19th century London could be such a page-turner? In The Ghost Map (Riverhead, hardcover, $26.95), polymath Steven Johnson looks at this event through the microscope of time and discovers the roots of modern public health and a corking good tale, too.
6. In Stuart: A Life Backwards (Delacorte, hardcover, $20), Alexander Masters spins, in reverse, the incredible life story of a man he found drunk on the street in Cambridge. Skip all the big, tome-like biographies of titans and strumpets and treat yourself to this empathic look at the way life can just go off the rails.
7. Stuart’s tale will seem like a pick-me-up after Dave Eggers’ tremendous (and sometimes very funny) nonfiction novel, What is the What (McSweeney’s, hardcover, $26), which tells the tale of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who flees civil war on foot and spends the next decade in refugee camps in Ethiopia, Kenya and then in charity housing in Atlanta.
8. Adrienne Rich might write with great authority, and Nathaniel Mackey with keener rhythms, but no American poet seems to have as much fun on the page as Frederick Seidel. His latest collection, Ooga-Booga (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, hardcover, $24), is both ribald and wistful, a romp as well as an aging man’s rage against the dying of the light.
9. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, hardcover, $19.95) centers around not one home, but two. The first is the house where Alison Bechdel grew up: a Gothic revival that her father had painstakingly rescued from decrepitude, restoring it to "its original condition and then some." Then there was "Fun Home," the funeral parlor where Bechdel's father moonlighted as an undertaker, and where she and her brother played among the accoutrements of death. Both of these homes were designed to cover something up, and "Fun Home" is Bechdel’s brilliant and terribly sad attempt to discover how these two acts of concealment were related.
10. Forget about books by Bob Woodward or George Packer, or even the assiduously reported new works by Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post. The single best book you could read this year about Iraq was a short, episodic little book called The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso Books, hardcover, $24.95) by London Independent correspondent Patrick Cockburn. He has covered the region on and off for 30 years and it shows.
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