Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Best Books of 2006!

We here at Stevereads are familiar with all the old adages about it being easier to throw stones than to build houses. Certainly we've made no secret of our FONDNESS for throwing stones. The world is full of crap, and all of it deserves condemnation, and there are only so many hours in a day.

But nevertheless, we'd like to think that those who know us well associate us first with book-ENTHUSIASM, not book-contempt. We read a large amount (a year-end scrutiny of accounts puts the total for 2006 - as of this writing - at somewhere around 730 books, give or take a few re-reads), and most of what we read ends up being anything from merely average to downright terrible.

This has the effect of making us jump all the higher for joy at encountering something good, and thus was born the first annual Stevereads Best Books of 2006! Enjoy!

Big Bam by Leigh Montville - Hand down the best, most judicious, yet most boisterously readable biography of Babe Ruth ever written. 'Readable' is a word that will crop often in this list, and Montville has mastered the science of it.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak - This touching, sad, completely accomplished novel (calling it 'young adult' feels so dumb, so marketing-advised ... 'adult' novels should be so wonderful), narrated by Death and centering on the Holocaust, is a huge leap forward for Zusak's already-redoubtable talent.

River of Gods by Ian McDonald - Set in India's near-future and featuring a bewildering array of characters from all stripes of society, this is an absorbing reading experience and easily the best science fiction novel of the year.

Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris - 21 centuries of Christian obscurantism are not easily brushed aside. You'd think it would require a doorstop tomb even to attempt it, but you'd be wrong: Harris' book is as slender as a knife and just as lethal - every single prop, every single justification, moral or otherwise, for ... well, for following any organized religion ... is serially skewered, in the minimum number of words, to the maximum effect. St. Augustine would have been furious - proud, but furious.

I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max - 'Raucous' doesn't do this one justice, not by a long shot. This scabrous, disgusting, laugh-out-loud hilarious memoir by our Rabelesian young narrator is quite possibly the funniest book ever written by a hopelessly hardened alcoholic.

Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn - An apocalyptically dysfunctional family, rendered in gorgeous, acerbic prose. We here at Stevereads are beginning to suspect that St. Aubyn's literary talent extends no further than these somewhat autobiographical turns (his previous collection of novellas, "Some Hope," was stunning and similar), but if so, so what? This is fantastic writing and deserves a wider audience.

Grief by Andrew Holleran - Holleran has survived everything (Stonewall, AIDS, Reagan, and even the writing of a great book, his iconic "Dancer from the Dance"), and he takes all that and crafts here an indelibly sad book, as cleansing and cathartic as a day of throwing up. Which is, um, meant as praise ...

Fish by ...... - When he looked through this coffee table book's big, elegantly designed pages, each two-page spread displaying a beatufifully detailed color illustration of one of America's major fish species (each with a breif but intensely informative write-up), my esteemed colleague Cy, in his booming Midwestern voice, said: "That's some book!" We can think of no higher praise.

Shahnameh by Abolqarem Ferdowski (translated by Dick Davis) - The Persian Book of Kings, epic tales from pre-Islam Iran, is here fully translated and annotated for the first time, in a very attractive volume from Viking. Like all of the world's great epics, it carries within it a living, breathing civilization that's now mostly vanished. And the stories make good reading, too.

Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn - edited by Caroline Moorehead - These letters (Moorehead gives us a generous amount) render up the whole person: the gigantic intellect, the almost ungovernable passions, the rollicking sense of humor, the unerring eye. We here at Stevereads often frown on posthumus collections of letters, but this case is different - Gellhorn (like her erstwhile husband) never really wrote anything private, as almost all of these letters demonstrate so wonderfully.

Tigers in Red Weather by Ruth Padel - the author decides to go in quest of the tigers of China, and what she finds both alarms and inspires her. She starts off as just another feckless freelancer with a nifty idea, but in the course of her many, many interviews with all manner of people connected with the cause of tigers in China, she changes - she becomes involved, and so will her readers. This isn't precisely natural history (not, for instance, in the way the fish book is), it's more natural-reporting ... but it's no less interesting for that.

Mussolini's Italy by Richard Bosworth - easily one of the best works of formal history published this year, and yet that 'formal' (meant to denote an impeccable critical apparatus) belies Bosworth's delightful narrative gifts. Bosworth gets at the heart and soul of the country, instead of just the nuts and bolts of the dictator's palace, and the result is an extremely good work of history.

Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan - we here at Stevereads couldn't keep ourselves awake while reading Harrigan's historical novel 'Gates of the Alamo,' so we were as surprised as anybody that we couldn't put down this novel, set in contemporary times and indeed centering around the space program. There's some subtle writing going on here, and none moreso than in the depiction of Lucy Kincheole - mother, astronaut, and one of the most three-dimensional female characters in modern memory. Here's our vote that Harrigan sticks with the present day for all his future novels.

Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose - this thorough examination of all the various spy-networks used by General Washington and his staff (vital work, in an age before Mapquest could tell you what your enemies were doing on and off the field) is groundbreaking in the sheer amount of its research and really enjoyable in the jaunty tone of its narrative - the best book published on the American Revolution this year.

Bats at the Beach by Brian Lies - Quite possibly the most sublime work of fiction published this year, and hands-down the best picture book. Again, calling this a 'kids' book feels misleading ... certainly kids will love this tale of how much fun bats have at the beach after all the sun-worshipping humans have left, but there's an undecurrent of whimsy here that would be totally inaccessible to any child. Probably the easiest resolution is to say this delightful book can be enjoyed by all ages and anybody with the capacity to smile.

An Irish History of Civilization by Don Akenson - the format of this weird, incredible book - two very large, expensive hardcovers - no doubt warned off nine-tenths of its potential readership, and that's a shame, because even long-time readers of history have never read anything like this work. It's a massive collection of glimpses, vignettes, extended scenes, and increasingly exasperated screeds on all possible facets of Irish history. It's a bawling, defiant, opinionated work such as we here at Stevereads have never quite encountered, and we sincerely hope its format in paperback is sufficiently changed to draw to it the readers it richly deserves.

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery - of all the books out there on global warming (and there are more every week, it seems), Flannery's is the most balanced and the most fun to read. As a natural history reporter, Flannery likes taking on the big subjects, and he has a knack for pulling his readers along. This is a continuously enjoyable book, albeit on the darkest of all possible subjects.

And lastly, that most enviable item, the Stevereads Best Book of 2006:

World War Z by Max Brooks - This entirely engrossing novel about mankind's death-struggle with a quick-spreading zombie plague is not only the ultimate homage to every zombie movie ever made - it's also the ur-text of zombie fiction, joining, for instance, "Dracula" for vampires or "Jaws" for killer sharks. And most of all, it's a ripping good yarn, the kind of book that any reader in the land would end up loving - if you can only get around their genre-prejudices and get them to read it, that is.

So there you have it - the literary highlights of 2006! We read many, many books this year, but these are the ones that stayed with us, the ones we can picture ourselves re-reading and recommending years from now. We here at Stevereads vouch for their quality and heartily recommend them to you!


Beepy said...

Thanks for the list. I love the lists! Sadly I didn't perform very well on this list either, having read a mere one (World War Z) and then only at Steve's reccommendation. I'd like to hear the audio version of it because each interview has a different actor performing that part. The idea was a terrific one and "World War Z" probably should have been one of the books I wrapped and put under the tree this year.

I thought about giving "I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell" to my 18 year old nephew (I've read a bit of that and found it funny in disgusting, non-girl kind of way). But I chickened out after imagining my sister-in-law's reaction. So I went with bath soap and flannel footie pajamas instead.

Sam Sacks said...

Wonderful stuff. Thanks! They all go on the ever-expanding to-read list, a list that (thanks largely to YOU), like the pursuit of enlightenment, has no goddamned chance of ever being completed. Almost makes me think fondly of every other major best of list, which are, as you point out, so half-hearted and anemic I can merely deride them and then ignore them.

Not so this one, alas. Track record demands that almost every book must go on the list. But at least I can read them in bed in my new flannel footie pajamas, with buttoned butt flap.

steve said...

Despair ye not, my dear Sam! Someday, the right fella will come along, and then down will fly that butt-flap!

In the meantime, yes - my track record demands that serious heed be paid!

Hippolyta said...

Steve! You included my one recommendation to you! Cool! My status as a minor stevereads celebrity is migrating from b-list to a-list! I can just feel it!

Anonymous said...

i have no doubts about the quality of these books, some of which you've probably touched on before in your blog (you're blogging...some of us are so proud and yet amazed still....), but some of the comments are a little insipid for you...ripping good yarn? what the to the bad books, which is really where your penchant for vitriol shines...
happy new year
andre (still bugs me, that)

steve said...

Insipid??? Art thou mad?

It's a sad commentary on the hipster-doofus post-modern reader-response state of modern writing that you qualify for 'insipid' if you comment that a book TELLS A GOOD STORY.

Geez. I weep for the future.