Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sometimes yes, sometimes no

At the risk of being derivative - okay, this derivative as hell but still kind of fun - here are a few of the better books that I read in 2006:

Tripp has written about the excellence of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. Let me just add that, although there is no real mystery as to what happens, who does what to whom or why, the novel is difficult to put down. Both Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro, in Never Let Me Go, pull off one of the great and necessary tricks of speculative fiction: they create worlds that are as believable as any in "conventional" fiction. One clear indication of how tough this is to do is how few authors really pull it off. Atwood and Ishiguro use one trick that I love when it works by creating credible slang for the near (or, in Ishiguro's case, alternate) future. Three dimensional figures who speak and think in an internally consistent idiom make the more fantastic goings-on in each of these novels entirely believable.

Incidentally, the fact that Ishiguro's book got a number of one star reviews is definitive proof that monkeys can work the computer (sorry, M).

Jeffrey Ford's The Girl in the Glass is another semi-fantastic tale, this one set in early-Depression Long Island. Not literature but a hell of a read and a terrific follow-up to The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque. Ford has joined the Jonathans (Carroll and Lethem) on my short list of must-read writers of mildly to wildly fantastic fiction.

The most difficult, dense and ultimately beautiful book I read this year was certainly Amos Oz's A Tale of Love and Darkness. Billed as a memoir of his family's journey to Palestine and his childhood in Jerusalem, it is more of a long, dense slice of Jewish history. Oz tells his story through the prism of his family, writing surprisingly little about himself - a trick that would benefit many of the lame memoirs being published these days. The passages about his parents - and particularly his brilliant, doomed mother - are luminous and sad and ultimately redemptive. This is a great book.

Rory Stewart has become recently famous for the story of his time in Iraq as governor of one of the southern provinces (The Prince of the Marshes), but his previous book The Places In Between is destined to take its place among the truly exceptional travelogues. Good travel writing requires three things: a good story, good writing and a narrative thread other than the trip itself. Stewart hits all three.

Finally, Bill Buford's memoir of his apprenticeship in Mario Batali's kitchen, Heat, is a foodie book for non-foodies. Even the good food/kitchen memoirs tend to lag a bit, but this one made me hungry - and kept me interested - on every page.

1 comment:

Tripp said...

I have to say that I wasn't too into Prince of the Marshes despite loving his Afghanistan book. It could be Iraq fatigue. The 2003 period in particular seems so distant as to be lost in time.

I loved Mrs. Charbuque, and there will definitely be more Ford in my future.