Sunday, December 04, 2005

Review: Book Nerd's Favorite Books of 2005

Yeah, everybody's got a year-end list, from the New York Times' powerful top 10 to every little indie bookstore's table of Bests or Favorites or Notables or Picks. It may be a clich̩, but it's really fun, and it can be valuable to would-be readers and gift buyers who can't very well get through every book in the world. So I've had a look over my "book of books" Рthe little notebook where I keep a record of every book I've read during the year Рto take my own stock of the best and the brightest.

This certainly isn't every book I think was important or worth looking at this year – it's just an arbitrary little collection of the ones I got all the way through, and added to my memories of rich and enjoyable reads. I'm not getting co-op or reimbursement from anyone for these, and they don't represent the views of the bookstore(s) where I work. These are just what I'd hand you if you walked into my store and asked me whether I've read anything good lately.

And these probably WON'T be the books my friends and family receive for Christmas – they'll get books based on their own tastes, not mine. But if your tastes or those of a reader you know happen to overlap with mine, you might want to check them out. I look forward to hearing what you think!

Favorites new in hardcover, in no particular order:

THE TENDER BAR by J.R. Moehringer
(Hyperion)
I'm only an occasional memoir reader, and it helps when the story is a simple one like this: fatherless Long Island boy comes of age with the help of the men at the local bar, goes to Yale, eventually makes good. Moehringer, a journalist by trade, knows how to tell a good story without the words getting in the way, and his loving (but always manly) portraits of the denizens of his Manhasset bar include the kind of stories you hear on the best nights at the pub. Muscular, yet lump-in-the-throat inducing – this is a heck of a debut.

MAGIC FOR BEGINNERS by Kelly Link
(Small Beer Press)
Kelly Link is my favorite kind of writer, the literary fantasist, and her newest collection of short stories is full of eerie supernatural stuff that serves as effective metaphors for situations and emotional states. Published by her own indie Small Beer Press (which she runs with her husband), it's a beautifully produced book (with cool art by Shelly Jackson), full of haunted rabbits, zombie savants, stories told to the devil, witches who give birth to houses, and all the other fun stuff you look for in a Christmas gift. Weird, brilliant, wonderful.

FIELD GUIDE TO GETTING LOST by Rebecca Solnit
(Viking)
The creative nonfictionist is also a favorite of mine, and Rebecca Solnit is a great one. She creates an amazing web of connections in this series of linked essays encompassing art, geography, music, science, and her own bittersweet experiences of the manifestations of loss. With content ranging from punk home movies to the use of blue in medieval paintings, reading Solnit is like having a charged, slightly drunken conversation with your smartest and most intuitive friend. (Solnit's essay in the September Harper's about the sense of community that often springs up after disasters is also fascinating, and a good representation of the piercing but gentle insights of a quick and broad-ranging mind.)

THE DISAPPOINTMENT ARTIST by Jonathan Lethem
(Doubleday)
I seem to be going all nonfiction with my hardcover favorites this year, and Jonathan Lethem's essay collection definitely makes the list – I've enjoyed both his sci-fi and mainstream fiction, and I was pleasantly surprised by the skill of his essays. As a Brooklynite, I loved "Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn," about his memories of a Brooklyn subway station; as a book nerd, I appreciated each of his explorations of how books, comics, movies, and music have occupied his thoughts and shaped his worldview. Also a heartbreaking account of the lingering effects of the death of his mother (fictionalized in THE FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE), this collection is a multi-faceted look at an intelligent life spent immersed in pop culture, and the passion and creativity it inspired.


THE HIGHEST TIDE by Jim Lynch
(Bloomsbury)
I think the publishers of this book missed out on a great cross-marketing opportunity by not publicizing this book as a young adult pick. It's a coming-of-age story that rings achingly true, but with enough originality and substance to make it a great read for teens or adults. The protagonist is a scrawny kid on Puget Sound, whose science knowledge and skill at observation makes him a reluctant celebrity when some weird animals start washing up on the beach; over the course of a summer he learns about sex, death, fame, idealism, divorce, love, and all the rest of that adolescent stuff, and treats us to a rhapsodic narrative worthy of Rachel Carson on the ocean life of the Sound, and of the planet. Simple and perfect, good for the nature lover and the confused but good-hearted kid in all of us.

ON BEAUTY by Zadie Smith
(Penguin)
Yeah yeah, you've heard all about it, but Zadie Smith rocks my world. I've read each of her novels (and a lot of her interviews) and she's in top form with this one. Corresponding to (but not exactly based on) E. M. Forster's HOWARD'S END but set in Boston, it's got snappy dialogue, brilliant plot structures, social commentary from a refreshingly even-handed perspective… and some skewering of that postmodern academic-speak that has the potential to destroy joy in art or literature. And it's suspenseful as heck. If you haven't read it, read it; if you know anybody who likes a heck of a yarn with a super-aware zeitgeisty sensibility, get it for 'em.


Favorites new in paperback, in no particular order:

A DEATH IN BRAZIL by Peter Robb
(Picador)
More storytelling nonfiction; Robb, an Englishman who has spent decades (on and off) in Brazil, narrates the country's history from the Portuguese conquest to the rise of leftist politico Lula, with all of the drama and do-or-die vivaciousness of this most fascinating of South American countries. I spent a couple of weeks in Brazil in college and I've been fascinated by it ever since, but even if you don't have the same attraction, Robb's familiar and informed storytelling style will pull in anyone who can get into a rich and varied cultural history.


MEMED, MY HAWK by Yashar Kemal
(New York Review of Books)
I always mean to read NYRB's classy reissues of lost treasures, but I don't always get around to it. This one pulled me in with the loving blurbs on the back and the burning plains on the front, and then immersed me in a semi-mythical world of barely pre-modern Persia that seemed both familiar (Robin Hood bandit serves the people, brings down the Man) and utterly strange (women's grief rituals, the power of the village landlord and the culture of banditry, plowing fields full of thistles). Memed is the reluctant hero of his townspeople when he goes bandit against their cruel landlord, but their fear causes them to turn against him, and he and his lover and friends get mercilessly abused by the system. Not all happy, but stirring stuff – big epic stories for a complicated world.

POLITICS by Adam Thirlwell
(Harper Perennial)
Don't get this one for your grandma – there's a lot of graphic sex in it, though it's amazingly unpornographic about it. The title refers to relational politics, complicated when a happy heterosexual couple bring a female friend into their relationship, but Thirlwell cheekily uses international political history as metaphor for the silly things people do when they love and desire each other. Hilarious, and incredibly honest about contemporary relationships (even those less complicated than a threesome) – good for all those clever, sexy people you know.

THE FINAL SOLUTION by Michael Chabon
(Harper Perennial)
Michael Chabon is my favorite blurber – everything he puts his endorsement on I end up digging. His good taste extends to a love of Sherlock Holmes, and this is his addition to the post-Doyle literature about the big guy, though he's never named as such in Chabon's World War II era story. It's a weirdly unsettling little tale, because you the reader know more at the end than the characters, even Holmes, ever will – but it's also satisfying, as good old English mysteries can be, and the illustrations are wonderful. A bittersweet morsel.

SWEET AND VICIOUS by David Schickler
(Dial Press)
In addition to sharing the name of a great Zen-ish bar in lower Manhattan, Shickler's novel is one of the only examples I know of pure American magic realism (another is his first book, KISSING IN MANHATTAN, which is also a favorite). It's a road trip, it's a love story, they're on the run from the mob and there are carnivals and mystical diamonds and tree houses and gun fights – it's larger and wilder than life. Maybe a little silly for some, but if you like to leaven your literature with adrenaline-rush reading, it's for you. (The paperback cover kind of sucks – try to ignore it.)

IDEAS OF HEAVEN: A Ring of Stories by Joan Silber
(W. W. Norton)
One of those controversial New York women shortlisted for the National Book Award last year, Joan Silber is one of the most underrated writers in America, comparable to Alice Munro in her subtle and compelling imaginings of characters' lives. This story collection is made up of six first-person life stories, told with the calm of hindsight but full of passion and struggle. Discovering the interlinking of characters and themes which creates the "ring of stories" is part of the enjoyment; when I finished this book I just sat for an hour and thought about it all. What a rich collection, from one of our wisest writers.

THE TIME OF OUR SINGING by Richard Powers
(Picador)
I've mentioned my slavish devotion to Richard Powers, and this is the book that sold me when I read it in hardcover in 2004. The story of a Jewish physicist and an African-American musician who marry in the 1930s, the novel tracks their three children through the storm of 20th century science, music, and race relations, and through them explores the complexities of Western history and the human heart. As emotionally powerful as it is intellectually stimulating, this one is not for the faint of heart, but it's incredibly rewarding, and might make you a fan.

LONG FOR THIS WORLD by Michael Byers
(Mariner)
Another quiet story that packs a strong punch. Set in Byers' native Seattle during the dot-com boom, this is the story of a doctor who may have discovered the cure for a rare disease, and the conflicts of medical ethics, financial considerations, and social awkwardness it creates for his family and that of his patients. But it's really about the members of a fairly normal suburban family in their daily lives, observed with a rare and lavish attention that gets it all just right. It doesn't hurt that his writing is (to use a blurber's favorite) luminously beautiful, too.

JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL by Susanna Clarke
(Bloomsbury)
Ooh, this is such a good one! I got to interview Susanna Clarke for Publishers Weekly, and she rocks – she loves her subject and her characters, and she's got her head on straight about the powerful intersection of magic and literature. (And apparently one of her favorite books is a guide to locally brewed beers in her region of England, so you gotta love her.) This book may have been over-hyped, but it really is an epic on the scale of A TALE OF TWO CITIES or THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, full of dark portents, bright humor, adventure and romance, told by a storyteller like no other. Only a sensibility that combines the best of the fantasists and the best of the social realists could make believable both the scenes of early 19th century British Parliament, and of church statues that come alive and begin to talk in ancient languages. The plot is too complex to try to summarize, but it's worth every word, and now that it's in paperback it's even small enough to carry around.


Happy Reading!