I read 106 books in 2005--a marginal increase from 2004's 99. Reviewing my reading lists, I'm pleased to see that I maintained a rather eclectic spread. With the exceptions of horror (of which I read only two novels this year, and one of them was a dull and terrible read) and mystery (which I've never been a particular fan of) I've given a good amount of attention to most genres and styles. My biggest problem is one of gender distribution--less than a quarter of the books I read this year were by women. I've come to the conclusion, though, that it's probably best to leave this situation alone--I choose books because they appeal to me, not because of the author's gender, and for whatever reason I skew towards male authors. I can live with it.
In alphabetical order, then, these are my favorite reads of 2005. Note that I don't truck with this nonsense of listing only books published this year. You want that, go to the New York Times. I read books when I come by them, and that usually means when they're out in paperback. Similarly, these are all the exceptional books I read this year--I didn't limit myself to 10 or try to fill a quota.
- Air: Or, Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman
Ryman's novel, which takes place in a tiny village somewhere in a fictional -stan country, is the best kind of science fiction--smart, self-aware, well-written, beautifully characterized, politically aware--without losing sight of the story--and subtle. After a disastrous test of Air, a new technology that will allow people to access the internet directly, the mind of middle-aged, illiterate housewife and village 'fashion expert' Chung Mae is irreversibly altered. Burdened with the spirit of a dead neighbor and with visions of the future, Mae soon realizes what none of her neighbors see--that change is coming to her village like a flood. With strength and determination, Mae sets out to save her village--and to change it a little in the process. Ryman's prose is crisp and unobtrusive. He conveys dialect and voice without making his characters sound foolish or exotically foreign. He makes us love these people--Mae in particular but also her friends and neighbors--but never allows us to forget how different they are from us, and how, in some ways, their old traditions deserve to die.
- Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
I tend to have trouble with Neil Gaiman's fiction, and with his novels in particular--I like and admire most of them, but I never managed to love them until I read Anansi Boys, and the more I think about it the more I am convinced that it comes very close to being the perfect novel. Anansi Boys is a joyous read, and a terrifically funny one. Certain lines and scenes were enough to make me laugh out loud days after I'd read them, but in all truth there's a chuckle or two on every one of the book's pages. On top of being funny, Anansi Boys is slick, smart, beautifully put together, and as romantic as all get out. The book is a comedy about what happens when the two sons of the African trickster god get together after Dad's funeral and completely screw up each other's lives, an exploration of the way the desire to be noticed conflicts with the fear of being seen (a dilemma that's close to the heart of many bloggers, I suspect), a traditional love story--two, in fact--and a story about familial love. Plus, there's a really funny bit with a lime.
- Beasts by John Crowley (collected in Otherwise: Three Novels)
Beasts is Crowley's second attempt at science fiction, which under his hands comes out odd and almost unrecognizable. The book takes place in the not too distant future, with humanity embroiled in several wars and disputes and the United States having been carved up into several warring principalities. Several decades earlier, scientists created various types of chimera--animal-human hybrids--and these creatures now roam the newly-wild landscape, searching for a home. The novel is Crowley's panoramic examination of the double-edged sword of intelligence, and of an ancient dilemma--is it better to be tame or wild? It's a dilemma that can never be resolved, and it's to Crowley's credit that while he refuses to give us a definite answer, he ends the book with the proponents of each approach finally sitting down together in the hopes of finding some common ground.
- Grendel by John Gardner
John Gardner's deceptively short novel is much more than a tale retold from the perspective of its villain. There are worlds hidden in this tiny book--a shocking meditation about the meaning of fiction, heroism, civilization, and fate. Gardner takes a few pages to say things that other writers would fail to say in whole volumes, and he says them with grace and beauty. Grendel himself is a masterful achievement, a sort of Holden Caulfield with a taste for human flesh. Grendel is both appalled and seduced by the knights of Hrothgar's hall. He sees them for what they are--robber barons who have carved a place for themselves through pillage and rapine--and he also sees what they, through the magic of storytelling, believe themselves to be--heroes, brave and noble knights, natural rulers. It is the secret of Gardner's book that the lie is as compelling as the truth, and perhaps more useful to society. Grendel, who wishes to be part of the lie of heroism even as he rejects it, finds his place by playing the role of the villain.
- The Kindly Ones: The Sandman, Volume 9 by Neil Gaiman and Marc Hempel
The Kindly Ones is, in terms of quality, the apex of the Sandman series. The artwork, by Marc Hempel, is not only superb but finally distinctive. Hempel draws stylized, almost abstract images, conveying details with bold splotches of color and broad, rough black lines. The result is surprisingly delicate, and to my mind often conveys more emotion than previous attempts at photorealism. The story, in which the series' meandering and often nonexistent plot finally comes to a head, is worthy of the beautiful artwork, but Gaiman knows better than to tell a simple tale. Towards the beginning of The Kindly Ones, a visitor to the Sandman's castle is warned not to stray from the path. Both he and Gaiman ignore that advice, to our own advantage. Sandman is a story about stories, a collection of digressions, a celebration of discursiveness, and The Kindly Ones shines brightest when Gaiman lets go of the plot's thread to pursue another story.
- The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley
The Last Good Kiss's narrator, W.C. Sughrue, sounds like a walking cliché--a part-time PI, part-time bartender at a strip club with a mountain of issues and substance abuse problems--but Sughrue is eminently believable and human. In The Last Good Kiss, Sughrue tracks down Abraham Trahearne, a once-great writer gone to alcoholic seed, but the case soon mutates into a search for a runaway and an investigation of a secretive young wife. The magic of The Last Good Kiss is in the way it lulls the readers into a false sense of security--we know how a hard-boiled mystery is supposed to work, and we're only mildly surprised when, by the book's halfway point, all the pieces fall into their expected places. Which is when Crumley works his magic. The false bottom caves in, the mystery uncoils and reshapes itself, and the book races towards a shocking and tragic conclusion. It's a triumph, in every sense of the word.
- Mortals by Norman Rush
Norman Rush is an infuriating writer. He does everything he's not supposed to do: he hemorrhages words; his novels take ages to get going, his characters are all super-intellectuals, prone to neurotically crippling analysis of their every thought, word and deed; there's no plot, really, just a series of increasingly absurd yet strangely realistic set pieces; Rush refuses to use dialogue quotes (I've been known to tear my hair out and throw books across the room when other writers do this). But the most infuriating thing about Norman Rush is that he makes it all work. Mortals is a towering success, falling short of Rush's previous novel, Mating, by only a tiny margin. The book describes a period of crisis in the professional and personal life of Ray Finch--a teacher moonlighting for the CIA in mid-90s Botswana. His new handler has him hounding a seemingly harmless academic instead of the newly arrived American doctor who, Ray is convinced, is up to no good. This same doctor may also have seduced Ray's beloved wife Iris. Ray disintegrates under the pressure of his two collapsing live, and then, to our great surprise, he rises out of his own ashes stronger, better, and more certain of what he wants. Frankly, I think this sentimentality of Rush's more than makes up for his frustrating writing choices--he's not afraid of giving his characters a romantic, happy ending. I wish more authors of literary fiction had that courage.
- Old School by Tobias Wolff
Old School is a book for and about writers, and a book for and about readers. In the early 1960s, in a private boarding school that prides itself on being inclusive and modern, the boys all want to be writers. As a special treat, each year the boys submit their work to a visiting author, and the winner's prize is a private interview. Wolff brilliantly dissects what it means to be a young, impressionable reader. In their conviction that, because a favorite author has seemingly seen into their soul, they must have an equal understanding of the author's psyche, Old School's narrator and his friends all fail to grasp the most important lesson of intelligent reading--that the work as it is read is not the work as it was written. Wolff conveys this staggeringly important truth with a delicate touch and a great deal of humor. This slim, fantastically smart volume says more about what it means to be a reader and an aspiring author than any other book I've ever read.
- Wise Children by Angela Carter
I can't seem to properly convey the ways in which Wise Children is a wonderful book. I can only speak about it in superlatives, and after a while they begin to lose their meaning. Wise Children tells the story of Dora and Nora Chance, the illegitimate daughters of the famous actor Melchior Hazard, and their lifelong involvement with the larger-than-life triumphs and tragedies of Melchior and his family. But the book is much more than that. It is Carter's loving and irreverent tribute to Shakespeare--she references, recreates or lampoons almost all of his plays. It is an examination of the concept of legitimacy--in birth, in the theatre, and in life itself--with all its pitfalls and advantages. It is a comedy and a tragedy all rolled up into one. It is Carter's swan song, her final novel, written by an old woman who, like Wise Children's narrator, had seen a lot and found much to laugh over. Most importantly, it's a book that made me feel ten feet tall just by reading it.