Friday, December 29, 2006

2006, A Year in Books: Best Reads of the Year

Another year gone by. The time for listmaking is once again upon us (or, as those overhasty folks who were posting year-end summaries at the beginning of the month or even, I ask you, in November would have us believe, already long past) and the news is not good. I've mentioned on more than one occasion that 2006 was not turning to be a great reading year for me, but it was only when I sat down to compile this list that I realized how dire the situation truly was. This is not to say that I read a great many bad books this year--tomorrow's worst reads of the year list is as anemic as this one. Rather, what 2006 was short on were remarkable reads--remarkably good or remarkably bad--with the result being that I can come up with more candidates for the honorable mentions list than for the year's best reads list. Which is probably the main reason for the massive drop in the number of books I read this year--75--compared to previous ones--106 in 2005 and 99 in 2004. When you put a book down and for the nth time can't think of anything more substantial to say about it than 'that was nice, what's next?', the impetus to crack another cover is severely diminished.

It's difficult not to wonder, in light of this repeated disappointment, whether the novels I'm about to list as the year's best reads would have stood out as prominently in a stronger year. For the most part, I believe the answer is yes, but here's hoping that 2007 doesn't give me cause to second guess myself.

(As it was last year, this list is presented in alphabetical order.)
  • 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

    Joe Hill's stunning debut collection wears a lot of hats. At its most basic level, it is as effectively creepy a collection of horror and dark fantasy stories as one could hope to read. It is also, however, a meditation on the very nature of the horror genre, on the reasons and justifications for its existence. Is there something wrong with people who write horror, or with the people who read it? Is either activity harmful, either emotionally or (through the process of metaphor taking flesh so ubiquitous to the genre) physically? Is it possible to write moral horror fiction, or is horror by its very nature a rejection of morality? Which is more horrifying, the supernatural menace or the mundane one, and why can't we have both? In the collection's opening story, "Best New Horror", Hill offers both a thrilling piece of fiction and a manifesto, whose ramifications he proceeds to explore in 15 fantastic stories.

  • Climbers by M. John Harrison

    I'll probably get a lot of raised eyebrows if I say that M. John Harrison's Climbers is the closest thing I've read to a modern-day To The Lighthouse, but it's true. Like Virginia Woolf's masterpiece, Harrison's semi-autobiographical portrait of the obsessive world of rock-climbing is essentially plotless--just a sequence of loosely connected scenes in which the main character interacts with fellow climbers and (less and less often as he becomes consumed with his new hobby) with outsiders to the sport, delving momentarily into their lives and examining the tools they create in order to grapple with, and sometimes obfuscate, the appalling meaninglessness of their existence. And, like To The Lighthouse, what sustains Climbers is the breathtaking beauty of Harrison's prose, the precise and cutting observations he makes. Harrison uses words like no author since, well, Woolf, and there are instances of description in Climbers so perfect that you can't imagine any author will ever need to describe the same thing--a climbing rope, a garbage strewn quarry, an overcast sky--again (Harrison also has the gift of writing interesting technical descriptions, so that even an outsider to the sport will be thrilled by the various climbs described in the novel). Best of all, although Climbers is unsentimental about the possibility of beauty and achievement in modern life, and treats climbing as an attempt to artificially fabricate meaning and triumph in a life that seldom offers opportunities for either one, it does so respectfully. The climbers may be wasting their lives on an endeavor that ultimately means nothing, but that single-mindedness, and the pleasure they take from their accomplishments, are accorded some sympathy.

  • From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

    Alan Moore's portrait of London in a single, defining moment in its history is panoramic in its scope and intimate in its depth. This recreation of the Jack the Ripper murders--complete with an imaginative, not to say absurd, theory about the identity of their perpatrator--uses the gruesome murders as a launching point for a discussion of the ills of modern society at the moment at which some of them--modern serial killers and the modern media obsession with them--came into being. Eddie Campbell's deceptively simple artwork--black and white pen drawings usually restricted to a simple 3x3 grid, highly reminiscent of 19th century newspaper illustrations--is a synthesis of classical and modern approaches, and creates an oppressive, at times quite terrifying, atmosphere which permeates the novel. As the Ripper murders grow more frequent and more gruesome, as Inspector Abberline grows more frustrated with his inability to track down this new breed of killer, as the Ripper's final victim grows more and more certain of her impending death, and as the Ripper himself loses touch with his era and his humanity, becoming subsumed into his city's history, the novel's tone approaches a frenzied pitch that makes it quite impossible to put down.

  • Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

    I haven't read Julie Phillips's biography of James Tiptree Jr. yet, but I'm already charitably inclined towards it for creating the resurgence of interest in Tiptree's work that inspired me to pick up this collection of her stories. As it turns out, everyone was right--Tiptree truly is a fantastic author, full of fascinating ideas about life, love, sex, gender, politics, and nature, and possessed of a deft authorial touch that effortlessly combines solid character work with equally solid worldbuidling. "The Man Who Walked Home" joins that tiny group of truly excellent time travel stories. "A Momentary Taste of Being" might just stand with "Great Work of Time" and "Story of Your Life" as a perfect novella. "The Screwfly Solution" and "Love is the Plan the Plan is Death" are terrifying and heartbreaking. As I wrote when I reviewed "The Screwfly Solution", a significant part of Tiptree's appeal is her ability to hijack the reader's common sense and preconceptions and sublimate them to her own agenda and outlook. The result feels a little like having one's brain colonized by a tiny, extremely persistent parasite, whose entirely convincing--and at the same time entirely mad--worldview colors one's perceptions of reality for quite a bit of time after turning the last page.

  • Saturday by Ian McEwan

    Here's another Virginia Woolf comparison: in Saturday, Ian McEwan has created a modern-day Mrs. Dalloway that, unlike a certain overrated novel which shall remain nameless, is actually worthy of the distinction. Saturday's protagonist, Henry Perowne, lives a charmed life--financially, professionally, and personally, he has everything he could wish for, and to top it all off, he has the rare sense to recognize and appreciate his good fortune. That McEwan chooses to impinge on this idyllic existence by confronting Perowne with his polar opposite, a man to whom life has offered nothing but disappointments, would hardly surprise even those readers unfamiliar with his penchant for nastiness, but nothing could have prepared me for the novel's climax, a brutal, harrowing scene in which the safety of Perowne's home is shattered and his family is endangered. In the hands of another author, Saturday might have amounted to nothing more than a shrill morality play--the rich, privileged man being confronted by the ugliness of a world he has chosen to ignore--but McEwan is playing a more subtle game. Are we to be disgusted by Henry Perowne, who is happy to ensconce himself in the trappings of a luxurious Western lifestyle and not think too hard about issues that might disturb his comfortable existence? Or should we recognize that for all his faults, Perowne is a good and decent man, capable of responding to cruelty with kindness, whose acts of personal benevolence might just make up for his unwillingness to think critically about the larger issues of his time? McEwan refuses to commit to either viewpoint, and such is the strength of his prose that both seem equally valid and true, with the result being that Saturday, and the questions it raises about the viability of the Western lifestyle, linger in the mind and the imagination.
Honorable Mentions:

4 comments:

Niall said...

or, as those overhasty folks who were posting year-end summaries at the beginning of the month or even, I ask you, in November would have us believe, already long past

I know! I can sort of understand it for professional publications, in that they're focusing on 2006 books only, and by the start of December they'll probably have seen all the 2006 books they're going to see, and I suppose they're providing a Christmas service -- but for everyone else it just seems mad.

Notes on your picks:

1. \o/
2. I really need to read Climbers
3. You know, I've tried to read From Hell twice and bounced off, hard, both times. I like Watchmen (and even V) much more.
4. \o/
5. Hmm. I enjoyed Saturday when I read it, but it hasn't worn well in my memory -- every time I think about it it seems thinner.

Iain Clark said...

3. You know, I've tried to read From Hell twice and bounced off, hard, both times.

I was going to tell you off about this, but then I remembered that I collected it in individual volumes, couldn't find the final ones for ages, and then never got around to reading them. So I've never finished it. Bad me. I must go back and start from the begnning as I was enjoying it, although the scratchy artwork is slightly more off-putting than I would have supposed.

Anyway, having got my Absolute Sandman I must remind you to go and read Sandman. It matters not that you're bound to poo poo it for being over-hyped and patchy, just read it for its labyrinthine, digressive, epic tangle of stories and myths. It's like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in comic form.

JeffV said...

The Dead by Cormac McCarthy is a very good book. As is The Wizard of the Crow--excellent, in fact.

Did you read either of these? I would agree that within genre--in terms of books put out by genre imprints--it was probably a down year. But there was plenty of stuff out there published outside of genre labels that was great. I had a wonderful reading year, myself.

I find myself mystified for the gush of praise for the Joe Hill collection, frankly. It has some very, very good stories and some mediocre ones. It strikes me as the sort of collection that someone with no memory of horror from years past would categorize as superlative and that someone who had read heavily in horror would find good but not great. I'm not knocking Hill, but this is a rennovation not an innovation. Clive Barker's Books of Blood were an innovation--a real shock to the system. The Hill is not. That said, he is a very careful craftsman and the collection's definitely good. I just think that people are not putting this collection in the proper perspective.

JeffV

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the sort of collection that someone with no memory of horror from years past would categorize as superlative and that someone who had read heavily in horror would find good but not great

As I don't tend to read heavily in horror at all, this may very well be true.

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