Favorite Books of 2006 — Part One
by Michele Christopher
Normally, this would be my biweekly Imbibe column, but this week I'm going to talk books instead of alcohol. While doing my Brilliance of 2006 Lo-Fi column, I started to think that I'd like to do the same for books. Considering I didn't have an idea at that point for my Imbibe column, I figured I would just replace it with a write-up on my favorite books of 2006.
As of this writing, I've read 44 books this year. I'm currently on my 45th one, but that's taken a back seat to packing in anticipation of my move and other responsibilities that have been monopolizing my time. My goal for the year was 60 books, which was my goal last year, as well, and I haven't managed it either year. I think next year, I'll make a goal of 50 books and see if I can actually make it. We'll see.
One of the bonuses of owning something like 500 books is that I always have something to read that I think is going to be pretty damn good. Considering that, it was hard to narrow down my favorite books of the year. I read a lot of great novels in 2006. Yet, there were some that stood out, and those follow. Real quick, though, the rules are the same as for my music column. Basically, these are books that I read this year, but that doesn't mean they came out this year. In fact, Black Swan Green and The Weather Makers (which will be in part two) are the only books on this list actually released this year.
This is part one of the list. Part two will run on an as-yet-undetermined date and will include the rest of my favorite fiction books I read this year, as well as my favorite nonfiction books I read.
Now for the list.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — Haruki Murakami
Murakami is a well-known Japanese writer. My first experience with him was Norwegian Wood, which is a very quiet and intimate novel that really affected me. It's one of his most popular novels, along with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Now, the thing with Murakami is he typically writes wonderful, character-focused literature that also deals in strange and weird occurrences, kind of fluttering about the edges of supernaturalism, but often staying just out of reach of that realm. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is more along these lines than Norwegian Wood, which was a much more grounded, realistic novel than his others tend to be. (Grounded in the sense of the physical realities of the world, that is. All his books are very much grounded in the emotional realities of the world, no matter what strangeness may happen otherwise.)
Wind-Up follows Toru Okada as he loses his job, his cat, and his wife when she simply doesn't come home from work one day. From there, the novel becomes a long story of him trying to find his wife and cat, as well as deal with his losses. The book is incredibly ambitious and complex, bringing all kinds of interesting characters into the story and delving into Japanese history, as well, all while staying utterly fascinating and compelling—and weird and confusing and intriguing and so on. It's a long book, over 600 pages, and I became engulfed in Murakami's world as I read it. Themes within the story continually circle back onto themselves, creating connections with earlier parts and referencing previous events. There's so much happening in this novel I ended up feeling like I missed half of it, yet by the time I was finished, I felt completely sated. It was perhaps the most complex and satisfying reading experience I had this year, which is saying a lot. I really can't recommend this book enough—and, similarly, I can't recommend Murakami enough. His writing is simply beautiful and not to be missed. As a writer, he's one of those authors who leave me inspired, yet vaguely depressed, as well, at the realization that I will never be able to write as beauitfully as him.
It gives me something to aim for, though.
Black Swan Green — David Mitchell
Along with Murakami, David Mitchell is one of my favorite authors working today. Before Black Swan Green, he released three more-complex-than-the-last novels that are all fantastic, and two of his first three novels were shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Black Swan Green was longlisted for the prize in 2006 but didn't make it to the shortlist. Irregardless of all that, though, I can say that all of his novels have been fantastic and Black Swan Green, as his newest, has been no disappointment. This is a very different novel from his previous ones, though, as it is a much smaller, shorter, more intimate and personal book than his other three. Whereas his other novels have been intricate, complex and interconnected works—with Cloud Atlas spanning centuries, no less—this is a fairly simple and straightforward account of one year in the life of a 13 year old living in a small town in England, in 1982.
The novel is fantastic. While Mitchell has proven himself quite capable of handling large-scale, sprawling narratives, he shows he can handle a much smaller and more intimate one with this novel. The story is told in chapters that act very much as standalone short stories, working to create a much more complete picture over the course of the novel. Mitchell does a fantastic job of creating a unique and believable voice with the main character, Jason Taylor. (It's been said that the novel is semi-autobiographical.)
Without question, the best chapter is "Rocks," which unfolds against the backdrop of the Falklands War and involves both death and the collapsing of a relationship. The chapter is brutal as Mitchell ties together war and death and relationships into one cohesive, multifaceted theme that plays all of these events off each other to better cement and accentuate the moral failings and emotional pain inherent in all three. The chapter's final paragraph is devastating. The entire novel is fantastic, but "Rocks" alone makes the book worth a read.
The Confessions of Max Tivoli — Andrew Sean Greer
This novel has a unique premise, in that the main character, Max Tivoli, is born in 1871 as a small, 70-year-old man. His body then ages backward while, emotionally, he ages forward as any of us would.
It's a brilliant premise that makes for a fascinating and emotional story. The story revolves around three main stages of his life, and all of them incorporate his attempts to be with Alice, who is about his age but aging normally. Thus, when he first meets and falls in love with her, he is seventeen years old but appears to be fifty three, while she is sixteen. He is determined to be with her, but his ability to win her over is hampered for obvious reasons.
This is easily the most affecting book I read this year, just emotionally devastating at times. While this is very much a complicated love story, it deals also in friendship and unrequited love, the betrayal of those you love, selfishness and selflessness and the realities of living as an outsider. This novel haunts me in a lot of ways, due in large part to my own issues, but I can't imagine anyone reading this book and not having very strong emotional reactions to some of the events that take place. If you like a story that gets under your skin, give this book a try.
The Things They Carried — Tim O'Brien
O'Brien was drafted and served in the Vietnam War. Many of the books he writes are about the war, about soldiers, about what war does to a person. They are stories about soldiers, really, rather than just stories about combat. The Things They Carried is one of his best known novels and it follows a platoon of American soldiers, including the main character, Tim O'Brien. However, the main character is not the author and this is not a work of nonfiction. It is a novel, fictional, and told as a series of vignettes that all interconnect to create a much bigger picture of the lives of these soldiers.
Now, while the book is fiction, it is clear that it is greatly influenced by real events. In fact, the two-page vignette "Good Form," which appears toward the end of the book, seems to be O'Brien essentially writing about how the book is fiction and making distinctions between "happening-truth" and "story-truth." Here's a quote from "Good Form":
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.
Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.
However, even "Good Form" is not O'Brien himself, but the character O'Brien in the book, writing about himself (as the character) writing about the war. Confused yet? So this isn't nonfiction, it's fiction, but the entire book has an undeniable ring of truth to it. And while I and most readers may never know exactly what small details are true, and which details are almost-true, and which details have an emotional truth, and so on and so on, there seems to be no question that the book is infused with the truth of war, whether or not the details actually happened. I don't know what it is to be a soldier and I don't know what it is to fight a war. I have no experience with that. But I do have some idea of what it is to be human and I believe, without hesitation, that what happens to the characters in this book is what might happen to a person drenched in war, left to battle with horrific events. And that is the brilliance of this novel. That's why it's easily one of the best books I read in 2006, one of the best books I have ever read.
The Girl in the Flammable Skirt — Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender writes incredible short stories. This is actually the second book I read by her in 2006—the first being an excellent and absorbing novel about a 20-year-old woman having some trouble getting along in the world—and it took me by complete surprise. While the novel I read is a unique, yet fairly straight forward story, the short stories contained in The Girl in the Flammable Skirt are fantastical. They're surreal and magical, dealing in a world that is not ours, yet is at the same time. These are stories in which a man evolves in reverse, from man to ape to sea turtle and onward. These are stories in which one girl has a hand made of fire while another girl has a hand made of ice. There is an imp. There is a hunchback. There is an orphan who can find things simply by concentrating on them.
These are stories that use strange and bizarre circumstances and characters to illustrate the realities of our much-more-normal, much-less-interesting world. They are compelling and fascinating and, at times, heartbreaking. You never quite know where the story is going to go, and often times you feel like you've been kicked in the stomach once you get there.
Here's what I want you to do, if you're so inclined. Go find this book at a bookstore, stand at the shelf and read "The Healer." It's a 13 page story. Once you read it, you'll know if you want this collection or not. If you're like me, there's no way you'll leave without it.
And with that, I come to the conclusion of part one. Keep an eye out for the second half of this column, coming at some point in the near future to a Faster Than The World near you.
Joel assures us that even though he wrote about books this week, he still did plenty of imbibing.
Oh yes, I actually did do plenty of imbibing. Saturday, in fact. Wine and beer and whiskey, all in the same night.
Posted by: Joel | December 26, 2006 12:05 AM
"Wind Up Bird Chronicle" blows me away every time I read it. Murakami is in my top three as far as writers go, and I know exactly what you mean about getting depressed when you read him. Doesn't stop me from trying, though.
Posted by: thefinn | December 26, 2006 9:45 PM
Yeah, it's brutal reading Wind-Up Bird as a writer, but also inspiring. I guess it cuts both ways.
Posted by: Joel | December 29, 2006 7:50 PM