What I’ve Been Reading — Best of 2006

It’s time again for another round of self-serving, “look at how great my reading talents are,” Top 10 and Best of the Year book lists. After all, it’s nearly 2007.

And, in keeping with the tradition of following the lit-blog pack in nearly everything, I’m prepared to throw out my Top 10 books of the year.

You may be asking, “Why are they all thrown out there? Why not write considerably on each title, dissecting and analyzing each selection in an effort to create a primer on Corey Vilhauer’s reading for the past year?” Well, mainly, because I’ve already written about them in my monthly column. So instead, you get short snippets.

As I mentioned in my 2005 year-end column, you’ll find that this isn’t the typical “best of 2006” list. In fact, I believe I read only two books that were published in 2006 or were, at least, eligible for 2006 book awards.

Welcome, my friends, to my literary All-Star team. The Best of the Best of What I’ve Been Reading for the year 2006 (including December 2005.)

These are in alphabetical order with (publication dates in parentheses.)

Everything is IlluminatedJonathan Safran Foer – Everything is Illuminated (2002)
Reviewed March 2006

Mr. Foer, who is widely thought of as a “clever” writer, a moniker that often leads to scorn around the more bitter, vitriolic book reviewers, has in the space of one year become one of my favorite writers. You see, I like clever books. I love books that have twists and are written a little differently and are filled with pseudo-real moralistic tales and involve different voices and styles from chapter to chapter. And I love books that involve a great search, where secrets are unveiled one by one, weaving together a hidden story that reveals an unearthly history. I liked Everything is Illuminated. A lot.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseJonathan Safran Foer — Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Reviewed April 2006

Which brings us to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Where Illuminated is a history written both in forward motion and in reverse, ELIC is a series of personal survival stories that eventually converge onto one person – young Oskar, a boy whose own life is scarred by the failed survival of his father. It’s one of the first novels to deal with 9/11, but it’s not about that as much as it’s about the strength of fatherhood, the importance of family, and the heartbreak of failed expectations. I managed to read all of Foer’s books this year, but none struck me quite like ELIC.

To Kill a MockingbirdHarper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
Reviewed February 2006

In South Dakota, we participated in The Big Read. Our chosen book was an old high school standby – To Kill a Mockingbird. Throughout the month, while reading TKAM, we were bombarded with a variety of Mockingbird activities, including panels, book clubs, and free food. We were spurred along by the original Gregory Peck film, and the timing of Capote’s release helped fuel TKAM’s timeliness. Because of all this commotion, I rediscovered a classic that I didn’t pay much attention to during high school. One can overanalyze a book, especially in high school literature. By re-reading Mockingbird I discovered the simplicity and beauty that I had missed the first time around.

AtonementIan McEwan – Atonement (2002)
Reviewed May 2006

Even though McEwan is under fire for plagiarizing sections of Lucille Andrews’ No Time For Romance, I still have no qualms in choosing Atonement to be on this list. Why? Because I feel McEwan’s prose to be brilliant – densely packed and filled with wonderful turns of phrase. Atonement is about the stupid mistakes a young girl can make, and the consequences it can have far into the future. It’s a story that is fueled by deceit and misunderstanding – two acts that often linger over a novel until the end, creating tenseness that is rarely achieved properly throughout a book. In Atonement, it is done well. And regardless who wrote it, it’s in the top ten.

Black Swan GreenDavid Mitchell – Black Swan Green (2006)
Reviewed September 2006

I was a dorky, nerdy kid in school. For this reason, I felt a deep connection with the kids in Black Swan Green – the children that are awkwardly trying to grow into their bodies, and ultimately, their lives. Black Swan Green, which was nominated for the Booker Prize, captures the horribleness of being unpopular in school – right down to the inexhaustible fear and anxiety that persists day by day. The story isn’t all sadness and pain, however. In fact, what seems improbable at the beginning of the book comes true by the end – the protagonist’s ultimate rise from geek to savior. Of course, it’s all bitterly stomped away by the prospect of moving and starting all over again. Too bad.

Other ElectricitiesAnder Monson – Other Electricities (2005) — Reviewed March 2006

The icy cold of both the landscape and the characters sets a Twin Peaks-esque scene for Ander Monson’s Other Electricities. I pulled this book from the Litblog Co-op’s 2005 Read This pile and was surprised how much I liked it. What’s amazing is that every short story overlaps and strengthens each of its counterparts until, by the end, the individual sections form a complete book. And the Twin Peaks comparisons aren’t made lightly – this book has a lot in common with the creepy television show, including the loss of a Beauty Queen and a collective mourning for everything she represented. Brilliant.

Like LifeLorrie Moore – Like Life (1990)
Reviewed January 2006

I’ve said many times before how much I enjoy short story collections. Lorrie Moore is one of my favorites, and so obviously Like Life makes the list. I discovered Lorrie in two ways – first, she was mentioned as one of Nick Hornby’s first influences, almost to the point of plagiarism himself, and second, she was included as one of David Sedaris’ favorite short story writers. I put one and one together and ended up with a great book in my collection. I just couldn’t put it down.

GileadMarilynne Robinson – Gilead (2004)
Reviewed July 2006

I’ve written about and analyzed Gilead more than I care to admit, especially with Marilynne Robinson’s visit this past September. But with all of the flowing review-ese aside, Gilead is one of the most simple, yet beautifully written novels I’ve ever picked up. And, it won the Pulitzer in 2004. So it has pedigree as well. For those who didn’t pay attention the first few times, Gilead is constructed as a journal from an older father to his grade school son. The father – a pastor in small-town Iowa – comes to grips with his own mortality, his inability to fully watch his son’s childhood, and his own grudges and biases in a way that is strangely cleansing. The style changes the way one reads, effectively slowing the reader down and forcing a leisurely pace.

The Grapes of WrathJohn Steinbeck – The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Reviewed August 2006

Never before has the plight of the dispossessed seemed so important. With The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s classic Dust Bowl epic, the Okies get the center stage they deserved, one that holds the injustices and bad luck that followed them around up to the light for the entire world to examine. And while one might think that these stories have lost their weight, that modern culture has cut Steinbeck’s novel off at the knees, it’s simply not the case. The Grapes of Wrath is just as important today as it was in the 40s. In fact, you can’t deny the similarities between the Dust Bowl’s mass exodus and New Orleans’ migration of displaced people. Bad luck, injustice – it’s all pretty much parallel.

McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13Chris Ware (editor) – McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern #13 (2004)
Reviewed June 2006

I somehow missed the comic phenomenon when I was younger. But, after receiving McSweeney’s #13 in the mail (the Comic Issue, with a wonderful cover penned by Special Editor Chris Ware) the fire was rekindled slightly. This is the issue that forced me to rethink my ban on McSweeney’s – the issue that caused me to not only resubscribe to The Believer after a subscription mess up, but also caused me to subscribe to MORE than I had before bargained for – the McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern literary publication. And it was all well founded – this book is beautifully bound, with hundreds of full color prints, articles from some of the most well known authors and graphic artists, and simply packed to the gills with today’s important comic creators. If you want to get into modern comics and graphic novels, get this first. You won’t be disappointed.


Honorable Mentions: To stretch this out to twenty, I’ve added the ten that barely made the list. I feel such remorse, because these books were also rather good. Just not good enough.

From the Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Box Set, I found two short short-story collections that went far and above the modest size they portrayed. Jorge Luis Borges is not unknown to the literary masses, but he was new to me. I loved his collection of alternative-reality stories in Mirror of Ink. Also, Melissa Bank’s The Worst Thing a Suburban Girl Could Imagine reminded me of everything I loved about short stories.

Ali Smith’s The Accidental and Roddy Doyle’s A Star Called Henry were both very good, but not at the level I’d expected. Both of them are recommended, but don’t go into either one with the lofty expectations I had heaped upon them.

The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup (edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey) brought together a cornucopia of essayists and authors to describe the 32 countries that had put a team in the 2006 World Cup. It was a wonderful, timely way to prepare for the tournament, even if Italy did end up winning it all in a boring, Italian-like fashion.

2006 marked the start of my trek through The Essentials, and loved all 600 pages of the first selection – Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, especially the richly detailed character studies and scene set-ups therein. And, while not on The Essentials list, John Steinbeck struck again with Cannery Row – another tale of the drunks that lived around his fictitious Monterey.

Hunter S. Thompson is what he is, but he’s at his best (in my mind) when he’s talking about sports and gambling. Which is probably why I loved Hey Rube, his collection of ESPN.com Page Two articles. In other sports, Michael Lewis failed to live up to Moneyball (and how could he?) but still put together a very entertaining look into high school football and the less-fortunate souls who try to make it with The Blind Side.

Finally, David Sedaris told me (well, all of us who saw him at the Washington Pavilion this past Spring) to buy Jean Thompson’s short story collection Who Do You Love? So I did. It was great. I recommend it fully.

(And not to mention the Maus collection, which should be on the top ten but didn’t count in this year’s list. I’d read it before, and I’m not going to count re-reads because, well, there are just too many other books to worry about counting.)

Whew. That’s it. Next year? Probably a lot more “classics,” both ancient and modern. That’s the plan anyway.

Now, I’ve got a book club to prepare for. Please shut the door behind you when you leave.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 13th, 2006