The Year in Books

Slate picks the best books of 2006.

Michael Agger, associate editor Like all good liberal arts majors, I used to read The Great Gatsby every year. That got old, though, and I switched to Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, the 1985 novel that introduced Frank Bascombe, a failed novelist adrift in a fog of suburban detachment. As a character, Bascombe is a charming paradox: a thoughtful guy trying to fit himself into a thoughtless existence. (In New Jersey, no less.) He’s an Everyman in a particular sense: the modern male’s often fumbling attempts to embrace normalcy. The Lay of the Land is the third Bascombe book, with Frank reappearing in fine, ruminative form. The novel spills over with drive-by philosophy, conjecture, and bullshitting. Despite a few Iron John moments, you bounce off Ford’s prose as though it were a backyard trampoline: feeling weightless and alive.

Emily Bazelon, senior editor Remember the Chicago grad student in Freakonomics who figured out why drug dealers live with their mothers? His name is Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, and his new book, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor, is the riveting drug-dealer back story—and a lot more. Venkatesh, who is now a professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia, spent 1995 to 2003 following the money in 10 square blocks of the Chicago ghetto. He finds an intricate underground web. In it are dealers and prostitutes—and also pastors who take their money, nannies who don’t report income, unlicensed cab drivers, off-the-books car mechanics, purveyors of home-cooked soul food, and homeless men paid to sleep outside stores. Venkatesh’s insight is that the neighborhood doesn’t divide between “decent” and “street”—almost everyone has a foot in both worlds. “Don’t matter in some ways if it’s the gang or the church,” says one woman as she describes the network that gives her some sense of security. The Wire meets academia, Off the Books is a great and an instructive read.

Since I started writing the “Family” column for Slate, I’ve tried to read more new children’s literature. It’s a struggle because there are so many titles from my childhood that I can’t wait to read again with my kids. But one book this year broke down my resistance with its infectious rhymes and carsick gerbil— Ninety-Three in My Family, by my friend Erica Perl. It makes my sons chortle and by accident (the only way) learn a number or two.

Mia Fineman, art critic My favorite new book this year was Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis, Last Living Star of the Ziegfeld Follies by Lauren Redniss. The book is a visually dazzling mélange of drawings, photos, newspaper clippings, interview excerpts, and memorabilia from Eaton’s archives, accompanied by handwritten text that recounts her long and extraordinary life with vivid immediacy. Born in 1904 to a showbiz-crazed Virginia family, Eaton made her debut as a Follies girl at age 14. She starred in silent pictures, ran an Arthur Murray dance studio, wrote a newspaper column, hosted a TV show, earned a bachelor’s degree in history at age 88, raised turkeys, and bred race horses in Oklahoma. For her 100th birthday, she led a conga line on the stage of the Times Square theater where she first performed with the Follies. And at 102, she’s still going strong. Redniss, a frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed page and an acquaintance of mine, conveys this story in a startlingly original graphic style that matches the vivaciousness of her subject. With its wild, ingenious melding of words and images, Century Girl is unlike anything I’ve seen before.

David Greenberg, “History Lesson” columnist One of the most original and creative works of macrohistory to appear in 2006 is Happiness: A History by Darrin McMahon. There have been several tedious (if not pointless) books trying to define happiness as a product of neurons firing in the brain. McMahon, an intellectual historian at Florida State University, is too smart to be seduced by such intellectual fads; indeed, he understands the vogue of brain science to be itself a cultural phenomenon. More fruitfully, McMahon takes the long view, exploring with insight how different cultures in different eras—from ancient Greece to the Reformation to America’s founding to the present—have defined and pursued this protean ideal. Once associated with the eternal, happiness became an earthly possibility in the Enlightenment and, more recently, a veritable entitlement. Masterfully bringing the worlds of scholarship and popular accessibility, Happiness is stimulating, funny, and memorable, a work of impressive erudition.

Ann Hulbert, contributing editor Two story collections are at the top of my list this year: Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock and Yiyun Li’s A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, her first book. In stories that are more autobiographical than ever, Munro writes about her forbears who settled in Canada, and about how she fits into the lineage. Li writes about the legacy of the Cultural Revolution in 10 stories set in China and in America. Beneath the vast differences lies a common, endlessly interesting theme: the crossing from old worlds into new ones.

Timothy Noah, “Chatterbox” columnist
Jeffrey Goldberg’s Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide was the most riveting read I had this year. It’s the memoir of an idealistic American Zionist who immigrates to Israel as a young man and ends up a prison camp guard for the Israeli army in the Negev desert. In that unpromising environment, Goldberg incubates a fragile friendship with a Palestinian prisoner named Rafiq, and the two remain in touch over the years as Goldberg moves back to the United States to become a journalist (he is now Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and an occasional contributor to Slate) while Rafiq pursues an academic career. Attention Oprah book-clubbers and Peace Now activists: This is not a luminous tale about friendship triumphing over political adversity. Real friendship is a complex matter under the best of circumstances, which these clearly aren’t. The two friends’ differences remain profound, and their friendship becomes more wary, not less, as the story progresses from the time of the Oslo Accords, when prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians reached their pinnacle, to the present day, when they’ve sunk to what is—one can only hope—their nadir. Yet Goldberg leavens this gripping narrative with sharp (and occasionally raucous) humor, self-knowledge, and as much idealism as Middle Eastern realities will allow.

Meghan O’Rourke, “The Highbrow” columnist and culture editor Among my favorite books of poetry this year was Louise Glück’s Averno. Glück’s work has the distinction of being both weighty (achieving gravity without appearing to strive mightily for it) and approachable: She writes in a vernacular speech shaped by a series of questions and answers. Averno is, in its way, a retelling of the Persephone myth; a portrait of the rupturing of private order in the wake of the public shattering that was Sept. 11; and a moving meditation on death at a time in the speaker’s life when “The light has changed;/ middle C is tuned darker now.” It’s also funny—the poems are laced with an acidic wit: ” ‘You girls,’ ” a mother says to her daughters, ” ‘should marry/ someone like your father.’ That was one remark./ Another was,/ ‘There is no one like your father.’ “

I also enjoyed Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw, a witty and thoughtful meditation on private and public space, in which stewardesses tell plane passengers “this is neither a time nor a place.” Theoretical and smart, the book—which consists mostly of prose poems—is Lerner’s second, and worth checking out.

Troy Patterson, television critic Weighing in at 120 eccentric pages and announcing itself not as a memoir but “an account,” Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest is doggedly minor; let’s call it the year’s most charming oddity. One lethargic Sunday in 1990, Bouillier mustered the will to pick up the telephone. It was a lost love—a woman who, years before, had dumped him without a word of explanation—asking him to come to a party: “It was a birthday party for her husband’s best friend. … Every year this friend had a birthday party and invited as many people as she was years old plus a ‘mystery guest’ who stood for the year she was about to live.” He can’t say no, of course. But what to wear? What sort of gift to bring? And what does Mrs. Dalloway have to do with all this? Frank and wry, mad and graceful, Bouillier riffs on his convictions, delusions, and stray theories in Lorin Stein’s translation of his French pastry, performing a kind of slapstick philosophy that sheds some light on his soul.

Jill Hunter Pellettieri, managing editor I generally gravitate toward fiction over nonfiction, yet my favorite book of 2006 is Bill Buford’s Heat—part memoir, outlining the pitfalls and triumphs of his own foray into a professional kitchen; part biography, somehow presenting a sympathetic portrayal of celebrity chef Mario Batali, despite exposing some rather unflattering characteristics; part pastiche of culinary history and tradition, as well as a vibrant depiction of the food personalities Buford encounters on his adventure. I couldn’t help but rave about this book to everyone I talked to when I read it (and I inevitably brought it up at every dinner out). And you don’t have to love food to enjoy it—Buford writes with such a strong narrative drive that it reads as well as any piece of good fiction. The fact that it’s true only makes it more compelling.

Robert Pinsky, poetry editor C.K. Williams’ Collected Poems, just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Eloquence, nerve, important subjects. This book will be remembered after most political and show business arfle-barfle has been forgotten. Randall Jarrell long ago pointed out that people who say “I don’t get modern poetry” imply that they often curl up with Paradise Lost in the evening. (Not an exact quote, but that’s the idea.) Like the author of that work, Williams undertakes to describe human ways in the largest context. This is a readable, urgent, and magnificent lifework.

David Plotz, deputy editor The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright’s account of the rise of al-Qaida before 9/11, is a horror movie of a book. You’ll read it with the equivalent of hands over your eyes, because you know what the awful ending is. It’s all the more appalling because at every moment Wright shows how easily these villains could have been stopped, how weak they really were, how disorganized, how maddeningly human and vulnerable. Yet we failed and failed and failed, because we never really sought to understand them, never appreciated the terrible power of their ideas. Wright’s Remembering Satan was one of the great books of the 1990s because it explained, with clinical though not heartless precision, the behavior of incomprehensibly alien people (the accuser and accused in a Satanic ritual abuse case). The Looming Tower does the same trick, except this time Wright’s subjects are Osama Bin Laden and the other al-Qaida founders. Wright’s Osama—depicted with halogen clarity—is much more human than the cartoon we know, and yet in some ways scarier: Wright shows us where Osama’s ideas came from, how they took root, and why they appeal so profoundly to certain Muslims. I must give a shout-out to the book’s opening chapter, which is about Sayyid Qutb, the founder of the modern Islamist political movement. Wright explains how living in the United States during the 1940s radicalized Qutb, and made him realize that true Islam and Western modernity were incompatible. It’s one of the best chapters I’ve ever read in any book.

Katie Roiphe, Audio Book Club regular My favorite novel this year was Claire Messud’s smart and entertaining The Emperor’s Children, for reasons I have already given in Slate. I’ve noticed it’s become fashionable to deflate it at parties, but it really is as good as everyone said before deflating it came into fashion.

I am also currently obsessed with The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, edited by Caroline Moorehead. Gellhorn was a war reporter, best known for her turbulent marriage to Ernest Hemingway. She is one of those enormously talented writers who poured lavish amounts of creative energy into her life itself—her love affairs and friendships were themselves works of art. She lived messily, and this messiness made her more vivid and interesting than almost anyone you will likely spend time with over the holidays. Her letters are tough, enchanting, funny, madly articulate, and they make you realize you should write (and read) more letters.

Jody Rosen, music critic I flipped for Kate Ascher’s coffee-table book about New York City infrastructure, The Works: Anatomy of a City, an illustrated guide to the five boroughs from the bowels up. Water mains; electrical grids; traffic-light systems; the Hunts Point Market; the huge cargo ships that glide past my Brooklyn windows, heading through Buttermilk Channel to the Red Hook Container Terminal—these are the things that make the city work, and Ascher’s book explains them in clear prose, with vivid graphics, maps, and charts. The chapter on sewage isn’t everyone’s idea of sexy reading, but it’s an essential New York story: The meatpackers may have been driven out of their Gansevoort Street beachhead by pricey boutiques and restaurants, but The Works reminds us that Stella McCartney’s and Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s bastions of cool quite literally sit atop a matrix of rusted pipes and, well, shit. And for those of us who daydream about the funky bustle of New York’s 19th-century past, when the Hudson River piers still hummed, Ascher’s book shows that the city isn’t quite so postindustrial after all—it’s still a combination of high-technology, low-technology, and old-fashioned muscle and sweat that keeps the town running. You’ll never look at Fifth Avenue, or your toilet bowl, the same way again.

I must also second Mia Finemen’s endorsement of Lauren Redniss’ totally enchanting Century Girl, which made 102-year-old Doris Eaton Travis my new favorite pinup girl.

Witold Rybczynski, architecture critic
My favorite bedtime read this year was Charles McCarry’s The Last Supper. This political thriller was actually written in 1986, but Overlook Press has been republishing his tales of Cold War espionage at the rate of one or two a year, so I guess it qualifies as “new.” Like all the best spy novelists since Graham Greene, McCarry creates a world of his own. It helps some that he spent years in the CIA doing undercover work; it helps more that he’s a very good storyteller. I like thrillers; the good ones can be reread many times. I regularly reread early Le Carré (before he turned preachy), and I recently reread all of Alan Furst’s World War II novels. Last year, I found some old Len Deighton thrillers in a used-book store and reread those. They seemed so fresh 40 years ago—oh well.

Amanda Schaffer, “Science” and “Medical Examiner” columnist
My favorite medical memoir of the year was Cancer Vixen, a graphic novel by New Yorker cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto. At 43, Marchetto is just three weeks shy of her wedding day when she finds a lump in her breast. Her cartoon self is sucked upside down into a black hole. Abnormal cells are illustrated as little green monsters sticking their tongues out and giving her the finger. She is terrified her fiance will leave her. Marchetto chronicles her experiences with doctors, medical jargon, needles, chemo cocktails, and radiation with a directness and wit that struck me as wholly original. The illustrated format lightens the tone and creates a structure in which wry punch lines can proliferate without seeming glib. The book is most of all a love story, spiked with jealousy, tenderness, and great Italian cooking. It’s remarkably playful, but the passions and struggles are not cartoonish at all. Vivian Selbo, design director My favorite book this year is one I’m still reading and expect to be for a while: Else/Where: Mapping—New Cartographies of Networks and Territories, a compendium of cross-disciplinary visual case-studies that address the activity of mapping. It’s broken down into four kinds of “data spaces,” with the most engrossing chapter—at least for now—on conversation mapping. That chapter reproduces roundtable discussion, as conducted via e-mail and instant message, among eight experts who have created various striking prototypes for visualizing who is talking to whom, about what, online and off. For instance, Warren Sacks wrote browser software to visually display the discussion threads and social networks in “Very Large-Scale Conversations” such as newsgroups and e-mail lists. Else/Where is wonderfully illustrated with four-color drawings, photographs, diagrams, and charts that cover an incredible range of material, from Sulki Choi’s “Football Diaspora” to West Bank settlement maps by Israeli architect Eyal Weizman, to Laura Kurgan’s “Monochrome Landscapes,” satellite photos of endangered landscapes—which also grace the front and back cover. This book is a strange antidote for all the time I spend reading on screen, as it routinely steers me back to a Web browser to check out another URL.

Doree Shafrir, “Summary Judgment” columnist When Spy magazine debuted in 1986, I was in the throes of elementary school, and too preoccupied with Anne of Green Gables and the like to pay much attention to a new magazine about celebrity, media, and popular culture. And then, just when I got to the age, and into a cultural context, where I would’ve really enjoyed the magazine, it folded. Over the years, I saw snippets here and there (oh, that’s where Separated at Birth came from!), but as with Woodstock and the Roaring ‘20s, I eventually accepted that Spy and I had simply missed our concomitant historical moment. So when the commemorative book Spy: The Funny Years—a compendium of some of the magazine’s greatest hits—was released this fall, I felt like I could finally get in on the joke. I was riveted by stories like Philip Weiss’ account of infiltrating the secretive Bohemian Grove, the summer retreat for a men’s club in San Francisco that counted Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley, and Ronald Reagan among its members. I was even more captivated by noting just how much Spy’s influence has spread to other magazines over the years. If anyone complains anymore that there are no more good ideas, it’s because Spy magazine already thought of them all.

June Thomas, foreign editor
Why would anyone be an actor and, in all but a few cases, face a life of rejection, poverty, and self-doubt? Theater director Michael Blakemore’s memoir Arguments With England, which appeared in the States in late 2005, answers this question convincingly. It is a wonderful story about the peculiar life of the theater and packed with juicy gossip, but perhaps its greatest strength is Blakemore’s evocations of Britain in the early 1950s and of his conflicted relationship with his native Australia. Writing about more recent and more tragic events, Rory Stewart’s Prince of the Marshes also avoids easy heroes and villains—everyone has an agenda, except perhaps the author himself.

Julia Turner, senior editor As a bookish young girl, I attended a progressive elementary school that—disappointingly—took no truck with grades, spelling bees, and other traditional trappings of education in America. Instead, we had “inventive spelling.” As a result, I took special delight in Kitty Burns Florey’s Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, which introduced me to a practice I feel sure I would have relished, had I been given the chance to learn it: diagramming sentences. Florey writes with verve about the nuns who taught her to render the English language as a mess of slanted lines, explains how diagrams work, and traces the bizarre history of the men who invented this odd pedagogical tool. And unlike so many of today’s microhistorians, who seek to demonstrate how zippers, azaleas, or hopscotch explain the world, Florey is refreshingly content to recount her tale without any suggestion that the diagramming of sentences somehow illuminates the American character. It’s a great read.

Jacob Weisberg, editor Other than The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthology and Backstabbers, Crazed Geniuses, and Animals We Hate, my favorite books this year were both nonfiction titles: The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart and The Blind Side by Michael Lewis. Of all the books I’ve read about the tragedy in Iraq, I think Stewart’s, which Slate excerpted here, is the most likely to last. In part, this is because it does not try to draw broad conclusions about what went wrong, but simply offers up an account of one man’s good intentions going awry. Stewart, a naive, intrepid Scotsman, found himself governing the Southern tribal province that is home to the Marsh Arabs. Horribly persecuted by Saddam, and without any Sunni population, his region was a strong candidate to turn peaceful and democratic. Instead, it degenerates into tribal and factional conflict and becomes a paradigm of the entire failed enterprise of the occupation.

My friend Michael Lewis’ latest book looks deceptively like Moneyball applied to football but ends up being more about race than sports. At its heart is the irresistible tale of how a wealthy white family in the Memphis suburbs adopted an enormous black man-child from a ghetto background so chaotic and deprived that he could barely speak, let alone read. In a new, supportive environment, Michael Oher defies everyone’s expectations, including his own. The heroes of The Blind Side are white Southerners who reject their culture’s assumptions about young black men. Like my other choice, it’s a book about idiosyncratic idealism—but with a hopeful ending.

Blake Wilson, editorial assistant Jane Gardam’s Old Filth was the best novel I read this year. It’s the story of Sir Edward Feathers, one of those impeccably dressed and imperturbable icons of Englishness. Following a career as a lawyer and a judge in Hong Kong, he has retired to Dorset, where, after his wife dies, his senility takes him on tours of his unhappy past. Feathers was a “Raj orphan,” the unwanted son of a colonial governor in Malaya, abandoned to schools back in Britain. The novel is an indictment of a culture so indifferent to children that it institutionalized their abuse. It also shows how someone betrayed by everyone he loved nonetheless grows into a good, even great, man. But what I found most moving about this very sad book is that Feathers achieves his personal resolution only by means of the dementia unraveling his idea of himself—as it frees his repressed childhood memories by muddling past and present. Gardam is justly famous in Britain, having published 20 books and won heaps of awards. I hope that the critical acclaim Old Filth has already received over here will make her better known in the United States.

And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers and writers: The Best of Slate: A 10th Anniversary Anthologyand Backstabbers, Crazed Geniuses, and Animals We Hate: The Writers of Slate’s Assessment Column Tell It Like It Is; Perennial Fall, by Maggie Dietz; On Her Trail: My Mother, Nancy Dickerson, TV News’ First Woman Star, by John Dickerson; Calvin Coolidgeand Presidential Doodles: Two Centuries of Scribbles, Scratches, Squiggles & Scrawls from the Oval Office, both by David Greenberg; and The Best of Technology Writing 2006, edited by Brendan I. Koerner.