The Year in Books
Slate picks the best books of 2006.
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.