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.