Great Expectations -- I can't really do a "best books of the year list" justice. The fact is, I don't read enough contemporary literary fiction to come up with a respectable list of "best books" from the past year. "Great Expectations" may be one of the best books I read last year, but you just can't offer up the Dickens classic as one of the "best books" of 2006 because, well, it wasn't. It was one of the best books of 1861 (the Modern Library edition, with the introduction by George Bernard Shaw, was one of the best books of 2001).
I also feel that Hobart would demand more than I can offer. A Hobart "best books" list should be ten books from micro presses, that you've never heard of, that don't belong to any genre you can quite name, and that are amazing. Start off a Hobart best books list with "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" and people are just going to roll their eyes.
Well, OK, probably no one could live up to the pressure I'm imagining. Still, there are certain stresses that come with the Hobart life. As I mentioned before, all of us involved with Hobart live in a mansion on an English country estate ("Hobart House" -- soon to be a PBS series). We take long walks in the heath. I don't know what the "heath" is, but there's a lot of it, and we walk through it, almost daily. It gets everywhere. We wear wool, but still the heath seeps in. We also take tea, and carry English shotguns. We "tarry" a lot (no idea), and talk quite a bit about the books we've read. So while I may not be able to rattle off a list of books from artsy indie presses, with covers that could have been record jackets, and voices that make Thomas Pynchon sound like Dick Francis, it's still true that the rarified literary atmosphere of Hobart House has had some effect on me. Here, in no particular order, are the books I remember best from 2006.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics -- OK, you knew this one would make the list. Some people didn't like this book, but here's the thing: The narrator of this book, Blue Van Meer, is a neurotic intellectual who takes after her radical professor father. He's dragged her from one college town to another, a kind of Jack Kerouac in associate professor's clothing, with a dark hint of Charles Manson in his soul, and he's convinced her that the vagabond life beats forming any lasting relationships, that ideas matter more than people, and that no one is as smart or as well read as the two of them. So Pessl's narrator speaks in grandeloquent phrases littered with literary and pop culture references because that's who she is. She's trying to impress the world. And maybe Pessl's novel is set up as sort of game, or a puzzle, because it so well captures both the joy and disappointment of the intellectual life. So maybe the trick to this book is to not let yourself get put off by all of its shimmering phrases and encyclopedic references. Just relax and enjoy the fun. By the way, all of this also makes the ending of this novel so poignant, and so uplifting -- when Blue finally opens the door to her cloistered world of ideas, and steps outside of it, into the sunshine (cue choir of angels).
The Illustrated Jane Eyre -- I did read "Jane Eyre" this year, and it's a fantastic novel. Better, even, than "Wuthering Heights." The Bronte sisters really knew the Victorian Gothic sensibility. You have to hand it to them -- they had that down cold. I'm not entirely sold on Dame Darcy's illustrations for the Penguin special edition (her rendering of Jane's love, Mr. Rochester, is suspect -- she puts him in the Rhett Butler / Rock Hudson category, when clearly the visual model for his character is Gore Vidal -- and some of her drawings look mannered), but she does Jane herself pretty well, and the illustrations are still beautiful. This is the best gift book on the market for any teenage girl with the ambition to tackle a novel.
Writing Home -- "When Larkin says he can't remember his childhood, what he really means is he has nothing to write home about." So goes the journal entry from which Alan Bennett took the title for "Writing Home," his first compendium of journalism, essays, diary entries, and introductions to his own plays. "Writing Home" was a big hit in England, no doubt in part because Bennett, a renowned playwrite, is such a star there. So I would recommend renting "The Madness of King George" -- based on Bennett's award-winning play -- or reading "Talking Heads," Bennett's series of monologues, or listening to an old Beyond the Fringe record, just to get yourself primed to read Bennett's recollections and missives. "Writing Home" is wonderful. Alan Bennett cannot write a boring sentence.
The Black Book -- Catch the Orhan Pamuk wave! He didn't just win the Pulitzer for nothing, people! The Turkish sensation is an amazing and gifted writer. "The Black Book" is the only Pamuk I've read, but it made me want to read all of his books, and one of my new year's resolutions is to do just that.
In this one our narrator slowly assumes the identity of an Instanbul newspaper columnist, and discovers that his alter-ego may have run off with his wife. So, a lot of meditating on the nature of identity, solitude, and the mysterious art of writing, and it all seems to take place at night, on the dark streets of the Turkish capital. There's a lot intersecting here -- the identities of two romantic rivals, East and West in the streets of Instanbul, memory and imagination, even night and day themselves.
There is also, in this novel, a prophetic vision of a dried-up Bosphorous Sea in the age of global warming that rivals Chekhov's "The Steppe" for lyrical and atmospheric description of the natural environment. I wish I could have made that last thought sound as compelling as I imagined it would be. But you get the idea.
Should Have Been Greatest Hits -- I see that all of my ruminating and searching of my shelves has yielded four raves. Four! How is that possible? So much of what you read disappoints, and then so much goes forgotten, you sometimes have to ask yourself -- if at the end of a year of constant reading I'm only going to rave about four books, what's the point? So I will end this list with a few "should-have-been greatest hits." I don't quite understand why "Stumbling and Raging: More Politically Inspired Fiction" (MacAdam/Cage) didn't get more attention. (Fair warning, I wrote the fake forward). Maybe because so many of its stories made their first appearance elsewhere. If there is any justice in the world, "The Littlest Hitler" (Ryan Boudinot) will win the National Book Award. "To Feel Stuff," by Andrea Siegel, is a smart and entertaining young adult novel, but I wonder if her real talent won't turn out to be writing for television or the movies. My nomination for best documentary goes to "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema," starring Slavoi Zizek, which actually isn't available on DVD yet, but soon will be (I'm told), and the best song I discovered last year was Mary Lou Lord's "The Wind Blew All Around Me." Best elegiac rock song ever.
Here's to 2007 -- And next year isn't here yet, but already it is bursting with promise. "The Inheritance of Loss," by Kiran Desai looks amazing (I read the first few pages this weekend), Jeff Parker's "Ovenman" (Tin House Books) has already won the award for best title of any novel in 2007, Elizabeth Ellen will be making waves with "Before You She Was a Pitbull," and Penguin Classics has come out with four new R.K. Narayan masterpieces, all with cool-as-hell covers and introductions by contemporary Indian writers. And then there's all of that Pamuk to read. Who says the novel is dead? It's going to be a great year.
-- Sean Carman