My fellow book bloggers have been listing the best books they read in 2006. I wasn't going to do this, but in a quick glance through my reading over the last year, I find there are a few books that I can point out as extraordinary.
The very best were "classics" that I was re-reading, or in some cases, re-re-reading. They were Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels and Bleak House. I also re-read "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and found it much richer than the last time I read it years ago.
I read Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell for the second time in 2006. It was published in 1866. I plan to read more of Mrs Gaskell in 2007.
The best mystery I read this year is the first in a series about a detective in post-civil war Spain. It's by Rebecca Pawel and it's called Death of a Nationalist. Death at La Fenice by Donna Leon was close behind.
There were some first-rate non-fiction titles that I particularly liked, among them The Lost Painting by Jonathan Harr and Aran and Fair Isle Knitting: Patterns, Techniques, and Stitches edited by Debra Mountford. Not everyone will want to hustle out and get that one but if you like that sort of thing you'll love this.
Perhaps the best nonfiction I read was Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. Whether you want to write or are only a reader, this book is full of insight and is beautifully written.
And in the fiction category? It's difficult to decide on a single title, but I think I'm going to go with Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout.
Seems like everything I pick up lately has a prerequisite. I wanted to read the new Richard Ford, but I hadn't read the previous books in the trilogy. So I got a copy of The Sportswriter and will read that and Independence Day so that I'll be prepared for The Lay of the Land.
I started reading Philip Roth, but that project came to a halt when I began to realize that with Letting Go I was really reading The Portrait of a Lady, set in 1950s Chicago with a Jewish English professor as Isabel Archer. So I need to re-read the Henry James novel before going any further with Roth. I may never get to The Human Stain at this rate.
Then I moved on to Valerie Martin, the first in the long list of authors mentioned in an essay by Jane Smiley that Fay posted about recently. I've decided to try to read a book by each of those authors and I have heard a lot about Mary Reilly, so that seemed like a good place to begin. But after a chapter or two I realized that I've never read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and everything would be much clearer if I had and so . . .
And last night I was going to start Jacob's Room, which needs to be finished by Epiphany. But first I checked Susan Hill's blog, from whence this Virginia Woolf exercise is being run, and I found I had completely forgotten about Night and Day, which has to be read first.
Ever heard of necrotic arachnidism? Chironex fleckeri? Trypanosomes? Sponge face?
These are the less than cheery subjects of a book I got this morning at Auntie's, Spokane's favorite bookstore.
Psychologists tell us that human beings are born with an innate fear of spiders and bugs, snakes, and a couple of other dangerous creatures. I was born without this fear. I have induced grown men to whimper by picking up a spider or a cicada or a tobacco worm.
I may want to re-evaluate the situation after reading Pamela Nagami's wonderful book, Bitten: True Medical Stories of Bites and Stings. She tells tales of people killed by swarms of fire ants, a lethal spider (which lives only in and near Spokane), an almost indiscernible jellyfish, as well as snakes, snails, ticks, flies,mosquitoes, ferrets, rats, dogs, and the occasional Komodo dragon.
Necrotic arachnidism is what results when you are bitten by a venomous arachnid, like Spokane's hobo spider. Chironex fleckeri is a particularly nasty Australian jellyfish. Trypanosomes are the little guys that give you sleeping sickness; they are delivered by the tse tse fly, beloved of crossword puzzle afficianados.
Sponge face is what they call you when you've been attacked by the protozoans passed along in the bite of the sandfly, Phlebotomus argentipes. And don't underestimate horses. They don't often bite people, but when they do the wound can produce a pretty disgusting infection.
All-in-all, this is the creepiest thing I've read since The Gashlycrumb Tinies.
For Herman Melville, whenever it was a drizzly November in the soul, it was time to head for sea. For my soul, a drizzly November (or, more likely a blizzardy December or January) sends me scurrying for a volume of "sunshine noir". I don't think that the booksellers yet have a standardized definition of sunshine noir, but there is a list by that name in Amazon's listmania:
Basically, we are talking about crime fiction set in Florida (or some other similar suitable clime), that offers a sense of place -- of contrasting sunshine and darkness. Preferably, the book should contain a fair amount of humor, although that is not an absolutely essential requirement for a good volume of sunshine noir.
I got hooked on John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee books years ago. The Deep Blue Good-by is my favorite. Later, I got even more hooked on Carl Hiaasen -- Stormy Weather is still my favorite of his books. Tim Dorsey, when at his best, is another master of the genre. Start out with Florida Road Kill, and if you like that, then follow on with the author's other volumes chronicling the exploits of Dorsey's anti-hero, Serge A. Storms.
So, now as snow is falling in Spokane, I have two sunshine noirs going at the same time. The first is Bahamarama, by Bob Morris. The other is Basket Case by Carl Hiaasen. Bahamarama is set, for the most part, in (not surprisingly) the Bahamas, rather than Florida. Still, it is a good bit of sunshine noir, though, not quite up the the level of my favorite S-N authors. I've just started Basket Case, but it looks like it will be another real treat from Carl Hiaasen. Now, I just need a bottle of good rum to accompany my reading.
By now, I rather imagine, some regular readers of Mary's Library are probably beginning to assume that Mary's husband must be deceased and are trying to figure out how to send on condolences. What other explanation could there be for Wilhelm's apparent lack of any progress whatever in his reading? I mean, Ghost Wars has been on my current reading list practically forever. Well, I am still alive and I have, finally, finished Ghost Wars. I could try to explain why it took me so long to finish this fine and important book, but the short answer (which will have to suffice) is that the fault lies with me, not with the book.
The book tells the story of American involvement in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion through September 10, 2001. The book is available in a paperback revised edition that takes into account information from the 9/11 Commission Report, which was not available when the book was first published. Ghost Wars is vital reading for anyone wishing to know more about the background to the current situation in Afghanistan. At present, commentary on current affairs seems to be increasing in quantity and decreasing in quality in an inverse ratio. Here, in contrast, is a thoughtful book by an author who has done a remarkably thorough job of research. The New Great Game likely will be going on for some time to come. This is an essential book for anyone trying to understand struggles in Southern and Southwestern Asia and where those struggles are going.
The thing is, do I really want to start reading a 1,085-page novel three days before Christmas? I'm expecting Santa to bring me lots of books. I've just finished reading a couple of big books, the novel about Mary Lincoln (650 pages) and Calamity Physics (528 pages.) And I'm already reading some big books, i.e., The Portrait of a Lady (650 pages), which I find I must read in order to understand Philip Roth's Letting Go, which isn't small either (640 pages.)
But how can I resist Thomas Pynchon's new novel? I requested Against the Day at the library a while back, before it was published. And today Wilhelm brought it home for me.
I also got Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (263 pages), the first of the books for my read-along with Fay's non-challenge over on Historical / Present. She is going to try to read as many of the authors Jane Smiley mentions in an essay about the New York Times' quest for the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years. (See Fay's 13 Dec post.)
Megan Abbott's mystery, Die a Little was waiting for me as well. This is neo-noir, taking place in Hollywood's hard-boiled 1950s underworld. (Think Raymond Chandler.) It's only 241 pages long and has big print. I have a hope of finishing that before Christmas. Which to read? How do other people decide these things?