I've been reading the first 50 pages of books named by various people and institutions as the "best books of 2006." Many sources have named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun as one of the stars of the past year. I can only agree. It's beautifull crafted and the prose has that quiet but persuasive quality that draws you into the lives of the characters almost effortlessly.
However, this is a book that takes place in Nigeria in 1967 and although the characters as the book begins have no idea what's ahead of them, the reader knows all too well that the civil war over the attempt to create an independent nation of Biafra lies in their future.
And so, after 50 pages, I declared this one of the best books of 2006 and sent it back to the library.
I was chatting to Fay over at Historical / Present about this. I simply cannot at the moment face the horror and suffering that lies ahead for these characters. Real life is a little too full of misery and despair to make me eager to take on the problems of characters as real to me as those in this book.
If it weren't so good, reading it would be more bearable.
A book that seems to be on everybody's list of the best of 2006 is Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan, the second novel by the author of The Russian Debutante's Handbook, which made a big splash back in 2002.
Absurdistan is a raunchy, slightly menacing, sharply cutting, hilarious story about a Russian who comes to the US, falls in love with a stripper from the South Bronx, and plans to make a life here. But after a visit to Russia he is refused readmittance because his father, a rich Russian-mafia type who "was dabbling in criminal oligarchy" back in the 1990s, has killed an American businessman from Oklahoma. The first person narrator questions why anybody cares. A guy from New York or Los Angeles, you could understand that the Immigration and Naturalization Service would be upset, but Oklahoma?
I wish I knew more about Russian or Jewish literature because I have the feeling that the slightly befuddled but richly human narrator (a mensch if ever there was one) is a character in a long tradition of such narrators. He is ridiculous. The things that happen to him are ludicrous. He is ignorant beyond grasping. But he is immensely loveable. Also simply immense - he's very fat. You're rooting for him from page one.
I was shocked by this book. The author spares no one, no group, no idea, no tradition, nothing. He laughs cynically at urban blacks, Hasidic Jews, old people, young people, Russians of all types, everyone. And his way with words! His bizarre imagination! Absurdistan (a small former Soviet Republic), Accidental College (an apparently unaccredited college in the middle of nowhere USA), St Leninsburg, blackened sturgeon kebabs with a carafe of Black Label, a woman with off-color eyes, a character who is at Hunter College studying to become an executive secretary.
On the similarity between Russians and black ghetto dwellers: "Your men don't got no jobs, everyone's always doing drive-bys whenever they got beefs, the childrens got asthma, and y'all live in public housing." Much of what Shteyngart says slaps you in the face with reluctant recognition.
Our hero on the unfairness of the government picking on his father: "In civilized countries like Canada, a well-heeled man and his fishing party are left in peace by the authorities, even if they have committed a crime."
All this and much more comes from only the first 50 pages. This is a milk-through-the-nose book, funnier than anything I've read in years. The author is the great-great-grandson of Nikolai Gogol. This kind of genius must be genetic.