Sunday, December 31, 2006

(annual tradition!) my official recommended novel from 2006

I figure that if somebody regularly reads novels and seems like someone of compatible taste, they ought to be able to recommend one novel a year just on their say-so. "Seriously, read this." More than one and they need to sell you with actual reasons and/or a convergence of positive reviews from other people. Or else, they are being pushy, one of those people who wants to colonize your reading queue.

If somebody gets me to listen to a song and I don't like it, so what? 3 minutes. With a novel, we are talking about putting several hours of someone else's time on the line. And so, while it isn't to be approached as gingerly as "Seriously, take this job," a substantial pinch of ginger is in order.

Anyway, I'm thinking of what would be the one novel I would recommend to the world (i.e, you) from my reading this year. Although I am militant about keeping novel reading in my life [see p. 8 6 here], I don't read that many, so maybe I don't even deserve an annual recommendation. I've decided my three finalists are: Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster; and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics is basically written for women under 30, at heart if not chronologically, and I felt both age and gender wrong for the book even as I enjoyed it. So, I'm going to offer it here as my recommended book for women, but, regardless of your gender, you can only read it on my recommendation if you promise first that you will not hold me responsible for the sucky "goldfish" speech near the end.*

New York Trilogy are three novellas that add up to few pages than either of my other finalists. It plays heavily on Boy Themes related to accomplishment, obsession, and losing one's way, and has all these recursive turns of paragraph and plot that seem to appeal more to the geek-male reader than anyone else. So it wins as my recommendation to male readers: especially because it's a more risky recommendation, and studies show men are less risk-averse than women, and yet also shorter, and studies show men begrudge a disappointing book recommendation more than women. Seriously, dude, read this.

I suspect some people won't like the idea of separate recommendations for female and male readers, or will at least think of themselves as not someone for whom gender-specific recommendations are pertinent. For such people, I recommend Cloud Atlas. In terms of the most moments of my reading and thinking, "Dear God, this book is a freaking miracle," Cloud Atlas is the clear winner for this year and likely in my all-time top ten. If there is someone out there who is putting together more interesting English-language sentences one-after-another than David Mitchell, I want to know who it is (I mean it, let me know). Cloud Atlas is a big clever puzzle-box of textual wonders, but it's main shortcoming is that it's a book that uses a really smart conceit to show off Mitchell's virtuosity at the expense of any overarching plot. The book is instead a confederacy of six different plots that are not intended to "come together," and while they do add up to more than the sum of their parts, the sum is maybe still not enough or else it would be the year's hands-down winner.

Importantly, none of these novels is as good as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, which remains my favorite contemporary novel. If you haven't read it, seriously, read that. If you've read it and didn't really like it, I don't know why you'd pay any attention to any of my recommendations above.

I'd love to know any recommendation from your own reading that you have for me. Note the singular noun, though: one year -> one novel that's worth a try just because you say so. Beyond that I have to be persuaded.

* The only more dramatic lapse of form I've read in the past few years is the second-to-last page of the The Boy Detective Fails (Joe Meno), which literally made me feel a little stupid for having enjoyed so much of the rest of the book. If you read The Boy Detective Fails, have someone black-out the second-to-last page for you before beginning.

Update: Lucy, who read 120 novels last year, has come out with her top 10 11 list, which includes The Boy Detective Fails and spurns Spec Top Calam Phys, even though her recommendation was why I read it in the first place.


Lucy said...

You've discovered the secret plan behind my top 11 list.
Step 1: colonise people's reading queues
Step 2: ...
Step 3: take over the world!

The commitment of other people's time is why I'm hesitant to recommend at all, rather than just picking my own favourites. I also think recommendations ought to be individually tailored. I could probably pick a single book off my list for a specific person (I would've picked Boy Detective for you, so maybe I wouldn't be entirely successful). If I were recommending to a general audience, though, STiCP probably would've been higher up in my list.

Did you begrudge the bad endings of the books I recommended?

Also, it's page 6.

Anonymous said...

The Known World


Edward P. Jones

Anonymous said...

Richard Ford's "The Lay of the Land."
(I agree with you about the Chabon book.)

And for all-time best academic satire novel set in the US: "Straight Man" by Richard Russo.

Barry Orton

Anonymous said...

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Perhaps the best book of contemporary fiction I've read. Why you'd like it: (1) It takes place in Iowa! AND the author teaches at Iowa. (2) It's about disappearing midwestern prarie towns. (3) It's a story of fathers and sons (a rather crazy abolishonist grandfather and a narrative construction where a dying (older) father tries to convey who he is to his son - the son being 6 at the time - the expectation being that the son will read it as an adult). (4) Every main character is a preacher. (5) The writing is unbelievable. Seriously. The BEST EVER.

Why I think (4) would turn you on rather than turn you off I don't know. But still...

I agree with you on "Special Topics in Calamity Physics": great. Even for the non-ladies like me. Also, I want to put out an editted version of the book without that goldfish speech. I'd also like to put out an editted version of "The Plot Against America". That may be the worst ending to any book ever.

But I can't say enough about Gilead (and Robinson's other book, Housekeeping, which Lucy also recommends!).


rps said...

I also truly, deeply LOVED Gilead. It was the best book I read in 2005 and is one of my top 10 all time favorites. It is the only book from which I've ever posted a quote over the desk in my office.

I'm still thinking about the best book I read in 2006. Contenders thus far include "Saturday," by Ian McEwan, and (at the risk of revealing myself as a girly girl) "The Time Traveler's Wife," by Audrey Niffenegger.

TheInternetDog said...

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Not new this year, but I did read it for the first time in 2006, so it still qualifies.

I'm reccomending it for three reasons:
1. It's an interesting concept - a murder mystery as told from the perspective of a teenager with Asperger's Syndrome.
2. It's touching, funny, and inspirational without being sappy, corny, or sentimental.
3. I read it in just under two hours one afternoon at Borders.

Anonymous said...

Just to double some of these endorsements--straight man is the funniest book I've ever read--especially for an academic. The curious incident of the dog at night is great too! He captures the Asberger's so well--you can really understand the perspective.

But I'm going to recommend the Confessions of Max Tivoli--I just blogged about it if you want more info.

Tonya said...

You've sold me on your list of recommended books. I'm certainly going to buy them and add them to my every-growing pile of books that I haven't read yet. Once a book gets in the pile (really, a bookshelf), there's at least a chance that I'll read it eventually.

Hard for me to recommend a novel right now because (uncharacteristically) I've been reading lots of nonfiction lately. You'd probably enjoy Monkeyluv by Robert Sapolsky. It's a collection of his essays.

Peter said...

My one book to recommend is The Emperor's Children. It is craft.

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