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Monday, January 02, 2006

These Are a Few of My Favorite Books of 2005
My favorite books of 2005, in no particular order:

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, by John Mortimer
I’ve been reading Rumpole since I was skiving off school more than 30 years ago. In the early—it now seems glory—days of British daytime television, they mostly ran old films, nostalgic TV shows that might appeal to old folks (Sam, World at War, that kind of thing) and mysteries—including the fabulous Crown Court and Rumpole of the Bailey. Even though Leo McKern has left the Bailey, when I’m reading these books, I still see his crumpled old one-eyed face in Rumpole’s, the second Hilda, and the haughty Patricia Hodge as Phyllida Erskine-Brown, “the Portia of our chambers.” What’s the sports cliché—we shouldn’t have gotten this far, so the rest is just gravy. But such tasty gravy! (On another note—I was shocked to learn recently that Emily Mortimer, one of my favorite actresses, is John Mortimer’s daughter. And that he had a son with Wendy Craig of Butterflies fame!)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, by Mark Haddon
Yeah, so I was the last person to read this book, and yes, it’s a kids’ book, but it’s awfully well-done.

The Strange Death of Tory England, by Geoffrey Wheatcroft
The very beginning is rather hard going, but once he’s established his theme, it’s terribly readable and extremely interesting. Wheatcroft sure has a way with a sentence. I still can’t really tell where his sympathies lie—which is a good thing, I suppose.

Stagestruck: Theater, AIDS, and the Marketing of Gay America, by Sarah Schulman
This book had been sitting on my shelves for years, and as the movie version of Rent neared, I thought I’d better read it for research purposes. What an amazing exposé of homophobia in culture and commerce. Utterly convincing and utterly devastating.

Popco, by Scarlett Thomas
Popco started off wonderfully—full of ideas about the way girls play and learn, codes, parenting, work, etc.—and buckled under the weight of too many ideas/plot strands about halfway through. That first half was really exciting, though!

Incendiary, by Chris Cleave
Incendiary got a bad rap (but a lot of attention) because of timing—it’s a book about terrorism (a woman who has lost her husband and son in a terrorist attack writes a letter to Osama Bin Laden), and its pub date was July 7, the day of the London subway and bus bombings. The publicity campaign (complete with posters in the Underground) got canceled, the New York Times called the book “a case of simple tastelessness,” but I really enjoyed it. At first I was suspicious—it’s a book by a man (and my guess is a middle-class man) in the voice of a working-class woman. I’m not sure that American readers will get the cultural references—OK, the class references—but the book’s publisher told the Guardian that more than half of the 25,000 copies sold have been to the export market, which “perhaps confirms that distance has enabled people to read this brilliant debut novel on its own terms."

Invasion of the Dykes to Watch Out For, by Alison Bechdel
Another series that has become part of my life. This is the 11th installment in a series that I hope will go on forever. Mo, c’est moi, even if we have less and less in common, at least politically. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to go Log Cabin, but my views on the Iraq war have little in common with Mo’s.) I love all the little details and jokes in the drawings—you have to read each panel at least five times to experience the five stages of DTWOF appreciation.

99 Ways To Tell a Story: Exercises in Style, by Matt Madden
A simple concept—like the title says, the same story told in 99 different ways. I think I’ve now read it 99 times.

The Night Watch, by Sarah Waters
Shockingly, perhaps, this is the first Sarah Waters novel I’ve read. It’s a story about World War II, more or less, and it’s told backward, in three sections set in 1947, 1944, and 1942, respectively. Waters is clearly a fantastic writer, and she was able to make me think about a well-trod subject, the war, in new ways. My only frustration is that about three-quarters of the way through, you realize that you’re never going to know how the various characters resolved their lives—you’ll be able to explain their behavior in 1947, but not how they’re going to move on. It’s funny how much messing with the traditional conflict/resolution arc frustrates a reader (this one, anyway).

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, by George Packer
The first draft of history, only this one’s almost perfect. Packer is tremendously thoughtful, a remarkable reporter, and a beautiful writer. A fantastic portrait of what the administration did in Iraq after the war “ended.”

"I Didn't Do It for You": How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation, by Michela Wrong
I hate the title of this book—it doesn’t even mention Eritrea, the small nation under discussion, but I loved the content. After you read this book, it’s tempting to look at every news event and wonder how exactly Eritrea is going to be dragged into it—because history suggests it eventually will.

And one I didn’t like at all:

A Necessary Spectacle: Billie Jean King, Bobby Riggs, and the Tennis Match That Leveled the Game, by Selena Roberts
It’s really too bad Roberts used the word “necessary” in the title, because that’s the last thing this book is. Its publication is inexplicable to me—there’s no anniversary, there’s no new insight into the match, into women’s tennis, and certainly not into Billie Jean King. If there’s one person I’d like to read a good biography of—one that really explains her personality and motivations, it’s BJK, but this book provides absolutely nothing that we haven’t known for decades.

The complete list. Breakdown: Fiction 11; Nonfiction 13; Comic 2; Play 1; Hybrid (the utterly misbegotten Hotel Babylon) 1.

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