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Saturday, December 30, 2006

2006: The Favorite Books
Let’s start this little trek down memory lane with a look at my favorite books of 2006. (And, to state the obvious, not all were published in 2006; that’s just when I read them.)

I start here because I had a wonderful year of reading. When I anally add a title to my list(s), I give it a simple A-C listing (I suppose I could go below C, but the chances of my finishing something that wasn’t even worth a C are slim). At the end of the year, I try to stick with the contemporaneous rating, even though I sometimes feel I’ve been rather harsh—or perhaps it’s that I get more generous as the memory fades. This year, of the 57 titles that I read, I only awarded one C—to Piers Morgan’s The Insider: The Private Diaries of a Scandalous Decade—and really, the failing grade was awarded to the odious Mr. Morgan; the diaries themselves, although clearly bogus in that they were written long after the events occurred, were hideously compelling. I also only gave five B- ratings, along with 29 B’s, 20 B+s, and two well-deserved A’s.

Not necessarily in order of preference, 10 (more or less) favorites from 2006:

Arguments With England: A Memoir, by Michael Blakemore.
I have to admit, I didn’t know who Michael Blakemore was when I first came across this book, but the copy that came to the office included the glowing review Simon Callow wrote for the Guardian, which convinced me to give it a whirl. What a fantastic book! Blakemore is a wonderfully evocative writer—about acting (both doing it and witnessing it), family, promiscuity, relationships, leaving home, England in the 1950s and ‘60s. Ach, he’s great about pretty much everything, actually. It’s one of those memoirs that feels honest (how can we ever really know?) because he doesn’t pretend that he didn’t fail at some things or that he wasn’t sometimes a bit silly or pompous, but he also avoids that annoying memoirist’s trick of pretending that everyone got along wonderfully and life was always peachy. The young Blakemore is often broke and feuding (most entertainingly with Peter Hall) and involved in messy love triangles (most entertainingly with Vanessa Redgrave and Peter Hall), but by the end of the book, he’s starting to have some success as a director. I hope he’s working on another volume right now, because after spending nearly 400 pages on his early stumblings, I want to know what happened as he became more sure-footed. (His novel Next Season is also very entertaining. Read it after you’ve read the memoir, so you recognize the real folks behind the fictional characters.)

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel
If there’s a You Say Tomato books of the year list, there’s an Alison Bechdel title on it. After more than 20 years and at least 11 volumes of Dykes to Watch Out For, her intricately detailed (and very funny) social history that sparkled in relative obscurity, the wonderful Fun Home—a graphic memoir—got the plaudits and attention that Alison has always deserved. (Time magazine’s book of the year, Entertainment Weekly’s nonfiction book of the year, and a million Top 10 lists.) Still, I can’t help wondering if a) the word “dykes” hadn’t been in the titles; b) there’d been a man at the center of those earlier books, she might’ve avoided all those years of obscurity.

Obedience, Struggle and Revolt, by David Hare.
I know, it sounds like a report from the B&D committee of a Spartacist splinter group, and no one could accuse David Hare of being a comedian, but there’s some wonderful stuff in this collection of lectures. (Yes, lectures.) I could’ve done with a little less John Osborne worship (Sir David, baby, make your case and move on), but Hare is a clear thinker and (sometimes) a devastating case-maker.

Primo Time, by Antony Sher.
Obviously, a lot of this year’s reading was focused, in one way or another, on the theater. Of the “actorly” books that I took in, I particularly enjoyed Sher’s account of developing his one-man show Primo—fashioned from Primo Levi’s writings about his time in Auschwitz. It seems silly to complain about the author being self-absorbed—that’s kind of the point of the book—but if any of my friends were contemplating becoming involved with an actor, I’d get a copy of this book into their hands, stat! Years ago, I read Sher’s wonderful novel Middlepost. I’m not sure if it was in Primo Time or Year of the King that Sher talks openly about his frustration at the low effort-to-response ratio of fiction-writing and his hopes that his diaries might be a profitable side line (I’m being much more crass about it than he was). I hope they do—like Simon Callow (with whom he has a ton in common and with whom, I understand, he has quite a rivalry)—it’s astonishing that such a talented actor would be such an excellent writer.

Fifth Row Center: A Critic’s Year On and Off Broadway, by Benedict Nightingale, and The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, by William Goldman.
Nightingale comes across as the nicer chap (or perhaps it’s my soft spot for writers who confess their flaws) and Goldman is the more astute phenomenon-namer, but both these books taught me a lot about commercial theater, New York, and the life of the theater critic.

Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, by Rory Stewart.
It was a bit of a year for memoirs for me. I also enjoyed Stewart’s The Places in Between, but this account of his time as vice-governor of the Iraqi province of Maysan is astonishing. The conflict in Iraq has brought us some great books (The Assassin’s Gate, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, to name but a couple), but Stewart wasn’t a journalist or an academic (like Larry Diamond, whose Squandered Victory is also about how bureaucracy and meddling politicians made a tough challenge impossible); he’s a traveler who wants to make a difference by listening to people and taking account of history and trying to do the right thing. He doesn’t have a career to make or points to score, and he has to admit defeat pretty early. (Read excerpts from the book at Slate.)

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright. The chapters about the philosophical origins of al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden’s path to infamy are fabulous. As interesting as the latter sections on flawed FBI agent John O’Neill are, that part of the book felt overpowered by the brilliance of the al-Qaida section. Still, as everyone says, it’s a total page-turner.

The Q Guide to Broadway, by Seth Rudetsky.
I bought this book to give to a musical-theater-loving British friend who’s coming to New York in the spring. In the end, I had to buy a new copy to give away, because I couldn’t bear to part with it. It’s a small, unpretentious book, and Rudetsky wears his expertise lightly. Not only does he have musical-theater trivia down flat, he really knows music and does a great job of explaining why some songs or musicals work while others don’t. It’s also laugh-out-loud-on-the-subway funny.

What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, by Zoe Heller.
I picked up the novel, which I’d been wanting to read for a while, in anticipation of the movie. I inhaled the book—it’s smart, it’s beautifully observed, and it’s deliciously creepy—but having finally seen a trailer for the movie and read some reviews, I won’t be seeing it, as much as I love Dame Judi and Dame-to-be Cate. The book is a classic example of an unreliable narrator, which I guess you have to clarify when making a movie, but making a predatory friend into a predatory lesbian is not cool.

The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski.
If the beginning of the year was all about theatrical tomes, the last month or two has been dominated by Africa. In January, I’m off to Nigeria, so I’ve been boning up by reading books with such cheery titles as The Open Sore of a Continent, This House Has Fallen, and Where Vultures Feast. Someone recommended Kapuscinski, and all I can say is, “Why haven’t I read him before?” I immediately ordered four other collections—and have loved Shah of Shahs, about Iran. Wonderful writing, and a great translation by Klara Glowczewska.

The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud.
It’s been a while since I read the big novel of the moment and truly enjoyed it. Hideous and yet irresistible characters, a relentless narrative, and lovely observation. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the Slate Audio Book Club discussion of the book yet, but I will, very soon.

The final rundown on my 2006 reading was: 57 books, of which 22 were works of fiction (including four young-adult novels), 28 were nonfiction (including two works of graphic nonfiction), and seven were plays.

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