Best Books, 2006-07
My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk)
My top pick on the year is this novel by 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. This work invites comparison to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in that it's a murder mystery tied up with tension between change and tradition in a specific time and place, in this case the miniaturists' workshop at the Ottoman court in the 1590's. However, whereas Eco put a lot of his themes into dense philosophical monologues, Pamuk couches them in simple language and weaves them into the plot in digestable doses. A love story adds to the excitement, and Pamuk's evocations of the city of Istanbul left me wishing I were reading it in a Beyoglu cafe.
Soul Mountain (Gao Xingjian)
This book, on the other hand, is extremely complicated. There are four main personalities - I, You, He, and She - but we are led to believe each is really a projection of the narrator as he explores different facets of life, and hence of the self. This exploration takes place during a voyage through remote regions of China, where the history is not the official, main stream of Chinese history, and where culture and the environment have suffered at the hands of the Maoist regime. Insofar as there is an over-arching framework, it is the quest for meaning and order in a world where even the order of the self is unnatural.
The Beautiful and Damned (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
One of Fitzgerald's main literary interests is the corrosive effects of wealth on human relationships, and money is definitely a source of tension in the lives of Anthony and Gloria Patch, two do-nothing socialites waiting to inherit Anthony's grandfather's fortune. On another level, however, the novel can be read as a well-drawn portrait of one particular marriage and the factors which undermine it, of which greed and vanity is only one. The main rap against it is that the characters are unlikeable, though I at least found some thread to care about in that I felt sorry for Gloria being stuck the with definitely more horrible Anthony. This was clearly a step up from Fitzgerald's first novel, This Side of Paradise, and foretold the great things to come.
A Farewell to Arms (Ernest Hemingway)
This is a novel of lost idealism, as Frederick Henry, who volunteered to be an ambulance driver in World War I, is driven by the senselessness of the conflict to desert so as to be with a nurse he met when recuperating from an injury. I've actually forgotten a lot of this book since reading it, but what stays with me is the hard-boiled writing style and various scenes from the war in which Hemingway himself drove an ambulance and which were among his fortes as a writer. The ending is almost gratuitously depressing.
Brainiac (Ken Jennings)
This probably isn't literary fiction strictly speaking, but a lot of what I've read this year was pretty uninspiring, so I'm wedging it in here with this as a justification. I mean, that deck scene was truly Shakespearian! Seriously, though, since I participated in the high school and college quiz bowl circuits he includes, write and edit for NAQT, and know some of the people he talks about in those parts of the book, this would have been a fun read even if it weren't for the interesting portrayals of the different forms triviaphilia takes around the country and the historical look at its rise. Whether you're interested in trivia yourself or are on the lookout for interesting aspects of americana, this book is for you.
Farewell, My Lovely (Raymond Chandler)
The best "popcorn books" I read all year were Raymond Chandler's novels last summer, though I'm not entirely sure what to say about them. This one was my favorite, as the plot held up fairly well and the intensity and suspense stayed at the right level, with a nod to social criticism of the way people then and now see crimes differently based on the race of those involved. What kept me going, though, was the seedy atmosphere made interesting through Philip Marlowe's hard-boiled personality. If you like either the genre or the era, give this a read.
American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power (John Kenneth Galbraith)
Back in January, I took a day or two off from my dissertation to read this book, one of the foundational texts for contemporary American liberals. In it, Galbraith argues convincingly that the models of classical economics are unsuitable for the American economic system, with its large corporations held in check by what he calls "countervailing power," seen in such things as organized labor and public pressure for government regulation. Galbraith writes very well, and some of what he says is prophetic toward our own times, though I don't recall what came from this and what from The Affluent Society, which I didn't like quite as much. I recommend this book for anyone who wants to be informed at the level of ideology, and not just specific issues.