My Best Books of 2006

It’s been a fantastic year for fiction in which I feel I’ve read some great classic novels. Here’s a list of my top reads of 2006 (in no particular order) :

Sybille BedfordA Favourite of the Gods. Not many people read Bedford these days, although she was shortlisted for the Booker with her novel, Jigsaw, a decade or so ago. She had a fascinating life, brought up as part of what remained of a cultured, European aristocracy in the first half of the twentieth century, and she writes a tantalising kind of autobiographical fiction. This novel follows the fortunes of three generations of women for whom love, marriage and chance takes them to the Italian and French Riviera, where they become caught up in the politics of their day. I just adore this kind of book – the best form of social history, as lived through vibrant, engaging characters.

Jonathon Coe –The Closed Circle. This is actually a sequel to The Rotter’s Club, which followed the fortunes of a group of school friends from a mildly prestigious school through the 70s, the decade that style forgot. In The Closed Circle we meet up with them all again, but this time over the course of the 90s, a decade that had pretentions to ethics, but which championed the cult of the individual in the most excessive and alarming ways. Lots of politics again, lots of intrigue, and brilliant writing. This man can describe the actuality of history with such insight and panache, it’s stunning.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby. You don’t need a summary of this novel, do you? Many classic novels provide reliably good reading, but only a few retain their ability to overwhelm the reader. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose made my heart ache, and the plot was a real shocker.

Jane Smiley – A Thousand Acres. The American classics challenge I undertook over the summer was a source of some cracking novels, this Pulitzer Prize winner from Smiley among them. A tangled family drama, played out between farming families in the midwest tackled the ugly theme of child abuse with extraordinary grace, the echoes of King Lear adding an unexpected but poignant dimension.

Richard Russo – Straight Man. I think I’ve now bought this book for two people and recommended it to many others. Another superb read from the American classics, this one is set in the most dysfunctional university English department I’ve have ever had the joy to read about. Worth reading for its witty one-liners alone, it’s still a touching tale of father-son relations, mid-life crises, and the possibility of finding your real self, despite teaching for a profession.

Tobias Wolff – Old School. An entirely different take on intellectual snobbery from another master stylist. The setting here is a boys’ public school with an annual writing competition. When it transpires that the winner will have an audience with the great Hemingway himself, rules, morals and friendships crumble under the strain of intense competition. What I particularly loved about this book is the ongoing exploration of what it is to be a writer. I’ve rarely come across it so tenderly and accurately described.

A. N. Wilson – A Jealous Ghost. A cunning rewrite of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, transposed to modern day, up to date in its psychological depiction and using literary theory with the most creativity I’ve seen since Julian Barnes published Flaubert’s Parrot. I began this novel with great scepticism; I didn’t think The Turn of the Screw could be successfully re-written in this way, and I ended it having to run through a roadside check list of my own mental functions to make sure the madness of the story hadn’t contaminated me. The essence of Hitchcock, transferred to the written word.

Tom Wolfe – I Am Charlotte Simmons. A great big aggressive beast of a novel; disturbing, revolting, and completely gripping. Wolfe eschews all nice reassuring philosophies of humanity as fundamentally good and presents us instead with human bestiality running rampant in what is supposed to be one of the great intellectual institutions in the USA. Probably the most provocative, and ideas-rich novel I read this year, but not for the faint-hearted.

William Boyd – Restless. A deceptively simple spy story that manages, in its twists and turns, to incorporate any number of levels of meaning into its ostensibly straightforward history of the work of the secret services in misinformation mongering during WWII. An intriguing portrait of a mother and a daughter, a fascinating revelation of what spies really do, and a brilliantly drawn representation of troubled political times.

Mary McCarthy – The Group. It’s a special treat when books you’ve heard about, and searched for fruitlessly, and finally found, turn out to be every bit as good as you’d hoped they might. A shocker from the 60s, this novel follows the fortunes of a group of Vassar friends in the years leading up to WWII as they struggle with the early years of marriage, motherhood, and careers. An intricate and intimate portrait of women’s social history, written with a pithy, witty elegance. I didn’t want it to end.

Those are my top novels of the year. I should also make a brief mention of my best non-fiction title, which has to be David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, the funniest collection of essays ever to be compulsively read aloud in annoying fragments to those who happen to be sitting nearby. I’ve also read a lot of French novels, a few of which I find are available in English translation and therefore worth a mention. You may remember my love affair with Michel Tournier’s Three Kings (Gaspard, Melchior & Balthazar), the rewriting of the nativity that justifiably placed him at the head of French writers in the 1980s, and I also loved the more recent My Phantom Husband (Naissance des fantomes), the uncanny tale of a woman trying to come to terms with her husband’s unexplained disappearance. I also really enjoyed Jean-Christophe Rufin’s dystopia novel, Globalia, which has been translated into Spanish, oddly enough, but not yet into English.

What a great year it’s been! And great credit must go to all my blogging friends whose recommendations have ended up as many of the books on this list. Later on in the week I’ll be summing up the year’s blogging and looking ahead to the books I’ll be reading in 2007.

23 thoughts on “My Best Books of 2006

  1. i love love love when you do posts like this – I always print them out to return to for library and book-buying trips. Wonderful summaries. I’m especially looking forward to reading The Group, Restless and I Am Charlotte Simmons. I wonder if the Wolfe book would count as a classic for my 13 in 2007?

  2. I really will have to pick up the Sedaris one of these days. Everyone and anyone has mentioned that book, of course, but what I was waiting on was for you to recommend it litlove. :p

    I have never read The Great Gatsby. I have a vague idea about what it’s about–upper class folks and a green light at the end over some river…right? I will add it to my 2007 list.

  3. Hello Courtney! I shall have to do more posts like this if they please you. I’m sure you can count Wolfe as a classic – The Bonfire of the Vanities is designated as such already, so it can only be a matter of time before Charlotte Simmonds is too. Sharon – I’d be so interested to know what you think of the Boyd, when you get there. Imani – Sedaris is everything everyone says he is -and flattery WILL get you everywhere. It’s a proven fact. Oh and my husband says that on his terms, you know enough about Gatsby not to actually need to read it 😉

  4. A great list! Restless was under the tree for me this year, and I’m thrilled to hear you liked it. It’s fun ending up the year, isn’t it? The last few posts of 2006 are a genre all their own. I’m looking forward to hearing how the year in blogging went for you and what’s up for next year. xo, BL

  5. Thank you for the list! I completely agree with your assessment of those I’ve read (McCarthy, Russo, Fitzgerald) and you make me want to read the ones I’ve haven’t, especially the Wilson and the Wolff. I look forward to your summing up and looking forward posts!

  6. I hadn’t thought of summing up the year like this. I must go back through my diaries and see what my list would be. I loved ‘A Thousand Acres’. I read it when it first came out and have always been meaning to go back and read more Smiley. I’ve got ‘Horse Heaven’ on the shelves, I must move it up the TBR pile.

  7. Thank you for sharing your list. I do so enjoy when people post their favorite reads of the year. Undoubtedly I add some books to my ever growing list. I look forward to hearing what your read goals for 2007 will be.

  8. Thanks to you, I’m putting the Americans (Russo, Smiley, McCarthy) on my list of Books To Be Found in 2007. Glad you liked Charlotte Simmons and Restless, the latter especially was a big favourite for me this year.

  9. I’m not surprised that this is a great list. I’m happy to see that some of my favorite Yanks made the cut! I, too, love that Russo; for more on dysfunctional universities, you’ll have to check out Smiley’s Moo. I laughed all the way thorugh it, but it was sad, knowing laughter.

  10. Ooh, two of these I got for Christmas: Old School and I Am Charlotte Simmons (both highly recommended by my brother as well as by you). And you reminded me I was planning on re-reading The Great Gatsby after I read your post on that, and then never did. You’ve also made me want to re-read The Group. Maybe in 2007, although I’ve got plenty of other classics to read this year. So glad my recommendation of Sedaris turned out to be a good one for you. Now, you just have, have, have to read David Rakoff in 2007 (and annoy more people with reading snippets out loud, as I did all throughout our Thanksgiving holiday)! Meanwhile, all your others will be added to the shelves I’ve been telling Dorr I need to build just to house my TBR list, and soon I’ll be posting soon on my fav reads of the second half of 2006, since I already did the first half last summer (you already know one. Rakoff).

  11. I read Straight Man this year and found it hysterically funny, much more amusing than Russo’s other books (Empire falls, Nobody’s fool). Was a little disappointed in Coe’s The Closed Circle, only because I loved The Rotter’s Club so much and hated what he did to some of the characters. If you haven’t already read it, Coe’s What a carve up! is a fantastic read. I like the sound of the Bedford book. I wonder if she’s at all similar to Nancy Mitford?

  12. Hello all – sorry for joining in rather late on this discussion. A great big thank you to you for your recommendations (much appreciated). I’m looking forward to catching up tomorrow with everyone’s end of year posts and finally posting my own. Emily -I shall most undoubtedly be looking for the Rakoff, and thank you for your kind offer, which I will take you up on if I can’t find it. And lazy cow, Bedford is sort of similar to Mitford, only with more cosmopolitan style; her heroines wouldn’t get into the messes that Miford women do, but there are definite similarities in period flavour.

  13. Thanks sooo much, Litlove, for recommending French books too!
    I am in the middle of Charlotte Simmons, and I should have read your recommendation beforehand (not for the faint-hearted): I’m not sure if my stomach can handle holidays feast and Charlotte Simmons at the same time!
    I loved Smiley’s 1000 acres, but was disappointed by her other books… maybe I should turn to King Lear instead.

  14. Pauline – it’s wonderful to find people with whom I can share my French novel finds! And I know what you mean about Charlotte Simmons – certainly not the accompaniment to rich food….

  15. What a great list! I have several of these books on my TBR pile. Now to get to them….I have four books by Bedford! It seems to me there was also just published recently a biography that looked good. She is one of those authors I keep meaning to read, but I just never seem to pick up! After this recommendation I will be moving her up the pile! Thanks!

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