Looking back on books in 2006

I usually wait until December 31 to put this up but figured since I’ve already chimed in for Blogcritics and am working on my NBCC vote, I’d put up my summary of this year’s books now. This year is tougher than last for selecting the “best book.” While it’s not meant as a slam on this year’s books, there wasn’t one that really grabbed and held me as much as my selection last year. As a result, I think any of the nonfiction works below could be my “book of the year,” depending on what day you ask me. And rather than go into detail, what follows is simply a brief description of each selection, listed alphabetically by author, and a link to my review of the book.

The Best:

Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris — Harris writes a concise and honest epistle that desperately needed to be written. Sadly, it will not be read — or if it is will not be grasped — by those who most need it. I was so impressed I bought two extra copies to give away.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy — McCarthy uses a post-apocalyptic setting to explore love and family in a frightening world where life is dedicated to trying to survive. McCarthy’s language and style are as stark as the world he creates.

The Shark God, Charles Montgomery — Humorous, insightful and educational are just three of the words that describe this Canadian writer’s trek through Melanesia. Although purportedly following his missionary great-grandfather’s travels there in the 19th century, this book is really about Montgomery’s own search for God, gods and magic.

The Places In Between, Rory Stewart — Stewart’s recounting of his walk across Afghanistan just months after the Taliban were ousted truly takes us inside a country that has been amongst those at the center of the world stage and about which so many know so little.

Most Disappointing:

Terrorist, John Updike — Updike’s attempt to explore American-born Islamic terrorism failed in as many ways as McCarthy’s work succeeded.

Best “Reissue” That Remains Too Relevant Today:

The Question, Henri Alleg — It is a shame Alleg’s tale of his imprisonment and torture during the Algerian War, republished this year by the University of Nebraska Press, brings to mind modern America and its actions in the so-called war on terror.

Best SF Novel:

Glasshouse, Charles Stross — This isn’t fair for a couple reasons. First, don’t let anybody fool you — The Road is a science fiction novel. Second, I am one who always complains about SF being treated like a castoff from the rest of literature. Regardless, I’m using this category this year, in part to recognize that Stross once again showed his strengths as a writer in taking a different approach than he has in the past to exploring the Singularity.

Most Pleasant Surprises:

Crazy, Pete Earley — Journalist Earley’s tale of the criminal justice system and jails becoming today’s mental health system and mental institutions is all the more compelling because we actually meet the people caught in this trap, including Earley’s own son.

Londonstani, Gautam Malkani — Considering this is a first novel and is written almost entirely in a patois of English, Punjabi and urban slang, Malkani manages to pull off this tale of South Asians growing up in London.

Books I Should Have Read When They First Came Out In Hardcover:

Cry from the Deep, Ramsey Flynn — Originally released in 2004 and then in paperback in 2005, Flynn’s account of the August 2002 sinking of the Russian submarine Kursk and the ensuing rescue and salvage operations takes us inside both personal and institutional tragedy.

Old Man’s War, John Scalzi — This Hugo-nominated SF novel would rank right up there for Best SF Novel of the Year but for the fact it was released both in hardback and paperback in 2005. That technicality aside, the book, which uses military-SF as its vehicle, sucked me in and held me from the first sentence.

[T]he failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and strengthens our most fatal tendency — the belief that the here and now is all there is.

Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind

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