Thursday, January 18, 2007

2006 - Best Books of the Year

The Saddlebag, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani.
Inter-linked stories of a caravan beset by sandstorm and vicious bandits, 263 pages. Each new voice reveal a crossroads of cultures and religions and approaches to God in one day of travelling between 19th century Mecca and Medina. These stories are as if they have always been there. I keep thinking about them.

An Area of Darkness, V.S. Naipaul.
Autobiography, 304 pages. Born and raised in Trinidad, Naipaul seeks his ancestral India. The writing is beautiful, his failures to find his way home revealed unflinchingly. He is not fair, but his words throb with conviction.

From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet, Vikram Seth.
Autobiography, 192 pages. Seth makes his way home to India from China, hitch-hiking with hard-bitten Chinese truckers, travelling into and through the not-yet-known with a ready heart, an observant eye and the elegant ease of a poet’s voice.

A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India, Norman Lewis.
Travel in tribal, caste-free India by an aging Englishman, 336 pages. How much is what he wishes were so? how much is true? The tribal women he describes are ruggedly independent and joyously alive.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie.
Allegorical novel of India's independence from Britain, 506 pages. Playful, passionate pyrotechnics—the words matter more than the characters who are only masks, after all, for the author’s multivalent voice,but the history and reality behind it all matters even more — reminiscent of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, another great allegory of a young nation’s soul.

1491: New Revelations on the Americas before Columbus, Charles C. Mann.
History/ Archaeology, 560 pages. Evidence for much vaster, more complex and advanced cultures than we are often taught in school existed on the American continents before Columbus. Scholarly respect for evidence, offered in a lucid, fast-paced writing style.

Mysteries of the Alphabet: the Origins of Writing, Marc-Alain Ouaknin, translated from the French by Josephine Bacon.
History and interpretation of the pictorial symbols we use as our alphabet so blithely and unaware, 384 pages. Light-heartedly wacky towards the end but enjoyable throughout and a true pleasure to look at and to hold in the hand. Includes drawings and large fonts.

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram.
Philosophy / Alphabet/ Cultural critique, 352 pages. Says an Amazon review: “Abram's writing casts a spell of its own as he weaves the reader through a meticulously researched work that gently addresses such seemingly daunting topics as where the past and future exist, the relationship between space and time, and how the written word serves to sever humans from their primordial source of sustenance: the earth.” And I couldn't say better.

Not Your Mother’s Slow-cooker Cookbook, Beth Hensperger and Julie Kaufmann.
Obviously, 520 pages. An emphasis on fresh food made as much as possible from scratch. Great for the (too) many afternoons I have chauffeur duty almost up until dinnertime. Good results so far.

Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization, Ian Wilson.
Archaeology, 352 pages. Evidence in the Black Sea of a major flood around 5600 B.C. as a result of melting Ice Age glaciers and rising sea levels in the Mediterranean. Posits an earlier Black Sea (Catal Huyk) culture whose traces can be found in later civilizations. Very readable and from all accounts responsible with the evidence, though plenty of engaging speculation.

The Knox Brothers, Penelope Fitzgerald.
Biography of Fitzgerald’s father and three uncles—all accomplished and prominent men of letters, 304 pages.  Written with all the understated, vibrant virtues of her exquisite novels. Affectionate, intelligent, principled and honest family—I enjoyed every moment in their company.

Angelina’s Children, Alice Ferney, translated from the French by Emily Read.
Novel, 275 pages. A friendship grows between the matriarch of a gypsy clan and a young librarian who comes to entice the children into reading. A living book.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell: A Novel, Susanna Clarke.
Fantasy novel set in 18th century England, 800 pages. The world of this book is as if Jane Austen had wandered out on the Brontes’ moor and gotten lost in a parallel England where magic is as real as tea. Fun, light reading.

Thanksgiving 101, Rick Rodgers.
Cookbook, 165 pages. Reliably good, mostly traditional recipes (not lo-cal)—the lemon ginger cranberry chutney is mahvelous.

The Taste of the Season: Inspired Recipes for Fall and Winter, Diane Rossen Worthington.
Cookbook, 179 pages. The apple-pear-dried cherry crisp is beyond wonderful. Braised spinach with leeks and roasted garlic and Autumn salad with persimmons and pomegranates opened my eyes to new possibilities for everyday deliciousness. I’m eager to try more.

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