Monday, January 01, 2007

My best reads of 2006

Best Reads

  • Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • After This, Alice McDermott
  • The Emperor’s Children, Claire Messud
  • The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro

Recommended Reads


  • Muhammad, Karen Armstrong
  • Heat, Bill Buford
  • Infamous Scribblers, Eric Burns
  • My Life In France, Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
  • The Places In Between, Rory Stewart
  • Manhunt, James L. Swanson
  • The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight, Marc Weingarten


  • By A Slow River, Philippe Claudel
  • Echo Park, Michael Connelly
  • The Two Minute Rule, Robert Crais
  • God’s Pocket, Pete Dexter
  • Late Wife, Claudia Emerson
  • Tracks, Louise Erdrich
  • The Whole World Over, Julia Glass
  • The Widow of the South, Robert Hicks
  • The Big Blowdown, George Pelecanos
  • The Night Gardener, George Pelecanos
  • A Summons to Memphis, Peter Taylor
  • Digging to America, Anne Tyler

If you read only one book this year, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin should be the book you read. It demonstrates how non-fiction can – although rarely – be far superior to fiction. It contains the qualities intrinsic to any great book with the ability to inform, to entertain and to inspire.

The book focuses on Lincoln’s efforts to secure the Presidency, his decision to place his rivals to the Republication nomination in his cabinet and his relationship with those men. Salmon Chase never ceased to believe he should be President and pursued the office while serving as Secretary of the Treasury. Lincoln tolerated Chase’s ambition because he was an able administrator. Edward Bates and William Seward served ably as well as loyally. Seward, who had the greatest claim to the office, became Lincoln’s confidant and friend.

The book emphasizes Lincoln’s moral character -- his integrity, his inherent fairness and his freedom from egoism. It is these qualities that set him aside from generations of politicians and assured his immortality. Goodwin also illustrates Lincoln’s political genius – he deftly managed his nomination as Republican candidate for the presidency and balanced the composition of his cabinet throughout his Administration so as to blunt the worst of the political opposition.

And while we do not think of Lincoln as a people person, Goodwin shows he was exactly that. Lincoln built lasting relationships, gained the admiration of most of his Cabinet (Chase excepted) and, from the time he was a child, delighted in entertaining any gathering in which he found himself with well-crafted, humorous yarns. She dispels the image of Lincoln as a gloomy man, given to a continual state of depression. Lincoln felt the magnitude of the war’s horror, but also envisioned “the new nation conceived in liberty” that would arise from the end of slavery.

Well written, impeccably researched, Team of Rivals belongs on every reading short list


It’s difficult to describe The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Unlike most of Munro’s prior works this is not a collection of short stories. Nor it is a memoir, although there are elements of both in this strong and altogether pleasing new book. What is certain is that all of the elements that make Munro such a delightful writer, and reading her such a delightful pastime, are present – her sly understanding of social manners and mores, the strong sense of time and place and the close observation of human behavior, including her own. The View from Castle Rock offers the reader rich, evocative stories that totally immerse the reader in the experience of reading and in the fabric of these lives. It is difficult to proclaim this Munro’s finest work because she has written so much so well for so long. Let us say then that it is a fine book, elegantly written and observed, and a pure reading experience.


Alice McDermott has never been better than in After This, a tale of an Irish Catholic family from Long Island. Under the hands of other novelists this book would have stretched to a thousand pages, but McDermott is especially skillful in what she chooses not to write. McDermott allows the reader to bring his own intelligence, imagination and experience to these pages, yet in leaving some things unsaid she never leaves the reader wondering exactly what has taken place. The story of these lives unfolds with clarity; it is only that McDermott understands that we understand. She recognizes that the reader is a partner in the process; that writing is completed through reading. It’s a masterful book that cements McDermott’s well-earned reputation as one of our generation’s finest novelist.


The Emperor’s Children is Claire Messud’s closely observed novel on the struggle for independence and identity. Messud is a muscular writer who commands a reader’s attention. Her style of writing can quickly lead to confusion for any reader who allows his attention to wander. There can be a great deal of text between the opening and the closing of a dash. Yet this very demand for focus ultimately serves the reader well. It is on the second, or even third, pass that the depth of Messud’s observation is seen most clearly. The Emperor’s Children is a splendid, powerful novel.


Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is spare and unsparing and starkly poetic. The world has ended. All is grayness and cold and ashes. And through this bleak terrain of hopelessness and unrelenting horror walk a man and a boy, suitably nameless. They are journeying south in the wasted hope of something better – warmth, food, a welcome. In the starkness of the narrative, of the dialogue and the plot, McCarthy lays bare the foolishness of hope and the impossible optimism of every post-apocalyptic novel that preceded The Road. Those who have survived do so in the full knowledge that the world is dead and that all life is a loan. And yet. Love not only survives between the father and his son, but is strengthened by their misery and loss, their shared need one for the other. In his weakest moments, the father ponders whether he can take the son’s life in order to save him. He knows that he cannot. In the final pages there is some suggestion that kindness and love have not gone cold, have not entirely vanished from the icy cinder that is man’s heart.

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