Thursday, November 23, 2006

Seth's Notable List 2006

At the bookstore ( if you're interested) where I spend 80% of my waking days, people always ask for more book recommendations - some even flatter me for some reason and say that I should "really write more", etc. Hence, this website - where I am free to voice my unfiltered opinions on the books I read to whoever wants to read them. Since the New York Times just announced their 2006 Notable List, here are several from the last year that impressed me the most. If there were _ number of books that you HAD to read from this past year or so, these are they - in no particular order, of course.
***Breaking news in Seth's world: my recommendation for Robert Wilson's latest book, The Hidden Assassins was selected as a Booksense Notable Pick for December 2006. Check me out.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
No surprise to anyone who has listened to me talk for more than 5 minutes on the floor at Warwick's. Mitchell has just barely edged out Lethem as my favorite author. For the moment. Sorry Jonathan.

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
An extraordinary novel of modern Cairo (almost a 21st century retelling of Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy) that offers a fascinating glimpse for Western eyes into the world of a modern Arab society. Considered scandalous in Egypt, where it has rested atop the Arabic bestseller lists for over 2 years, it encompasses all aspects of Egypt’s complex society – a melting pot of the traditional Islamic world & that of the modern, sexually frank & Western-influenced Egypt – all struggling to find a balance with faith and modernity. A fascinating book.

The Zero by Jess Walter
The least pretentious 9/11 novel I have yet to see - if it wasn't set in the aftermath, I never would even venture to label it as such. After the events of The Day, NYPD officer Brian Remy's life & memories have been shattered like mirror glass, casting him into a memory-less netherworld of acquaintances he cannot remember and events that he cannot find any familiarity to. As he struggles with enormous, insurmountable gaps in his short-term memory, he slowly begins to realize that he truly is not the same person that he was before 9/11, and has become something altogether sinister and devious in his apparent absence. I think this should have been the National Book Award winner this year (it was a finalist) instead of Richard Powers' The Echo Maker, which I just couldn't get into on the first go-round.

The Road by Cormac Mcarthy
I have had a hard time writing any kind of recommendation for this book, simply because I don't think that I could do it justice by blurbing it. I was flat out floored by this novel. Shoved to the ground and stomped by this novel. Punched in the stomach by this novel. And I loved every second of it. (Well, as much as you can really love post-apocalyptic baby-eaters.) Really just the most powerful piece of fiction writing I have read in my life - it resonated on a personal level, for me, (the father/son line) as well as a much broader, look-at-what-we-have-become sort of level. If you can get past the pretty overt Christian undertones, you need to read this. It should be required reading for everyone in America.

The One From the Other by Philip Kerr
Nowhere near as serious a novel as these others - I read A LOT of literary, crime noir "mysteries" (not who-dun-it type mysteries, so I hate that genre label. I think "Noir" is more apropos.) This is an unanticipated fourth novel to Kerr's brilliant Berlin Noir trilogy, which I loved and recommend all the time. This is the best book Kerr has written, at least of the noir novels that I have read of his. Set in post-WWII Germany, it follows struggles of Bernhard Gunther, private investigator. I know, I know, come on, a private investigator? Like Magnum PI or the Rockford Files? Bernie's more like a German Philip Marlowe - dames, drinks, crimes. Again, the key here is "noir". Very dark, shadowy, mysterious. Great fun.

Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Honestly, in recent years, Auster has been pretty hit-or-miss with me. I was sadly disappointed with the way he failed to wrap up the beautiful narrative filaments from his last novel, Oracle Night. But for this one, I feel he has returned to form with a magnificent tale of mid-life crises, mortality, & redemption. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Auster brings us the story of Nathan Glass, a retired insurance salesman, recently divorced, estranged from his daughter, recovering from cancer, and ready to wither and die slowly in his hometown of Brooklyn. Ah, but don’t forget the ensuing redemption! Hilariously funny, powerfully moving – this novel was the first in long while that I could not shake afterwards. I dreamed of it the night that I finished.

The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens
Fergus is the Irish everyman - set adrift in the wake of the 1847 Famine, without family or friend - he makes his way in the world through his quixotic pursuit of life anew in England & ultimately, America. Written in a style that is wholly Irish - lyrical, sparse, emotional - Fergus's tale is one of survival, love, and persistence - reminiscent of Frank McCourt or Leon Uris's Trinity. A beautiful first novel.

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
How many people do you store in your conscious? 1000? 10,000? 1,000,000? Suspend your disbelief and discard all preconceptions of a denominational, religious “afterlife” for this one – you soon find yourself given over to the truth: you stay in the next world (the “city”) only as long as there is someone in this world with a firsthand memory of you. Your own questions pile up: Would I remain in the city for 100 years? Or would my time be fleeting because no one would remember me? What if a worldwide pandemic wiped out everyone except one woman in Antarctica? Does she remember me? Brilliant!

Pegasus Descending by James Lee Burke
Have you not read JLB?? Unfortunately, his publishers prefer to package his books like throwaway James Patterson novels, but they are stunning in their evocation of southern Louisiana. His writing was at least somewhat responsible for my moving to New Orleans in 2001. (Seriously, ask my mom.) The book: for whatever reason, detective Dave Robicheaux cannot seem to shake the demons of his past. He’s created a stable, sober life for himself with a loving wife & daughter, a solid job, and yet past mistakes continue to rear up and punch his lights out. Continually thwarted by unsavory good ol’ boys with Louisiana names like Whitey Bruxal and Bello Lujan, Dave struggles to find out how the petty crimes of the daughter of a long dead friend are related to the brutal death of a young college student. Writing so vivid you can smell the evening salt marsh and hear the wind through the pecan trees and the summer rain on the tin rooftops.

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon
Chabon is in constant rotation with Mitchell, Lethem, and Michael Malone as my favorite auteur. This one was just enough to tide me over until his next full length book arrives.

The Futurist by James P. Othmer
Yates is a professional futurist – world famous for telling CEOs & governments what they want to hear about their economic & social futures. Until he realizes that he’s more of a nihilist than an optimist. Following his potentially career ending flameout speech, Yates is hired by mysterious government agents to travel the world & find out why everyone hates Americans. Except he really doesn’t feel like doing that either. A very funny satire on the current state of American society, why we don’t recognize why the world despises us, and one man’s unlikely quest to figure out who he really is.

The Planets by Dava Sobel
(Yes, I occasionally read nonfiction) Did you know: Due to the immense pressure in Jupiter’s atmosphere, Hydrogen gas is reduced to a nearly impossible “metallic liquid” phase? That Pluto & its moon, Charon, operate in a symbiotic, “binary planet” existence? That the Moon formed as is only because it was just out of reach of Earth’s tidal forces, keeping it from forming as a ring? All this knowledge and more can be yours! Sobel spins a brilliant web of exploration of our solar system – weaving fascinating scientific facts with history & philosophy, forming a remarkable, cohesive, spinning gas-giant of a book.

This Book Will Save Your Life by A.M Homes
I'm not sure that it will literally save your life, but... I really liked it. Filled with fantastic imagery – a horse stuck in a sinkhole, a woman in red swimming in an azure pool, a ferris wheel tumbling into the sea – and a wealth of memorable, bizarre characters. It also had the best jacket blurb EVER: "If Oprah went insane, this would be her favorite book." - John Waters

Of course, if you wanted to actually buy any of these books, for godsakes go to your local INDEPENDENT bookstore! Don't shop the chains or Amazon - these places are rapidly putting small chain stores out of business. Go ask someone at Costco if they've read the David Mitchell book and you'll see what your world would be like if independent stores disappeared. For your local independent, check out or if you're in San Diego, just go to Warwick's in La Jolla and we'll talk.

1 comment:

  1. NYTBR be damned. I made Seth's Notable List! Thanks for including The Futurist in such impressive company. Cheers, JPO