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My Favorite Books of 2005

I can already tell you what two of my favorite books of 2006 are going to be: The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (exquisite!) and The Accidental by Ali Smith (diabolical!). I can also tell you that I’m really looking forward to reading The People’s Act of Love by James Meek. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Here you will find my favorite books of the year just passed. I’m not saying these are the best books published in 2005, as I don’t believe that I’ve read all the best books of 2005—I have yet to read The Year of Magical Thinking, for example. And I’m not saying I’m qualified to judge the best: These are just the books I liked the most.

I’ll Go to Bed at NoonI’ll Go to Bed at Noon by Gerard Woodward

This Booker finalist is a story about a family of drunks. To call them “alcoholic” is a bit too genteel, a bit too clinical. The Jones family are prodigious in their consumption. They are roaring drunks. They are fall-down drunks. They are a spectacular wreck. Needless to say, this is a sad story, but it’s also quite funny and the quality of craft Woodward brings to this heartbreaking project is, itself, a kind of hopefulness. One reviewer has complained that Woodward ignored the reader’s expectations of redemption for his characters, but not every reader expects novels to be self-help manuals in narrative form—indeed, this reader is most grateful when they are not. Woodward did not consign his characters to their pitiful fates—they did that to themselves—and we shouldn’t ask an author to play the role of social worker. Woodward did for his characters what a writer can do; that is, he told their stories.

Beyond BlackBeyond Black by Hilary Mantel

In her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, Mantel explains that, once, when she was little, she saw the devil in her back yard. I think that all her novels are, in one way or another, a reaction to or a reflection on this event. In the very excellent review of Beyond Black she wrote for The New Yorker, Joan Aocella described Hilary Mantel’s work as “eschatology crossed with comedy”. That about sums it up, I think. Many of her books—Every Day Is Mother’s Day, Vacant Possession, Fludd, even her memoir—take place in the same fictional universe, and it’s a universe in which the truly terrible coexists with the truly hilarious. Mantel believes in evil, but this doesn’t make her a Puritan or a scold; rather, it makes her sense of the absurd seem like a kind of existential wisdom, and it imbues her work with an almost saintly sympathy. Everything I’ve just written is even more true in her latest novel. Beyond Black is oozing with malevolent spirits and demonic trauma, and, from this witch’s brew, Mantel conjures a story that is not just alarming, but also very funny and even—ultimately—strangely uplifting. Reading this book was a singular pleasure.

 Harry Potter and the Half-Blood PrinceHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

Having been profoundly disappointed by the last book in the series, I was planning to give this one a miss. Then I read la Kakutani’s very favorable review, and that persuaded me to give the young wizard another try. I’m glad it did. Suspenseful, expertly paced, and emotionally compelling, this is a great story, and the escalating sense of danger and despair in Harry’s world is an eerie echo of the ever-growing darkness in our own.

The Coast of AkronThe Coast of Akron by Adrienne Miller

This novel is quite mad, and unlike anything I have ever read. Its weird power is fueled, I think, by its internal tensions. This story is comic and tragic, but not tragicomic—both the funny bits and the pathos are real and distinct and not at all ironic. It’s screwball and bitchy, campy and Gothic, excessive and honest, but—again—these elements do not mitigate each other. Although it’s quite playful and often hilarious, this is a profoundly anxious novel. Each narrator, each character, offers a significantly different interpretation of events, and the result is disturbing. By the end, this disharmonious chorus of voices creates an uncanny sense that nothing—even, or especially, our own memories—is at it seems, and that nothing—even our own selves—is real. I wrote a more complete review awhile ago, and you can read it here.

The Minister’s DaughterThe Minister’s Daughter by Julie Hearn

The Anglo-American witch craze of the 17th century is hardly a fresh fictional setting, but Hearn’s take on this well-trod subject is honestly original, and her debut novel is cleverly crafted and quite engaging. She creates vivid characters from a few telling details, and she moves her suspenseful story along at a brisk clip. She mixes elements of fantasy and historical fiction, but she writes with a playfulness that is not typical for either. While she clearly wants to show how the witch trials preyed on weak outsiders—mostly women—her primary aim is not didactic. Hearn clearly wants to tell a good story, and she does.

Magic for BeginnersMagic for Beginners by Kelly Link

Some of you may recall a generally unfavorable mention of this book in an earlier post. It reappears on this list not because I’ve changed my mind, but because one of the stories is so good that it makes me glad I picked up this collection. “Stone Animals” is an impeccable and bewitching piece of short fiction. Link has a tendency to turn the weird into the precious, but she restrains herself here. “Stone Animals” is about a family who moves from the city to a big old house in the country, and they soon find themselves haunted. It’s not just the house that is haunted, but everything in it—pieces of furniture, bars of soap, individual body parts. As a narrative exploration of the uncanny, it’s a tour de force, and the ending is an outrageous surprise, eerily beautiful and truly chilling.

Oh Pure and Radiant HeartOh Pure and Radiant Heart by Lydia Millet

This is my favorite book of 2005. It’s the story of a modern-day librarian and three physicists moved by mysterious means from their own time to ours. It’s a historical novel, in that Millet uses real figures—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi (who will break your heart)—as characters, but it’s not a historical novel because it takes place in a contemporary setting. It’s also science fiction, but Millet wisely and graciously spares us an explanation of the mechanism by which these scientists travel through time. It’s mesmerizing and gorgeous and tragic—everything changes, but everything stays terribly and reassuring the same—and it is, certainly, unlike anything else you have ever read. Not too long ago, Millet graciously agreed to a wee interview with me, and you can find it here.

January 9, 2006 | Permalink


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