Salon Book Awards

Our five-day book extravaganza kicks off with Erica Jong, Malcolm Gladwell, Curtis Sittenfeld and some of our other favorite authors weighing in on the best reads of 2006.

By Laura Miller - Hillary Frey
Published December 11, 2006 1:00PM (EST)

For most of Salon's existence, we've come to you in December bearing a list of our favorite fiction and nonfiction books of the year. We'll do that this year, too, but this time around things are going to be a little different. Instead of one big day devoted to celebrating our favorite titles, there will be five. That's right, a whole week of books, starting today.

Why? Well, it's clear that you love to read about books. Some of the most popular Salon stories of 2006 have been reviews of new books (see Andrew O'Hehir's examination of Nora Vincent's gender-bending memoir "Self-Made Man" and Laura Miller's take on Laura Kipnis' provocative tract "The Female Thing") or interviews with authors (see Steve Paulson's conversations with Richard Dawkins and Karen Armstrong). Douglas Wolk's monthly column on graphic novels always draws a crowd (especially his piece on Alan Moore's racy "Lost Girls"), and the Literary Guide to the World has brought book lovers from all over the globe to Salon.

To kick things off, we've asked a selection of Salon's favorite writers to tell us about their favorite books of the year. Contributors include Booker-prize winner John Banville, best-selling New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, "In Her Shoes" author Jennifer Weiner and feminist icon Erica Jong. Tuesday, we'll reveal our favorite fiction and nonfiction debuts of the year. Wednesday will bring a list of our top five fiction books; Thursday our five favorite nonfiction titles. Along the way, we'll also offer interviews with the authors of our chosen winners as well as excerpts to help you better select your end-of-the-year reading. And on Friday, we'll publish your picks for 2006; just e-mail us, by Wednesday, a few sentences about the best book you read this year at

So, welcome to the Salon Book Awards. And happy reading!

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Steve Almond, author of "Candyfreak"

I reviewed a lot of books this past year and the best (by far) was Peter Orner's "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo." The novel documents the restless daily routines of the staff at a primary school in a forgotten corner of Namibia, but it is properly understood as a series of meditations -- brief, lyric chapters that celebrate the small moments in which life resides. It is a book unlike any I have ever read, a miraculous feat of empathy that manages to unearth -- in the unlikeliest of locales -- the infinite possibilities of the human heart. If it were up to me, Orner would have won both the Pulitzer and the National Book Award. The novel is that astonishing. At the very least, he has joined the first rank of American writers.

Jonathan Ames, author of "I Love You More Than You Know"

My two favorite books written in this calendar year are Stephen Elliott's "My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up" and Philip Kerr's "The One From the Other." Elliott's collection of short stories is the rawest, most exciting depiction of beautifully perverse human sexuality that I have come across since I first read, 20 years ago, "The Queen Is Dead" chapter in Hubert Selby's "Last Exit to Brooklyn." Elliott has incredible balls to write such a book, though in his case his balls must have been pinched and tormented by vicious clamps, which probably would help any writer, come to think of it.

Kerr's book is his spectacular follow-up to his extraordinarily brilliant "Berlin Noir" trilogy. Kerr is the only bona fide heir to Raymond Chandler that I have ever come across; his German private detective Bernie Gunther would have been respected by Philip Marlowe and the two of them would have enjoyed sitting down at a bar and talking. One of the things that is so amazing about Kerr's four Bernie Gunther novels, to me, is that while the books are ostensibly hard-boiled mysteries, they gave me a glimpse into the incomprehensible horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust in much the same way D.M. Thomas' "The White Hotel" and Spiegelman's "Maus" once did. For me they are all works of art that for a moment enabled me to grasp the unimaginable, before my mind clouded over and returned to the safety of the quotidian.

Stephen Amidon, author of "Human Capital"

Although I'm not entirely convinced that George Pelecanos' moody thriller "The Night Gardener" was the best book I read all year, he certainly is by far the best author I discovered in 2006. A lot of writers talk the talk about transcending genre fiction -- Pelecanos walks the walk. Whether writing about the past or the present day, his crime stories manage to evoke the mean streets of Washington, D.C., with a perfect blend of humor, excitement and humanity. Start with his unforgettable "Hard Revolution," which introduces his private investigator Derek Strange during the 1968 riots, and then sit back and enjoy the ride.

Shalom Auslander, author of "Beware of God"

I'm no fan of gods, religious or otherwise, and while it's true that Spinoza had a god, it was Reason, and that's a hell of a lot better than most. Reason never told anyone to suicide bomb a pizzeria or firebomb an abortion clinic; nobody stands outside AIDS clinics holding up placards that read "Reason Hates Fags." In "Betraying Spinoza," Rebecca Goldstein pulls off the neat trick of both imagining the tremendous personal toll Spinoza paid for the crime of thinking for himself, while inspiring the reader to nevertheless do the same.

John Banville, author of 'The Sea"

I'm becoming a little embarrassed at my enthusiasm for Richard Ford's novel "The Lay of the Land," but it does seem to me the finest piece of fiction out of America in a long time. Its two predecessors in the Frank Bascombe trilogy, "The Sportswriter" and "Independence Day," are marvelous works, but this new volume is remarkably fluid and accommodating in an almost Proustian way -- and it's laugh-out-loud funny, too.

David Bezmozgis, author of "Natasha: And Other Stories"

My favorite book of the year was "A Writer at War: Vasily Grossman With the Red Army 1941-1945," edited and translated by Antony Beevor and Luba Vinogradova. This is the WWII equivalent of Isaac Babel's "Red Cavalry" war diaries. A novelist and correspondent for the Red Army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, Grossman, like Babel, captured the experience of war with poetry, sympathy and precision.

"A chicken belonging to headquarters staff is taking a walk between earth dugouts, with ink on its wings."

His impressions are often moving, frequently wry, but always frank.

"I came across the following phrase in a leading [Front newspaper] article: 'The much-battered enemy continued his cowardly advance.'"

Grossman kept such diaries at his peril. Had they fallen into the hands of the NKVD, he could have been shot. Fortunately, they survived and have been wisely and thoroughly edited and translated by Beevor and Vinogradova. More than a testament to a great talent, Grossman's diaries are also, in the editors' words, "by far the best eyewitness account of the terrible Eastern Front."

Tom Bissell, author of "God Lives in St. Petersburg"

For those citizens who have dutifully made their way through every Iraq war book while waiting for some final lightning bolt of explication, 2006 brought forth the best book on the conflict yet. Rory Stewart's "The Prince of the Marshes" is not the most widely researched Iraq war book, nor the most newsworthy, nor even the most "inside" account, but it singularly (and fairly) demonstrates, better than any book I have read to this date, why the invasion and occupation of Iraq was doomed from the start. This was not my belief when I began the book, and now it would be hard to imagine an account that could win me back to my former one. Stewart, who had a small, brave and quixotic role in Iraq's occupation, has written what is possibly the closest we can come to T. E. Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" in a post-colonial, seen-it-all world.

William Boyd, author of "Restless"

Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" was a bracing blast of secular common sense, even to this devout atheist. In a world where the mumbo jumbo surrounding competing supernatural beings is growing deafening, this cool, trenchant advocation of strictly rational argument was wonderfully beguiling.

I relished Gore Vidal's "Point to Point" navigation not least because there can be few authors whose tone of voice is so established and instantly recognizable. Tremendous, sagacious arguments, at once world-weary and fiercely provocative and partisan. The Gore Vidal story moves on to 2006: a fascinating sequel to the fascinating "Palimpsest."

Peter Carey's "Theft" shows what a fine novelist he is even when his ambition is somewhat scaled down. Vibrant, vital prose, super characterization and a brilliant ear for the idiosyncratic voice. Not bad satire, either  the flimflam world of modern art takes a deserved battering.

Rich Cohen, author of "Sweet and Low"

If by favorite book you mean a book you read and read again, and underline, and read to friends, and keep going back to, and find yourself thinking about, or maybe you find yourself thinking about non-book-related things in a new way and realize it is because of this book, I would have to say my favorite of 2006 is "Consider the Lobster" by David Foster Wallace. It's a book of essays about, among other things, the Porn Industry Oscars, Tracy Austin, Dostoevski, a lobster festival in Maine, a John Updike book, which Wallace trashes (here is half a typical sentence: "Beside distracting us with worries about whether Updike might be injured or ill..."), every one of which snaps like a flag on a sharp autumn day. Because the guy is funny, never boring, super-smart, and has that all-important quality for a reporter/writer -- he is never scared to make an absolute ass of himself.

Geoff Dyer, author of "The Ongoing Moment" and "Out of Sheer Rage"

Cormac McCarthy's last, "No Country for Old Men," was no book for grown-ups. The relentless violence was quite infantile. His writing had always displayed this tendency but since the silliness was now given free rein one feared the decline might prove terminal. "The Road," though, was an amazing return to form and an extension of his already considerable imaginative powers. As bleak and ashen as anything in Beckett but with immense narrative drive as well. I have never appreciated the comfort and abundance of my sofa and home as intensely as I did while immersed in this vision of utter devastation.

Jennifer Egan, author of "The Keep" and "Look at Me"

I'm not generally a big fan of futuristic deathscapes, and my first reaction to Cormac McCarthy's monochromatic "The Road" was a fairly acute wish to read just about anything else. But after a chapter or two, McCarthy's sheer inventiveness had pulled me in; the devastated earth is richly imagined and gorgeously rendered, and the plight of the novel's protagonist father and son is urgently involving. Readers of "The Road" reap the benefits of McCarthy's many years of experience -- very few writers could have pulled off the post-apocalyptic world he describes with such authority -- coupled with his willingness, even at this late point in his career, to make a leap; there's a pathos to this novel so intense it risks melodrama. The result, for me, was the first book in a long time that I actually dreamed about.

Stephen Elliott, author of "My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up"

My absolute favorite book of the year hands down is Peter Orner's "The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo." It's this incredibly poetic yet minimalist story set in Namibia after revolution. I should point out that I know Peter but that's not why I loved the book. In fact, I was dreading reading it the way I always do when someone I know publishes something. But this was surprising. It's not just the best book I read this year, it's one of my five favorite novels of all time.

One other book worth mentioning is "Indecent" by Sarah Katherine Lewis from Seal Press. This book is not getting any attention and it's not on anyone's radar. It's a paperback original from a small press. It's a nonfiction book about Sarah's 10 years in the adult industry. It's very graphic, honest and funny. It's also full of anger and unsparing and totally unique. It'll be a shame if it just gets brushed aside as another tell-all memoir.

Nell Freudenberger, author of "The Dissident"

What I love about David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green" is the mixture of fantasy and the everyday, a blend that feels especially appropriate to the novel's 13-year-old narrator. Mitchell gets that moment between childhood and adolescence -- when your father's office can suddenly transform itself into Bluebeard's chamber -- probably because he, like the best fiction writers, hasn't lost that amphibious imaginative power himself.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of "Blink"

My favorite book of the year was Michael Lewis' "The Blind Side," his story about a young football player from the slums of Memphis, Tenn., who is adopted by a wealthy, white, evangelical family. Lewis has a made a habit of writing about sports recently -- first baseball in "Moneyball" and now American football in "The Blind Side." But as was the case with "Moneyball," sports is really only a subtext for a much more meaningful examination of discrimination and class and race. I wept at the end of "The Blind Side," which I have not done at the end of a work of nonfiction for a very long time.

Erica Jong, author of "Fear of Flying" and "Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life"

For me the best book of the year was "The Mission Song" by John le Carré -- a novelist I admire immensely.

Reviewers tend to think of le Carré as a Cold War novelist -- because of the immense success of his novels of that era. But in truth, le Carré has grown and matured and now takes chances no other novelist takes.

In "The Mission Song," he invents an Anglo-African of mixed race (and many languages) who is an interpreter. Through his metier, le Carré's hero gets mixed up in the Machiavellian African politics of the Congo, leaves his wife, finds the woman of his life, pays dearly for his attempt to save the country of his youth from double-dealing warlords, and comes to represent the African-European of the 21st century.

Most white novelists would not dare to get inside the head of a black man. Le Carré not only dares, but succeeds with humor, empathy and a political canniness that goes far beyond stereotypes. He addresses the Christianization of tribal Africa, the colonialist hangover, the idealism of young Africans, the hypocrisy of the British press and the British upper classes, what it means today to "pass"-- both in Britain and in Africa -- and why the survivors are almost always the biggest dissemblers and hypocrites.

Every issue of today is here: class warfare, race, torture, immigration, language. But "The Mission Song" is also a tender love story, a fast-paced thriller, and a story with as many brilliant minor characters as major. Like another favorite of mine, "The Constant Gardner," it "gets" the centrality of Africa to our world today.

Just as le Carré defined the Cold War, he defines Africa -- with heart and love, and with a ragingly readable adventure tale.

Ken Kalfus, author of "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country"

"The People's Act of Love," by the British writer James Meek, is a philosophical thriller that revolves around a little-known incident of the Soviet Civil War: the mutinous seizure of the Trans-Siberian Railway by a legion of Czech soldiers sent to fight the Bolsheviks. In a Siberian railway village, where a Czech detachment encounters a sect of Christian castrates and a hardened revolutionary who has escaped from prison, the central conflict, thrummingly relevant today, is between those who renounce the compromises of earthly pleasure and those who live imperfectly, complicit with evil and pain. Foretelling post-Bolshevik agonies and those of our own century, the revolutionary declares, "I'm here on earth to destroy everything which doesn't resemble Paradise."

"Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village," by Margaret Paxson, is about life in the north of Russia, written by an American anthropologist who lived there off and on for several years. It's a distant, primitive place, and her hosts lived without running water but with color television. Her emphasis is "social memory," and how it gets transmitted through the generations. Central to Russian society is the concept of "svoi," "my own," which usually defines the household, khozainstvo, in relation to the village or the village in relation to neighboring ones, but in the time of WWII extended to the entire nation, ruled by the nation-khozain, Stalin. Svoi is the mechanism that enables the villagers to cooperate in a virtually cashless community, doing each other the favors necessary for survival while respecting the boundaries of each household. National and world events barely create a ripple. Stalin's times were good and bad, what Paxson describes as a "a symphony of dark and light." The villagers recall, "How we lived better then! How we were joyous! One wrong word and they could take you away in the middle of the night. We lived in friendship and generosity."

Greil Marcus, author "The Shape of Things to Come"

Well ... "The Shape of Things to Come," actually. But also Dana Spiotta's "Eat the Document." Times long past begin to crumble, decades later, leaving people who purposefully stranded themselves decades before forced to rejoin the world. While a teenage Beach Boys fan tries to figure out who his mother is.

Claire Messud, author of "The Emperor's Children"

I think I'd have to pick "Suite Française," by Irène Némirovsky. I didn't know the full story behind it until after I'd read it -- I only knew that she'd been killed in the Holocaust -- and while that made the book still more remarkable, I was glad to have been able to revel in her storytelling, her precise observations, her psychological acuity, without knowing the full tragedy of her curtailed life. The two existing sections of her novel enabled me, for the first time, fully to imagine what it was like to live in France under the occupation, and the ways in which collaboration came about. Occasionally, the first section is rather broad in its satire, though always effective, and darkly very funny; but the second section, set in a rural village, is an unqualified gem. I only wish she had been able to write the remaining sections that she envisaged, and sketched out in her notes. "Suite Française" is a significant literary work, and a rare reminder of the enduring importance of art, even in the darkest hours.

Neal Pollack, author of "Alternadad"

It may not have been the best read all year, and it certainly wasn't the most subtle, but the 2006 book that stuck to my gut most strongly was "The Ruins," by Scott Smith. "The Ruins" represents the apogee of a strange contemporary genre: Clueless American tourists meet a horrific fate in an unknown land that they don't understand. Smith takes this particular horror trope much further than movies like "Turistas," or even "Hostel"; he preys on our fears of the unknown at nearly Lovecraftian depths. It's a must-read for haters of backpackers, or lovers of kudzu.

Will Self, author of 'The Book of Dave"

Patrick Cockburn's "The Occupation" is a magnificent book, essential reading for anyone stateside who really wants to understand the hideous quagmire of the U.S./British invasion of Iraq. Cockburn, a veteran Middle East correspondent, has been fearless in getting out on the ground in Iraq. His front-line reporting is unrivaled, his analysis lucid and compelling, his conclusions deeply unpalatable. He knows his stuff, having already written the definitive account of the aftermath to the 1990 Gulf War, and has covered this latest conflict for the London Independent newspaper and the London Review of Books.

Jim Shepard, author of "Project X"

Mine would probably be Cormac McCarthy's "The Road": I found it unsettling and moving and beautiful in its portrait of human connection pared down to the bone. It read like a personal meditation on mortality projected out to include the entire human race.

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of "Prep" and "The Man of My Dreams"

One of my favorite books of this year is "But Enough About Me: A Jersey Girl's Unlikely Adventures Among the Absurdly Famous" by Jancee Dunn. Dunn worked for years as a reporter for Rolling Stone and MTV, and she alternates between chapters giving an insider's perspective on what it's like to interview Madonna or Brad Pitt and chapters about her own weird, funny New Jersey family. A book like this could easily be a smorgasbord of name-dropping, but Dunn is completely self-effacing and honest about her own dorkiness. I suspect this book will especially strike a chord if you've ever been a reporter, had a sister (or two) or shared in our national celebrity fixation -- her descriptions of all three ring hilariously true. I should note here that I "blurbed" this book, and while blurbs are rightfully regarded with suspicion (often meaning the blurber and the blurbee once worked/slept/got their MFAs together), I've actually never met Dunn; I endorsed her book for the sole reason that I thought it was great.

Jennifer Weiner, author of "In Her Shoes"

For me, 2006 marked the lamentable triumph of style over substance. Designated PYT Marisha Pessl's much-hyped debut came tap-dancing in, all bells and whistles (and footnotes, and illustrations). There may have been a strong brew underneath, but I couldn't get through the froth. Cormac McCarthy's bleaker-than-bleak, darker-than-dark "The Road" could have been a contender, save for its distracting stylistic gimmicks. (Did the nuclear blast that eradicated the world's population take all of the world's apostrophes with it, too?)

I'll pick two winners: Ken Kalfus' "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," in which a pair of narcissistic New Yorkers have their divorce interrupted by 9/11. Hilarity ensues. And for those who crave a big, sprawling, old-fashioned, romantic tale over the too-cool-for-school po-mo tricks of perspective or punctuation, Stephen King's "Lisey's Story" was a completely ravishing meditation on the thin skin between reality and nightmare, and the mysteries of writing, and of marriage.

Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Hillary Frey

Hillary Frey is the Books editor at Salon.

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