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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2006

  The Afterlife
By Donald Antrim
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 195pp., $21
This memoir's title refers to the only place where Antrim's terminally ill mother may be recognized as an "original and subversive artist." Louanne Antrim is a deeply spiritual and hostile fashion designer. In the months after her death, Antrim channels her with harsh criticisms of his own drinking and failed relationships, and his inability to give himself a break. "When you are, as I was�and as I am�the anxious child of a volatile, childlike mother, you learn how to appear to accept, as realistic and viable, statements and opinions that are clearly ludicrous." The Afterlife opens a new window into Antrim's genius.

All Aunt Hagar's Children
By Edward P. Jones
Amistad, 399pp., $25.95
The stories in Aunt Hagar's Children feel not so much composed as discovered. "Root Worker" and "A Poor Guatemalan Dreams of a Downtown in Peru" evoke the mysteries of folk wisdom eroded by forced migrations and city living. The title piece, narrated in the first person by an unwilling detective, circles around the death of a Jewish woman who died in the narrator's arms, after collapsing in front of a streetcar, with last words spoken in Yiddish. Identifying a murderer gives the protagonist less satisfaction than decoding her message: "Once upon a time there was a rabbi and his wife. . . Listen, children, remember, precious ones, what you're learning here ." That could be the motto of this remarkable collection.

Denise Bellon's Mannequin by André Masson, from Exquisite Corpse
Les Films De L'équinoxe-Fonds Photographique Denise Bellon
Denise Bellon's Mannequin by André Masson, from Exquisite Corpse

American Genius, A Comedy
By Lynne Tillman
Soft Skull Press, 292pp., $15
Helen, the protagonist of Lynne Tillman's fifth novel, suffers from the rare disorder dermatographia, in which the slightest caress might erupt into "white lines...which resemble writing on the skin." As she sojourns in an unnamed institution �a mysterious amalgam of sanatorium and artist's colony�Helen reveals a psyche that's equally sensitive. In this canny, elliptical novel, the smallest sensation or suggestion sends her into a paroxysm of recall and digression�on Eames chairs, time pieces, household pets, and all manner of skin ailments.

Andy Warhol Screen Tests: The Films of Andy Warhol Catalogue Raisonn�
By Callie Angell
Abrams/Whitney Museum of American Art, 320pp., $60
From early '64 through late '66, hundreds of individuals�hipsters, hustlers, and underground legends�passed through Andy Warhol's midtown Factory and had their portraits made on film. Each three-minute "screen test" was an individual drama. Researching the circumstances by which it came into existence, Callie Angell weaves a skein of ethereal correspondences into a social history of the mid '60s New York art world. The images are stunning, the author's wry descriptions marvels of precision. Elegant, intelligent, and absurdly erudite, this catalogue raisonn� can be leafed through as an art book and read like a novel�that is, a novel with an index and footnotes.

Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969
Edited by Dan Nadel Abrams, 320pp., $40
He may not have intended to curate a Salon des Refus�s opposite the current "Masters of American Comics" show�or produce a Bizarro World equivalent to its catalog�but that's what Dan Nadel's done. This excavated trove of largely obscure comic strip and comic book practitioners is filled with primitive precursors and oddball analogs to acknowledged greats like Will Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman. Nadel culls the first decade of newspaper funnies to showcase a half dozen alternate Winsor McCays�some very alt indeed. The bottom line is that this quintessential 20th century American art form produced even more crazy cats than most of us ever knew.

China Syndrome: The True Story of the 21st Century's First Great Epidemic
By Karl Taro Greenfeld
HarperCollins, 442pp., $23.95
Karl Taro Greenfeld's account of the SARS epidemic turns out to be a work of riveting, relevant journalism. In early '03 Greenfeld, then editor in chief of Hong Kong-based cf1 Time Asia, helped lead a team of reporters who exposed the government's negligent response to the virus. Now, he returns to the subject with a dexterous approach that takes on epidemiology, sociology, political science, and even anthropology. The spread of SARS is the story of worlds colliding: one, an Industrial Revolution�style China with all the Dickensian trappings of poverty and disease; the other, the globalized 21st century, in which people�and viruses�can jump oceans in less than 24 hours. Greenfeld reminds us that denial and disease are perfect bedfellows.

Drugs Are Nice
By Lisa Crystal Carver
Soft Skull, 250pp., $14
In her genre-pioneering zine Rollerderby, Lisa Carver kept her prose beguiling and clearheaded, even while documenting the most noxious and unhinged characters (foremost among them herself). Those who figured her as the finest stylist of her generation will feel vindicated by her memoir Drugs Are Nice, an amazing elegy for the lost underground of the '80s, whose denizens equated authenticity and edge with abasement and abuse. As a teenager, Carver formed the shock performance troupe Suckdog; she conjures grotesque scenes from Suckdog's tours with such vividness you almost wish you weren't there�but then you'd miss the sly humor and surprising reasonableness with which she navigates her way through the insanity.

The Emperor's Children
By Claire Messud
Knopf, 431pp., $25
The Emperor's Children begins at a precarious moment in history�after the burst of the 1990s economic bubble and before September 11. At age 30, her three central characters also face a void�they are no longer young, but not quite grown-up. Danielle is a television producer; Julius is a book critic for The Village Voice (hey!); Marina is the beautiful daughter of a famous writer. Messud portrays even the most loathsome New York type with depth and compassion, crafting a gripping story of clashing ambitions, compromised loyalties, and the love/hate relationship between the powerless and the powerful. As the characters hurl toward that terrible September day, the narrative goes beyond mere social satire, deepening into a hypnotic, moving read.

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