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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2006

Exquisite Corpse: Surrealism and the Black Dahlia Murder
By Mark Nelson and Sarah Hudson Bayliss
Bulfinch Press, 192pp., $35
Far more disturbing than the Brian De Palma movie or James Ellroy novel, this scholarly, lavishly illustrated analysis of L.A.'s most notorious unsolved crime attributes the murder-mutilation of "Black Dahlia" Elizabeth Short to a psychopathic artist manqu�, Dr. George Hodel. Exceedingly tasteful production (coauthor Mark Nelson is a designer of museum catalogs) heightens the shock of encountering gruesome forensic photographs among related surrealist paintings, drawings, and photographs�many by the Hodel's pal Man Ray. The unique combination of sober art history and tabloid delirium is highly disorienting�which is to say, surreal.

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

Fun Home
By Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin, 232pp., $19.95
Nothing feels resolved about the masterful Fun Home, Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir about growing up gay with a mercurial�and closeted� dad. Fun Home's narrative returns again and again to central, traumatic events, such as the phone conversation in which Alison's mother reveals that her father slept with the former babysitter, Roy. Most dazzlingly, it is intricately presented through the lens of the literature that Bechdel's father most loved. cf1 Fun Home, like its important predecessors in the field of nonfiction comics, is not only about events in history, but also about the process of memory.

Half Life
By Shelley Jackson
Harper Collins, 440pp., 24.95
The novel Half Life concocts a world in which twofers�conjoined or "Siamese" twins�are a politicized minority. Planning murder is trickier when the target shares your body, controls your right hand, and may or may not be conscious (the slowly awakening, nose-whistling Blanche has been "asleep" for 15 years). But the criminal mind develops early, in this case in a ghost-town childhood where dominant twin Nora simulates decapitation on barrel cacti: "Do you think I can take your head off with one stroke," she asks Blanche, "or do you think I will have to saw?.... Do you think it will hurt?" Later she adds, "I meant hurt me, not you."

James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
By Julie Phillips
St. Martin's Press, 469pp., $27.95
Julie Phillips has found a fascinating subject in Alice B. Sheldon, whom she refers to with both "he" and "she" pronouns and alternately calls James, Alli, and Tip. After spending her first fifty years as a psychologist, CIA officer, and chicken farmer, Sheldon took up science fiction, publishing bold stories about genocide, rocket ships, and intergalactic sperm. She called her work a "revolt" against her life and described herself as "six characters in search of an Author." With lively, novel-like stories and quotes, Phillips draws together Sheldon's multiple identities for the first time.

The Last Of Her Kind
By Sigrid Nunez
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 375pp., $25
The Last of Her Kind begins in the fall of 1968 with Ann Drayton arriving for her freshman year at Barnard College. A wealthy girl plagued by class guilt, Ann finds herself rooming with the novel's poor, plainspoken narrator, Georgette George. This intimate novel evokes a time when young women's values changed at breakneck speed. Ann throws herself into student revolution, while Georgette is burdened by more personal worries, like a brother in Vietnam. Sigrid Nunez's most impressive feat may be that she makes the ascetic Ann so riveting; every experience becomes raw material for her do-gooder instincts. This crusading heroine feels entirely plausible, both a real, singular person and a product of her times.

Lost Girls
By Alan Moore
Top Shelf, 264pp., $75
A beautiful dirty book 16 years in the making, writer Alan Moore and artist Melinda Gebbie's luminous (porno)graphic novel Lost Girls is to erotic literature what Moore's now classic 1987 Watchmen was to the superhero scene. In its pages, The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy, a giddy American teen; Peter Pan's Wendy, a repressed bourgeois; and an aging, aristocrat Alice, formerly of Wonderland, transform dreamy desires into feverish fulfillment together in an Austrian hotel during the months leading up to World War I. There they entertain and seduce one another with tales of their girlish erotic revelations. "There's something about opium that goes very well with lesbianism," declares Alice, the sybaritic enabler of these girls gone Wilde.

By Bruce Wagner
Simon & Schuster, 528pp., $25
Bruce Wagner, our favorite contemporary bard of Hollywood hypocrisy and anomie, digs deeper than ever into the lost coast in his new novel. This time Wagner hangs his hilarious, manic prose on Joan, a desperately ambitious female architect furiously competing for a chance to design a high-profile tsunami memorial. Joan and her disconnected family members zigzag through L.A., so absorbed in their ingrown dreams that they become moving targets for scammers and schemers. Memorial is clotted with Wagner's usual torrent of pop culture detail, deliciously bitchy social satire, and promiscuous use of celeb cameos (Jake Gyllenhaal! Frank Gehry! Don Knotts' daughter!), not to mention the kind of larger-than-life mogul who can deliver a line like, "I love the smell of Napa in the morning."

New York 2000: Architecture and Urbanism from the Bicentennial to the Millenium
By Robert A.M. Stern, David Fishman, and Jacob Tilove
Monacelli Press, 1,520pp., $100
New Yorkers tend to be boosters for their own neighborhoods, fostering a sense of community but not a big picture. Architect Robert A.M. Stern and Co. rectify this with the amazing New York 2000, the fifth in a series of massive volumes tracing Gotham's development from the Civil War to the millennium. The narrative, bolstered by 1800 images, leads us from the 1977 blackout through 1980s gentrification to the Silicon Alley boom. It dishes backstory on buildings legendary and anonymous, even lingering over projects that never got built, like Westway or a proposed skyscraper integrating a forest (complete with waterfalls and deer). A mind-blowing panoramic view of a city in constant flux that makes good on as many fantasies as it squanders.

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