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Our 25 Favorite Books of 2006

On the Town
By Marshall Berman
Random House, 264pp., $25.95
Marshall Berman's new history of Times Square thrills at the ways that the cubist-chaotic panopticon has allowed so many somebodies to realize themselves by passing through it�from Al Jolson to Lou Reed, billboard conceptualists to Benetton models. It adds up to a Broadway salute to the possibilities of mass-mediated desire. Berman finds his key image in "Times Girl," a 1903 cartoon postcard depicting a King Kong-sized babe bouncing her curves off the brand-new Times Building. It's a primal scene, celebrating a hormonal surge of futurist progress and the luxury of insouciance. That heady idyll finds its dead-end Other in a sleazy '70s, the sentimentalization of which Berman has little use for. Between those poles, he finds his heroes.

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

One Good Turn
By Kate Atkinson
Little, Brown, and Company, 432pp., $24.99
Devotees of Kate Atkinson's very good turn, Case Histories, desired�if not perhaps deserved�another. One Good Turn borrows the earlier novel's structure of interconnected stories and a few of its characters: Jackson Brodie, the ex-P.I. turned man of means, and his volatile actress girlfriend. Set amid the fresh hell of flyers, mimes, and street musicians that is the Edinburgh Festival, the book demonstrates that no good deed goes unpunished, often violently. A fender-bender outside a comedy performance initiates a run of multiple murders, enlivened by comic set pieces.

Our Town
By Cynthia Carr
Crown, 501pp., $25.95
The lynching photograph at the center of Our Town could have been taken anywhere in this country during the Jim Crow era. Two white people were parked on Lovers Lane when three black teenagers robbed them. The next morning, flyers posted throughout the county invited surrounding towns to a "necktie party." Carr renders this national narrative of "the last classic lynching north of the Mason-Dixon Line into a painfully personal one. After her grandfather's death, Carr's family discovered his Ku Klux Klan membership. Picking up an argument first articulated in the 1994 Voice article from which this memoir evolved, Carr weaves together family lore, interviews with eyewitnesses and Klansmen, scholarly histories, and her own research, and discovers that freedom from America's racist past means confronting it.

The Road
By Cormac McCarthy Knopf, 241pp., $24
The genius of McCarthy's work is in its bold, seamless melding of private revelation, cultural insight, and unabashed philosophizing. Sci-fi divination is new for him, though, and the freshness he brings to this end-of-the-world narrative is quite stunning: It may be the saddest, most haunting book he's ever written, or that you'll ever read. A man and his young son trek southwesterly through an unnamed, nuclear-winterized landscape in search of warmth and on the run from bands of cannibalistic outlaws. As the pair scavenge for food and comfort among eerily abandoned towns and withered forests, they provide each other with�just barely�a reason not to lie down and die. For all its allegorical underpinnings and stark grandeur, the tender precariousness of The Road's human relationships is what finally makes it such a beautiful, difficult, near perfect work.

The Thin Place
By Kathryn Davis
Little Brown, 275pp., $23.95
Borders between the commonplace and fantastical are impossibly porous in The Thin Place. Kathryn Davis's spectacularly weird portrait of a small town sometimes channels the thoughts of dogs and beavers, or burrows deep inside the earth. Then there's the trio of 12-year-old friends, one of whom may have mystic abilities. Davis crams a multitude of characters into this remarkable tale�a jumble of creatures and things bound together by an ever-shifting structure.

The Totality for Kids
By Joshua Clover
University of California Press, 76pp., $16.95
Joshua Clover's accomplished second book of poems, The Totality for Kids, reads contemporary U.S. society through the prism of Haussmann's Paris, with its clean sight lines, its foreshortened yet therefore richer artistic traditions, and its ability to keep personal experience symmetrical: just the right amount of companionship and loneliness, stimulation and ennui, sex and loss. His poetry searches for "new sensations" and "tiny changes" and "new nouns." The Totality for Kids' clever particulars�whether conceptual, sensual, or pop cultural�bury the past in a playful nostalgia, promising a fresh start.

Twilight of the Superheroes
By Deborah Eisenberg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 225pp., $23
The mordant, gorgeously written stories in Twilight of the Superheroes offer up characters inscribed on a palimpsest of family friction and antique rupture. In "Some Other, Better Otto," the title character's semi-estrangement from his relatives drives him as crazy as his actual relatives do. In "Revenge of the Dinosaurs," Lulu returns to the home of the grandmother who raised and watches with flickering interest as an entire existence dissipates in real time. Much happens in Eisenberg's stories, but often they don't build toward a climax or cathartic revelation. Rather, they map and dig the terrain covered in the deliberations of a sleepless night, or trace the textures of a single, branching thought, one that tries to entwine and subdue an invincible question: How did I get here?

Up is Up But So is Down
By Brandon Stosuy
NYU Press, 510pp., $29.95
Like medieval theologians pondering the 1st-century A.D. Judea, we study long-gone countercultures for glimmers of insight into What Is, What Should Be, and most poignantly, What Might Have Been. Some of us like our angels with dirty faces; witness the lovingly reproduced artifacts of Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974�1992, a comprehensive compendium of below�14th Street literary productions by everyone from Laurie Anderson to Nick Zedd, focusing on the output of small magazines of the era like Koff, Bomb, and Between C and D. The predominant mode is diaristic reportage, frequently semi-fictionalized. The scene generated first-rate raconteurs whose stories meld dry satire with heart-churningly desperate transmissions of damaged humanity.

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