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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 Afterlifeopens 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.


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.


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.


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 Kindbegins 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.


Memorial
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.


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.


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 Turnborrows 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.


Voices of Time
By Eduardo Galeano
Translated by Mark Fried
Metropolitan 368pp., $25
This Uruguayan author's vignettes stitch together tales of wonder and terror, love and war, and just about everything in between. Are these koans, fables, experiences, or testimonials? And why is a passage about Diego Maradona shimmying up next to ones about Rigoberta Mench�, Sebasti�o Salgado, Jos� Saramago's grandfather, and an anonymous tango singer? Because Galeano, author of the groundbreaking "Memory of Fire" trilogy, is a collector of stories, a clairvoyant reared in the caf�s of Montevideo, who carries with him a multitude.

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