Everyone else is doing it, so why can't I? Here it is, then, Yet Another Top Ten List of books published in 2006 (in no particular order):
1. Irene Naemirovsky: Suite Francaise
Written in prose that would make Flaubert proud, Irene Naemirovsky's Suite Francaise is a genuine classic - a novel that is at once grand and intimate, complex and compelling. Naemirovsky's great achievement is that she combines the epic sweep of historic events with a narrative that is deeply compassionate and the result is a book that is memorable as much for the nuanced quietness of its story-telling as for its near-cinematic scope or unquestionable literary merit.
(My review of the novel here)
2. Haruki Murakami: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
Anytime Haruki Murakami comes out with a book, it's a pretty safe bet that it's going to make my top 10 list. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is no exception - a fascinating collection of short stories that plunges you deep into the heart of Murakami's surrealistic yet strangely authentic world. Murakami has few peers in style or imagination, and his short fiction is vivid, dreamlike and heartbreaking. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is far from his best book - at least some of the stories seem derivative, and there's a sense that the book has been padded with stuff left out of the novels - but for Murakami fans it's a pleasant update on the man's work, and for those unfortunate enough to never have read Murakami before it's a superb introduction to one of the finest writers of our time.
3. Margaret Atwood: The Tent
Is there no end to Atwood's talent? It isn't enough that she's an accomplished poet and an incredible novelist, she has to go reinvent herself again by coming out with this whimsical collection of short pieces , many of them no more than 2 to 3 pages long? The Tent is not the only Atwood book to be released in 2006 - she also came out with a full length collection of short stories, Moral Disorder, which features one unforgettable story called The Last Duchess (yes, it's based on the Browning poem) and a sequence of stories about a couple on a farm - but it is, for me, one of the more exciting and unique things she's done. Atwood's writing is as crisp as ever, and her talent for social criticism / satire has grown, if anything, sharper. And yet there's a sense of playfulness to The Tent. It's as though Atwood, that most astute of conjurors had decided to dazzle us with a swift succession of magic tricks, shifting effortlessly from the nightmarish to the comic, trying out and discarding voice after voice with a fluency that only someone with her phenomenal talent could pull off.
4. Kay Ryan: The Niagara River
I've blogged about Ryan's new collection extensively over the past year (see here and here and here) but I'll say it again: this is a fascinating book, chock-full of poems that are unforgettable for both their lightness and their precision. Ryan's pithy, sparkling lines seem deceptively simple as they trip off your tongue, but they are, infact, an awe-aspiring achievement, marrying vivid imagination to poetic insight, and spicing up the mix with an acute sense of humour.
5. Jon McGregor: So Many Ways to Begin
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Jon McGregor's second novel, So Many Ways to Begin is that it's not a let down. After the sheer brilliance of his debut book - If nobody speaks of remarkable things - it seemed hard to imagine the McGregor could live up to his promise. The fact that he does is thrilling. So Many Ways to Begin is a quieter, more intimate book than If nobody speaks of remarkable things, though you can see flashes of the earlier book's inventive lyricism in the restless ease with which McGregor moves backward and forward in time. What makes So Many Ways to Begin a truly rewarding read, though, is the fact that much of the hi-jinx of the first book seems to have given way to a richer, more contemplative style. So Many Ways to Begin is a graceful and generous meditation on the nature of memory, of the infinity of coincidence and circumstance that shape a man's life, of the impossibility of knowing where the story story really begins - all rendered in prose so accomplished it puts McGregor firmly in the tradition of writers like John McGahern and Graham Swift. Take my word on it - Jon McGregor is a writer to watch.
6. Olga Grushin: The Dream Life of Sukhanov
If McGregor's first book was the debut of 2003, this year that prize belongs to Olga Grushin, whose mesmerising first novel is at once colourful and visionary. This is a book that blurs the line between dream and reality, between personal identity and political allegory, between the ballet of memory and the high trapeze of the imagination. In scope and execution it is a work of art every bit as daring, and every bit as moving, as a Chagall painting.
(my review here)
7. Yusef Komunyakaa & Chad Garcia: Gilgamesh; A Verse Play
Combine one of our finest war poets with a three thousand year old epic and what you get is a work of sheer genius. Conceived by Chad Garcia and written by Yusef Komunyakaa, Gilgamesh is a spell-bending re-imagining of the Sumerian legend, a verse play in the grand tradition of Walcott's Odyssey. If you've never read the Epic of Gilgamesh, this is not the right place to start, because the play deviates from the plot of the original considerably, using it as the foundation for an exploration of the epic's central themes of power and mortality. Komunyakaa's poetry leaps off the page in rapier like lines, by turns deft and visionary; and under his skilled pen the ancient legend is transformed into a strikingly contemporary fable about a man who discovers too late the cost of violent conquest. Komunyakaa's Gilgamesh bears a strong family resemblance to a returning war hero, sated by the horrors of death and battle and desperately searching for meaning in a world where human life is ephemeral and cheap. "Teach me to die a man" Gilgamesh cries at the close of the book, suggesting that wisdom, in our tired age, may consist of simply knowing what it is we want to learn.
8. Sarah Waters: The Night Watch
This one should need little introduction. Sarah Waters' Booker Prize shortlisted novel is a sublime exercise in the blending of the personal and the public, a graceful and sombre book about the hardships of both love and war, about the earth-shattering power of these twin catastrophes, about the sacrifices they demand and the heroism required to navigate them, about the extraordinary acts they make the most ordinary people capable of, and about how survival, in certain circumstances, can be a kind of victory.
(see my review here)
9. Louise Gluck: Averno
What can one say about Gluck, except that she's one of the most lyrical poets writing today? Her latest collection, Averno, is heartbreaking and beautiful, an exquisite book that has all the emotional impact of a singing violin. Gluck's poetry makes myth seem not only familiar, but personal, almost necessary. As an exploration of mythological themes, Averno is not so much an act of invention, as one of discovery - a collection of poems steeped in the knowledge of the grand and mournful themes that move through our everyday melancholy.
(extracts from Averno here)
10. Yiyun Li: A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
Every now and then the award ceremonies get it right. Yiyun Li's A Thousand Year of Good Prayers is a marvellous collection of short stories, well deserving of the praise heaped on it. Li's writing is tender and accurate, and her stories, though ostensibly explorations of China's changing society and its interactions with the West, have the authentic ring of the universal. This is a book that deserves to be read twice - once for its intriguing accounts of the encounter between East and West, traditional and modern, communist and capitalist; and again for the pure joy of reading some truly superb story telling.
P.S. The list is limited to stuff published this year that I've read. There's a long list of books published this year that I'm still trying to get my hands on (the new Pynchon and McCarthy spring to mind, as well as the new Vikram Chandra).