2006 books — and a New Year discussion

My year-end books piece for Newsday ran over the weekend.

Supplementing it here, in 2007, seems fitting, since two of the novels I admired — Calvin Baker’s Dominion and Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt — have inspired me to set up a public discussion between the authors this spring. The topic will be names/branding and freedom in the market economy. I’ll tell you more once we’ve ironed out the details.

Meanwhile, here’s my pitch for Baker’s book:

In “Dominion” (Grove), a freed slave buys the only land white people will sell him — untamed, haunted land — and builds a plantation to pass along to his children. Not quite content with what they’ve inherited, his progeny enhance their wealth by buying a slave of their own. This is a fair summary, and yet reducing this novel to a historical plotline does it a disservice. Baker draws on our most ancient myths, his diction is nearly biblical and, in illustrating how dominion too often leads not to contentment but to a lust for more, he’s given us an epic that’s more relevant now than ever.

(See also.)

As for Whitehead’s novel, what I wrote for Newsday sounds subdued as I look back over the short paragraph tonight.

Regular readers will remember how euphoric I was after finishing Apex a few months ago. (Over Thanksgiving I also raced through The Intuitionist.) The book is so well-executed, so piercing and funny, that you come to expect perfection. The few things — a combative hotel maid, the infrequent sour metaphor — that stopped me short wouldn’t even have registered in a lesser work.

Let me put it this way: Colson Whitehead actually deserves that MacArthur Fellowship. How many living authors is that true of?

Erik Reece’s Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness, and Stephanie Hendricks’ Divine Destruction: Wise Use, Dominion Theology, and the Making of Environmental Policy (actually published in 2005), were also favorites.

I was sad to see coverage of Lost Mountain dry up after Janet Maslin’s review appeared last spring. The fact that Reece shares an editor with James Frey (and George Saunders, Alexander Hemon, and Junot Diaz) would be relevant if the destruction of Appalachia were a figment of his imagination, or if Lost Mountain reeked of the same self-aggrandizing machismo and simpering faux-vulnerability that stank up A Million Little Pieces. It isn’t, and it doesn’t.

I should mention that I’m friends with Reece’s editor, but our acquaintance has nothing to do with the way Maslin’s critique has stuck in my craw.

She charges that Lost Mountain is repetitive and meandering. Maybe it is, but it worked for me. I devoured Reece’s book shortly after reading Hendricks’. The nightmares still haven’t stopped.

I also managed to throw some drive-by confetti for a few of the year’s justly-praised (and less neglected) titles: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (see also), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (see also), Scarlett Thomas’ The End of Mr. Y (see also), and Gregoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest (see also).

If I’d had more room, I would have mentioned Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan (see also), The Paris Review Interviews (see also), Marguerite Duras’ Yann Andrea Steiner (see also), Pagan Kennedy’s Confessions of a Memory Eater, Edward P. Jones’ All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience (see also), and Joe Miller’s Cross-X (see also).


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