It's year-end list time! Many respected and prestigious publications are busily putting out their lists of the best ten, fifty, one hundred books published this year. Well, let them skulk in the colorless comfort of their safe, dull base ten lives, I say. Let them hide from making the hard cuts and choices. As a welcome antidote to such craven cowardice, I introduce the 9 Best Books I Read During 2006.
(Pay close attention to that title, by the way, because this isn't just books new in 2006; it's books that I read during 2006, no matter when they were published. It is my fond hope that some of these that were missed the first time around will somehow be discovered again.
9. Robert Louis Stevenson, by Frank McGlynn (1994). Solid bio that debunks a lot of the myths around the man. Let's just say that Mrs. Stevenson doesn't come off too well.
8. Into Africa, by Martin Dugard (2003). The story of Stanley's search for Livingstone. Lots of points for covering a subject that hasn't been done to death (as far as I know). Dugard seems to be rather impressed with himself, but I'll forgive him that for his harrowing descriptions of travel back in the day. Be grateful every day that you do not have to deal with tsetse flies.
7. A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WW II, by Sarah Helm (2006). British spies, failed intelligence operations, secrets, cover-ups and invented lives.
6. Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick (2006). Pilgrims, Puritans, and Strangers come to the New World. Much more than you learned in social studies and ten times more interesting than what you think you know.
5. Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the race to electrify the world, by Jill Jonnes (2003). A rather astonishing group of characters make it possible for me to type this on a computer powered by an AC adaptor, in a room lit by an incandescent light bulb.
4. The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan (2006). I thought I knew a little something about the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. I was so, so wrong. Egan makes the unimaginable horror of this disaster come to life through the personal stories of those who lived through these bleak times. My only gripe was some odd bits of repetition.
3. The Big Bang, by Simon Singh (2004). Everything you ever wanted to know about the origins of the universe and how people figured it out. Clear and easy to understand for even the most nonscientific nonscientist, with plenty of great stories about the weird and wonderful characters who made the big discoveries (Tycho Brahe, 16th c. silver-nosed astronomer is a standout).
1. (a tie) Big Trouble, by J. Anthony Lukas (1997) and The Echoing Green, by Joshua Prager (2006). As I think I've said before, these books remind me a lot of each other, hence the tie. The main story in each (the 1906 murder trial of ex-Idaho governor Frank Steunenberg, featuring Big Bill Haywood, Clarence Darrow, and a cast of thousands; stolen signs and their role in the NY Giants' 1951 pennant-winning victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers, featuring Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca, and, well, a cast of thousands) is just a springboard to fascinating tales of other times, places, and people. Big Trouble wins points because it's set in one of my favorite time periods, but The Echoing Green had a heartfeltness that I loved. So they balance each other out, in a way (and yes, I know heartfeltness isn't a word and I don't care).
Honorable Mention: Johnny Tremain and Kim, because they should always be mentioned.