The five most memorable books I read in 2006.
Wolves Eat Dogs, Martin Cruz Smith. Arkady Renko returns, investigating the death of a “New Russian” millionaire who has plunged from the window of his Moscow penthouse. The story is at once gripping and seductive, grim and magical, stark and life-affirming. It’s set largely in Chernobyl. Martin Cruz Smith’s writing is as ever gorgeous, understated and powerful. And in light of last month’s London radiation poisoning of a Russian exile, the story is eerily prescient. I loved every word.
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini. It’s generally a bad idea to shout “Oh my God, don’t do it,” when you’re aboard a flight to the USA. But when I did just that last spring, the flight attendant stopped beside my seat, saw that I was holding The Kite Runner, and nodded vigorously, saying, “I know, I know.” This is a beautifully written and moving book. The story of twelve-year old Amir and his best friend – and servant – Hassan, it’s about love, family loyalty, the many forms of destruction inflicted on Afghanistan, and the chance for redemption. I couldn’t put it down, and neither could my husband or my teenaged son.
Cell, Stephen King. Until this April I had never been to Boston. We Californians, being provincial and sunstruck, regard New England as the stuff of folklore. But this spring I got there, and on the way I grabbed a copy of King’s latest in the airport. Didn’t read the dust jacket, just jammed it in my computer case. Had a great few days in Boston, learned the proper way to pronounce chowder, and spent such a long, long, long time on a bus tour of the city that my youngest son began looking for implements with which to kill the tour guide, his parents, or himself. Please, nobody mention the Old North Church to him again, or I cannot be responsible for his actions. And then, on the flight home, I pulled out Cell. Lo, it opens with disaster befalling civilization on Boylston Street, beside Boston Common. A cellphone pulse renders humanity insane, and within a few pages a tour bus wreaks havoc in a crazed duel with an ice cream truck. The book was the perfect coda to our visit. But if I keep having outbursts at 30,000 feet, even of laughter, the airlines are going to put me on a No Fly list.
And of course I chose a Stephen King book. What did you expect?
Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk. A virtuoso piece, and a punch to the gut. Cruel, sad, scabrously funny, pulsing with energy. It’s wild, it’s crafty, it has Brad Pitt on the cover. Need I say more?
Blood and Sand, Frank Gardner. In this memoir the BBC Security Correspondent recounts with chilling clarity the al Qaeda ambush that killed his cameraman and left him fighting for life with six gunshot wounds. But as Gardner emphasizes, this is not a horror story. The book details his 25 years of experiences in the Middle East as a student, investment banker and journalist – some crazy, some scary, many amusing. As a travel book it would be good enough. But it also charts the gradual swell of Islamism and the rise of al Qaeda, forces that eventually intersected Gardner’s life so catastrophically in Riyadh. Reading of how he clung to consciousness as he lay unaided in the street – paralyzed, soaked in blood, screaming in pain while a ghoulish crowd snapped photos – hanging on for the sake of his wife and kids, is terribly moving. The acknowledgments alone (To my brilliant surgeon, for saving my life…to my wife, who went through hell without complaining…) are humbling. It’s terrific. Besides, at the British Library Gardner signed my son’s copy, and laughed good-humoredly when my son then promised that he would actually read it. Getting my kids to crack open a book: that always tops my list.