The People's Act of Love
by James Meek
This has been a dismal year for books: Even the nauseating best-of-2006 lists going up on every litblog across creation feel perfunctory. I've been fairly disappointed with almost everything I've read this year; it all felt, at best, like a witty party conversation, disposable and clever. There were no big ideas, no novelists willing to take a stand, or a chance, except for this one psychological thriller that was quietly released in hardcover last January to modest acclaim, and then reissued in paperback this month to a larger rumbling of attention.
The People's Act of Love—forgive the awkward title; it's the only misstep in the whole endeavor—is astounding in the way that novels don't astound anymore. It reads like a big Russian novel of ideas, partially because of its setting—farthest Siberia in the early 20th century—but also because it feels as though you could win a vodka-drunk argument about religion by quoting a big chunk of its dialogue.
And if that doesn't turn your must-read light on, there's also doomed romance, untrustworthy narrators, a persistent and compelling sense of dread, cannibalism, a silent assassin code-named The Mohican, a cult of castrates, and many of the other excesses that mark up the man's-inhumanity-to-man side of the chalkboard, as well as a sliver of hope. I had no idea that this book was so good when it was released at the beginning of the year, and I'm so happy that I read it in December so that I can declare it the best thing I read in 2006. PAUL CONSTANT
Graceland: An Interactive Pop-up Tour
by Chuck Murphy
I love Elvis. I'm not a hardcore fan by any means, although I must admit that I've been to Graceland, which is a hideous place. While the mansion's façade and the surrounding estate are quite elegant, the interior is a garish monstrosity. It's a time capsule containing the ugliest of '70s style and the over-the-top gaudy décor that was the result of Elvis's descent into weirdness and excess: carpeted and mirrored ceilings, tiki furniture, gilded candelabra, dark wood paneling, glass chandeliers, multiple TVs in one room. Yet, bizarre as Graceland may be, it gets 600,000 or so visitors each year and has now inspired a $40 pop-up book.
Graceland: An Interactive Pop-up Tour is put together beautifully, with realistic illustrations and actual photos in the pop-ups. It intricately shows off eight rooms, the family graveyard, and various Elvis memorabilia, and also explains the house's history. On top of that, the book promises an "all-access pass," and it delivers, allowing me to do things that were forbidden at Graceland, like open Elvis's cupboards and refrigerator, go through his LPs, and change the channels on one of his TVs. KIM HAYDEN
The Rejection Collection: Cartoons You Never Saw, and Never Will See, in the New Yorker
Ed. Matthew Diffee
(Simon Spotlight Entertainment) $22.95
The most surprising thing about The Rejection Collection is that the cartoons are damn funny. None of those erudite, only occasionally funny drawings that usually fill the space between all those sprawling paragraphs on the New Yorker's pages. They're the kind of hilarious one-frame material that's not repulsive or degrading, but just not quite fit for upper-middle-class print. In one, a man swings open his front door, partner in tow, declaring, "Honey! I'm homo!" Other sketches include Bi-Curious George surfing the internet and Girls Coming Down After Having Gone Wild. While many collections of unprintable cartoons and writing grant martyr status to anything too racy to be accepted by the mainstream, editor Matthew Diffee takes a refreshing and down-to-earth view of rejection as an inevitable part of cartooning. Diffee and the other 50 or so regular New Yorker cartoonists submit 10 cartoons a week to the magazine—if they're lucky, one is printed. These artists just want some of their favorite nixed jokes to see the light of day: Their cartoons aren't special because they're rejected, they're special because they're hilarious. Also interesting are the questionnaires Diffee asked each of the artists to hand-complete as an introduction to his or her work. The survey asks, "When I'm not cartooning, I..." and Leo Cullum responds: "...am wrestling, then showering, with my demons." SARAH MIRK
The Best American Travel Writing 2006
Ed. Jason Wilson and Tim Cahill
(Houghton Mifflin) $14
The Best American series seems like a bad idea—it's too much to ask the American writing public to produce enough excellent writing in fiction, science, sports, cooking, spiritual reflection, etc., to justify an annual anthology in each category. It's a recipe for pulp. Predictably, some of The Best American Travel Writing 2006 is predictable: fake "savages," pitiable prostitutes, David Sedaris complaining about stuff. But, on the whole, the book is varied, interesting, good. The first sentence of the last story (the first sentence I read, the one that seduced me into the book) goes: "I try not to let a decade pass without renewing my assault on Spanish, which I keep hearing described as an easy language to learn." That's by Calvin Trillin. George Saunders has a story about Dubai (featuring Kenyans and snow). Caitlin Flanagan goes to Hawaii, propelled by Joan Didion's essays on the islands. (She is disappointed.) Michael Paterniti takes a trip to a chicken-scratch town in Ukraine to meet a giant (eight feet tall and growing) he read about in a newswire story. Better than you might expect for a book about American writers traveling in 2006. BRENDAN KILEY