What were your favorites of 2006?

eds.jpgEdward Schwarzschild, author of “RESPONSIBLE MEN,” a novel that was chosen as the Best Literary Debut in the 2005 Best of the Capital Region section of the Albany Times Union, wieghs in with his favorite reads of the past year:

I’ve read a bunch of the “big books” of the year and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed most of them, especially Claire Messud’s THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN, Amy Hempel’s COLLECTED STORIES, Philip Roth’s EVERYMAN, and Irene Nemirovsky’s SUITE FRANCAISE. But my favorite books of 2006 include the following three lesser-known works:

Fiction: THE SECOND COMING OF MAVALA SHIKONGO, by Peter Orner (Little, Brown). I porner-140-exp-second.jpgbought this book as soon as it came out because I’d been completely entranced and overpowered by Orner’s first book, a phenomenal story collection called ESTHER STORIES (Houghton Mifflin, 2001). It’s not fair, really, to call it a collection, since the book defies categorization. It works as a novel, as prose poetry, as history, and more. ESTHER STORIES offers brilliant portraits of American characters from several generations of various families. Some are from the east coast and some are from the Midwest, but all of them are from deep in our collective heartland.

Just as it’s not particularly helpful to call ESTHER STORIES a collection, it’s also not particularly helpful to call THE SECOND COMING OF MAVALA SHIKONGO a novel. Which is to say that Orner’s second book also defies categorization. And, like his first book, it is moving, haunting, beautifully written, and extraordinarily new. It’s a story that seems to have grown out of Orner’s own experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Namibia. To give you some sense of how this book resists conventional classification, consider that it has 304 pages and 154 chapters. And yet it offers all the traditional pleasures of a novel—fully realized characters, an astounding sense of place, and a love story that pulls you forward.

NOTE: Peter Orner recently won the prestigious Bard Fiction Prize from Bard College, which means that he’ll be in the Hudson Valley throughout the upcoming Spring 2007 semester. I’ll be doing everything I can to get him to visit Albany during his stay.

Non-Fiction: THE BOY WHO FELL OUT OF THE SKY, by Ken Dornstein (Random House). Ken Dornstein’s older brother, David, was one of 259 boywhofell.jpgpeople who died when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded above Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988 and, in the course of this stunning memoir, Ken tries desperately to discover and record who his older brother was. I confess that I bought this book because David and I were both on our high school tennis team together. I didn’t know David well, and I’d never met Ken before picking up this book. But, all that aside (if I can actually put it aside), this is a gorgeous, poignant, must-read book because of how courageously it explores and captures the mysterious bond between brothers. In addition, it’s a book about writing (David had been trying to write a novel for years before he died), it’s a book about relationships (Ken winds up marrying one of David’s ex-girlfriends), it’s a book about grieving, and it’s a book about the beautiful, inspiring and destructive pull of obsession.

My Girlfriend’s First Book: HOW THIS NIGHT IS DIFFERENT, by Elisa Albert (Free Press/Simon and Schuster). Okay, so I’m hopelessly biased in this albertcover.jpgparticular case. You have been forewarned. And yet. This is an amazing collection of short stories that will make you laugh and blush and think and marvel. You’ll be quoting lines aloud to the people you love. Elisa Albert’s extraordinary characters are full of a liveliness and passion that animates their every thought, word, and act. These characters struggle against and within a world that has shown them too much disappointment and dysfunction. They’re smart, alienated, savvy, and it’s extremely poignant and uplifting to spend time with them while they try to figure out what they can still believe in as they grow older.

Here’s some more information about Edward Schwarzschild:
“RESPONSIBLE MEN” was also picked as one of the best books of 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle and as one of 2005’s 25 Best Books for Book Groups by Kirkus Reviews. RESPONSIBLE MEN was just released in paperback this fall. Schwarzschild’s next book, a collection of stories called FAMILY DIAMOND, will be published in September 2007.

Schwarzschild is an Associate Professor at the University at Albany, where he holds a joint appointment in the English department and the New York State Writers Institute. You can contact him and see more about him and his work at: www.responsiblemen.com


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