December 28, 2006

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Best Books of 2006
What we liked
By Hippo Staff news@hippopress.com.

Amy Diaz, executive editor
Nonfiction: My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme (Knopf). Julia Child arrived in Paris in 1948 as a relative newbie to the world of food, especially French cuisine. Here we follow her relationship (at times difficult) with her coauthors on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that launched Child into American stardom. It takes them nearly 10 years of testing recipes, arguing about what to include and updating French cooking styles for American kitchens before the book is born. It’s fascinating to hear Child, who became a giant in her field, talk about being a late bloomer unsure what she wants to do with her life (and this is even after she decides her future is in food). The book is written in Child’s voice and is as frank and funny as you would expect.

Fiction: Company, by Max Barry (Doubleday). Work in an office for any amount of time and you will find yourself caring passionately about something trivial—a parking space, the printer paper, your mug. In Company, a sales rep. named Roger will destroy the career of one man and all but destroy two others in order to find out what happened to his donut, and Jones, a fresh-faced recent graduate, quickly becomes obsessed with finding out what the company actually does—its mission statement is a masterpiece of empty obfuscation. Brightly written and breezy, Company is a darker, alternate-reality version of The Office but with the same sense of laugh-until-you-cry-tears-of-anguish familiarity.

Coffee-table book: Old Jewish Comedians, by Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics). Nothing but pictures and names here, but that’s enough. Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Your Show of Shows, you can tell that Sid Caesar (drawn here with wide-open eyes and a starry background that makes him look like a cross between the face of God and a sky-searching UFO-watcher) is a guy in touch with the kooky. Easy laughter radiates from the face of Red Buttons (born Aaron Chwatt). The effort and rare sparkle required to work a nightclub and be funny every night glisten on the face of Buddy Hackett (Leonard Hacker). Yes, if Borscht is your Belt of choice, this is your book.

Cookbook: I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris (Warner Books). Amy Sedaris’ ideas on entertaining come not from watching Martha, Mario and Emeril but from watching her mom some 30 years ago (you can also see Sedaris’ Greek heritage in the many Greek recipes here). These aren’t recipes you get off the Food Network but recipes you get off the backs of cans of sweetened condensed milk or boxes of instant rice. Potato salad, the giant cheese ball for parties, about a million variations of cake and cupcakes — these are some highly practical items that you usually don’t find in the books featuring your modern pancetta-wrapped eats. Sedaris seems to like her image as a perky, slightly boozy, can-do hostess who brings a Betty Crocker/Mary Kay do-it-yourself attitude to all of her projects. I Like You will not replace your Joy of Cooking. But it’s nice to run across a book on entertaining that knows how to wink.

Lisa Parsons, contributing editor
The Echo Maker, by Richard Powers (Farrar Straus and Giroux). Within the first page of The Echo Maker I felt ashamed of my liking for other, cheaper novels this year. How could I have thought those others were good when writing like this was out there? Somewhere around page 300, I started to feel things were stretching too thin and I had to acknowledge that perhaps Richard Powers’ novels are not perfect. (I seem to recall that feeling from Galatea 2.2 as well.) But they’re still really good. Partly because his writing is exquisite, and partly because he tackles subjects that few literary writers do (which wouldn’t matter if his writing weren’t exquisite)—subjects like recursion and consciousness and self and identity, subjects that link strongly to math and science and abstraction, subjects you can get through a whole liberal arts college program without studying too deeply. And he writes of them without a hint of technicality. And in fiction. The Echo Maker concerns a young man whose brain injury causes him to develop Capgras syndrome, wherein he thinks his sister has been replaced by an imposter. It’s a real-life phenomenon that raises fascinating questions about how we know reality, and what the components of reality and of conscious experience are. Although I think the real-life case reports are actually more compelling in that regard, this novel is absorbing and beautiful in its own right, because of Powers’ skill with language and character.

Eric. W. Saeger, music critic
The Case for Impeachment: The Legal Argument for Removing President George W. Bush from Office, by Dave Lindorff and Barbara Olshansky (St. Martin’s Press). With everything being about information nowadays, it’s difficult for me to picture fiction as a viable medium anymore—truth is always stranger than, and I’ve never been one for smiling wryly when someone writes something better than what I might be able to come up with. So nowadays I turn to dark nonfiction when I feel like reading, and this was easily the most compelling thing around, written in more of a Bob Woodward style than those sterile, ISO-9000-ized gubmint-commissioned texts. It’s the same sort of fright-fest wake-up call as Al Gore’s global warming movie, but here we stare in disbelief at the Constitution being eaten away instead of the environment. With this book, and as the Jose Padilla investigation continues its rollout, any American with a gnat’s attention span can see quite plainly that the republic is in critical condition. It’s every citizen’s duty to grok as much of this information as possible.

Susan Reilly, food writer
Nonfiction: Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta Maker and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, by Bill Buford (Random House). Heat is the kind of book that makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up and my inner angst rear its ugly head because I wish I had written it. I have been a fan of Bill Buford’s ever since I heard him read from Among the Thugs, his wild tale of traveling with British soccer hooligans, but whereas hooliganism is not near and dear to my heart, food writing is, especially when it involves the red-haired Mario Batali and Buford as his self-described “kitchen bitch.” Buford gave up his job as fiction editor for The New Yorker to work in the kitchen at Batali’s Babbo (this was not a career move but simply a journalistic exercise). The job is tough and Buford makes us feel his pain. His observations of Batali—truly the mayor of crazytown—are fantastic, so I won’t spoil it by spilling them here. Not too heavy on the foul-mouthed, rough-and-tumble aspects of the modern high-pressure kitchen, Heat is more cerebral.

Fiction: The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (Scribner). I have been a longtime fan of Amy Hempel’s short fiction, but decided to pick up The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel after reading a New York Times book review last May. The reviewer drove home the point that it has taken Hempel something like 20 years to pen 400 pages spread over 48 stories. The reason: she agonizes over every character and event. Every single word counts. You will never read a three-page story that will knock you out like a one-two punch until you read Hempel. I have always found Hempel to be a powerful writer who spins unsettling tales full of dark humor and eerie situations. If you put a book down and walk around continuing to think about its characters or are desperate to find someone else who has read it so you can discuss it, it has left a mark. This is one of my favorite books of 2006.Amy Diaz, executive editor
Nonfiction: My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme (Knopf). Julia Child arrived in Paris in 1948 as a relative newbie to the world of food, especially French cuisine. Here we follow her relationship (at times difficult) with her coauthors on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that launched Child into American stardom. It takes them nearly 10 years of testing recipes, arguing about what to include and updating French cooking styles for American kitchens before the book is born. It’s fascinating to hear Child, who became a giant in her field, talk about being a late bloomer unsure what she wants to do with her life (and this is even after she decides her future is in food). The book is written in Child’s voice and is as frank and funny as you would expect.