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Best Fiction of 2006

Dec 11, 2006 (Fresh Air from WHYY)

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Cover: Twilight of the Superheroes

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You can print these titles, along with all our other year-end picks, using this master list.

Nothing makes you appreciate good books more than not being able to read them. That's the fix I found myself in for a few weeks this past summer, as I was recovering from eye surgery and mostly had to stay still with one eye closed.

Of course, I listened to public radio round the clock, but loved ones also brought me books on tape. "Nothing complicated," I pleaded in my weakened state. "I just want good stories."

So in came the recordings of overly cozy mysteries and Maeve Binchy novels read by actors with too much blarney in their voices. What saved me was a droll recording of Allegra Goodman's first novel, Kaaterskill Falls. My husband brought it home from the library because a few months before misfortune struck, I'd been raving about Goodman's second novel Intuition, one of my candidates for one of the best novels of 2006.

Intuition takes place in a cancer research laboratory in Cambridge, Mass. Goodman likes to delve into the intricate relationships among people in close communities; Kaaterskill Falls was set in a summer vacation bungalow colony of Orthodox Jews.

The big idea Intuition explores is, how do we discern the truth? To mull over that question, Goodman, like her scientist characters, takes up a microscope. She's a miniaturist who, like Barbara Pym and Jane Austen, finds wit as well as wisdom in small details.

Another superb novel that also kept its focus trained on a few complex characters was Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. The children of the title are three friends nearing 30 who live in New York and have the kind of jobs — documentary filmmaker, editor, book critic — that look great on paper, but don't always cover the rent on their Manhattan apartments.

Messud deliciously exposes and slowly unwinds the illusions that wrap her characters in a sense of their own superiority. The climatic scene of The Emperor's Children takes place on Sept. 11, 2001. (Excerpt of 'The Emperor's Children')

Two other works of fiction that came out this year also successfully tackled that tough subject. The title story of Deborah Eisenberg's fine short story collection, Twilight of the Superheroes, describes the attack on the World Trade Center, while most of the five stories that follow take place in what we've now come to call the "post-9/11" world.

Politically charged, these short stories aren't just mausoleums for finely wrought feelings. Ditto for Ken Kalfus' extraordinary novel, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. A political satire, it links the private nightmare of a marriage gone sour to the public nightmare of Sept. 11.

Finally, Katherine Weber's terrific novel, Triangle, deserves mention in this Gotham lineup. The tragedy at its center is not Sept. 11, but rather the infamous triangle shirtwaist fire of 1911. I lazily thought the subject had been all but exhausted, especially after Washington Post reporter David Von Drehle's excellent nonfiction book on the subject, also called Triangle, that came out in 2003. Nope.

At the center of Weber's clever and moving tale is the last survivor of the fire, a woman now over 100, who remembers far more than she lets on to those eager to capture her recollections for their oral history projects.

Two Alices also makes the best fiction list this year: Alice Munro, whose autobiographical stories in The View from Castle Rock begin with imaginative reconstructions of her ancestors' immigration from their bleak farms in Scotland; and Alice McDermott, whose novel After This is a haunting account of how the sweeping social changes of the 1960s affected one lower middle-class Irish Catholic family on Long Island.

Speaking of families, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey died in November at the age of 98. Who, you might ask? Well, Mrs. Carey was the author, with her brother Frank Gilbreth Jr., of the beloved 1948 best seller, Cheaper by the Dozen. The story of the Gilbreth brood and their parents still fascinates, as evidenced by the recent movie remake of the book.

Last, but certainly not least this year, Richard Ford's novel The Lay of the Land also explores the complexities of family, especially after divorce and remarriage. The Lay of the Land is the final volume in Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy, succeeding The Sportswriter in 1986 and Independence Day in 1995.

Some of my most recent blissful moments were spent listening to Frank's musings on everything from the Bush presidency to the chummy atmosphere of a lesbian bar to the teeth gnashing familial conviviality of Thanksgiving. If there were ever a reason this year to be especially grateful for the gift of clear sight, Ford's as the author and mine as the lucky reader, it's embodied in The Lay of the Land.

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'After This,' the Latest from Alice McDermott

Sep 14, 2006 (Fresh Air from WHYY) — Writer Alice McDermott won the National Book Award in 1998 for her novel, Charming Billy. McDermott has just brought out a new novel called After This, and our book critic says that it's a stunner.

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