By John Wilson
Mr. Wilson's Bookshelf
Our sound track this week is "Wrapped Up and Tangled Up In Jesus" from God's Got It, a CD featuring the Rev Charlie Jackson of Louisiana. These recordings, which were made in the 1970s, are rough—the masters were lost—but precious. The CD was released in 2003 by CaseQuarter. For many years Wendy and I have played this song (on vinyl, from an old anthology album) on special occasions such as Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve, and at other times when we need to shout for one reason or another.
As for the books highlighted below, they are NOT the best books of the year or the most important. In saying so, I intend no fake humility, no above-the-fray superiority to lists that appear under such headings, including the just-released list from the editors of the New York Times Book Review offering their account of The 10 Best Books of 2006. Yes, I prefer my taste to theirs (though at least our lists have one book in common), and yes, we all understand that these end-of-the-year reckonings are a game of sorts. Still, it's worth saying that these are simply the titles that came most readily and insistently to mind over the last couple of weeks as I thought about the books I've read this year. If I had finished Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day, it might have been included. (As of this writing, I'm early in the book.) If I did this list a month from now, it would no doubt be at least slightly different.
Please note that no quota system was used. Many subjects in which I'm interested are not even represented. There's only one novel on the list, although as usual I made my way through a lot of fiction in 2006. And so on.
I should also note that in several cases I have some connection with authors whose books are recognized here. Bruce Kuklick—whom I haven't met in person, though I trust our paths will someday cross—is a regular contributor to Books & Culture, as is Ed Ericson (my professor decades ago, and a longtime friend) and Tim Larsen (a friend of recent vintage). I don't think these ties have led me to overestimate the value of their books, about which I hope you'll form your own opinion in any case, but you can factor in that information as you will.
Enough throat-clearing. Here are the Top Ten (listed alphabetically by title), followed by the Book of the Year.
Atchafayala Houseboat: My Years in the Louisiana Swamp, by Gwen Roland, with photographs by C. C. Lockwood (LSU Press). What first drew my eye to this little book was the 1970s photo of the author standing in a bathrobe on the deck of a houseboat and combing her long straight hair against a misty backdrop. Inspired by old French movies and Wendell Berry's wonderful book about Harlan Hubbard, among other sources, Wendy and I used to idly talk about living on a houseboat. In fact, although she might well have been game, I would never have proceeded beyond conversation. But here was the firsthand story of someone who did. Roland's account is so well-crafted, economically conveying not only her own experience but the spirit of a certain time and place, it seems quite logical when we learn at the end that this intrepid woman became an editor and writer for a university-based program in sustainable agriculture. She also tells us that sometime after she left the swamp, she became a Christian (good news that did take me by surprise). At a time when regions such as Roland describes are threatened in more ways than one, she gives us a clear picture of what we are in danger of losing.
Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger, by Bruce Kuklick (Princeton Univ. Press). Kuklick is a historian with an uncommon range, taking up subjects as various as American philosophy and the social history of baseball in Philadelphia. His new book, the best I've read this year on U.S. foreign policy and one of the most enjoyable books of the year in any category, focuses on efforts in the postwar era to bring foreign policy into the domain of scientific analysis. Coolly ironic, studded with intellectual biographies-in-miniature of a fascinating cast of characters, Blind Oracles is perhaps too impartial to win the wide acclaim it deserves.
The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, by Michael Lewis (Norton). As readers of Moneyball know well, no one writes more entertainingly and informatively on sports than Michael Lewis, who is the heir to Tom Wolfe in his flair for mastering a subject and describing it with pungent wit and an uncanny eye for trends that seem obvious once he's pointed them out. His new book will delight football fans; it's also a slice of life (young African American is adopted by affluent evangelicals and finds unexpected success on the gridiron) that might seem to spring from a novelist's imagination, so neatly does it manage to gather in one narrative a cluster of contemporary conundrums.