I don’t read nearly enough to compile a decent top ten list, but I can name four exceptional new books I read in 2006. Two are memoirs that couldn’t be more different, and that goes for the other two as well, both of them novels.
Everything I'm Cracked Up to Be (Jen Trynin)
Sounding like a beguiling cross between Chrissie Hynde and Joni Mitchell, Boston-based rocker Trynin released two critically acclaimed but little heard albums in the mid-1990s, and then abruptly disappeared. Those few fans (like me) clamoring for an explanation finally get one in this massively entertaining memoir where Trynin relates her rapid career trajectory. She progresses from suddenly rising star to hot property in a major record label bidding war to exhausted has-been seemingly overnight, with enough booze and drama to jam-pack five episodes of BEHIND THE MUSIC. However, Trynin’s riotous sense of humor and refreshing lack of self-pity go beyond that well-worn template. She also has much detailed insight as to how the music industry works—or doesn’t work, unless you have lots of hits and genuine support from your label. Trynin’s sharp prose is enough to make one long for another album from her, although I now totally understand why she’d rather just write.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)
Best known for her long-running comic strip DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR, Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir should appeal to anyone lamenting the late TV series SIX FEET UNDER. Similarly an equally comic and morbid confection, the title comes from the family business, a funeral parlor in small-town Pennsylvania. Bechdel’s story primarily concerns her father, a part-time English lit teacher and a closeted gay man who died mysteriously (he may have committed suicide) when she was in college. Using that as a jumping-off point, FUN HOME ambitiously sifts through memories and old diary entries (all meticulously re-created through her clean yet intricate style) and makes literary allusions to reveal and comprehend her father’s secret life and find some catharsis. Flowing effortlessly, it’s as rewarding and engaging as the best work of Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware, yet it also comes from a decidedly original voice.
Lost and Found: A Novel (Carolyn Parkhurst)
At first, Parkhurst’s follow-up to her intense debut novel THE DOGS OF BABEL feels much lighter: a clever satire of reality television, but nothing more profound than your average beach read. Tracking the contestants of a scavenger-hunt type show that bears more than a passing resemblance to THE AMAZING RACE, each chapter is narrated first person, confessional style (a la THE REAL WORLD). Among the tag-team duos are an estranged mother and daughter, two former child TV stars struggling to extend their celebrity into adulthood and a married couple made up of a man and a woman who met each other through the ex-gay movement. Parkhurst lithely nails the genre’s conventions and quirks so as not to feel at all contrived, but she also digs a little deeper than you’d expect. She recognizes how a reality TV series needs drama and suspense in order to thrive, but she doesn’t forget to make her characters relatable or humane.
Winkie (Clifford Chase)
The titular protagonist here is a teddy bear accused of terrorism. That sentence alone should either pique your interest or send you running for the hills. In Chase’s unclassifiable and odd yet incessantly fascinating first novel, we get drawn into the thoughts of an inanimate object that eventually comes to life. However, this ain’t PINOCCHIO. Sometimes WINKIE is a simple fable filled with fuzzy but not altogether warm reminiscences about the bear’s past; other times, it is an exceedingly cartoonish allegory on the war on terror, with a stuffed toy as a scapegoat, a receptacle for society’s ignorance and cruelty. Sometimes Winkie is male and at other times (or simultaneously?) female, giving birth to a philosophy-dispensing cub who may be divine. WINKIE similarly swerves between the ridiculous and the sublime: it’s an extraordinary act of chutzpah and often hard to put down (in both senses of the term).