1. ALISON BECHDEL, FUN HOME
The unlikeliest literary success of 2006 is a stunning memoir about a girl growing up in a small town with her cryptic, perfectionist dad and slowly realizing that a) she is gay and b) he is too. Oh, and it's a comic book: Bechdel's breathtakingly smart commentary duets with eloquent line drawings. Forget genre and sexual orientation: this is a masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other.
2. LAWRENCE WRIGHT, THE LOOMING TOWER: AL-QAEDA AND THE ROAD TO 9/11
In this compulsively readable, deeply unnerving book, Wright traces the rise of Islamic terrorism from the Egyptian polemicist Sayyid Qutb to the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood to Osama bin Laden. Enter John O'Neill, the FBI counterterrorism chief who connected the dots of al-Qaeda's plot and tried in vain to warn his bosses right up to the day he died--Sept. 11, 2001.
3. CORMAC MCCARTHY, THE ROAD
A sad man and his young son trudge across the burnt landscape of a world that has committed suicide in some catastrophe. This could be Mad Max, or it could be Samuel Beckett; it's certainly as thrilling as the one and as emotionally costly as the other. Just keep telling yourself, It's only a novel, it's only a novel ...
4. BILL BUFORD, HEAT
In a moment of recklessness, Buford, a journalist with no culinary training, became a kitchen slave--his words--to Mario Batali. It takes a big talent to render in words the animal, essentially anti-verbal experience of eating. It takes a big man to describe the hilarious humiliations to which an apprentice chef is subjected. Buford is both. He's also lucky: the brilliant, insatiable, demonic Batali is the kind of character writers sell their souls for.
5. THOMAS E. RICKS, FIASCO: THE AMERICAN MILITARY ADVENTURE IN IRAQ
The title says it all. This is a complete account of the arrogance and fecklessness of the Bush Administration during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq and of the predictable disaster that followed. Ricks gets his most damning recollections from the military officers whose warnings that Iraq would be no cakewalk were brushed aside by civilian bosses. Depressing reading, and essential.
6. RICHARD FORD, THE LAY OF THE LAND
In Ford's third Frank Bascombe novel, real estate prices are good, but much else is not. Now 55, Bascombe is prosperous but wary, licking his wounds after two failed marriages and weathering the indignities of prostate cancer. Luckily, though, his lyrical take on mundane life, his steady-state exasperation and his peerless b.s. detector are all in good working order.
7. GARY SHTEYNGART, ABSURDISTAN
Too many novels feel tidy, as if the world were neatly divisible into East and West, good and bad. Absurdistan is not tidy, nor is its hero: grotesquely obese Misha Vainberg, a rich young Russian obsessed with New York City. Misha is trapped (for legal reasons) in his homeland, and his longing--plus vodka--powers this endlessly inventive, lugubriously funny post-Soviet picaresque.
8. HAMPTON SIDES, BLOOD AND THUNDER: AN EPIC OF THE AMERICAN WEST