This was the year fantasy and reality met, snuggled and produced a litter of hybrids. On shelves, the travel book Hav is fiction disguised as fact, while crime thriller The Medici Conspiracy is fact that reads like fiction. In cinemas, Borat was a make-believe man out to reveal the true America; United 93 was an awful truth that could only be revealed through make-believe. Here are our picks of 2006: real stories, tall tales and somethings-in-between.
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1. Jan Morris, Hav
Welsh travel writer Morris has described nearly every interesting place on the planet. Unique among them is Hav, the Levantine city-state she put on the map two decades ago with her first novel Last Letters from Hav and which exists only in her mind. The author's word-portraits of Hav's picturesque streets and quaint customs made the place indelible in the annals of travel. Sadly, it was largely destroyed by foreign invaders in 1985 and rebuilt as an efficient, soulless resort destination. Morris' latest, perhaps most insightful book yet, titled simply Hav, helpfully reprints the entire 200-odd-page Last Letters from Hav before moving smoothly to its sequel, which describes the new Hav in all its globalized, deracinated glory. Hav's transformation is "a paradigm of our 21st century zeitgeist," Morris writes with the sadness of someone old enough to know how delightfully diverse the world used to be.
2. Carmen Callil, Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland
Frenchman Louis Darquier de Pellepoix beat his wife, abandoned his child and spent the 1920s and '30s avoiding work while cadging money from relatives. But he had one distinguishing vice: anti-Semitism. Darquier fed the flames of hate, and after the Nazi occupation, it paid off. By currying favor with Nazis and collaborators alike, he became Commissioner for Jewish Affairs for the Vichy government in May 1942, presiding over a nest of corruption and the deportation of 75,000 Jews to German death camps. He died in 1980, unpunished and unrepentant. Callil lays out Darquier's sordid tale with cool disdain and relentless research. She first encountered his name after the apparent suicide in 1970 of her young psychiatrist his daughter, it turned out, who had been abandoned decades before. In Callil's gifted hands, Louis Darquier's story becomes a history of modern French anti-Semitism and a stark reminder of the Vichy regime's depravity.
3. Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Wizard of the Crow
The citizens of Aburiria queue for weeks to sign up for jobs that don't exist, while the poor lie dying in the streets. But their bloated, inept Ruler is more concerned with building a tower to heaven. Hopeless, the people turn to a wizard who cures their emotional ills using a mirror and advice so good it seems like magic. For the fictional Aburiria, think Africa. In Wizard of the Crow, Kenyan author Ngugi draws a folkloric tale out of the continent crippled by inequality, corruption and aids. But he sees the funny side, too. Wizard of the Crow is an epic farce, poking fun at Aburiria's idiotocracy as misunderstandings and mistaken identities throw its characters into one ridiculous adventure after another. All written in the lyrical style of a master storyteller, perfect for reading and laughing aloud.
4. Seamus Heaney, District and Circle
Any new collection by Heaney, perhaps the world's greatest living poet, is an event. And this one is a killer literally. District and Circle (the title suggests the London Underground and, surely, its 2005 terror bombings) throbs with anxiety, foreboding and half-suppressed violence. Heaney's language is a symphony of sounds, surprises and look-'em-up words, like his barber's "cold smooth creeping steel and snicking scissors." You'll want to sing his lines out loud until you realize how deadly serious the post-9/11 Heaney can be. "Anything can happen," he warns, "the tallest towers/ Be overturned, those in high places daunted,/ Those overlooked regarded." The world has changed, he is saying, and those cold, smooth, snicking scissors are creeping toward us.
5. Tahir Shah, The Caliph's House
One cold, wet afternoon Shah decided he'd had enough of London. The result was The Caliph's House, a lively account of how the travel writer moved his pregnant wife and young daughter to Casablanca, buying a decrepit Arabian Nights complex once owned by a real caliph. Shah encountered slothful house-renovation crews and irascible neighbors, but also had to dodge gangsters, suicide bombers, plagues of rats and worst of all jinns, the spirits that many Moroccans believe are hazards of daily life. He learned to deal with the jinns the Moroccan way, sprinkling drops of his blood in the toilet, burying chunks of meat in the garden and, eventually, hiring 24 drum-banging exorcists for a two-day expulsion ritual. The Caliph's House ends with the residence beautifully renovated and the transplanted Londoners better for the experience. So much better that Shah is working on a sequel. No word on the jinns' next move.
6. Tove Jansson, Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip
Finland's Jansson started writing books about the hippo-like Moomins in 1946, but their first appearance in English was as a comic strip that ran in the London Evening News between 1953 and 1958. It was syndicated then, but has never been published since until now. In the comic strip, the Moomin family strays far from the tranquil charms of Moominvalley: on the French Riviera, Moominpappa gets drunk and Moomin's sweetheart, the Snork Maiden, is seduced by a toothy film star. But then the hattifatteners appear mute, sock-like animals that grow from seeds and chase after electric storms. There's the discovery of a chestful of swearwords (they have legs) and, at one point, the gentle Moomin is forced by hunger to kill and roast a wild pig. Here is where Jansson's weird but true world begins; where fear, loneliness and insecurity are banished by love and the force of imagination.