"Oh gee, that's ... interesting" is the classic statement of disinterest, the damning-with-the- faintest-praise-possible response.
In my business, though, what better compliment to pay an author than, "Hey, you've written a really interesting book that hasn't wasted my time?"
In my campaign to restore "interesting" to its former respectable place in our lexicon, I offer my "Interesting Books of 2006" in two installments, the first fiction.
(Note, I did not say "best" or "worst" or any adjective in between. The criterion is simply "interesting.")
My fiction choices:
"ARTHUR & GEORGE" by Julian Barnes.
Arthur Conan Doyle lived a full life outside his novels, as we learn from Barnes' lively and sympathetic version of an intervention by the writer in the case of George Edalji.
Edalji, son of an Indian father and English mother, was convicted of maiming farm animals near Birmingham, England, in 1903. Doyle's efforts succeeded in clearing his name and changing the British judicial system.
Barnes brings a novelist's sense of mystery and symbolism to this fascinating book.
"GALLATIN CANYON' by Thomas McGuane.
Short stories are usually about the story rather than the locale or the characters. Here, however, Westerner McGuane constructs a clear-eyed view of what life might look like in modern Montana. Otherwise, the stories themselves are inconsistent.
"THE POE SHADOW" by Matthew Pearl and "INTERPRETATION OF MURDER" by Jed Rubenfeld.
It's become popular to turn historical figures into characters novelists can use to flesh out their books with facts and details that they don't have to invent.
Pearl drew on the shadowy death of Edgar Allan Poe and his detection stories to plump up his dark tale of dirty work in 1840s Baltimore. The background work is compelling, although the novel overall is muddled.
Rubenfeld taps a real trove of curious characters when he offers a fictional version of Sigmund Freud's only visit to America, accompanied by Carl Jung, in 1909. It's a gumbo of psychoanalysis, bridge-building and Tammany Hall politics that, while fun to read, fails to cook up a consistent tale.
"THIRTEEN MOONS" by Charles Frazier.
Frazier ("Cold Mountain") has all the great stuff he can use from the history of the Cherokee in his second novel, and he uses it to compelling effect in the first half.
Hero Will Cooper makes his home among the Native Americans, learning their language and culture. Frazier artfully works the Cherokee lifestyle into his pages and, as an added bonus, takes Cooper to Washington, D.C., where he mingles with President Jackson and Rep. Davy Crockett.
This is a version of early 19th-century America seldom recounted. Frazier's lively, occasionally bawdy, version is fun.
Sadly, after the Cherokee are driven off their land, he loses momentum like an old jalopy trying to climb a Great Smoky peak.
Of little or no interest:
"EVERYMAN" by Philip Roth. You read this because it is Roth, but the novelist's usual power is frittered away in maudlin details about geriatric medical procedures and the self-pity of the nameless hero.
"TERRORIST" by John Updike. You read this because it is Updike, but the unfamiliar territory for the novelist of a poor boy in Paterson, N.J., drawn into Islam lends an inauthentic air.
"TELEGRAPH DAYS" by Larry McMurtry. McMurtry fiddles around with the history of the Old West in such a lackadaisical way that we're soon snoozing in the sagebrush.
Post-Gazette book editor Bob Hoover can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1634.