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3 Europa Editions titles among Newsday's favorite books of 2006

OUR FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2006

Always prolific, Stephen King outdid himself by producing two excellent novels this year. "Lisey's Story" (Scribner), his affecting tale of the bonds of mariage, earned the most praise, but to me it was "Cell" (Scribner) that cut deepest. A clever variant on "Night of the Living Dead," this tale of cell phones that turn users into murderous zombies is also a potent metaphor for living under the fear that violence could erupt at any moment and how we embrace or deny our humanity in such a circumstance. With "Cell" and the 2002 "From a Buick 6," King has produced the most affecting, morally nuanced portraits of post-9/11 America in fiction.

Reissues continue to be a major source of terrific books. This year's gems included "Total Chaos" and "Chourmo," the first two installments of the late Jean-Claude Izzo's lyrical "Marseilles Trilogy" (Europa Editions); Kenneth Fearing's "The Big Clock" (New York Review Books), a ruthless vision of corporate conformity and middle-class discontent; and Patrick Hamilton's "Hangover Square" (Europa Editions), one of the great novels of the '30s, and a book so unsparing and wounding it makes all other hardboiled writing seem like a pose.

Biographies ruled the year's nonfiction. Lee Server's "Ava Gardner: Love Is Nothing" (St. Martin's) is a show-biz bio that manages to be juicy yet free of the sneering gossipmongering that's come to define celebrity culture. Antonia Fraser's "Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King" (Talese/ Doubleday) has the readability, and the sublime and shrewd judgment, you'd expect from her. Better, this tale of Louis' favored mistresses approaches the erotic melancholy Ingmar Bergman achieved in "Smiles of a Summer Night."

But the book of the year, hands down, is "At Canaan's Edge" (Simon & Schuster), the concluding volume of Taylor Branch's magisterial "America in the King Years." In positing Martin Luther King Jr. as the pivotal figure of the last half of the "American century," Branch renders him the most towering figure in our history since Lincoln. Branch's moral vision of politics as both pragmatism and prophecy dwarfs what passes for political life in America right now.

by CHARLES TAYLOR

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