Monday, January 25, 2010

2010, Book Six: Louise Erdrich's Shadow Tag

An innocent children’s game becomes a metaphor for a tense psychological tug of war between an unhappy Minnesota couple in Louise Erdrich’s powerful and disturbing new novel, Shadow Tag.

The couple, Irene America and her husband, Gil, live in suburban Minneapolis with their three children and two dogs. Gil is an artist. Irene is Gil’s model and muse.

Before the two met Gil painted uninspired landscapes, but with Irene as his subject his paintings have achieved a quality that has brought him limited fame and fortune. (Envision a lesser Andrew Wyeth and his Helga painting.) Gil is now successful enough to support his family, but not so successful that he can escape being labeled a “Native American” artist.

It is their mutual dependence upon Gil’s art that both binds the couple together and pushes them apart, and which sets off an elaborate and cruel game of emotional manipulation. Gil resents Irene because he cannot achieve success without her. Irene, who has been unsuccessful in launching her own academic career, resents her financial dependence on Gil, who she claims to no longer love.

In a diary entry, Irene writes of Gil: “But here is the most telling thing: you wish to possess me. And my mistake: I loved you and let you think you could.”

Now Irene wants a divorce, but she is incapable of acting independently. Instead, she needs Gil to drive her away. Gil claims to love Irene, but their lovemaking is satisfying only when they bring physical pain to one another. Irene’s response to Gil’s escalating violence is almost nonchalant. When he viciously strikes his oldest son over a missing book report she photographs the bruise on the boy’s forehead, but does nothing more. Later when Gil rapes her, Irene’s response is to take a bubble bath.

Irene, who spends much of the book in an alcoholic haze, is not without cruelty of her own. Convinced that Gil, who suspects her of infidelity, is reading her diary, Irene creates two sets of diaries. She stores her true diary in a safety deposit box at a local bank. In her mock diary, kept in a file cabinet in her home office, she writes falsehoods that she knows will reveal Gil’s betrayal of trust and that will deepen his suspicions and anger. As with all married couples, Irene knows Gil’s insecurities and how to stir the embers of uncertainty, mistrust and vanity.

In shadow tag, children don't touch one another, instead shadows touch shadows. And that's what has happened to Gil and Irene. Each is so focused on their own desires -- their own needs -- that they look beyond one another. They are incapable of touching in any meaningful or loving way.

There are scenes of brutal candor and clarity. Stoney, the youngest child, loves to draw. He draws the dogs, his siblings, his father and mother.

In every picture, at the end of his mother’s hand, Stony drew a stick with a little half-moon on the end of it . . .

Look, said Irene, when she’d paged through her portraits and admired her carefully drawn outfits. There’s this thing on my hand, like another appendage, it’s always there. In every picture. What is it, Stoney?

The wineglass.

Irene was silent.

He thinks it’s part of you, said Florian.”

Shadow Tag is something of a departure for Erdrich.

Many of her familiar characters that appear from novel to novel – such as the Kashpaws – have been set aside. Her frequent use of magical realism and humor have also been abandoned in this novel, which is all too realistic and grimly absent of humor. Gil and Irene are Native America, but their ethnicity is of no bearing on the story. They could be Jews or Scotch Irish or Vulcan for all it matters.

Erdrich’s focus is in probing the shadowy regions of a marriage beyond saving, of a couple beyond redemption. It is a powerful, haunting novel that stands as Erdrich’s most accomplished work.

Published by Harper, Shadow Tag will be issued in February.

Friday, January 22, 2010


The January 25 issue of The New Yorker features an article on Neil Gaiman by Dana Goodyear.


Current acquisitions: The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell and The First Rule by Robert Crais.


Currently reading: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich and Give My Poor Heart Ease by William Ferris.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

From its opening line to its final word, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a delight.

Whether he's writing for children (The Wolves in the Wall), young adults (The Graveyard Book), adults (American Gods) or some audience in between (The Sandman), Gaiman seems to strike some deep chord in all of us that responds to the mythic, the mysterious, the macabre. Gaiman is the Edgar Allan Poe of our times.

Consider that The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Hugo and Newbery Awards as well as a Locus Award for best young adult novel. The Hugo and the Newbery? When's the last time that happened? It's a measure of Gaiman's broad appeal and should reassure adults put off by the thought of reading a YA novel. Don't. You will only miss a terrific read.

The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens. Bod (Nobody for short) is only a toddler when his family is brutally murdered. He's finds refuse in a graveyard where he is given the "Freedom of the Graveyard" by its ghostly inhabitants, who agree to raise him.

Bod experiences a couple of adventures en route to solving his family's murder. Those adventures are great fun, but what lifts the book far above the ordinary is how Bod -- who lives in a graveyard among the dead -- comes to embrace life and living.

"I want to see life," he tells Silas one of his protectors. "I want to hold it in my hands. I want to leave a footprint on the sand of a desert island. I want to play football with people. I want . . . I want everything."

As for the book's opening line. It goes like this: "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."

Try to stop reading after that line. Just try. To read Neil Gaiman is to understand that there's a reason magic spells are cast with words.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2010 Book Four: Half Broke Horses

Is Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls a novel or a history?

Something in between apparently. On the cover, the book is billed as a "true-life novel." In the author's note, Walls said she sees the book as an oral history, "undertaken with the storyteller's traditional liberties." She acknowledges that "I have also drawn on my imagination to fill in details that are hazy or missing."

There's nothing wrong with Walls' liberties. However you take the book, Half Broke Horses is an entertaining narrative and its narrator, Walls' grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, is a captivating character, fictional or otherwise. Walls' prose is unadorned, which is in keeping with the story she tells, and the narrative is a straight-forward chronological account, told in the first person.

If there were a Bible of the women's liberation movement this would be a book of that Bible. Lily Casey Smith is an independent woman; hard-working, level-headed and firmly decided in her opinions and her philosophy of life. From her childhood, on a ranch in West Texas, Lily understands that it is important that a woman be able to provide for herself. Against great odds, including the lack of an eighth grade education, she becomes a school teacher. (Lily later completes her eighth grade and even secures a college degree.)

Lilly is an inspiration. Her life is an example of what hard work, determination and a refusal to knuckle under to hardship -- including an ill-considered first marriage -- can accomplish. She was never wealthy, but she lived life fully and well and this book -- whether you consider it a novel or a biography -- is a fitting tribute to that life.

Two random thoughts on the book:

Why are the two words "Half Broke" of the title not hyphenated? The words are hyphenated in the text. The missing hyphen is annoying.

Walls delivers one of the best opening lines in recent memory: "Those old cows knew trouble was coming before we did." If you appreciate that line, you'll appreciate this book.

New Acquisitions

From my friends at Murder by the Book:

The Hidden Man, David Ellis
The Lock Artist, Steve Hamilton
A Quiet Belief in Angels, R.J. Ellory
Gutshot Straight, Lou Berney

Saturday, January 16, 2010

This and that

Currently reading:
Give My Poor Heart Ease
, William Ferris
Half Broke Horses, Jeannette Walls

Current acquisitions:
The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean

2010 Book Three: Little Dorrit

"I hope," said Arthur, "that he and his dupes may be a warning to people not to have so much done with them again."

"My dear Mr. Clennam,' returned Ferdinand, laughing, "have you really such a verdant hope? The next man who has as large a capacity and as genuine a taste for swindling, will succeed as well. Pardon me, but I think you really have no idea how the human bees will swarm to the beating of any old tin kettle . . ."
While reading Charles Dickens' Little Dorrit I cannot help but think of Bernie Madoff, whose massive Ponzi scheme defrauded thousands of investors before that house of cards came tumbling down, and Madoff was carted off to prison. His predecessor is found in the pages of Little Dorrit.

Like Madoff, Mr. Merdle, is a celebrated man; renowned for his wisdom and for his contributions to the nation and to society. Until his fraud is revealed, there are rumors that a baronetcy or more may be settled upon Mr. Merdle. And his fraud, like Madoff's, ensnares all manner of investor; from the privileged to the pensioner -- all driven by the belief of a sure thing.

Unlike Madoff, Mr. Merdle has a enough pride, sense of shame and good manners to take his own life.

Mr. Merdle is far from a central character in Dickens' sprawling novel that revolves around the infamous Marshalsea debtor's prison. But Merdle's fraud, and its impact upon the novel's central characters, is a critical part of Dickens' tale.

It can be said, I think, that one Dickens' novel is much like another. The author is both a romantic and a realist. You will find coincidence, mystery, sentimentality, unadulterated evil, unadulterated goodness, vivid minor characters (Mr. Pancks comes most to mind here), sly humor and an unrestrained tendency to puncture pomposity and pride.

It has taken me 16 days to complete Little Dorrit. Two or three days per book is more common. But I can think of no author that I would rather spend as much time with and to joyfully immerse myself in his writing, his characters, his narrative and his powerful, entertaining vision.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New Acquisitions

The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris
Where the God of Love Hangs Out, Amy Bloom
The Godfather of Kathmandu, John Burdett
Doors Open, Ian Rankin
Rizzo's War, Lou Manfreddo

Clearly, I have some serious reading to do.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Burdett will not make U.S. book tour in 2010

John Burdett, whose newest novel, The Godfather of Kathmandu, is released tomorrow will not be making a U.S. book tour. "Not this year, I'm afraid: economy, airtravel, weather," said Burdett.
- - -
I have completed book one of Dickens' Little Dorrit. The Dorrit family has exited the Marshalsea in great style. Many mysteries remain unsolved; including those of the human heart.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Egan short story in New Yorker shines

Jennifer Egan has a captivating short story in the January 11 issue of The New Yorker. The story, Safari, is about a music producer, his two children and girlfriend who are on safari in Africa. Egan does a wonderful job of making us care about the girlfriend and children.

Near the story's end, when she begins to summarize what happens to these characters later in life, it gives you a kick in the stomach. Yet, like a bystander at an auto accident who looks on in morbid fascination, you read on; wishing, hoping, that Egan plans to turns this story into a novel. Safari has a sly humorous ending. All in all it is one of the more readable short stories published in The New Yorker in months.

Egan is the author of Look At Me, which was short-listed for the 2001 National Book Award.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Book Two: McMurtry's Literary Life

Larry McMurtry's Literary Life is a delightful, but imperfect, book. Yet it is its very imperfections that make it such a delightful book to read.

Literary Life is subtitled A Second Memoir. In reading it, we discover that it is the second of three memoirs McMurtry has planned. The first, Books, was about his life as a book dealer. (Considering that McMurtry has at least four buildings in Archer City, Texas, filled with books I don't think we can characterize him as a rare book dealer.) Literary Life is about his life has a writer and the third will be about Hollywood and his life as a screenwriter.

Literary Life might strictly be considered mere ruminations on writing and the writing the life, rather than a memoir. Strike the word mere, because it is this relaxed, ruminative quality that makes the memoir both imperfect and delightful. McMurtry is not writing a history or biography, and thus, not overly concerned with dates or details. He thinking back on his past and telling stories. Consequently, he can be squishy on the facts.

But facts can get in the way of a good story and McMurtry is, at heart, a great storyteller. This book is as close as most of us will every get to sitting with him over a cup of coffee or a beer and hearing him talk about his art and spinning a few yarns about the literary life.And in Literary Life, McMurtry illuminates the writer's life.

Consider this passage about Horseman, Pass By, his first book:

"I had expected to be thrilled when I received my first copy of my first book, but when I opened the package and held the first copy in my hand, I found that I just felt sort of flat. There it was. I had made it into the ranks of the published, as I was to do about forty more time. But I felt no great surge of satisfaction. I learned then and have relearned many times since, that the best part of a writer's life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life."

Later, near the book's end, he writes:

"At the beginning of my career I was much concerned about prose style . . . I soon realized I could not write lyrical prose in my fiction, and, after a bit, I ceased to want to. I developed a tiny theory, which is that a writer's prose should be congruent with the landscape he is peopling. It made sense that Faulkner, from the deeply forested South, would write a dense and complex prose, whereas, say, Willa Cather, a plains state author, would write more sparely, as, in fact, I do myself."

I have read most of McMurtry's non-fiction work, but not one of his novels. This brings us, writer and reader, into an odd agreement. "And there are days," McMurtry writes, "when I think my own nonfiction will outlive my novels, mostly."

Mostly, I can't agree, not having read those novels. But I can agree that his non-fiction books, Literary Life among them, make a satisfying legacy.

1. My Father Is A Book, Janna Malamud Smith. Memoir
2. Literary Life, Larry McMurtry. Memoir

Next up:
Give My Poor Heart Ease, Voices of the Mississippi Blues by William Ferris

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

The First Book of 2010

I have finished my first book of the new year -- My Father Is A Book by Janna Malamud Smith. It is a warm, intimate account of her life and relationship with her father, the author, Bernard Malamud.

Smith provides a rare glimpse of an author's daily life. Two passages serve to capture the tone of her superb memoir:

"He wrote in blue or black ink, often in later years with a Bic ballpoint pen, on yellow unlined paper, a pile of which he kept in a desk drawer. He spaced the lines intending correction and would begin each morning by rereading and editing what he'd written the day before. . . . His process was so private, so easily interrupted that I rarely witnessed him putting words on paper. . . . Then he would rewrite. And rewrite. Usually two or three times, occasionally into the double digits of drafts. His sentences and paragraphs were hard won, the result of considered thought and constant revision. He understood that effort and discipline made up his strong suit, and at least once he said that his success had come from 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work."

She recalls the summer she was 16 and began to borrow from her father's library as she embarked on her first serious reading:

"I'd interrupt him in his study to replace one (book) and take another, or to tell him about something I was learning, recite a poem I had lately memorized, or simply to get him to explain some idea. He delighted in my intellectual awakening. I enjoyed holding his attention. But more than that, I found him then, at his quiet best. They were moments of deep compatibility; easy, comfortable closeness; conversations with a friend. His study is still where I cherish him most; where is exactly my loving, beloved father."

Tomorrow I begin Larry McMurty's most recent memoir, Literary Life.

Patchett makes New Year's resolution

Here's an entertaining New Year's resolution from Ann Patchett, one of my favorite authors.

First Purchases, Forthcoming Titles

I made my first purchases of 2010 yesterday: Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler and Literary Life by Larry McMurtry.

I've already mentioned that I read Tyler's newest novel last year. It was released in England in the fall. It is not her best effort.

Here are some of the titles, to be released in 2010, that I am anticipating:

  • The Burning Land, the fifth book in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales.

  • Wild Child by T.C. Boyle

  • The First Rule by Robert Crais. His second thriller to feature Joe Pike.

  • Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

  • Franklin Pierce by Michael Holt, the newest release in the American Presidents series

  • Solar by Ian McEwan
Amy Bloom, Joshua Ferris and Martin Amis also have books that will be released in early 2010. There were a bounty of books released in 2009 and 2010 is off to a similar start.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2010, Day Four

I didn't pick up a book Monday until the evening. That's unusual for me. On most days I have completed 80 percent of my pages for the day by 1 p.m. I have an hour commute, one way, which allows me to read 30 to 50 pages in the morning, and I typically close the door for lunch and read another 20 to 30 pages.

Not Monday. I left for work before the sun was up and that cut into my morning read time. The return to work, after two weeks away, was busy and three "meetings," starting at noon, eliminated any additional chance to read.

I'm almost finished with My Father Is A Book and still enjoying it.

Janna Malamud Smith writes that her father, while in New York, awaiting the publication of his first book, The Natural, went on a shopping spree:

"He anticipates her (Malamud's wife) resistance to the consequences of his book buying: 'I have sent out to my office three 35 pound boxes of books. We will need a new bookcase -- without complaints, please.'"

She also shares a letter from her father in which he expresses excitement about the cover of The Natural:

"Giroux showed me the book jacket: it's a very nice job in green and bold black. In the center a powerful, black, almost-hawk-nosed Roy, with a bat on his shoulders -- an abstract, as I wanted it. Around him, well composed, an interesting group of Daumier life figures -- fans and other characters in the book. On top, my name; on the book "The Natural." A strong imposing cover, in good taste."

Smith's chapter on Corvallis, Oregon, where she was born and the family lived for many years provides a rare glimpse into the daily life of a famous author.

+ + +

In Little Dorrit, Dickens introduces Mr. Tite Barnacle and the Circumlocution Office. The parallels to Chancery, the English court system, as described in Bleak House, are unmistakable. Both the Circumlocution Office and Chancery are imposing bureaucracies; impenetrable and uncaring, with their own internal logic. For example, Dickens tells the reader, "How the Circumlocution Office . . . 'saw no reason to reverse the decision at which my lords had arrived.' How the Circumlocution Office, being reminded that my lords had arrived at no decision, shelved the business."

The Circumlocution Office is notable "in the art of perceiving -- HOW NOT TO DO IT."

In a wonderful passage, Dickens writes:

"It is true that How not to do it was the great study and object of all public departments and professional politicians all round the Circumlocution Office. It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering How not to do it. It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn't been done, and who had been asking for friends of the honourable gentleman in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn't been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, How it was not to be done. . . . All this is true, but the Circumlocution office went beyond it."

It is perfectly understandable if the modern reader draws parallels between the Circumlocution Office and a certain political party's actions -- or the withholding of action -- regarding health care reform.

The New York Times on Noah's Compass

New York Times' reviewer Michiko Kautani offers the following assessment of Anne Tyler's new novel, Noah's Compass:
"But his story also turns out to be slighter than Ms. Tyler’s best work, tipping over into the sentimentality she is prone to and eschewing the ambition of her last novel, Digging to America. Whereas that book opened out into a commodious meditation on identity and belonging — what it means to be part of a family, a culture, a country — this one devolves into a predictable and highly contrived tale of one man’s late midlife crisis."
I think Kautani's review is fair and accurate. "Slighter" is a good word to describe Noah's Compass when compared to Tyler's earlier work. The book will disappoint her numerous fans.

The full review can be read here.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

2010, Day Three

It's an unseasonably cold day here in northern Virginia. The sunshine is misleading as a thin and reedy wind keeps the temperature below 30. A perfect day, then, for reading.

I have read eight chapters, some 90 pages, of Dicken's Little Dorrit. I have met Amy Dorrit, the title character who was born in Marshalsea Prison, the infamous debtor's prison. I have also been introduced to Arthur Clennam, recently returned to London and who suspects that his family business may have reparations to make; Clennam's cold and emotionally distant mother; and Flintwich, a conniving servant, who appears to have a twin.

There is a mystery here, perhaps more than one; wrongs to be righted and an unfortunate in need of a champion. All the ingredients are present for a satisfying read as Mr. Dicken's is wont to provide. In the introduction to the book -- it is an Oxford Illustrated Edition -- Lionel Trilling indicates that when Little Dorrit was first introduced it enjoyed greater success than Bleak House.

I have read slightly more than 100 pages of My Father Is A Book. Clearly, this is not the typical memoir penned by the child of a famous author. Janna Malamud Smith, a practicing psychotherapist, offers valuable insight into her father's writing by exploring his past; his mother's attempted suicide, his brother's mental instability and the doubts -- his own and others -- that he had the talent to be a successful writer.

My Father Is A Book promises to be a rewarding read. Have I mentioned that I have never read a book by Bernard Malamud? That is an oversight that I plan to remedy this year. I think The Natural is the Malamud novel I will read.

I also completed the January 4 issue of The New Yorker. Yesterday, I read the feature story on Whole Foods founder John Mackey and today the short story Baptizing the Gun by Uwem Akpan.

The feature on Mackey by Nick Paumgarten is well written and well researched. I've never been a great fan of Whole Foods and this story only serves to confirm the reasons why. Akpan's short story is disappointing. It feels incomplete and, I suspect, is an excerpt from a novel.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Launching 2010

I didn't read yesterday. Not unless you count a quick scan of the Post, and I don't.

It was unusual for me to let a day go by and not read, but not unusual to forgo reading on New Year's Day. It's a busy holiday for us . . . off to an early movie (Up In The Air) and lunch at our favorite Thai restaurant. There's football and more football and still more football to be watched.

But today, today is different. Today, I will read.

I am starting the year with My Father Is A Book, Janna Malamud Smith's memoir of her father, Bernard Malamud, and Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. I have thought recently that I will begin each new year by reading a Dickens novel.

In the succeeding weeks, I hope to post my best reads of the past 10 years as well as keep everyone up-to-date on my daily reading.

Friday, January 01, 2010

My Best Reads of 2009

Normally, it’s the Bible or Shakespeare, but in 2009 it was Groucho Marx who had a powerful influence on book titles. Two books, actually. There was Outside of Dog by Rick Gekoski, a memoir largely devoted to books, and Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog, which was about, well, the inside of a dog. The source for both titles was a Groucho quote known to all bibliophiles: “Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.” True that.

I read 161 books in 2009. Midway through the year I thought I might reach 180. I was on pace for that lofty plateau until vacations and holidays and other pleasant distractions intervened. 161 books does represent the most books I have read in any year since I started recordkeeping in 1996; exceeding 2008 by one. And, for those who are interested, I’ve read 1,658 books since January 1, 1996.

Now that the inessentials are dealt with let’s move on the important stuff: what books did I think were the best reads of 2009?

Before launching a series of list by way of summation, I’m going to make this easy. If you read only two books – just two – in 2010 here’s what I recommend: Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, a collection of short stories by Maile Meloy and Let The Great World Spin, a novel by Colum McCann, which won this year’s National Book Award.

Meloy’s story collection is a wonder. The stories are insightful, wise and warm, humorous in a way that’s painful. McCann’s novel provides glimpses into the lives of several disparate New Yorkers – mother and daughter prostitutes, an Irish priest and a woman who has lost her only son in Vietnam – as they unfold against the arc of Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August, 1974.

Now, on to the lists—

Notable short story collections:
Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower
The Red Convertible, Louise Erdrich
Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro
American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

The stories in Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned are post-modern and won’t be to everyone’s taste, but Tower's story of Viking marauders alone makes the book worthy of a place on this list. Louise Erdrich is among our most accomplished novelists and poets. She’s a damn fine short story writer too as this definitive collection makes clear. Alice Munro has been THE BEST short story writer for decades. I thought she slipped a little with this collection, but then the woman has been seriously ill and her stories remain compelling reads. I know many of the people in Campbell’s collection. They were in Kansas not Michigan, but you understand my point. These brutally realistic stories feature an extraordinary collection of losers and dumbasses. Campbell isn’t as polished a writer as the others here, but American Salvage is a noteworthy collection of stories.

Notable novels:
Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Love and Summer, William Trevor
The Outlander
, Gil Adamson

Wolf Hall is longish, but so well written that I don’t think its length matters much. I don’t know much about Cromwell, but I do know Mantel’s portrait is generous. He’s a likable man in the pages of this novel. For the record, Cromwell did later lose his head. The Elegance of the Hedgehog ranks as book number 2 ½ for the year. God, I loved it. Love and Summer is sheer poetry; another fine work by William Trevor. The Outlander captured my fancy. Don’t confuse it with Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.

Notable sports books:
Born to Run, Christopher McDougall
As They See ’Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpire, Bruce Weber
Satchel, Larry Tye
The Complete Game, Ron Darling
Cowboys Full, the Story of Poker, James McManus
The Blind Side, Michael Lewis
Personal Record, A Love Affair with Running, Rachel Toor

Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run may be the best book on running that I’ve read. Darling and Weber take us into the minds of pitchers and umpires in a way that’s not been done before. Satchel is well researched and well written, but what really matters is that it is also well told. Satchel Paige was larger than life and Tye does him justice in these pages. McManus is our poet laureate of poker. This book is flat out entertaining. As for Michael Lewis, I’ve come to the conclusion I’d read any book he writes. Lewis focuses on both the human aspect of Michael Oher’s story and the reasons why changes in the game of football make him such an intriguing pro prospect. Runners will love Toor’s book; she gets it right. I especially liked her chapters on running with a group of people.

Notable miscellany:
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage
Tales of Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Eric Shanower and Skottie Young
The Snow Day, Komako Sakai

You had to read Sir Gawain in college, right? And you hated it. All I can say is “Trust me.” Armitage, the British poet, playwright and novelist, brings this 14th Century romance alive in his translation. Tales of Outer Suburbia is kind of a graphic novel for kids. I’d say any 12-year-old who appreciates the weird and wonderful will like it – a lot. I did. The Snow Day is for children. It’s perfect, say, for curling up with a four-year-old granddaughter. A little text. A lot of pictures. And a lovely story. I know. I know. L. Frank Baum wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. I wonder how many of you have actually read the book as opposed to . . . say . . . seen the movie. This book is Marvel Comics version of Baum’s classic. Writer Eric Shanower is faithful to the original story (did you know that visitors to the Emerald City had to wear green-tinted glasses) and Skottie Young’s art is enchanting.

Notable mysteries and thrillers:
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley
Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell
The Complaints, Ian Rankin

Bradley introduces a nice twist on the classic British mystery. Beat the Reaper is definitely over the top, but we’re entitled to some fun. Rebus is retired and Rankin introduces an entirely new set of characters in The Complaints.

Notable science fiction:
Wake, Robert Sawyer
Rainbow’s End, Vernor Vinge
The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

Sawyer’s among my favorite sci-fi writers. In this novel, the Internet gains consciousness. It's the first of a trilogy. Rainbow’s End is a William Gibson-ish look at the future. Hold that, it’s a William Gibson-ish look at tomorrow. Atwood revisits the territory of Oryx and Crake in a satisfyingly creeping tale.

Notable non-fiction:
Somewhere Towards the End, Diana Athill
Abraham Lincoln, George McGovern
Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, Jon Meacham
Nixon and Kissinger, Robert Dallek
A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter

Diana Athill confronts her death in her moving memoir, Somewhere Towards the End. McGovern’s brief bio of Lincoln is a great example of how to do a mini-bio right. Dallek and Meacham know how to make history compelling. Bravo to Elaine Showalter for her comprehensive and riveting survey of women writers in America.

Notable disappointments:
American Rust, Philipp Meyer
Child 44, Tom Rob Smith
A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick
Lark & Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips
A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
The Humbling, Philip Roth

A quick comment on two of the books here. You might see Lark & Termite and A Gate at the Stairs on a few critics' best of the year lists. Not for me. I didn’t like ‘em and I think they will disappoint you too. A Gate at the Stairs is a post-911 novel meaning that it’s about alienation and disaffection, I guess. I still don’t have a good idea of what the books was about.

Other fiction worth mentioning:
Border Songs, Jim Lynch
The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt
Brooklyn, Colm Toibin
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
Juliet Naked, Nick Hornby
War Dances, Sherman Alexie
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler

Pelecanos, Connelly, Crais, and Robinson all had books appear last year. They are all good reads, but not exceptional. Also not listed here are the early works of Ann Patchett – The Patron Saint of Liars and Taft. I liked them a lot and you would not be amiss to pick one up. Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass is available in America later this month. It is not vintage Tyler. If you are new to her I recommend an early novel such as Morgan’s Passing or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.

That's it for 2009. Good reading in 2010.

'09 Reading List

“You always read too many books . . . That can’t lead to any good.”

1. Abraham Lincoln, George McGovern. Biography
2. Mucho Mojo, Joe Lansdale. Mystery
3. Personal Record, A Love Affair with Running, Rachel Toor. Running
4. The Right Mistake, Walter Mosley. Fiction
5. The Right Madness, James Crumley. Fiction
6. The Porcupine Year, Louise Erdrich. Juvenile Fiction
7. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Simon Armitage. Poetry
8. Chief Bender’s Burden, Tom Swift. Baseball/Biography
9. Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien. Fiction
10. A Visible Darkness, Jonathon King. Mystery
11. Tales to Astonish. Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution, Ronin Ro. Non-Fiction
12. The Weather in Berlin, Ward Just. Fiction
13. The Ones You Do, Daniel Woodrell. Fiction
14. Truth & Beauty, Ann Patchett. Memoir
15. The Pickwick Papers, Charles Dickens. Fiction

16. The Outlander, Gil Adamson. Fiction
17. Frontier Medicine, David Dary. History
18. Darkness, Take My Hand, Dennis Lehane. Thriller
19. Prayers for Rain, Dennis Lehane. Thriller
20. Dark Banquet, Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures, Bill Schutt. Natural Science
21. Cost, Roxana Robinson. Fiction
22. The Family Trade, Book One of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction
23. The Hidden Family, Book Two of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction
24. Clapton, Eric Clapton. Biography/Blues
25. The Clan Corporate, Book Three of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction
26. The Merchants’ War, Book Four of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction
27. Somewhere Towards The End, Diana Athill. Memoir
28. John Tyler, Gary May. Biography
29. The Women, T.C. Boyle. Fiction 2-25 451
30. Herbert Hoover, William E. Leuchtenburg. Biography

31. Agincourt, Bernard Cornwell. Fiction
32. The Flood, Ian Rankin, Fiction
33. Dead Souls, Ian Rankin. Thriller
34. Crossing Open Ground, Barry Lopez. Essays/Nature
35. The Falls, Ian Rankin. Thriller
36. Dreaming Up America, Russell Banks. Essays
37. Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon. Fiction
38. All the Color of Darkness, Peter Robinson. Mystery
39. The New Wolves, Rick Bass. Nature
40. The Jewel That Was Ours, Colin Dexter. Mystery
41. Run Less, Run Faster, Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss. Running
42. As They See ’Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpire, Bruce Weber. Baseball
43. American Rust, Philipp Meyer. Fiction
44. The Messenger, Jan Burke. Fiction
45. A Partisan’s Daughter, Louise de Bernieres. Fiction

46. The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks. Fiction
47. Child 44, Tom Rob Smith. Mystery
48. The Red Convertible, Louise Erdrich. Stories
49. Steer Toward Rock, Fae Myenne Ng. Fiction
50. A Cool Head, Ian Rankin. Mystery
51. Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship, Jon Meacham. Biography
52. The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett. Fiction
53. The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl. Fiction
54. The Long Fall, Walter Mosley. Mystery
55. Scat, Carl Hiaasen. YA Fiction
56. The First Person and Other Stories, Ali Smith. Stories
57. Life Sentences, Laura Lippman. Fiction
58. The Believers, Zoe Heller. Fiction
59. Wake, Robert Sawyer. Science Fiction
60. Taft, Ann Patchett. Fiction

61. The Northern Clemency, Philip Hensher. Fiction
62. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Wells Tower. Stories
63. Nobody Move, Denis Johnson. Thriller
64. A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, Elaine Showalter. Non-Fiction
65. Bloodbrothers, Richard Price. Fiction
66. Alphabet Juice, Roy Blount Jr. Words
67. Odd Man Out: A Year on the Mound with a Minor League Misfit, Matt McCarthy. Baseball
68. A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick. Fiction
69. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery. Fiction
70. Free Fall, Robert Crais. Thriller
71. Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell. Thriller
72. The Way Home, George Pelecanos. Fiction
73. Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, Ted Gioia. Blues
74. Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead. Fiction
75. The Best American Short Stories 2008, ed. Salman Rushdie. Stories

76. The Breaks, Richard Price. Fiction
77. The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, Zachary Karabell. Political History
78. Victory Over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist. Stories
79. Brooklyn, Colm Toibin. Fiction
80. Road Dogs, Elmore Leonard. Thriller
81. Gone Tomorrow, Lee Child. Thriller
82. Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro. Stories
83. The Scarecrow, Michael Connelly. Thriller
84. Leadership on the Line, Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Leadership
85. The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters. Fiction
86. The Complete Game, Ron Darling. Baseball
87. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley. Mystery
88. The Angel’s Game, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Fiction
89. Lark & Termite, Jayne Anne Phillips. Fiction
90. Miracle Ball, Brian Biegel. Baseball

91. In the Kitchen, Monica Ali. Fiction
92. I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, Nora Ephron. Humor
93. Exiles in the Garden, Ward Just. Fiction
94. A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert. Fiction
95. Between the Assassinations, Aravind Adiga. Fiction
96. Comfort to the Enemy, Elmore Leonard. Fiction
97. Wanting, Richard Flanagan. Fiction
98. Four Corners of the Sky, Michael Malone. Fiction
99. The Revolution Business, Book Five of the Merchant Princes, Charles Stross. Science Fiction
100. Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison. Non-Fiction
101. The Blind Side, Michael Lewis. Football
102. Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami. Fiction

103. Rain Gods, James Lee Burke. Thriller
104. Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It, Maile Meloy. Stories
105. Born to Run, Christopher McDougall. Running
106. Border Songs, Jim Lynch. Fiction
107. Trouble, Kate Christensen. Fiction
108. That Old Cape Magic, Richard Russo
109. The Children’s Book, A.S. Byatt, Fiction
110. The Wild Marsh, Rick Bass. Nature
111. Wireless, Charles Stross. Stories
112. The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare. Comedy
113. Middle Passage, Charles Johnson. Fiction
114. Coronado, Dennis Lehane. Stories
115. Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge. Speculative Fiction
116. Satchel, Larry Tye. Biography/Baseball
117. The Coolest Race on Earth, John Hanc. Running

118. The Atrocity Archives, Charles Stross. Speculative Fiction
119. Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow. Fiction
120. Love and Summer, William Trevor. Fiction
121. Dark Entries, Ian Rankin. Graphic novel
122. Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler. Fiction
123. Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. Fiction
124. Me Cheeta, Fiction. James Lever
125. The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood. Fiction
126. Strange Doings, R.A. Lafferty. Stories
127. Juliet Naked, Nick Hornby. Fiction

128. Mark Twain, Ron Powers. Biography
129. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore. Fiction
130. Outside of a Dog, Rick Gekoski. Books on Books
131. The Complaints, Ian Rankin. Mystery
132. Born Round, Frank Bruni. Food/Memoir
133. Spooner, Pete Dexter. Fiction
134. Too Much Happiness, Alice Munro. Stories
135. The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett. Books on Books
136. The Arms Maker of Berlin, Dan Fesperman. Thriller
137. War Dances, Sherman Alexie. Stories & Poems
138. The Baltimore Elite Giants, Bob Luke. Baseball
139. Gone Baby Gone, Dennis Lehane. Thriller
140. Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Lydia Peelle. Stories

141. Far North, Marcel Theroux. Fiction
142. American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell. Stories
143. Nine Dragons, Michael Connelly. Thriller
144. Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon. Fiction
145. Let The Great World Spin, Colum McCann. Fiction
146. Stardust, Joseph Kanon. Fiction
147. Nixon and Kissinger, Robert Dallek. History
148. The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet, Arturo Perez-Reverte. Fiction
149. The Humbling, Philip Roth. Fiction
150. Tales of Outer Suburbia, Shaun Tan. Graphic Novel

151. Invisible, Paul Auster. Fiction
152. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, Daniyal Mueenuddin. Stories
153. Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz. Dogs
154. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum. Story by Eric Shanower, art by Skottie Young. Graphic Novel
155. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. Fiction
156. Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem. Fiction
157. Cowboys Full, The Story of Poker, James McManus. Poker
158. Look at the Birdie, Kurt Vonnegut. Stories
159. Talking About Detective Fiction, P.D. James. Books on Books
160. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk. Fiction
161. The Broken Cord, Michael Dorris. Non-Fiction

“Over time I have learned that what makes a man is not his ideas or his words, what makes a man is the ability to squeeze out a ferocious stream of lighter fluid from a can and throw a match on it. Mr. Nickerson was a man.”
--Sag Harbor, Colson Whitehead

“My hands are clumsy. I typed five novels with a single forefinger. Frankly, this limited my interest in revision.”
--Just Before Dark, Jim Harrison

“When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”
-- I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, Nora Ephron

“For the best part of forty years she had genuinely believed that not doing things would somehow prevent regret, when of course the exact opposite was true.”
--Juliet Naked, Nick Hornby