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.
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.
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.
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.
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.