The best books we read in 2009
As we say each December, trying to keep up with every book released in a year is like trying to drink from a firehose, especially since books tend to be far more nichey and audience-specific than films, and require a greater time commitment than music. We never get to as many books as we’d like, and we all have pretty idiosyncratic tastes. So take this list not necessarily as the most notable or even the straight-up best books of the year, but just as our favorites, the ones we’d most like to recommend to a larger audience.
Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride And Prejudice And Zombies
It’s so easy to dismiss this immensely enjoyable remix as a gimmick at best, sacrilege at worst. What makes Seth Grahame-Smith’s horror homage to Austen’s classic so potent, however, is its careful, loving attention to the original story. Elizabeth Bennett gains stature by proving herself admirable not only for her accomplishments at the pianoforte, but also in the dojo against murderous ninjas (or family servants playing the role of same). In that respect, Pride And Prejudice is the perfect place to start a Jane Austen mash-up project; Elizabeth’s pride takes on deadly proportions, and her prejudice consists of believing her own trash talk. P&P&Z gets props for kicking off the trend in such fine fashion, but Ben Winter’s Sense And Sensibility And Sea Monsters is even more fun, transporting Elinor Dashwood to delirious heights of gothic, steampunk, and Lovecraftian excess. Somehow the brazenness of the cash-in, combined with the thoroughness of Winter’s re-imagination, sprinkles extra joy on top of an already-decadent dish. Together, the books could capture the hearts of the most jaded or reluctant classics reader. Read, give, laugh, and pass it on.
Runner-up: Tracy Kidder, Strength In What Remains
With each carefully crafted book, Tracy Kidder elevates the mundane, forgotten, and overlooked into crystalline gems that reflect every facet of the human condition. In a way, it’s unfortunate that marketing has recently been able to pigeonhole him into a social-issues writer, because it means folks averse to homilies will never even pick up Mountains Beyond Mountains or this year’s searing Strength In What Remains, the story of a refugee from the genocides in Burundi and Rwanda who moves from the streets of New York City to the Harvard school of public health. It’s a journey not so much inspirational as stunningly miraculous, raising questions about the randomness of the help that comes some people’s way, and whether suffering or undeserved grace is our natural lot. And the final chapters, in which Kidder accompanies his protagonist back to Burundi and witnesses his confused anger at those he left behind, reach levels of authorial self-doubt that are as moving as anything this modern master has ever written.
Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against The Day was such a massive, exhaustive culmination of his life’s work that it seemed reasonable to assume it would be a decade or more before the elusive writer published any new fiction, if ever. The announcement that his seventh novel, Inherent Vice¸ would be published in 2009 sounded like a cruel prank on fans, but come August, there it was in all its ridiculous glory. Pynchon novels come in two sizes, petite and concussive, and Vice falls safely on the smaller side. It’s a trippy, twisty mystery with a charmingly befuddled private eye and a host of memorable freaks and geeks at his back. Vice lacks Day’s scope and ambition, which is probably why it’s such a relief, a snow day in the middle of spring, and a book whose pleasures are immediate enough that it doesn’t take a month’s worth of patient study to unravel them. Vice has all the verbal pyrotechnics and slapstick Pynchon is known for, plus his usual affection for the ’60s, and an ambiguous but satisfying peacefulness. It’s the work of a writer who suspects doom may still be around the corner, but doesn’t see that as any reason to stop sticking out his tongue.
Runner-up: Stephen King, Under The Dome
King’s Under The Dome is easily the best surprise of the year, an exciting, engaging, and perhaps most importantly, beautifully paced thriller that could easily fit in with King’s strongest work from the early ’80s. The premise has been done before, but the execution more than outweighs any potential complaints of unoriginality. The sudden force field that blocks Chester’s Mill off from the world isn’t as important as the effect that isolation has on locals, the way it allows middling power-grabs to take on momentous importance, and the way the stifling, magnified atmosphere is translated into heroism and hatred in equal turns. Only time will tell whether Dome has the longevity of King’s classics, but at the very least, it’s a reminder of how he earned his place on the bestseller lists: through a storytelling craft so pure that readers can’t wait for the next hit.
Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever
A chronicle of music from Thomas Edison to the mp3 from the engineering side might seem dust-dry, but this rich, entertaining book is full of good stories and acute analysis of the history of recorded sound, the technical stuff rendered with a sure, jargon-free hand, and key figures such as Edison, father-and-son folklorists John and Alan Lomax, conductor Leopold Stokowski, and King Tubby, the father of Jamaican dub, drawn with insight and good humor. Milner’s connecting thread for each is an obsessive search for a sonic ideal, be it John Lomax forbidding Lead Belly from performing anything but “pure” black folk music for his tape recorder, the inhuman piece-by-piece assembly of a Def Leppard album, or the anti-digital bromides of engineer Steve Albini. And there’s a thorough chapter on the digital era’s “loudness wars,” in which mastered recordings are distorted to hell in the name of jumping out of your car stereo’s speakers.
Runner-up: Fred Kaplan, 1959: The Year That Changed Everything
The titular concept is a little loose—not everything covered here started or finished the work claimed for it in that year. Nevertheless, Kaplan, a veteran writer on jazz and modern warfare, smartly encapsulates many streams that would utterly alter American culture during the ’60s, writing sharply and persuasively on civil rights, the space race, nuclear fear, the Beat movement, Vietnam, the Pill, independent filmmaking, conceptual art, adult comedy, and free jazz. Only the Motown chapter feels perfunctory.
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, NurtureShock
Anyone planning on raising kids can take away some practical tips from NurtureShock. But the abundance of accessible facts about how humans develop makes it well worth picking up even for readers without babies anywhere on the horizon. The authors rip open some common beliefs about how children learn about race, respond to praise, and develop language skills; in the process, they reveal dramatic misconceptions at every step. The writers seem constantly surprised by what their research has turned up, and honestly awed by how hard science has disproven so much of the conventional wisdom they held to when bringing up their own families. The compilation of work from scientists around the world never gets bogged down in overly technical or dumbed-down explanations. Reading NurtureShock is educational, but it never feels like work.
Runner-up: Brandon Sanderson, Warbreaker
While most fantasy fans looking back at 2009 are bound to think of Sanderson’s work on Robert Jordan’s posthumous conclusion to the Wheel Of Time series, Sanderson’s first release of the year deserves its own recognition. Warbreaker lets Sanderson show off what he does best: inventing a world with its own complex politics and magic system, populating it with people that are rarely what they seem, then pulling it all together with a satisfying conclusion. Beyond shining as a world-building exercise, Warbreaker’s drama is peppered with excellent humor through a mix of witty dialogue and absurd situations. With so much to love, it’s easy to wish for a sequel, but hard to imagine a better ending.
Margaret Atwood, The Year Of The Flood
In concept, Margaret Atwood’s The Year Of The Flood sounds like a set of deleted scenes for her previous novel, 2006’s Oryx And Crake; Flood takes place in the same speculative future, during the same time period, albeit among a different group of people who are far less germane to the huge events of the other book. But where Oryx And Crake extrapolated an entire frightening future out of current trends toward novelty-hungry consumerism, corporate culture, and genetic engineering, Year Of The Flood adopts a smaller focus and becomes a warmer, more intimate novel. It follows two women involved in a radical environmentalist cult, a quasi-religious, quasi-political organization that shelters them but warps them; through their development, Atwood examines her favorite subjects, the female psyche and place in society, and the ways subjectivity and flawed memories warp the history passed down from one generation to the next.
Runner-up: Peter Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
It’s always something of an event when Last Unicorn author Peter Beagle releases a new work; he’s always been an eclectic, idiosyncratic, and not very prolific writer, and ongoing legal and personal issues have ensured he’s never really held the limelight that would make it easy to get his books to the presses. His latest, the short-story collection We Never Talk About My Brother, isn’t likely to bring him to the world’s attention, but it’s a perfect little assemblage of oddities, a handful of extremely well-realized sketches with unusual, unpredictable endings. The title story—about a force for evil and his mild-mannered opposite-number sibling—is a typical entry, a dark fantasy that transcends its standard plot with deft characterization and a thriller-worthy slow build to climax. But better yet are thoroughly offbeat entries like “Uncle Chaim And Aunt Rifke And The Angel,” about an aging artist who finds his muse in an irritable angel with baffling motives. By their nature, short stories have to be economical about plotting and fleet about hooking readers in; this particular set is instantly addictive.
Lev Grossman, The Magicians
The Magicians maybe isn’t the greatest book I read this year, but it’s the one I had the most fun with, and the one I keep coming back to. By melding modernism with a mash-up of nearly every major fantasy novel of the last 50 years, Grossman found a way to invigorate both genres. Just when the book is getting too literary for its own good, there’s a wizard’s duel or something, and just when it’s getting too fantastical, the characters sink into boredom and depression when they realize they’ve graduated from wizarding school without clear life plans. Grossman’s characters are all surprisingly well-drawn, but his central trio resonate the most. Quentin is every kid who’s let lack of direction overwhelm his life, while wizarding savant Penny is a punk riff on an old archetype. But genius Alice is the one who makes the novel bleed, evolving from a riff on Harry Potter’s Hermione into a young woman who learns what real power is and how quickly it can lead to pain. There were a surprising number of great novels in 2009, but The Magicians still feels the most vital, and oddly, the most realistic.
John Irving, Last Night In Twisted River
Like all John Irving novels, Last Night In Twisted River is filled with flaws and imperfections. But unlike with much of his output since the ’80s, those flaws and imperfections only make the full work that much more endearing. As always, Irving’s characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, but the fact that he centers this story on a father and son on the run from the law makes the raw, bleeding emotions on display feel less like faux-romanticism and more like the ways real people might react to a life truncated by circumstance. While some of the novel’s vignettes are unwieldy, there are moments of real beauty here that cut to the core of what it means to be alive as well as anything Irving’s ever written.
Arthur Phillips, The Song Is You
Arthur Phillips’ fourth novel explores the relationship between musician and audience with an ode to longing in two parts, for two almost-lovers connected by a song. As commercial director Julian Donahue is moved by an up-and-coming singer at a Brooklyn bar, he allows himself an escape from a midlife crisis and the dissolution of his marriage into her soulful songs; meanwhile, that singer, Cait O’Dwyer, attempts to navigate toward mainstream fame without losing the yearning with which she began making music. Using the people around them like they use songs, as a shortcut to access emotional truths they’d prefer to keep locked up, Julian and Cait orbit around the idea of a relationship as they physically cross paths in New York and beyond. Phillips employs their cowardice, or instinct to self-protect, not only to delay the fulfillment of such romance, but also to bolster the whimsy of his premise by grounding it in the believable world. As Rob Gordon memorably asked, “Do I listen to pop music because I’m miserable, or am I miserable because I listen to pop music?”
Runner-up: Steve Hely, How I Became A Famous Novelist
It may seem like an act of deep cynicism to name a biting satire of publishing, in which one of its would-be darlings exploits the industry’s weaknesses for fortune’s sake, as a standout in a year in which print media shed nearly 90,000 jobs. But only someone who loved books could lay bare the process by which college-application ghostwriter Pete Tarslaw sets out to write the James-Patterson-meets-Paulo-Coelho novel The Tornado Ashes Club, a nonsensical pastiche whose excerpts, along with fatuous blurbs and too-real-to-be-true bestseller lists, act as waystations on the way to Tarslaw’s rise and inevitable fall. Sucker-punching everyone from William Faulkner to Oprah, Famous Novelist’s narrator would be despicable if he weren’t so self-aware, and his misguided conviction fuels a series of Swiftian encounters rounded out by a note-perfect ending affirming and smashing the brass ring he thought he was chasing all along.