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One critic’s list of the best books of 2009 (so far)

November 23, 2009

China Mieville

After mocking the London Times list of 100 best books of the decade last week, I was surprised, and I admit, gratified when several faithful correspondents asked me to post my pick of 100 for the 2000s. That will take some time to put together. Meanwhile, here’s my list of best books of 2009.

Before I start, let me say that this isn’t really a list of the best books of the year. Instead, it’s the best books of 2009 read by me. So far. Something like, I don’t know, 50,000 general interest books are published each year by commercial and university houses, which makes all year-end best compilations something of a joke. Did the critics contributing to those lists read every book? I doubt it.

Without further palaver, here is my selection of outstanding books for 2009. If you read something great this year that’s not on this list, please let me know.

Gioconda Belli

1. The City and the City, by China Mieville. What starts out as an ordinary if competent police procedural soon devolves into an exceedingly subtle and well-grounded fantasy.  Mieville poses some big questions –how we perceive our surroundings, and how easily we can be manipulated — all while telling a compelling story filled with believable characters. It’s an amazing performance, unlike anything I’ve read before.

2. Infinity in the Palm of Her Hand, by Gioconda Belli. A Nicaraguan poet and novelist, Belli has re-imagined the Garden of Eden story in a way that enlarges and humanizes its events and characters, yet does no violence to the version we  know from the Bible. Moving and utterly convincing, it also, I should note, has some of the best sex scenes of the year.

3. Hell, by Robert Olen Butler. This isn’t exactly a biblical story, but it might as well be. The story of a network anchorman trying to find the back door out of Hell, it is endlessly witty, often hilarious. Yet Butler’s vision of eternal torment, and how it might actually work, is, despite the humor, profoundly unsettling. Satiric masterpiece or cautionary tale? You decide.

4. Învisible, by Paul Auster. After several years writing masterful miniatures  (I especially like Man in the Dark), Auster finally tries his hand again at a full-bodied novel. The story of a young would-be poet who first falls in with, then runs afoul of a sinister and decadent French scholar, this novel features all of Auster’s trademark po-mo trickery, yet tells a deeply satisfying story. The writing is hypnotic, offering a powerful pleasure all its own, no matter what’s happening to the characters.

Paul Auster

5. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, by Daniyal Mueenuddin. A Pakistani writer making his debut, Mueenuddin dazzles with a collection of linked stories set against the fortunes of a fabulously wealthy Muslim family. Mueenuddin is equally convincing whether he’s writing about peasants, powerful servants, wives, children or  the patriarch.

7. The Last War, by Ana Menendez. In her third book of fiction, and second novel, Menendez makes giant strides in narrative sophistication. The story of a war photographer cooling her heels in Istanbul while her foreign correspondent husband covers the Iraq War in Baghdad, this novel questions everything from marital fidelity to the voyeurism of modern reporting. But the characters — and the psychological twist near the end — are what make this a superior novel.

A. Manette Ansay

8. Good Things I Wish For You, by A. Manette Ansay. By the end of Ansay’s career (she’s the author of much praised novels like Vinegar Hill) this will probably be considered a minor work. But its story of a divorced middle-aged academic and writer beginning a relationship with a German businessman has a magic of its own. In its quiet way, this novel leaves no variation unexplored, and its delicate melody lingers after the final page.

9. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann. Many nonfiction books developed by journalists really should remain the magazine articles that started out as. Not so with Grann’s book. Not only does he tell the fascinating story of a great British explorer lost in the 1920s while searching for a mythical lost city, he also uncovers a plausible explanation for what happened. Even

Ana Menendez

more amazing, using only the tools available to a good reporter, he finds the lost city, too.

10. Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey. One of America’s very best writers, the novelist and short-story writer John Cheever gets an authoritative treatment from a sympathetic but hard-nosed biographer who apparently uncovered every finger bone from every skeleton in the Cheever closet. Bailey’s also a fine writer himself — this has the power of a novel, though scrupulously documented.

Looking over this list, now that I’ve gotten it down in pixels, I realize that it is not really a ranking. Except for The City and the City, which impressed me with its originality, I can’t say that one is better than the rest. Consider them all equally accomplished, and equally worthy of any reader’s attention.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    November 23, 2009 11:59 am

    Thanks for the insights, Chauncey Mabe. I am making my Christmas list and checking it twice even as we speak.

    I do agree with your number one choice, by the way.

    Oh, and I am back. Have been too busy to surf the net, but big events is over and I’ll have more time, hopefully.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 23, 2009 8:40 pm

      Glad to have you back, Candice. What have you read this year that stays with you?

  2. November 23, 2009 1:24 pm

    Ashamed to say I haven’t heard/read any of them, Chauncey. The last and best book I’ve read so far this years is Richard Holmes – THE AGE OF WONDER: HOW THE ROMANTIC GENERATION DISCOVERED THE BEAUTY AND TERROR OF SCIENCE. I recommend it highly. Meanwhile I’ve copied your list and, like Candice, will be giving myself and others a love to read Xmas.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 23, 2009 8:39 pm

      Duff, I’ve read nothing but praise about The Age of Wonder, and will add it to my wish list. I hope you like the books on this list as much as I did. As I note elsewhere, I missed a lot of important and well-reviewed books — Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, for one. But I read as much as I can, and I was very pleased with the percentage of good to bad that came my way this year.

  3. rachel permalink
    November 23, 2009 2:03 pm

    I too agree with your number one choice. But could have done without seeing a picture of him. I kind of like to live in ignorant bliss at times, and that is definitely not what the auther of “The City & The City” looks like in my head.

    Strange how I’ve read so many of the books on your best list, Chauncey Mabe. I also agree with #2. A lot a lot.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 23, 2009 8:36 pm

      Not strange. It just goes to show what good taste you have. In books and in book critics.

  4. evan james roskos permalink
    November 23, 2009 3:47 pm

    intriguing list. The Last War sounds really good.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 23, 2009 8:35 pm

      Evan, what have you read this year that you can recommend? As a glance at my list reveals, I missed many important and well-reviewed books. So many books, so little time….

  5. Tommy permalink
    November 23, 2009 5:09 pm

    Just finished Hell, excellent and funny. One bone to pick with Butler. If the tortured souls residing in hell have the ability to conjure up their own punishments, why would Hatcher not be able to conjure up his own rewards in his Heaven? Seems like Heaven is a let down, can Heaven be a let-down? I mean how could it be? It’s Heaven after all. I must read a few more of your picks in the very near future. Just let me get out from under this dome.

    Again, I always enjoy your blog and read it every chance I get.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      November 23, 2009 8:34 pm


      I think Butler’s vision of Heaven is yet another clever joke, a gloss on Sartre’s famous remark that “hell is other people.” If hell is other people, then it follows that Heaven will be the absence of other people. That said, though, Butler’s novel is a manic satire that doesn’t require this kind of thinking. Like any competent fantasy, you either go with it or you don’t. Glad you liked it. And I’m pretty sure you’d like the other books on this list, too.

  6. November 24, 2009 12:12 am

    Thanks so much for this list. The only one I’ve read is Manendez and liked it a lot. Going to dig right into
    The City and The City. The Cheever looks fascinating but quite a tome. Appreciating your perspicacious mind!

  7. November 24, 2009 12:06 pm

    Very nice list. I have read 2 and now I will read the rest over time. Great. Better than letterman’s top ten for sure. I wait with great interest on the list of 100.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    November 24, 2009 1:49 pm

    So many books, so little time, I always say. And I might add: That being true, let’s try to read good ones whenever possible. As a critic, I’ve always been aware that I’m not only a cultural policeman but also a consumer reporter. It’s my job to help you get value for your hard-earned book dollars. Enjoy.

  9. Tommy permalink
    November 24, 2009 5:22 pm

    I get the joke, Chauncey. It’s still a frightening proposition. Heaven is just as bad if not worse than Hell. Or at least Hell is preferable to Heaven. It turns this comedy into a horror novel, a truly novel horror. If things are just has bad upstairs as they are downstairs what’s to keep me being a good boy while here on the ground floor? Oh yeah, rescuing my soul from a living hell on earth.

    The idea that neither the Devil or God can read our minds is comforting though. I always did think that was a bit stalkerish.

    • November 25, 2009 10:15 pm

      Tommy is funny. Definitely a keeper.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 20, 2009 2:36 pm

      I think you have taken Butler’s point excatly, Tommy.

  10. Tommy permalink
    December 2, 2009 12:05 am

    Where/What is #6?

    Thank you for the compliment, Duff.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 12, 2009 11:33 am

      I never was any damned good at math. Sorry. Let me add two books I’ve read since this original post: Pariah, a viciously funny crime novel by Dan Zeltserman, and Picara, a coming-of-age-in-the-’60s novel by Pat MacEnulty. I’ll have more to say about these novels soon.


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