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