Battle of the critics: What were the best books of 2009 anyhow?
As the year draws to a close, the lists of best books of the year pile up, some of them, as Publishers Weekly politely puts it, “unusual.” The critic earning this mildy disapproving descriptive is Anis Shivani, a blogger at the Huffington Post. But really, all best-books lists are limited to the 100 or so books a reviewer can read each year, so in a sense they are all unusual.
Apparently what makes Shivani’s list strange to the good folks at PW is that it includes some titles they did not expect, titles that made few if any other year-end lists published to date. Why that should surprise anyone, though, is beyond me.
I mean, consider the top 10 lists of The New York Times‘ three resident book critics, Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner: Very little overlap. Where Kakutani has In Fed We Trust, by David Wessel, Maslin has Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, while Garner has Family Properties: Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, by Beryl Satter.
Kakutani doesn’t have Dan Choan’s Await Your Reply or Stephen King’s Under the Dome, while Maslin eschews Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs or Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite. Garner seems to have focused entirely on nonfiction.
Does this mean the Times‘ critics are full of bilge water? No, it means the reason the Times has three reviewers (and an entirely separate Sunday book review, written mostly by freelancers, albeit distinguished ones), is so they can cover more of the enormous tide of books published each year.
You can view each Times‘ critic’s list by clicking on his or her name. Even though I published my own list a week or so ago, I find these other lists useful in reminding me of books I missed that I dearly want to read. Choan’s novel, for example, or Mary Karr’s third memoir Lit. Or Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham and Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, both picked by Garner.
For the record, Shivani’s “unusual” list, in order: 1. The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. 2. Welcome to Oakland, by Eric Miles Williamson. 3. Home Boy, by H.M. Naqvi. 4. Callisto, by Thorsten Krol. 5. The Cardboard Universe, by Christopher Miller. 6. Lost in the Meritocracy, by Walter Kirn. 7. A Good Fall, by Ha Jin. 8. Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers. 9. After America, by Paul Starobin. 10. Reading Novalis in Montana, by Melissa Kwasny.
I’ll readily admit that, except for Pamuk, Jin and Eggers, I’m unfamiliar with any of these books. But reviewers who read out of the way titles do us all a great favor, whether we agree with their best-of picks or not. Shivani has sold me, for example, on Thorsten Krol, whose novel, Shivani writes, is a satire equal to Jonathan Swift or Sinclair Lewis, and “one of the funniest books in years.” I like funny.
Notice that none of these lists have my No. 1 title, China Mieville’s novel The City and the City. Kakutani does include The Lost City of Z, by David Grann, my fave nonfiction book, while Shivani lists Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders at the head of an extensive “honorable mentions” list. But then none of the four have Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, either–a novel that won the National Book Award, for pete’s sake.
Actually, an unscientific survey (I’m relying on memory, which is as unscientific as you can get) of the lists I’ve seen thus far shows Mueenuddin and Grann as names that pop up more than most. Could it be that In Other Rooms, Other Wonders is the best fiction of the year, and The Lost City of Z the best nonfiction?
Works for me. I love ’em both.