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Battle of the critics: What were the best books of 2009 anyhow?

December 1, 2009
Did Daniyal Mueenuddin write the year's best

Did Daniual Mueenuddin write the year's best fiction book?

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.

David Grann -- author of the year's best nonficton?

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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 1, 2009 1:16 pm

    I still vote for “The City and The City.” So I’m with you, Chauncey Mabe.

  2. rachel permalink
    December 1, 2009 1:26 pm

    I like funny too.

    I agree with you Chauncey Mabe, “The City & The City” would have to be my number one.

    I really enjoyed “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” but it wouldn’t be at the top for me. No no. But I think it is also confusing to people who are not book reviewers in that some of the best books of the year for me were books that were not even close to being published this year – like “Cheri.”

    I just finished “Await Your Reply” and really really liked it. I also recently read Jeanette Walls’s “Half Broke Horses” and I really enjoyed that too.

    It is fun to talk about the “best” books of the year, but I still find these lists problematic and I think it is best to do what you have done for us here Chauncey Mabe, and look at a bunch of best lists to get a better understanding, and maybe find some you actually want to read.

  3. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 1, 2009 1:30 pm

    And give as Christmas gifts….

  4. Tommy permalink
    December 1, 2009 1:35 pm

    I feel so left out. I must find a copy of “The City and The City”.

    If I was compiling a list “Under The Dome” would not make an appearance. “Ur” might, but not Dome.

    What would make the list would be “The Last Theorem” by Clarke and Pohl.

    I guess I will leave the lists to the professionals and the reading to avid rabid fans like myself.

  5. Connie permalink
    December 1, 2009 3:05 pm

    The whole point of lists is merely to argue about them, I think…that’s the fun part. For example: I have hit a standstill in the highly touted Await Your Reply, which is shaping up in exactly the way I thought it would. (Note: I’m not done yet and am willing to be pleasantly surprised.) It’s not a bad book by any means. But one of the best books of the YEAR? Not even close.

    • December 2, 2009 12:05 am

      Connie, I will argue with you anytime. Noon on Biscayne Blvd, dusk on Las Olas Blvd., dawn at…okay, maybe not ANY time.

  6. rachel permalink
    December 1, 2009 4:41 pm

    Connie, what’s on your list?

  7. evan james roskos permalink
    December 1, 2009 6:56 pm

    I read Callisto and was disappointed that it wasn’t as harsh a satire as it could have been (though it has a sinister climax by that point I was just reading to finish).

    i agree that PW’s response is unfounded. But it does get their choices some attention. It’s all a game. Sometimes the game just seems more silly.

    • December 2, 2009 12:06 am

      Yeah, but Evan, anything that advances discussion of books and reading in the general media is a good thing, for books, reading, culture and society at large. Which is why the wholesale closing of newspaper book reviewing over the past three years is such a bad, bad thing.

  8. Connie permalink
    December 1, 2009 7:08 pm

    Rachel: Still working that out…I do want to at least start City & the City…Haven’t read Let the Great World Spin, and I have liked the author’s books in the past. I also need to read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. For my part I like stuff that hasn’t appeared on ANY list, particularly A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore and The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt. Oh, and I’m currently obsessed with Stieg Larsson’s books so perhaps The Girl Who Played With Fire will make the cut…

  9. Tommy permalink
    December 1, 2009 10:43 pm

    Is Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Voices, Other Rooms supposed to read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders?

    Other Rooms, Other Voices is a touching, sad, beautifully written work of fiction penned by Truman Capote. This “Other” would be at the top of my favorites list. Actually made me cry, yes I admit it I cried. Great books have that power over me.

    Chauncey, have you read Daniyal Mueenuddin’s work in question?

    If you have, would you recommend it?

    Have you finished “Under the Dome” yet? Can’t believe I finished it in 7 days, new record for me. I also find it hard to believe how unimpressed I was by King’s latest. I did like the Dead Milkmen reference. I wonder if King has a bitchin Camaro or a big lizard in his backyard

    Last question: How many roads must a man walk down?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 2, 2009 12:13 am

      Tommy, thank you for catching my error in conflating Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders with Capote’s classic. Just goes to show another weakness of web journalism — no copy editing. Yes, I have read Mueenuddin’s book, and recommend it without reservation. I liked it so much I lost my head and said something silly in my original review, like “Pakistan has found its Chekhov,” or something equally ridiculous. It definitely is one of the best books I personally consumed in calendar year 2009.

  10. Tommy permalink
    December 1, 2009 11:41 pm

    1067 pages in 7 days and unimpressed? I questioned myself. Like most times when I read King the pages just kept turning while I eagerly anticipated reading the next development. I even had a dream about Chester’s Mill and the residents. Yet, I was still unimpressed with all of it, from characters to the ending. “Under the Dome” seemed to consist of more of the same ( in some parts even less than what I have come to expect of King) and that King didn’t even try to stretch his legs and run with the plot. Just felt I’d air that here.

    I see Rachel beat me to the Voices/Wonders punch. My other questions still stand.

    Last question: (seriously) Does this flag decal still not gain me admittance to Heaven?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 2, 2009 12:16 am

      I’m afraid Heaven is already overcrowded from the dirty little war, so, no, your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore. So take the flag out of the window and let your conscience have a rest.

      I do not plan to read Under the Dome anytime soon. I loved Duma Key, but 1,000 pages — I’m too busy to give that much time to one book. And I always figured a novel that couldn’t be told in 600 pages (400 even better), there must be something wrong. We all have our prejudices, I suppose.

  11. Tommy permalink
    December 2, 2009 12:02 am

    Looking back at the blog you posted last week I see that you ranked “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” at #5

    So you answered my question before I even asked it. Very clever, Chauncey Mabe.

    So “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” is #5 and you recommend it. Check.
    “Other Voices, Other Rooms” not the other way around is the Capote novel. Check.
    Everything was okay and I confused the heck out of myself. Check.

    Where is #6?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 2, 2009 12:17 am

      You are a smart reader, Mr. Smartt.

  12. Kelly Cherry permalink
    December 2, 2009 11:08 am

    Best book of the year: Shadow Box: Poems by Fred Chappell (LSU Pr).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 2, 2009 1:02 pm

      That’s interesting you should suggest Fred Chappell’s collection of poems. I have to say that poetry gets the shortest of shrift in these year-end best lists, in part because the reading pleasure they offer requires a different kind of attention, and too many reviewers don’t know how — or lack the time–to slow down and enter into them. The only other poetry book I’ve seen on any critic’s list is Reading Novalis in Montana, by Melissa Kwasny, which is at the end of Anis Shivani’s list.

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