So far during 2009, I’ve read 142 books. I say “so far” because I’m still working on three, at least two of which I’ll probably finish over the next week, barring unforeseen circumstances such as full concentration on work. Out of these 142 books, 22 have been rereads. I haven’t counted exactly how many of these books were written during 2009, but I can tell you it’s fewer than usual for me. Near-bankruptcy has placed some constraints on my lifestyle, mostly by way of preventing me from buying many new hardcovers.
Still, I managed to come up with my annual and, I’m sure, deeply important and cherished (bankruptcy hasn’t done much to dent the sarcasm, anyway) Top 10 List of the best books from 2009 that I read this year, with the usual honorable mentions. Notice it’s a little light in the nonfiction category this year: sorry. I’ve mostly limited myself to discounted titles, and there wasn’t much in the way of cheap nonfiction that I wanted to read.
South of Broad by Pat Conroy. My beloved Pat Conroy would really have to screw up to stay off this list, and this year he made me happy once again with another dysfunctional family/love story set in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Charleston, SC. (I’m not biased: I’m not even particularly fond of most cities in my home state, which makes Charleston that much more remarkable.) Conroy has said this novel could’ve been over 100 hundred pages longer, and that would’ve been fine with me. There are childhood memories, present-day love, forgiveness and lack thereof, and a cameo appearance by Hurricane Hugo. While it’s not as transcendent as The Prince of Tides, it’s great nonetheless.
Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. It’s rare for Berg to disappoint, too, although her last couple of books were less than amazing. She’s back to her usual form with this story of a widow who learns of a secret kept by her late husband. If you haven’t read Berg, she’s as gifted as Anne Lamott when it comes to finding words for the often amorphous thoughts in our own heads about our everyday lives. I’d recommend most of her fiction. This was the first knockout book of the year for me.
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea. I’m not sure what I expected from this, but after reading Urrea’s lovely novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, it wasn’t a picaresque novel loosely based on “The Magnificent Seven.” In fact, if I’d known that, I might have hesitated before using any surplus money on this book. I’m glad I read it anyway. It’s a laugh-out-loud-funny story of three young women and a friend from a small Mexican village who sneak into the United States illegally to find seven ronin to save their town from a couple of criminals.
The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman. Hoffman is, like Conroy and Berg, a usual suspect for this list. This is one of her darker novels: it’s the story of three sisters, troubled in different ways, and how they make disastrous mistakes and then patch their lives back together. Hoffman writes beautifully about love, loss, craziness, family, and magic, all of which are old territory for her but are newly revisited in this terrific novel.
The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister. I’m not even sure why I picked up this short first book, and less sure what prompted me to buy it, but I’m glad I did. It’s a novel in stories about the lives of a cooking school proprietor/restaurateur and her students, and although it doesn’t startle or break any new literary ground, it’s a quick, lovely night or two of reading that I’m sure I’ll go back to over the years. Note: it’ll make you hungry and wistful at the same time, which in combination will keep you awake and roaming the kitchen early in the morning. It’s worth it. It almost made me want to cook.
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston. If you haven’t read him yet, Charlie Huston is the heir apparent to Elmore Leonard: he’s prolific, has fascinating if similar characters, will make you laugh and horrify you, and wanders freely between genres (his vampire series, starring undead screwup Joe Pitt, is not to be missed, even if you don’t care for vampires – they’re more like noir that happens to involve vampires). This novel is the story of a guy who goes to work for a company that cleans up after various human disasters: suicides, unobserved deaths, hoarders. There’s also a rival post-disaster cleaning team and a weird unexpected love story, and several inappropriate laughs. His new novel is out in January 2010. I’m already waiting for it.
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. If I had Atwood’s imagination I would never read anything – I’d just stay inside my own head all the time. This is almost but not quite a sequel to Oryx and Crake, although you don’t have to have read that novel to fall headlong into this one. It’s an eerie imagining of the end of civilization, and possibly the beginning as well, none of which is farfetched enough to make you write it off as science fiction: parts of it are almost like prophecy. Oh, and if it doesn’t at least temporarily make you think twice about fast food, you didn’t pay attention. Brrrr.
Homer’s Odyssey by Gwen Cooper. Two years in a row, I’ve been unexpectedly enchanted by what you’d think would be overly sentimental stories of notable or exceptional pets, which instead turn out to be moving and fascinating human/animal tales. This is the story of a young woman who takes in an eyeless kitten (his eyes were removed due to a life-threatening infection) and their life together. I was suckered into this one because I have a disabled cat myself, and couldn’t put the story down: Homer the cat has a more interesting story than a lot of humans do, and the author writes about it with the sentimentality of any pet owner, but never descends into sap.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Usually, when a writer lapses into dialect, my neck stiffens up, especially if it’s southern: almost nobody outside the south (and not nearly enough writers in it) has much of an ear for how people really talk. Kathryn Stockett is the exception. This is the story of a privileged white girl in segregated 1960s Mississippi who takes an interest in the lives of black domestic servants who work for her family and friends, and the story of the black women themselves, told in a mostly dead-on dialect that never made me cringe. This is a long novel, but took only me two nights to finish. You’ll love the characters, the story, and the discovery of a new author who steps outside the silly Ya-Ya Sisterhood/Sullivan’s Island trend so many southern female writers settle for, and hits this debut out of the park.
Rocket Men by Craig Nelson. I’ve been a NASA moon shot junkie since I stumbled onto The Right Stuff as a college student. This novel will revisit a little of what you already know – the Soviet contribution to the space race, the failures that preceded the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs – but reaches deeper into the lives of the three men who first went to the moon than anyone has before. I knew a lot of this history, and it didn’t matter: I was still fascinated. At least once, Nelson turned up some detail that reduced me to tears. I can’t think of a better book to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the moon landing (although if you’re a fellow moon shot nerd, watch “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a documentary that’s even more breathtaking than this book).
As usual, there are a few honorable mentions as well, some from 2009 and some other great finds that I stumbled upon late for one reason or another:
Awakening by S.J. Bolton. This is a debut mystery/thriller about a British wildlife veterinarian and the horrible secret of her village. I was fascinated from the first page.
My Dead Body by Charlie Huston. Yes, that same Charlie Huston. This is the last of his Joe Pitt vampire noir novels, which settled several old scores, made me laugh explosively more than once, and tempted me to reread the whole batch since there won’t be more. (The first of this terrific series is Already Dead.)
Alex and Me by Irene Pepperberg. If you have a pet you suspect is smarter than it’s given credit for, this memoir by the scientist who worked with Alex the gray parrot for 30 years will pin you in your chair to finish it in one sitting. Pepperberg made the whole world think twice by what she revealed about learned language in a creature with “a brain the size of a shelled walnut,” as well as learned animal behavior in general.
The King Must Die and The Bull From the Sea by Mary Renault. I’ve never included rereads in this list before, but it had been almost 20 years since I last read these novels based on the myth of Theseus, and I’d forgotten how absolutely extraordinary they are in terms of research, characterization, and human understanding. Wow. They’ve lost nothing over the years, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed them.
BONUS: a surprise movie to end this list. The best film I saw all year – in a year, by the way, that offered the remarkable “Up,” “Valkyrie,” and “Inglourious Basterds” – was “Zombieland.” Laugh yourself silly and forget the real, un-zombiefied world for an hour and a half, and then go home and make sure you have a houseful of weapons and junk food, just in case.