Best Books of 2009

The following are just a few of the outstanding books that came out in 2009.  It gets harder and harder to read all of them but the following 10 (actually 11) will surely make you want to run to the Strand, tell a friend or start a book club.  There were so many that I didn’t get a chance to read so don’t be mad at me if next year I include some from 2009.  Cheers to all who still find that buying and reading books will last forever.

1)   The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Reif Larsen)

It takes a creative mind to base your first novel on a 12-year-old cartographer who boards a train in the middle of the night and travels from the farms of Montana all the way to Washington DC in order to receive a prestigious award from the Smithsonian Museum (?!)  I’m not making it up, this was all through the incredibly inventive mind of Reif Larsen.  What I find most striking about the novel isn’t its perfect (albeit unconventional) coming of age story is that he never makes the T. S. too smart and obnoxious that some novelists do nor does he make the child too young and innocent.  Additionally the author adds in to the mix dozens of illustrations and notes that are meant to clarify the story telling.  Not all of these work but they do make for interesting reading.  An outstanding first novel.

2)   The Baptism of Billy Bean (Roger Alan Skipper)

Lane Hollar is the hero of the second novel from West Virgina native Roger Alan Skipper.  Lane (while fishing with his grandson) thinks he witnessed 2 men drown and murder a fellow fisherman named Billy Bean.  What happens next is stuff of great storytelling.  Roger Alan Skipper leads Lane on a path to the police, local bad guys and a corrupt lawman.  The author has such a keen eye and ear to the Appalachian countryside that one can’t imagine being a witness as well to the murder.  Equal parts country noir and hard boiled crime fiction this novel will grab anyone looking for either.

3 and 4)  A Meaningful Life (LJ Davis) and Hard Rain Falling (Don Carpenter)

I paired both of these novels together not only because they are bravura story telling at its finest but because they were both re-released by the New York Review of Books this year after many years out of print.  Those familiar with the NYRB know that this is what they do, they find some of the greatest written works in the world and re-issue these lost treasures for us to read and enjoy.  A Meaningful Life is the 1970’s story of young do-gooder Lowell Lake and his quest for the perfect life.  He gets a good job, marries a good Jewish girl and wants to do what any strong-willed man does, he buys a house.  What happens next is not the hope and dreams of most.  A black and often bleak story of Lowell’s mission to restore his dream home to its past grandeur is scary, funny and harrowing.  Hard Rain Falling is essentially the story of Jack Levitt, an orphan who never caught a break in his life.  He steals, grifts and does whatever he can to stay out of jail.  That is until one unfortunate set of events throw him right back in the big house.  There he meets an old acquaintance who he befriends and eventually falls in love with.  I have always found prison novels interesting but what I really love about this one is its lonely man just trying to redeem himself in this life.  Don Carpenter writes in Jack’s voice in such a sad tough guy manner that one can’t be driven to his story.  The novel is a true vision of what the 60’s were in America.  An ultimately devastating novel.

5) Sag Harbor- Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead has always seemed to have a pulse on the African-American culture and community.  This his fourth novel, billed as “semi-autobiographical” tells the story of 15-year-old Benji Cooper, one of the few black students at his elite Manhattan private school spends the summer in beautiful Sag Harbor which is home to many African-American urban professionals.  Benji gets into trouble, works at the ice cream parlor and does what all 15 year olds do when minimally supervised.  Benji is a Smiths loving, Brooks Brother wearing kid who comes from money.  This type of story is seldom told and when the biggest African-American story of 2009 on film is the obnoxious and indignant tale of Precious it makes this novel even more of a wonder.  Want a further telling of the novel?  Read the following review from the NY Times

6)  Zeitoun- Dave Eggers

Some much negative has been said of Dave Eggers and I can’ t put my finger on why.  Here is the perfect paradigm of a successful writer.  He donated his first big payout to start the 826 NYC (and subsequent cities) writing workshop, he releases all of his books via his McSweeney’s the publishing house that he founded.  In 2009 he released 2 books and 2 of his screenplays were made into movies (Where The Wild Things Are and Away We Go).  His other book was a novelization (in the truest sense) of the kids book called just Wild Things.  I chose his Zeitoun as one of the best books of the year because his heartwarming and incredibly harrowing tale of Abdulraham Zeitoun a successful Syrian born contractor who is arrested amid the post hurricane Katrina may lay.  Eggers writes in his voice via interviews instead of fictionalized speculation.  He captures Zeitoun’s experiences as if he were there the days after one of America’s most tragic events.  A truly must read.

7)  Love and Obstacles (stories)- Aleksandar Hemon

The author of last years incredible The Lazarus Project, Love and Obstacles is a powerful collection of stories told chronologically and all but one feature the Hemon-esque narrator Bogdan.  Fierce, robust and daring is a great way to describe the Sarajevo born author.

8)  The She-Devil in the Mirror- Horacio Castellanos Moya

A murder has happened in the living room of Laura Rivera.  Nobody knows what happened but Laura won’t quit looking for clues and answers.  The first person tale of Laura is all things political, sensual, chaotic and sobering.  This Latin American writer, with a big positive claim of Roberto Bolano creates a gripping and often paranoidly funny account of Laura’s exploits.  A short novel that will leave you wanting more.

9)  The Way Through Doors- Jesse Ball

A Kafka-esque journey through a cul-de-sac that is the brains of writer Jesse Ball.  Drug like curious and ultimately eventful trip of pamphleteer Selah Morse who witnesses a car accident that leaves Mora Klein an amnesiac.  Selah, who tells the hospital staff that he in fact is Mora’s boyfriend brings her home to try to find out who she truly is.  The novels tells the story(ies) of Mora through often dizzying circles is most interesting for its final redemption.

10)  The Humbling- Philip Roth and The Year of the Flood- Margaret Atwood

2 of my favorite authors released novels in 2009.  The Humbling is the story of one Simon Axler a 65-year-old actor who is undergoing a crisis: he can’t act.  His wife leaves him and being suicidal, checks himself into a psych ward.  Axler, one of the most Rothian figures he has created is going to fix himself.  He befriends and old friend’s lesbian daughter and begins an affair with her.  Sadly this doesn’t work out for Simon.  He loses her and once again loses his will to live.  Much has been said about the misogynistic view that Philip Roth views the world but read this book as more of a swan song to his stellar career and know that it’s a cry to the world more than a savage story on sex about the 60 something Axler.  Said what you want about Roth but his ability to invoke discussion is the stuff on truly great writers.  The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood’s dystopian tale of race, social impact and environmental stability.  Nothing that Atwood does is easy and concise and this novel (which would rank higher only because I’m half way through) is a another adventure.  Incredibly inventive.


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