All hail the printed word: Best books of 2009
The Seattle Times book reviewers name the best books of 2009, including: T.C. Boyle's "The Women"; Dan Simmons' "Drood"; Jane Gardam's "The Man in the Wooden Hat"; Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall"; Nick Reding's "Methland" and China Miéville's "The City & The City."
Seattle Times book editor
Here's an abiding mystery — in an age when every medium for the written word is evolving or under assault, why do people still write books? In my 11th year as the book editor at this newspaper, I have concluded that it's because they have to. Something drives people to write, to write long and to write deep. The book is still the best form for saying something profound, whether you're reading it on paper, on an e-reader or listening to it via audiobook.
The evidence: This list of good and great books that were published in 2009, recommended by Seattle Times reviewers. The recommendations are more or less in the reviewers' words — if more than one reviewer chimed in support of the nomination, their name is in parentheses. From books by local authors to a Man Booker prizewinner, you will find something here to engage your brain and your heart.
"Invisible" by Paul Auster (Henry Holt). You never quite know where Auster will take you, and that's the thrill and pleasure of reading "Invisible," a tale of a young man in the 1960s who becomes entangled with a strange but compelling couple he meets at a party who alter his life's trajectory. This is a startling and sometimes disturbing story that spans four decades and three continents.
"The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster). Baker does something quite unique: manages to write a completely successful novel about poetry. The anthologist of the title struggles with completing an assignment to write an introduction to a collection of poems, and in the process reveals as much about himself as he does about poetry.
Robert Allen Papinchak
"The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard" (Norton). In these 1,200 pages, American readers can finally savor the full, extravagant range of this British writer (1930-2009) whose dystopian nightmares' energizing glee, otherworldly beauty and pressing sense of quest are so distinctive that they've given rise a new adjective: "Ballardian."
"Miss Harper Can Do It" by Jane Berentson (Viking). Teacher Annie Harper is the utterly relatable narrator of this charming debut. She quickly becomes a prime candidate for your new best friend as you read and laugh about Harper and her life in Tacoma, revolving around a boyfriend in Iraq, a new chicken named Helen and her best friend Gus.
"The Women" by T.C. Boyle (Viking). "The Women" is an engaging investigation of Frank Lloyd Wright's tumultuous private life, made public due to his iconic presence in American architecture, his flamboyant style and his penchant for collecting women; as wives, mistresses and acolytes.
"Little Bee" by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster). This novel uses the emotionally gripping friendship between an introspective teenage Nigerian refugee and a widowed London career woman to explore one of this young century's most pressing issues — the mass migration of the poor and oppressed into wealthier, seemingly more progressive lands — revealing a more complicated terrain for everyone involved.
"The Man in the Wooden Hat" by Jane Gardam (Europa Editions). Gardam's new novel is the perfect companion to her previous book,"Old Filth." This time, Gardam presents the story of Sir Edward Feathers from the point of view of his wife, Betty, revealing significant facts about their relationship, their marriage and the secrets that were only hinted at in "Old Filth." Readers can start with the second book, but it might be more rewarding to read them in the order of publication.
Robert Allen Papinchak (and Mary Ann Gwinn)
"Lacuna" by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper). It's been nearly a decade since Barbara Kingsolver has turned out a new novel. "Lacuna" sometimes errs on the preachy side, but it has an interesting protagonist, and Kingsolver's examination of America's uses and abuses of language, media and power in the mid-20th century resonate today.
Barbara Lloyd McMichael.
"Chronic City" by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday). The genre-bending Lethem goes on a pop-culture binge in this weird tale of a slightly futuristic Manhattan as seen by a pot-smoking rock critic and a has-been child actor.
"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel (Henry Holt). To call this book a "historical novel" doesn't do justice to this Man Booker prizewinning work, a masterpiece of characterization and dissection of human nature at its most courageous and cunning. Mantel tells the story of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, the commoner who became the embattled English king's closest adviser. This was the best novel I read this year — happily, Mantel says she's writing the next installment.
Mary Ann Gwinn (and Ellen Emry Heltzel)
"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann (Random House). Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, McCann's novel puts us on the sidewalks of New York on the day that a young Frenchman walked on a wire between the two World Trade Center towers — weaving, through a Joycean tangle of voices, a dizzyingly satisfying portrait of a city and a moment.
"The City & the City" by China Miéville (Del Rey). In the hands of subversive fantasist Miéville, a solid police procedural transmutes into a Kafkaesque meditation on the reality of political boundaries, as his hero hunts a killer in two cities that share the same location, separated only by taboo.
Nisi Shawl (and Mary Ann Gwinn)
"The Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore (Knopf). This novel by a celebrated short-fiction writer views a modern-day, liberal college town from the perch of Tassie, a brainy and irreverent coed. Through Tassie's adventures working as a nanny for the black adoptive child of white parents, falling in love with the wrong guy and coping with her own family crises, Moore paints an unsparing but empathetic portrait of the America our young are inheriting — and what they may bring to it.
"Drood" by Dan Simmons (Little, Brown). A voluminous, hallucinogenic, frightening story by Simmons, a master of the horror form, "Drood" tells the story of Charles Dickens' final days through the perspective of his frenemy, author and opium addict Wilkie Collins. At times I wanted to throw this 775-page tome across the room — Collins is the ultimate unreliable narrator, so you never are quite sure what's really happening. But I'm still thinking about this book.
Mary Ann Gwinn (and Moira Macdonald).
"Brooklyn" by Colm Tóibín (Scribner). Two reviewers recommended this novel: Ellen Emry Heltzel said she is "haunted by this work of fiction by a writer skilled enough to show the immigrant experience through the eyes of someone so ordinary she'd get lost in a crowd. Toibin quietly shows the wrenching emotional adjustment and the transformation that takes place in the life of a young Irish woman who comes to America after World War II." And Valerie Ryan added: "Toibin is the master of the buried emotion, the unexamined life and the wrenching decision. "
"My Father's Tears and Other Stories" by John Updike (Knopf). The writer Vladimir Nabokov urged writers to "Caress the detail, the divine detail," and no other contemporary American writer followed this injunction more faithfully and with more spectacular results than John Updike, who died in 2009. As in all his glorious body of work, the stories in "My Father's Tears" show Updike's incomparable skill in caressing the detail and so bring forth the shimmering transcendence of the everyday.
"Baader-Meinhof: The Inside Story of the R.A.F" by Stefan Aust (Oxford University Press). Terror, we now know, comes in many forms, and after studying post-World War II Germany's most notorious organization for decades, journalist Stefan Aust has written a chilling, minutely detailed and authoritative account that lays bare one fascinating and horrific incarnation of modern terrorism.
"Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son," By Michael Chabon (Harper). Novelist Chabon explores worlds shared by many American men — among them, children, parents, wives, brothers, in-laws, work, sports, TV — and returns with a memoir that is acutely funny, sad and knowing, while also conveying the wonder of it all.
"Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits" by Linda Gordon (Norton). Gordon's biography is an intimate, compelling portrait of the celebrated photographer and a rigorous history of the social movements that shaped her times and iconic work.
"Crow Planet — Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness" by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown). Haupt, a Seattle naturalist and crow devotee, delights in and discusses these clever birds whose increasing numbers — more than 31 million in the United States — signal massive habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, which are problems caused by humans that we must begin to confront.
"After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam" by Lesley Hazleton (Doubleday). At a time when understanding the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims is essential to making sense of world events, local author Hazleton scores with this vivid recounting of the origins of the split. She deftly uses original sources to convey both the drama and the tragedy of a divide that, 1,400 year later, continues to shape the outlooks of a fifth of the world's population.
"The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science" by Richard Holmes (Pantheon). This beautifully written book tells the story of a group of British scientists, including astronomer William Herschel, the chemist Humphry Davy and the explorer Joseph Banks, who changed history with their discoveries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Mary Ann Gwinn (and David B. Williams).
"Lit" by Mary Karr (Harper). Karr builds on her ability to spin a yarn and her gifts with words to create this story of her struggle with the bottle. "Lit" could serve as a 12-step program for writers as well as anyone who wants to know what the struggle is like.
Ellen Emry Heltzel (and Ann Yow)
"Strength in What Remains" by Tracy Kidder (Random House). Kidder's latest is an African medical student's story of struggle, redemption, and return, a narrative infused with a broad, universal appeal and occasional touches of brilliance. It reaffirms our hope that one person can make a difference.
"Jacques Cousteau: The Sea King" by Brad Matsen (Pantheon). Cousteau was a French resistance fighter, an Oscar-winning filmmaker, a family man with a secret second family, a pioneering scuba diver and a prophetic environmental activist. Matsen, his Vashon Island-based biographer, skillfully captures the multifaceted nature of a unique 20th century icon.
"Darwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution" by Iain McCalman (Norton). McCalman beautifully describes the formative voyages of four of the greats of 19th century science — Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley, and Alfred Wallace — and how their travels shaped each man's understanding of science and the natural world and, in turn, led them down the paths to insights into evolution.
David B. Williams
"Methland" by Nick Reding (Bloomsbury). This finely reported story of methamphetamine shows the hideous effects of the drug on people who use it and on their small town in Iowa. Reding's account of the wider story of meth is a challenge both to those who support the War on Drugs and also to those who don't.
Bruce Ramsey (and Mary Ann Gwinn)
"Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" by Carol Sklenicka (Scribner). Sklenicka's biography, the first of Northwest legend Raymond Carver, is a compelling, but dark, trip through an alcoholic life redeemed by writing.
Charles R. Cross
"Louis D. Brandeis: A Life" by Melvin I. Urofsky (Pantheon). This towering 900-page biography of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis comprehensively reviews the life of an extraordinarily important justice whose opinions on privacy and free speech not only convinced the court but continue to resonate today; well worth the investment of time.
Kevin J. Hamilton