This is meant to be a rundown of my favourite books of the year, but it already feels more like a string of glaring omissions and apologies. It just isn’t fair with books. Nobody can read everything released in a given year—nobody even comes close. The best you can aim for is a fraction of a fraction. Accordingly, this list goes out to all those I never got to in time (Dan Chaon and Geoff Dyer, forgive me), as well as those to whom history may be kinder than I was the first time around (sorry, Lorrie Moore).
And I’m not sure what to make of this, but for some reason the highs of what I read this year didn’t come close to the highs of 2008. Maybe it’s because that was the first year I was out of university, and all for-pleasure books simply tasted that much sweeter. But I don’t think that’s quite it. More probably it’s just luck; last year I happened to be assigned two five-star-plus novels (Lee Henderson’s The Man Game and Salvatore Scibona’s The End), and this year none.
That being said, it was still a good year. I think I read a little more widely this time around—though still overwhelmingly male, of which I’ll write more about soon—burned through a few classics in my off time, and still managed to come up with a bunch of four-star entries. Maybe even a few 4.5s.
Here’s what stuck out for me in 2009, in alphabetical order.
Hurricane Katrina did untold damage to thousands of lives back in 2005, though most of it wasn’t even the storm’s fault. In this harrowing, stripped-simple story of one of those lives—a Syrian-born contractor named Abdulrahman Zeitoun—Eggers deftly reveals the consequences of the American government’s mismanagement of the situation from the ground floor. Proof that bureaucrats and private thuggery can swallow goodness whole if you aren’t fighting back every step of the way.
The picaresque is revealed to be alive and well with this, the 17th novel by Percival Everett. While our hero, the unfortunately named Not Sidney Poitier, doesn’t do much in the way of maturing, he does run up against a cavalcade of ridiculous obstacles to deal with: from being arrested in the American South for driving while black, to attempting to solve what appears to be his own murder. Also featuring hilarious cameos by Bill Cosby, Ted Turner, and an unhinged philosophy professor named Percival Everett.
I wouldn’t recommend anyone try to emulate this Bosnian émigré’s approach to writing, since all he does is re-cast stories from his personal life with the thinnest of fictional glazes. He’s got to be a creative writing professor’s worst nightmare. Then again, maybe Hemon leads the most highly charmed of lives, since virtually every story here is a knockout—full of drunk wit, pinpoint detail, and the ache that comes with being far from home.
Two of the most purely enjoyable books of the year share a lot of common ground, including pot-induced paranoia, scores of forgotten films and records, and detective characters whose methods of uncovering the truth could charitably be called ‘unconventional.’ (‘Completely fucking insane’ works as well.) Yet both books are keenly aware and in control of their own lunacy, and both beg to be devoured.
One of England’s most energetic novelists switches gears for this, her first book of non-fiction. It’s a gem. Smith is a superb close reader—she deals mostly with film and literature, from Old Hollywood to the front lines of experimental fiction—but the real delights come whenever she draws on something most working critics seem to leave at home: passion. Her closing essay on the late David Foster Wallace is at once the most exuberant and elegant tribute to the man yet committed to paper.
The Next Five: Nicholson Baker, The Anthologist; Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals; Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked; Lawrence Lessig, Remix; Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel