Monday, December 21, 2009

Ruminations: Sal's 10 best books of 2009

`Tis the season for lists, even though lists mean absolutely nothing; for if you ask me again in a week's time, I'm sure I'd rearrange these titles, perhaps dropping a few. Plus I didn't get around to Paul Auster's new novel Invisible, and I didn't finish his first wife's collection The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. I also wanted to get to Aleksandr Hemon's Love and Obstacles, but that one fell by the wayside. There's always something to read, and one will always miss something too.

Anyway, with that in mind, I've compiled my ten favourite works published in 2009.

10. Lowboy by John Wray (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). The title refers to the protagonist, a young man with schizophrenia who rides the subways incessantly. A thrilling, pageturning novel, Wray creates a landscape of the underground of New York, as well as that of the mind. Will Heller, Lowboy himself, is much more amicable than Holden Caulfield - the character to whom he is most compared; you actually enjoy spending time and company with him, and the others he meets along his travels. It goes to show that New York City also is much larger than it seems, and when you're lost, you're really lost. [Even James Wood in The New Yorker gave this a good review - not that that means anything.]

9. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24). A fantastic collection of short stories where the settings and persons may seem varied, but they are all reinterpretations of a similar trope: the effects of a single moment or a single decision on a person's life. Tower is able to capture the humour and tragedies of life in what seems deceptively simple. But read 'The Brown Coast' and tell me you weren't captivated by his prose or his tense build up. It's almost like an O Henry story, and arguably more powerful. [Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times almost too zealous about this collection.]

8. The Longshot by Katie Kitamura (Free Press, $14). You can look at this novel the way Tom McCarthy does: "Hemingway's returned to life -- and this time, he's a woman." Or you can take gender completely out of it and be fascinated by the way Kitamura is able to create a paired down story of a coach and his mixed martial arts fighter, and their simple, but ridiculously moving story and relationship as they travel to Mexico for one final fight against the title holder. The novel never moves beyond its scope; it is precise, understated, and in its own way perfect. [Colin's review here.]

7. The Double Life Is Twice as Good by Jonathan Ames (Scribner, $15). From the first story, 'Bored to Death' - now a successful HBO show starring Jason Schwartzman, which I still haven't seen! - you know that you're going to get hooked on Ames's quirky, bare-faced comedy. As I wrote in my review, 'Ames has compiled essays and fiction (and in this collection, there really isn’t a difference between the two) in order to create a riotous event. There are no dull moments; there is just pure hysteria.' [My review here.]

6. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (The Penguin Press, $27.95). Forget that people have called it Pynchon-lite. It feels like the full stop to a writer's fantastic career, the period that follows the V in his debut novel V. Like with his former books, this is laugh out loud funny; heavy on the drug use, yet easier in the plot. There are fewer hardcore meandering sessions. But Doc Sportello is one wild PI to follow around. And his story really ties the whole Pynchon world together. [My review here, and there.]

5. Little Bee by Chris Cleave (Simon & Schuster, $24). How far would you go to protect someone, someone that you don't know, someone who is being treated unjustly? Why do you feel connected to another human in their plight? Cleave may write with the speed and sentimentality of a commercial author, but he poses questions that many literary artists wonder; the influence of DH Lawrence is certainly there: a journalistic intrigue into sociopolitical queries. Read the first chapter and you will be hooked. I've read both Cleave novels in a single sitting. No joke.

4. The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volonhonsky (Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95). I hold fast to the fact that Pevear and Volonhonsky, the married translating team, have gotten me through the greats of Russian literature. Their versions are always crystal clear, effective, and - what I hope - true to the original. Always with an introductory essay, they let you know what's about to happen and why they made the decisions they did. Tolstoy's stories are beautiful, engaging, and often times humorous. This edition got me through 'The Kreutzer Sonata', which is one of the most intense pieces I have ever come across. Tolstoy is thrilling, and this translation makes certain of it.

3. Goat Song by Brad Kessler (Scribner, $24). Simple, straightforward, honest, unassuming, Kessler's narrative tells how he and his wife take in a pair of goats and decide to raise them for milk and cheese. Kessler never claims to be an expert, but never feels like he's the fool. He goes through the process, and you feel as if you're learning with him. From my review: '[Kessler] also discusses a great deal of etymology [of 'goat'], linking goats and Greek and common English words together: from the obvious word tragedy to the concept of Pan to the fantastic idea of transhumance. Everything seems so tightly woven, and Kessler’s connections don’t seem out of place or make the reader make huge leaps of faith. We’re in good hands here.' [My review here.]

2. Columbine by Dave Cullen (Twelve, $26.99). This journalistic book unfolds like a Greek tragedy: you know what's going to happen, and you don't want to see it occur, but you read to understand. Because we want to know why this happened. It's a book that keeps you on edge, uncomfortable diving into the depths of this horrific incident and how it affected the town, students, parents, administrators alike. The most frightening aspect is knowing how all the signs were there; it's just that no one was interested enough to put them together. It will give you nightmares.

1. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Doubleday, $27.95). A great coincidence that this was the last book 2009 book I read this year too. It resonates. It makes one laugh. It makes one think. It makes one confused. It makes one - above all - entertained with the imagination that Lethem puts forth in this wacky, controlled, and yet sprawling novel about New York City and the hysteria it causes in the people who live here. There seems to be nothing this novel can't - or won't - tackle. And the eBay scene is absolutely priceless and that alone makes it worth reading.[My review here.]


Elena said...

Cool list.

Also you guys got an award at some weird blog i stumbled across:

you don't have to pass it on or anything. :)

Dave Cullen said...

Thanks for including me, Sal. (Especially at #2.) I'm honored.

And that was a great write-up.

Kari said...

Idlewild Books is having an event on Lowboy:

Wed Feb 10 @ 7pm
John Wray The author of the novel Lowboy, new in paperback, reads from and discusses his work with Granta editor John Freeman

Best bookstore ever. 19th St between 5th and 6th.