We asked some Shelf Awareness people for their 10 (or so) favorite books of the past year. Most of these titles were published in 2009, but not all, since we wanted to know what gave them reading pleasure no matter the pub date.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Face on Your Plate by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (Little, Brown). Both of these important, compelling books address the horrors of factory farming and the need for us to change our dietary choices, but each approaches the topic from a different angle. They are must-reads.
Life Sentences by Laura Lippman (Morrow). A brilliant, expertly nuanced psychological thriller from the prodigiously talented Laura Lippman.
Blame by Michelle Huneven (FSG). A rich and beautifully written novel about the nature of loss and redemption.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson. A stunning YA novel which tackles an old subject--eating disorders--with new insight and grace.
The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Little, Brown). He's baaaaack.... Unputdownable. (My list includes The Black Echo and The Poet.)
The Addict: One Patient, One Doctor, One Year by Michael Stein (Morrow). A searing portrait of prescription drug addiction from a physician who takes a new approach to treating it.
Box 21 by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellström (FSG). A pitch-dark Scandinavian thriller involving sex slavery, mafia bosses and bitter policemen--and that's just the beginning. It will keep you up at night.
The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers (Harmony). A warm, funny and often tragic memoir of the author's native Zimbabwe.
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster). This smart, funny and always entertaining paean to poetry is Baker at his best; a real gem of a novel.
Episodes: My Life As I See It by Blaze Ginsberg (Roaring Brook). Yes, I know, and you can have all the disclaimers you want--but this is still the best book I've read all year. Bar none.
Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy (Knopf). Nobody does noir like Ellroy. He is a master and this book is not to be missed.
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon (Ballantine). Far more than an absorbing mystery, in this complex and psychologically astute story Chaon puts on a virtuosic display of his considerable talent. It's a thrilling example of the best of modern literary fiction.
Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer (Pantheon). Strikingly contemporary and utterly timeless, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is an intense, vivid trip to a pair of exotic cities and an equally provocative journey into the twisted passageways of the human soul.
Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow (Random House). Doctorow has moved Homer and Langley Collyer from the sideshow of American history to center stage. Strange as their story may be, he makes us feel privileged, if perhaps in an odd way, to share it.
The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster). It's hard to know what to expect next from Baker, but in his new novel he's delivered a charming, if undeniably quirky, extended love letter to the art of poetry.
Love and Summer by William Trevor (Viking). Trevor's genius lies in his uncanny ability to expose, with sensitivity and insight, the complexity of even the most mundane lives. That he does so in prose that's a model of elegant compression makes his achievement even more impressive.
Last Night in Twisted River by John Irving (Random House). Irving's 12th novel is a shaggy, shambling, lovable bear of a book. It is vintage Irving, stuffed to overflowing with a cast of memorable characters, dark humor, a surfeit of tragedy and loss and enough love, sex and death to fill at least two or three less ambitious novels.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (Knopf). Bubbling with intelligence and lacerating humor and showcasing Moore's uncanny ability to capture the free-floating anxiety that undoubtedly qualifies as the psychic disorder of our age, A Gate at the Stairs is a tightly focused snapshot of our unsettled world.
Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey (Knopf). In this comprehensive, unsparing work, Bailey has produced a biography every bit as absorbing as the life of its complex and tortured subject.
Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness by Tracy Kidder (Random House). The latest work from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Tracy Kidder is a stirring account of one man's remarkable flight from genocidal terror in his homeland of Burundi to the U.S. and then back home to confront the burdens of memory and reconciliation.
Closing Time: A Memoir by Joe Queenan (Viking). Queenan's book is a painfully honest, savagely funny, wise and ultimately moving story of growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and '60s while outgrowing life in the home of a brutal, alcoholic father.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hofmann (Melville House). A gritty "you are there" feel pervades this brilliant and harrowing saga of a German couple fighting for their dignity in the face of unrelenting Nazi oppression and sadism in Berlin in 1941.
Translation Is a Love Affair by Jacques Poulin, translated by Sheila Fischman (Archipelago Books). A short novel set in contemporary Quebec that is brimming with satisfying tales of friendship, hope and love between two unlikely and enchanting characters.
I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett (Graywolf). A comic romp in the beloved traditions of Mark Twain, Terry Southern and Kurt Vonnegut that smartly ponders questions of racism, classism and celebrity in America today.
That Mad Ache: A Novel by Françoise Sagan, translated by Douglas Hofstadter (Basic Books). Sagan's 1965 La Chamade, about a scampering Parisienne torn between respect and affection for an older, rich protector and uncontrolled passion with a handsome, impoverished young editor, takes on thrilling romantic urgency in a new translation by the author of Gödel, Escher, Bach.
City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s by Edmund White (Bloomsbury). A thoughtful, ardent memoir that captures New York City at an auspicious time for White to define his themes and come into his own as a raconteur, friend and sexy devil (in the best sense).
Life as We Show It: Writing on Film, edited by Brian Pera and Masha Tupitsyn (City Lights Books). Twenty-five writers discuss attachments they formed for certain movies--ET, Shane and Rosemary's Baby acquire new significance and resonance after reading these inspired pieces of narrative nonfiction.
i sold Andy Warhol (too soon) by Richard Polsky (Other Press). A sardonic guide with lots of sassy style takes readers on a dizzying, dishy and fascinating tour of the recently crazy market for contemporary art.
Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology, edited by Michael Hofmann (FSG, 2006). A bracing collection that stands celebrities like Rilke and Brecht beside lesser-known but no-less-brilliant poets like Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Durs Grünbein to show us a poetry with a range of possibilities larger than what British and American readers have become accustomed to.
The Dedalus Book of Spanish Fantasy, edited and translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Annella McDermott (Dedalus Books, 1999). Doppelgangers, chairs acquiring souls and people metamorphosing into animals populate an anthology rich in imagination, storytelling and raw material for wild, wild dreams.
Mary Stuart by Friedrich von Schiller, translated by Jeremy Sams (Nick Hern Books, 1996). The epic battle between Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart bristles with theatrical energy in Schiller's version of the classic tale of political sibling rivalry.
Cafe Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People by Barney Josephson et al. (University of Illinois Press). Reminiscences (and captivating photographs) capture the key place Barney Josephson occupies in our cultural history and make you wish you had been there to see/hear Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Alberta Hunter and Mary Lou Williams and others electrify the place.
Faces of the Gone by Brad Parks (Minotaur). A debut mystery about a Newark reporter covering some gruesome murders; a solid plot mixed with sardonic wit. I'm eager for a sequel.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave (Simon). This story of a young Nigerian refugee in an English detention center will amaze and delight you--and break your heart. It's one of the finest books I've read in years, from its lyrical opening lines to its surprising end.
City of Thieves by David Benioff (Plume). The story of two young men in Leningrad during the World War II siege, who are forced to find a dozen eggs for a colonel or be executed, blew me away with its mix of tragedy and comedy--the absurdity of war brilliantly rendered.
A Final Arc of the Sky by Jennifer Culkin (Beacon Press). An eloquent and compelling memoir by a critical care flight nurse, that soars with tragedy and tenderness. A sense of fragility, and well as resiliency and strength, permeate Culkin's life and calling.
Larry's Kidney by Daniel Asa Rose (Morrow). A hilarious story about two cousins in China, one searching for a kidney and true love, the other aiding and abetting. Rose's writing is by turns hyperbolic and hallucinatory as he deals with the outlandish situation and his wacky cousin. Sometimes slapstick, sometimes caustic, Larry's Kidney is also sweet and thoughtful as Daniel finds himself improbably falling in love with China.
A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul by Tim Farrington (HarperOne). Novelist Tim Farrington has written a candid memoir about his lifelong struggle with depression. He's not a scholar, not a therapist, not a theologian; "I'm more like a veteran, I suppose: a guy whose ass has been on the line, [with] some stories from the front." It's written with wisdom and wit, by an author who sees his dark night of the soul as a gift from God.
Dogged Pursuit by Robert Rodi (Hudson Street Press). The hilarious and truly moving story of Rodi's quest to train Dusty, "a scrawny little twist of a pipe cleaner" dog, and himself, in the demanding art of canine agility competition. Heartbreaks and heroics, defeats and victories line the path to success in unexpected ways. He comes to see his dog's Dusty-ness and his dignity and experiences some true moments of grace.
Before I Forget by Leonard Pitts Jr. (Bolden/Agate). A powerful novel about regrets, second chances, forgiveness and responsibility and what it means to be a man. A father's grief and anger, his struggles with his son and his own father, combine with love in a crucible of hope and transformation. This is a beautiful, tragic and riveting work.
Border Songs by Jim Lynch (Knopf). In Border Songs, Jim Lynch does for birds and the northwestern border what he did for sea creatures and south Puget Sound in his lovely The Highest Tide; he has an equal affinity for showing us the beauty and humor of humanity. The illusory security of the border reminds us that our lives are also fragile, but Lynch has crafted a story of love, redemption and acceptance that reminds us of what is true and strong.
A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory (Overlook Press). As life reaches its closing chapter for Joseph Vaughn, he begins to relate his story, and waits for judgment on who he is and what he has done, beginning in Georgia in 1939. The mystery is compelling; just as insistent is the pull of Ellory's prose, with a deceptively leisurely pace that heightens the suspense. He has crafted a dazzling tale.
Spoon by Robert Greer (Fulcrum Publishing). In Montana, a drifter rescues a family and their way of life before he moves on. It starts in late summer, it ends the following autumn, and the sweetness and melancholy of the seasons perfectly complement this classic tale of a cowboy, ranchers and big business, told with sweet humor and Western elegance.
An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne). Taylor is one of my favorite writers, in part for her ability to see the sacred in the everyday, and in her latest book she concentrates on finding holiness in simple things like walking in the dark, hanging laundry and making eye contact with a clerk. A book to inspire and challenge.
Our Top Ten Lists 2009, Part Two
We asked Shelf Awareness people for their 10 (or so) favorite books of the past year. Most of these titles were published in 2009, but not all, since we wanted to know what gave them reading pleasure no matter the pub date.
Stardust by Joe Kanon (Atria). Set in 1945 in Los Angeles, this book is all about the movie business, the beginnings of the Red Scare, German emigres (Bertolt Brecht has a few lines, Thomas Mann keeps his distance), a murder mystery, the dreamworld of Hollywood and the dreamworld of real life. Great book, great ending, can't wait for the movie.
The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson, translated by Reg Keeland (Knopf). Who'd have thought the second volume of this Swedish mystery would be even better than the first book in the series?!
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest by Stieg Larsson (Quercus). Who'd have thought the author could top volume two?! We were lucky enough to get a copy of the third volume in the series in Frankfurt since it's been out in the U.K. for many months; Knopf won't release it here until May. While finishing it, we mourned the author's death all the more.
Berlin Noir by Philip Kerr (Penguin, 1989, 1990 and 1991). These three titles collected in one volume feature detective Bernie Gunther, who must have been a cousin of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade. March Violets and The Pale Criminal are set in 1930s Berlin, where Gunther, who loathes the Third Reich, gets involves in cases that lead him to bump up against powerful Nazi figures--and wind up with him involuntarily rejoining the criminal police. A German Requiem is set in the postwar period, and despite the name, most of the action takes place in Vienna. Amusing, sharp, intriguing and so very sad all at once.
Bikeman: An Epic Poem by Thomas F. Flynn (Andrews McMeel, 2008). A tender, appropriate way to remember September 11 by the CBS reporter who rode his bicycle to the Twin Towers and nearly died when he was trapped in the cloud of debris in a parking garage whose one exit was blocked.
Blue Suburbia: Almost a Memoir by Laurie Lico Albanese (Harper Perennial, 2004). Another epic autobiographical poem, one that tells the author's story, which by turns is heartbreaking and delightful. Coincidentally Blue Suburbia was included this past weekend in USA Today's "5 Unique Finds for Book Lovers."
The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees, October 13, 1960 by Jim Reisler (Da Capo). Arguably it's good background to have been a child living in Pittsburgh that day and remember the spontaneous block party that broke out after Bill Mazeroski's legendary home run. Still anyone with some interest in baseball can appreciate this artfully done book that intersperses inning-by-inning action with a history of the teams and their colorful players, the season to that point and the contrasts between the Big Apple and Iron City.
China: Empire of Living Symbols by Cecilia Lindqvist, translated by Joan Tate (Da Capo, 2008). For those of us fascinated by Chinese, this offers detailed histories of many basic characters, showing their earliest forms, which often were representational, and their stylized modern versions. The author also traces how characters grew out of daily life and reflect old norms--the difference in the meaning of compound characters involving the characters for man and for women, for example!
Drink, Play, F@#k: One Man's Search for Anything Across Ireland, Vegas, and Thailand by Andrew Gottlieb (Black Cat/Grove/Atlantic). This gives amusing balance to Eat, Pray, Love--the title alone is worth the price of admission.
Tales of the South Pacific by James A. Michener (1946). The classic first work by Michener, the basis for the musical, holds up nicely.
Shannon McKenna Schmidt
American Fuji by Sara Backer (Berkley). I was intrigued to read this novel, the story of two Americans whose lives intersect in Japan, after writing about it for Shelf Awareness [September 14] and talking with bookseller Marilyn Lustig. Word of mouth works!
The Gardner Heist: The True Story of the World's Largest Unsolved Art Theft by Ulrich Boser (Smithsonian). A fascinating foray into the art underworld as journalist Ulrich Boser cracks a cold case--the $50 million robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1989.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson (Vintage). A riveting (addictive!) thriller. I'm looking forward to following along with quirky, unpredictable Lisbeth Salander in The Girl Who Played with Fire.
The Lion's Eye: Seeing in the Wild by Joanna Greenfield (Little, Brown). Greenfield offers a lyrical and vivid account of her time spent observing chimpanzees in the rain forests of Uganda and the personal obstacles she overcame to get there.
Oscar Wilde and a Death of No Importance by Gyles Brandreth (Touchstone). Flamboyant playwright Wilde taps into his powers of deduction to solve crimes in Victorian London. His latest adventure is Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man's Smile.
Perfection: A Memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz (Voice). After the sudden death of her husband, Julie Metz discovered that he had been cheating on her for years. In this remarkably honest and inspiring memoir, she shares the story of how she put her life back together.
The Sound of Water by Sanjay Bahadur (Atria). A harrowing, thought-provoking, beautifully written novel based on a real-life incident, a mining disaster in a remote region of India and told from three perspectives: the trapped men, their family members and company officials.
Swan Dive by Michael Burke (Caravel). Set in a New England factory town, this gritty, witty and risque crime novel stars a down-on-his-luck detective and is loosely based on the myth of Leda and the Swan.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Delacorte Press). At her family's ramshackle estate in the English countryside, 11-year-old Flavia de Luce spars with her older sisters, concocts poisons and solves a murder. Atmospheric and fun.
This Child Will Be Great: Memoir of a Remarkable Life by Africa's First Woman President by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Harper). Tough, smart and funny, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recalls how she came to lead once war-torn Liberia and details the centuries-old ties between her country and the U.S.
Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor (Viking). In this eloquent memoir, Sue Monk Kidd and her daughter, Ann, recall their travels together in Greece and France as well as their emotional and spiritual journeys. Along the way, Kidd shares how she came to write her debut novel, The Secret Life of Bees.
Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada (Melville House, translated by Michael Hofmann). Easily my favorite book of the year, this beautifully crafted novel of working class people trying to take a stand in Nazi Berlin was praised by the New York Times as a "signal literary event of 2009."
In the First Circle: A Novel (The Restored Text) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (HarperCollins, translated by H.T. Willetts). It was a thrill to revisit this uncensored edition of what I've long considered one of the most important books published in my lifetime.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Sure he won the National Book Award and everybody's reading him now, but I've been a fan of McCann's work for more than a decade. The elegant, intelligent grittiness of this New York novel is precisely what I've come to expect from one of our best writers.
Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (NYRB Classics, translated by Joanne Turnbull). Speculative fiction from Russia, this collection subtly twists perceived reality with intelligence and starting imagination. I loved "The Bookmark," and lines like "the bookmark looked affronted and slightly grumpy."
31 Hours by Masha Hamilton (Unbridled Books). An exploration of post-9/11 New York from multiple perspectives, this was a brilliant and irresistible, provocative and evocative literary thrill ride that probed the deeply human causes and consequences of terrorism.
Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatín (City Lights Books, translated by Kurt Hollander). Imagine a salon that becomes "the Terminal," a surreal yet all too real refuge for strangers "who have nowhere else to die." I'm still haunted by the narrative voice and the aquariums. (You'll have to read it to find out about them.)
The Pig Comes to Dinner by Joseph Caldwell (HarperCollins). Yes, you can read Caldwell just for the fun of it. If you are a fan of smart, biting Irish humor, this second volume of Caldwell's trilogy (after the delightful The Pig Did It) continues my favorite porcine misadventures.
Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu by Philip Alcabes (PublicAffairs). One of the best explorations of our strange, instinctive need to overreact to often misperceived threats like epidemic scares. A clearheaded look at our instinctive human fondness for mass anxiety and panic.
The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton (Bloomsbury Press). Does my taste in art reflect evolutionary traits shaped by Darwinian selection? I thought so before reading Dutton's book, and found that he makes an intriguing and enlightening case for the possibility that my instinct was correct.
Crush It! by Gary Vaynerchuk (HarperStudio). Anyone who wants to understand how the alchemy of passion and knowledge can produce gold (whatever your gold may be) in business and life should pay attention to Gary Vaynerchuk. His presentation at BEA was an impressive tasting; his book is insightful, inspiring and even a little intoxicating.