The Cult's 'Top 10' Books of 2009
So, let me preface this by saying that I am not entirely comfortable with top ten lists, nor do I consider myself an expert on anything, much less what constitutes the best of the best. But after listening to me rant and rave over the years about whatever my latest book crush that week was, Dennis finally coerced me to compile my personal top ten list, as a feature for the website starting with 2009.
Now, I couldn't possibly get that list together by the end of December, or even January because I rely on the holidays to acquire some of those new, still-only-in-hardcover books (I can only buy so many books). And so I aimed to post this on Valentine's Day. After all, this seemed fitting for a website like ours that celebrates the love affair we all have with books.
A couple of caveats before I post my own, highly personal list:
-I still haven't had time to read John Irving's 2009 release: Last Night in Twisted River, nor James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover, and both authors are favorites of mine.
-Many of the best books I read last year were published before 2009, or were released in paperback in 2009. Also, a couple favorites were still in manuscript form. So if I were to include all those this list would have to be a Top 20. 30? Of all those, the one that I am most compelled to mention is Kockroach by Tyler Knox; it is one of the most imaginative and startling books that I've read since Geek Love by Katherine Dunn.
The Cult's 'Top 10' Books of 2009
by Mirka Hodurova
(In alphabetical order!)
I am a fan of Auster's but not everything he writes appeals to me deeply. Invisible did, and how. The structure is ambitious without ever lapsing into ostentatious literary gymnastics. Every sentence either sings or seduces or echoes somehow. Auster manages to tell a compelling story (from multiple points of view) in a way that reads like some kind of epic poem. The writing is so beautiful, yet he doesn't sacrifice plot for poetic indulgence. It amazed me.
This has got to be one of the most self assured and audacious debut novels I've read in years. I was in awe by the first page, laughing by the third. Bazell has a talent for introducing interesting asides and tangents that always come full circle. His characters are convincing and the author is smart enough to endow even the "bad" guys with some humanity. There's a deft back and forth chronology that keeps you turning the pages, and no matter how implausible the situation, like certain scenes with sharks and self-surgery, Bazell keeps it convincing by employing excruciating detail and a matter of fact authority. I don't know how to adequately describe how great this book is without major spoilers, I really don't.
"Await Your Reply" by Dan Chaon
This book is a relentless mind f*ck! Each time you think know what's going on, Chaon introduces another possibility. There are three storylines, three main characters, and waiting for each of their fates to be revealed -- for their stories to intersect -- is a nail-biting joy . This turns into a kind of sickened awe when Chaon effortlessly indulges that anticipation and delivers a mind-blowing valediction.
Broadly this book explores identity, and the fluidity of identity, both as we perceive our own and identity in an increasingly hyper connected wireless world. Chaon uses the internet as a place as skillfully as other writers have used a geography to create a backdrop. (John Steinbeck, James Ellroy come to mind).
The Adderall Diaries kind of defies description; it starts off as a project to overcome Elliott's writer's block by covering a murder trial. It then beautifully reinvents itself as a memoir dealing with loss, ambition, family, betrayal, secrets, and forgiveness, among other things. But its greatest strength is that it's simply astonishing writing. I was deeply impressed by Elliott's honesty (SO honest that I cringed at times). It moved me and made me reflect on things that sometimes seem easier to dismiss or repress.
Sometimes I'm hesitant to tell people how much I love Mary Gaitskill's work because often that makes some people uncomfortable. I suppose that's because her work makes me uncomfortable. It makes me feel like a voyeur. Who are these people in her novels and stories, and why do I care? So often her characters dissect everything to minuscule depths, they often have imaginary, self indulgent problems, they're often unkind, and superior. But just as often they're heartbreaking, striving, looking for some kind of small connection or redemption. Looking for some way to reconcile their desires, to reconcile with people, to reconcile and understand their lives. Simply, Gaitskill writes about ugly and often sad things, beautifully and without pretense.
This one was a real treat, especially the title story, but I urge you to pick up any earlier book of hers if you haven't read her before. You might want to save this one for last, like dessert.
"Where Men Win Glory" by Jon Krakauer
I can't but wonder if Krakauer built his story around football player Pat Tillman in order to get a certain kind of person to read this book. The kind of person that likes football, but not reading so much. I get that Tillman was an enigma, and an interesting person, a valuable, special, and deeply talented and deeply loved person, but this book is really at its best explaining clearly and dispassionately how the US government really screwed up in Afghanistan well before 9/11, screwed up so bad in fact, that 9/11 could have been avoided altogether if the US hadn't been so intent on playing cops and robbers with the Soviets during the Cold War and paid some attention to where they played their deadly game.
This is an important book, an informative book, easy to read, meticulously researched and full of interesting factoids like most of Krakauer's books. Krakauer is much fairer presenting his premise than I am describing his book, so don't let me put you off. This is a great, highly readable book.
Also, no offense to football fans that do read, or to Tillman's family. I appreciate that he never meant to be a hero or draw attention to himself, and that the cover-up regarding his death by friendly fire was a travesty.
Lisbeth Salander! I don't know if there has been such a kick-ass female character since William Gibson's Molly or Jude in Will Christopher's Baer's Phineas Poe trilogy. I'd follow her anywhere. Unfortunately there's only one more book left in the trilogy. (Sadly, the author, Stieg Larsson, died before seeing any of his novels published)
Besides loving the hell out of Sander who is a computer hacker, motor-cyclist in full leathers, bisexual, (probably) autistic genius that fights crime, there are unusual sandwiches and much coffee lovingly prepared and consumed. Sander's not the only great character. Everyone is fleshed out and realistic, and there are a lot of characters which is admirable. This may ostensibly be considered a crime novel, but it's so much more. So much more reflective. (Or maybe it's just that they don't skimp on condiments in Swedish crime novels and respect that readers do pay attention.)
Elmore Leonard is simply a master, and I enjoy all of his books, but less so his historical novels like his most recent offerings The Hot Kid and Up in Honey's Room. So I was thrilled to find out Road Dogs was bringing back Jack Foley from Out of Sight. I wasn't disappointed; Foley is still his charming, weary, easy on the eyes darling self. No, I don't base this on the film Out of Sight, but Leonard's usual deftly minimal, yet telling dialogue and mannerisms that create memorable characters like Jack Foley. I love how Leonard can get away with "telling" not showing, like nobody's business. I guess it's because he knows what to tell and what to show, and when. He doesn't stint on action, either. I adore his female characters. They're never one dimensional, never just a dame or a prop. In fact, no matter how flawed or scheming any of his characters are, it's hard not to feel affectionate towards them. Leonard tells some crazy stories, but he never diminishes the humanity of his characters. This was a great one.
I have been remiss. This is the first China Miéville novel I've had the pleasure to read and I am thrilled that he's got some heavy backlist for me to explore.
For a "detective" novel, it reads like a scary parable, a story beyond a story, a story within a story, and many creepy alternate possibilities that recall the appeal of Phillip K. Dick's more esoteric works. (Valis, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer). I guess I'm saying this book defies classification and I like and admire that, but more so, enjoy being challenged and mystified, and led by the writer into a city or two I had never imagined before. Not a detective novel...
"Lowboy" by John Wray
Lyrical. Masterful. Those are descriptions bandied around as a joke for the most part as insincere book blurbs. In this case, they apply. NOT in the joking sense, but in a very primary, literal sense.
I found myself reading sentences aloud to see how they sounded. I wrote passages on postcards and mailed them to friends. I have a couple of lines written on index cards above my desk. Yes, this is a highly quotable book, but that's just an extra, the story is where it's at. Lowboy is a singular and strange individual, but he's easy to love, and impossible not to follow as he finds his way in this solid, spectacular novel.
This Top 10 does not constitute Chuck Palahniuk's favorite books of the year. This is a very personal list by me, Mirka Hodurova, but should hopefully inspire your own top ten lists!