Monday, December 28, 2009

Best books of 2009

In chronological order, here are the books that I loved the most in 2009:

The Stories of John Cheever
The Beautiful Struggle
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A Free Life by Ha Jin
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
Lush Life by Richard Price
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein
Netherland by Joseph O'Neill
The Other by David Guterson
Cathedral by Raymond Carver
The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert A. Caro
The Stories of Richard Bausch
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert A. Caro
Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx

I didn't read as many books this year as usual, but in my defense there are some real door-stoppers on this list. I continued my exploration of the short story, starting with the master, John Cheever, and continuing through my second Carver collection (even better than What We Talk About When We Talk About Love) and read the stories of Richard Bausch. Discovering Bausch's work was a revelation; his writing is a synthesis of the writers who came before with a modern, literally Virginian sensibility that immediately felt familiar yet utterly new. I loved his stories passionately and they almost felt within my reach. The idea that my friend John actually studied short fiction under him is boggling.

Besides short stories, this was the year I discovered Robert A. Caro. The Power Broker is one of the best books I've ever read. It changed the way I look at New York, at government, at urban planning, at the use of power. More than once I have found myself in a sticky political situation at work and asked myself, what would Robert Moses do? It made me think about ambition and happiness and the tensions between the two. I also started reading Caro's unfinished four-volume biography of LBJ. Johnson, like Moses, was a real bastard, so it makes for fascinating reading. I am excited to continue the LBJ saga (he's not even a senator yet and I've read 700 pages about the man) in the new year.

I think my favorite novel of the year was David Guterson's The Other. Beautifully written and artfully structured. I wrapped up the year with a volume of Annie Proulx stories, including a stunning piece originally from The New Yorker, "Tits-Up In A Ditch." The book also included "Them Old Cowboy Songs" and "Testimony of the Donkey," which were nearly as good. Now I'm devouring Stephen King's Under the Dome, which I requested for Christmas, and I'm loving it.

Looking ahead to 2010, I want to continue my trek through the life of LBJ, courtesy of Robert Caro, and I might tackle Moby Dick, too. I can't wait for Blake Bailey's Cheever biography to come out in paperback in mid-March. And then, of course, the baby arrives, and my reading life will change too -- I'm trying to do consume as much as I can before my attention is redirected.

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