It's the end of the year, and the end of the decade. Everyone's making a list: bloggers, colleagues, newspapers, radio shows. And I have always been a fan of lists. So here goes; one more to add to the pile of lists made at the end of the year. Here are the books I most enjoyed reading in 2009, though only a few were actually published in 2009.
In no particular order:
1. The Children's Book - A.S. Byatt (2009)
A worthy successor to Possession, this novel is a lush, opulent tale spanning the transition from the dawn of the golden new century to the ravages of World War I and modernity. Though The Children’s Book has a long list of dramatis personae, at the center is Olive Wellwood, an E. Nesbitt-like writer of children’s books, and a bohemian mother of a large brood of children. Byatt pays tribute to the zeitgeist of the age by including everything: German fairy tales, wooden puppetry, exhibitions, art and pottery, socialism and free love. Her characters explore contemporary philosophy, attend important events, and cross paths with important historical figures: Wilde, Rodin, etc. Though Byatt’s narrative is weighed down by the inability to let go of the details of her dense historical background, her many characters are so intimately known and the atmosphere of the book so rich and brooding, one cannot help but succumb.
2. The Savage Detectives - Roberto Bolano (1998)
The best work of late Mexican/Chilean novelist Roberto Bolano. Reputedly autobiographical, the Savage Detectives is a collision of personalities and desires centering on a small group of poets who call themselves visceral realists, desiring to throw off the yoke of Paz and Neruda. The Savage Detectives is a road trip, a vivid work of the imagination, a literary manifesto, and a near-schizophrenic slide show of characters, relationships, places and ideas.
3. Towers of Trebizond - Rose Macaulay (1956)
A perfect blend of armchair travel, humor and melancholy, the Towers of Trebizond follows Laurie and her irascible aunt Dot to Turkey on camel-back, along with septuagenarian Father Chantry-Pigg, desiring the emancipation of Turkish women and the conversion of the heathens. The narrator struggles between her desire for the church and her desire for distance; her acknowledgment of her sweetest sin, and her desperate inability to relinquish it. Macaulay can swerve between funny dialogue and narrative, and honest, heart-breaking observations with ease.
4. How Fiction Works - James Wood (2008)
In the style of E.M. Forster’s Art of the Novel, preeminent literary critic James Wood explores the construction of Fiction in this elegant exploration. Books about Fiction are becoming a dime-a-dozen, but Wood’s book is set apart by his excellent examples, his passionate intimacy with the books, his down-to-earth tone, and the gorgeous red cover.
5. Asterios Polyp - David Mazzucchelli (2009)
I’m not much one for graphic novels, but this is a moving work of philosophy, psychology, love, and art. Asterios Polyp is a swaggering paper architect, a bombastic thinker and talker, a lecturer of ideas of form and content who has never seen a design of his built. We meet him as he is fleeing a burning house, as he journeys across the country, and back in his memory, to confront his demons. Highly intelligent and deeply emotional, this is an existential marvel. One could spend hours looking at each frame, as the artist has carefully constructed his own world out of careful lines and shapes.
6. The Last Samurai - Helen De Witt
An astounding novel about a genius and her freakishly gifted son, Ludo. Without a father figure for Ludo, Sibyl raises him on Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece of modern cinema, "Seven Samurai". (It was here I learned about Kurosawa, and now I can’t seem to escape hearing his name.) A strong narrative and resonating dialogue. I learned to read Greek while reading it. Enough said.
7. The End of the Affair - Graham Greene
Rarely has a work given off such a dramatic feeling of hatred and anger. I nearly quivered with the narrator’s raging. The story of a man who has lost the woman he loved and tries to get his revenge; this novel is the fist that shakes in the face of God and love. Incredibly moving, sharp and affecting.
8. The Sibyl - Par Lagerkvist
A cursed man meets an ex-oracle on a hill above Delphi and they exchange stories. Mythic and profound, this short novel explores the cruelties and ecstasy of intimacy with the divine. It still chokes me up to talk about it. Beautiful and painful.
9. The History Boys - Alan Bennett (2004)
In this witty and irreverent play, eight boys are trying for Oxford and Cambridge. Their teacher, Hector, makes them memorize poetry and immerse themselves in art and son, but the Headmaster wants their new teacher, Mr. Irwin, to spruce up their skills, to turn them in renaissance men who can, in the new style of Schama historians, turn facts on their heads and debate from any angle. The play pits these two philosophies against each other and adds an unsuspected sexual element into the mix. I loved it for its Oxbridge-ness, but Bennett’s off-hand literariness is impressive and not without unsettling grit.
10. Severance: Stories - Robert Olen Butler (2006)
I can’t remember how I came across this collection of incredibly short fiction, the last ecstatic thoughts of mythic, historic and fictitious characters as their heads are – for one reason or another – severed from their body. It sounds morbid, but it is a powerful work of the imagination, a stream-of-conscious gushing of memories and poetry. Favorites include St. George’s dragon, Walter Raleigh, a chicken (for Sunday dinner), and the poet’s own imagined decapitation.
What was on your list?