Our Favorite Books of 2009
We asked our columnists and contributors to share their favorite books they read this year. Below, recommendations from Tina Brown, Christopher Buckley, Lee Siegel, Nathaniel Rich, Michelle Goldberg, Gerald Posner, Brad Gooch, Michael Korda.
Colum McCann’s novel Let the Great World Spin deservedly won the National Book Award. Here’s a beautiful, evocative look at grimy 1970s New York against the backdrop of Philippe Petit’s famous high-wire walk between the Twin Towers told with all the lyrical power of a great new Irish voice.
I wouldn’t be welcome at the dinner table if I didn’t recommend my husband, former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans’ memoir, My Paper Chase, about his days in the north of England and in London leading the charge in gritty investigative journalism. I may be on the Web now, but this newspaperman’s life reminds me of the turbulent, inky fun that newspapers once were and how much we need this kind of probing journalism today.
Dancing in the Dark by Morris Dickstein—in the pit of our own Great Recession, it’s fascinating to see what diverted and amused America while life was at its darkest. Dickstein’s stunning survey of the cultural triumphs of the Great Depression teaches us that even the worst of times sometimes produces the best work.
The Bolter by Frances Osborne gave me a wicked summer weekend read. Set in the wild salons of pre-war England and Africa, it’s a wonderfully decadent biography of the aristo-world of Lady Idina Sackville, the author's great-grandmother.
I had the best hour of the year in September interviewing the great Philip Roth about his latest novel, The Humbling, a sexually charged account of how a fading actor who feels he can no longer act with conviction finds brief renewal in an unsettling—and gay—younger woman. Roth at his best.
I was moved by Kati Marton’s courageous and honest book, Enemies of the People. Marton mesmerizes with her true story of glamorous, intellectual parents, the secretive lives they led in postwar Hungary, and their eventual escape to America.
I’m reading Richard Reeves’ latest: Daring Young Men, about the 1948 Berlin Airlift. Reeves is one of my favorite writers, a journalist-turned-historian. A splendid book about one of America’s most splendid moments.
I’ve just finished Harry Evans’ My Paper Chase, about his life as a newspaperman. The subtitle is True Stories of Vanished Times. I hope Evans, one of the great newspaper editors of all time, isn’t himself a vanishing breed. If he is, God help us all.
I had a wonderful time with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, even though it’s hard for me to think of my quondam hero, Sir Thomas More, as the bad guy. The novel won the Booker Prize over there this year. It’s the kind of book that makes you want to go back and read everything the author has previously written.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the tale’s protagonist, Marlow, discovers life’s meaning in fixing his little boat’s engine. Civilization may be a sham, behind every lofty ideal might lie the amoral grasp for power and gratification, but using your hands to work with tools in order to fix or build something is a way to live masterfully and decently. Crawford has written an entire book about the amazing, saving grace of working with your hands. At a time when work and love are more and more defined by technology, he presents the simple fact of manual labor as the answer to virtual grasping.
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt. “Cars are very important, even if one does not care very much about cars,” wrote the poet Delmore Schwartz at the beginning of an essay called “The Ego Is Always at the Wheel.” For Schwartz, the car was a veritable metaphysics of social and psychological meaning. Last year, Tom Vanderbilt published the only book I know of that explores the meaning of the car in American life, from traffic patterns to delusions of grandeur on wheels. If the Great American Novel had a prose beginning, it would be this book.
The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus. The only original take on contemporary politics I have read, told as a riveting story in high literary style. A cross between a novel by John Updike and Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Othello by William Shakespeare. I reread the play for an essay I was writing and, for a moment, everything made sense. Shakespeare understood that human character is both an unfathomable mystery and an inexorable destiny. Even as you feel that watching Iago bringing Othello to his doom is unbearable to behold, the convergence of Othello’s character with his fate is strangely consoling. You understand how a great story with a tragic ending can make people religious.
Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet. I watched the movie for the umpteenth time so I decided to finally read the play—written by our Shakespeare. Is there anyone in the English-speaking world who knows the true, multivalent meaning of the word “fuck” the way David Mamet does? Or understands the relationship between work, dignity, and libido as well as Mamet? What is most bracing about this play is that, for its brutal candor, it regards the human ego with pity and tenderness.
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust. The great concert pianist Artur Rubinstein raced to finish Proust’s novel as he was going blind. I feel that I have to finish it before the nanosecond-dividing pace of contemporary life makes it impossible for me to concentrate on Proust’s finely skeined sentences. I read a little bit more of the novel every year. Every year, it understands me a little bit more.
1949: The First Israelis, by Tom Segev. A harrowing yet compassionate look at the first year of Israel's existence. The best introduction I've ever read to the Israeli national character.
Anyone in need of a lift of the spirits should plunge right into Lawrence Osborne's sage and saucy Bangkok Days, an account of an aging (if he'll forgive me for describing him thus) Western man's sojourn in the Thai capital, a city renowned for the comforts on offer for aging Western men. Osborne went there, from New York, to have some complex dental work done at a fraction of the cost he'd have had to bear in Manhattan; he returned, months later, not merely with his gnashers repaired, but with his mind revived, his body pampered, and his heart and soul restored to peak condition.
On a different plane, although not without its sensual moments, is The Hindus by Wendy Doniger—a massive, and massively charming, history of the people who adhere to the world's most beguiling (and infuriating) religion. Professor Doniger's is an idiosyncratic history, guaranteed to put purist noses out of joint; but her erudition ensures that no one—not even its critics—will take this book lightly. And her sense of humor should make certain that no one will be put off by the erudition.
Finally, I recommend the Popol Vuh, a perennial favorite, which I had a chance to reread with my son on a trip to Guatemala. What shudders of magic we felt, he and I, as we read this ancient, bloody, pitiless saga in the very land in which it had been composed. What a thrill it was to sound the words—Xibalba, Xbalamque, Iqui Balam, Balam Quitze, and numerous others like them—just miles from the ruined Mayan city of Tikal, where once they were intoned in prayer and sacrifice.
Boy Alone. I can't think of any work of literature that has explored the relationship between brothers with as much depth, grace, or candor as Karl Taro Greenfeld's memoir. Truly upsetting and transfixing.
Big Machine. A Stephen King of the Flushing housing projects and the blighted East Bay, Victor LaValle is a master of comic-gothic noir. Thanks to Big Machine, I have a horrible recurring nightmare about being eaten alive by feral cats.
Thy Neighbor's Wife. Gay Talese's brilliant history of morality in America was re-issued this year with a new afterword by the author. Massage parlors have never been so much fun to read about.
Richard Hofstadter published The Paranoid Style in American Politics in 1964, and ever since then the antics of the American right have ensured its enduring relevance. This year, though, conservatives have outdone themselves—read Hofstadter and you’ll be shocked at how perfectly he described the partisans of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Previous generations had their nativists and conspiracy theorists, men who mobilized against purported Illuminatist, Masonic, and papal plots. But the modern right, argued Hofstadter, was unique in its aggrieved sense of dispossession. “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion,” wrote Hofstadter. “The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major statesmen seated at the very centers of American power.” Nearly every line feels completely contemporary; Hofstadter died long before the rise of the teabaggers, but no one has done a better job of explaining them.
Although I always promise that my spare time reading will include works of science fiction and wildly inventive novels that will take me far away from the grind of everyday news, I almost always first reach for the nonfiction tomes piled high on my ever-growing "to read" pile. Back to war, crime, massacres, economic crises, and the Cold War, it seems this year’s reading list was only broken on a lighter note by a literary glimpse at a great American novelist.
Here are a baker’s half-dozen.
Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey. When a smooth writer like Bailey gets access to a treasure trove like the journals Cheever kept during his life, the result is a refreshing and new take on Cheever’s prodigious work. It’s also filled with thoroughly entertaining tidbits that make it a fun read.
A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon, by Neil Sheehan. One of my favorite books was Sheehan’s 1988 A Bright Shining Lie. This time he turns his meticulous reporting to the nuclear-arms race and an American Air Force officer Bernard Schriever, who provides the thread for Sheehan’s great narrative about the high-stakes game of chess that the Soviets and Americans played with nukes.
The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel. Washington Post correspondent Finkel does the best job yet of personalizing the war in Iraq by telling the story of two infantry battalions in Baghdad during the surge. Finkel’s stark firsthand reporting delivers a vivid and sobering look at the terrors of the conflict and its devastating toll on ordinary soldiers crushed under declining morale in an unwinnable war.
L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, by John Buntin. Having published this year my own book about the excesses of Miami Beach ( Miami Babylon), I thoroughly enjoyed this completely entertaining snapshot of Los Angeles from the 1930s to the 1960s. Told through the intertwined lives of mobster Mickey Cohen and police chief William Parker, L.A. Noir is a colorful and entirely different take on the vices of Tinseltown.
Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World, by Liaquat Ahamed. A gripping history of the post-World War I generation that invented the modern central banker and their dominance of global finance. It’s a lively and well-told tale of a great boom and crushing bust, all too reminiscent of our own times. A sobering reminder that we seldom learn from past mistakes.
Columbine, by Dave Cullen. Ten years after Columbine, Cullen adeptly debunks the many myths that persist about the 1999 school shooting while delivering a fast-paced page-turner about the two troubled kids who earned a bloody place in American massacres.
Counterintuitively, the books I remember most fondly were all read downloaded on my Kindle—
The Age of Wonder: Gossip about Tiger Woods pales next to Richard Holmes’ brilliant delivery of deep gossip on the lives, loves, and experiments of 18th-century scientists such as botanist Joseph Banks and chemist Humphry Davy.
The Anthologist: Who but Nicholson Baker could pull off whimsy effectively enough to get across a suburban poet-narrator whose big heroes in life are John Ashbery and James Fenton?
Ayn Rand and the World She Made: The exploits of Ayn Rand—the Sarah Palin of philosophical fiction—are made more gripping by Anne Heller’s refusal to treat her subject as a joke and to accept her as the force she remains in politics (tea partiers) and to each successive generation of selfish undergrads.
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: Geopolitics doesn’t get more romantic, or memoir more fantastical, than in T.E. Lawrence’s 1920s perennial.
Michael Korda, author of 2009's
With Wings Like Eagles: A History of the Battle of Britain
My favorite book of the year is Wolf Hall, head and shoulders above the rest. I read it with admiration, and can hardly wait for the sequel. What a treat to read history so cleverly fictionalized, and our preoccupations (about More and Thomas Cromwell) turned on their head. A superb and intelligent novel.
I also enjoyed Harry Evans' My Paper Chase a lot! As one old RAF man about another, it's "Wizard"!
Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower. Bar none, the best debut of the year.
Amateur Barbarians, by Robert Cohen. A winningly comic novel about two men, young and old, going through midlife crises.
The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, by Robert Boswell. Unruly short fiction about misfits, outcasts, and drug addicts.
Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro. The Booker International Prize winner delivers another knockout collection.
American Rust, by Philipp Meyer. A literary page-turner that paints a timely portrait of economic distress.