Friday, January 01, 2010

My Favorite Books of the Year: 2009

This is my fifth annual look back at the books I've read in the past year, and certain idiosyncrasies have now hardened into traditions. If you're a masochist, you can trace that hardening over the course of those previous years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005.

Speaking of "traditions" -- since it's a much nicer term than "quirks" or "grotesqueries" -- my title above includes the word "favorite" rather than "best" for a reason: my reading is haphazard and scattered, and I'm not entirely comfortable saying my naked opinion makes anything the best of the year. Similarly, since these are my favorite books of the year, they're not organized into genres or types -- non-fiction, fiction, comics, etc. are all thrown together in one stew of reading. And, since this list is based on the books I read during the course of this year -- and not publication dates -- I wait to do this list at the very end of the year, so I know what I have read that year. The intent is to pick new books, rather than old classics, but sometimes I can't help it -- the new books are all flabby and flawed, while the old ones are tested and true. Finally, this isn't a top ten list, since I pick one best book for each month; there are thus twelve books on the list at the bottom..

So: I read 407 books last year, and these were the ones that I was most impressed by. There are possibly too many links below, leading to my individual reviews/thoughts and to the monthly listings. 

January: I started the year with a couple of not-quite new books -- both quite popular, but idiosyncratic, and criticized in certain circles -- Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Walter Mosley's Killing Johnny Fry. It was a joy to return to Calvin Trillin's Travels With Alice, probably his most characteristic book and one of his sunniest. Carol Lay's comics diet book/memoir The Big Skinny has been a personal inspiration this year, and I was also impressed by Hideo Azumu's comics memoir Disappearance Diary. But the most powerful books I read in January were a pair of novels in difficult but brilliantly captured voices: Stewart O'Nan's A Prayer for the Dying and Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans. Since Prayer was an older book, I'll give the nod to When We Were Romans.

February: J.G. Ballard's last book, the memoir Miracles of Life, was bittersweet, because it was his last book, and because it, and his death of cancer, came together so quickly. But it did sum up the man and his life in his trademark clinical manner -- not quite cold, but definitely detached. The best novel I read was Justine Larbalestier's funny, sparkling How to Ditch Your Fairy, which almost made me want to be a sports-mad Australian girl, for a little while. And the very best books I saw in February were a pair of graphic novels -- Pascal Girard's spare and deeply moving Nicolas and Skim, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki's thoughtful, touching story of one teenage girl. Of the two, Skim encompassed more and ranged farther, so it gets the nod.

March: I ran off to serve on the panel judging the Eisner awards this month, which means I read over ninety books, and most of those were comics of one kind or another. But I started the month with a slim but pointed novel -- call it a stiletto, perhaps -- Jonathan Miles's Dear American Airlines. And I ended the month with another deeply enjoyable novel, Flora's Dare, by Ysabeau S. Wilce. I read a lot of pretty good graphic novels during the judging -- The Last Musketeer, Locke & Key, The Umbrella Academy, Cleburne -- but there were two books, very different from each other, that stood clearly above the rest: Lynda Barry's indescribable meditation on creativity, What It Is, and Fantagraphic's precisely designed collection of one of the great sequences of cartoons of the last century, Bill Mauldin's Willie & Joe: The WWII Years. But I have to give pride of place for this month to a great biography, which took a life in many parts and made them all work on the page, and made them all make sense to the reader: Todd DePastino's Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front.

April: Michael Lewis's carefully curated Panic! The Story of Modern Financial Insanity gave me so perspective on the still-worsening economy. I went back to Lynda Barry's previous book, the only slightly less indescribable One! Hundred! Demons!, and relaxed with the witty and very British They Call Me Naughty Lola, a collection of personal ads from the London Review of Books. When I found myself unexpectedly in an emergency room, Adam Rex's clever and true YA novel The True Meaning of SmekDay was there to help me forget my troubles. The best book of the month, though, was the massive comics memoir of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's early career and the birth of gekigaA Drifting Life.

May: I read two entertaining but unspectacular books by writers that I now think of as remnants of my Republican Period: Christopher Buckley's Supreme Courship and P.J. O'Rourke's Driving Like Crazy. I finally discovered how much fun Brian Lee O'Malley is with Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life. I was impressed by two different flavors of spec-fic worst-case-scenario-mongering (with some slight glimmers of possible hop in both) -- Jo Walton's Half a Crown and Charles Stross's story collection Wireless. But my favorite book of the month has to be George Macdonald Fraser's cantankerously funny last novel, The Reavers.

June: The best graphic novel I saw this month was Miss Lasko-Gross's fictionalized memoir of her teen years, A Mess of Everything. I was also very impressed by a memoir by the always thoughtful and compellingly readable mystery writer Lawrence Block; in Step by Step he wrote about the details of his life in a way he hadn't before, but applied the same cool intelligence to his own behavior that he has to his characters for the past five decades. And the best thing I read in June was another memoir, the devastating An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken.

July: I found China Mieville's The City and the City a frustrating novel: good where it could have been great, separated when it should have been unified. I was much more impressed with Jason's sly and deadpan graphic novel I Killed Adolph Hitler, and with Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (which I caught up with because I was making my own first trip to Vegas). I also finally made it through Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupe's magisterial The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, and caught up with Harlan Ellison's second late-'60s book of TV criticism, The Other Glass Teat. With all of that old stuff taking up my reading time -- I also started my James Bond project at the end of the month, reading the first three Ian Fleming novels in July -- I unfortunately wasn't left with much new to choose from. I could also mention the intermittently good but derivative and often obvious This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper. I'll instead move back into graphic novels, and say the best thing I read this month was the entirely successful The Photographer by Didier Lefevre, Emmanuel Guibert, and Frederic Lemercier, an amazing

August: This month, I read eleven James Bond books by Ian Fleming and a short stack of other things (mostly graphic stories of one kind or another). Darwyn Cooke adapted a great old pulp novel into the energetic if somewhat anachronistic Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter, and the Brendan Burford-edited nonfiction anthology Syncopated was also quite good. But the best book by a long margin reprinted a long sequence of great Jules Feiffer strips from the late '50s and early '60s: Explainers is still as true about the ways we live and think and feel right now as it was in those days.

September: Robert Silverberg gave us a professional autobiography in Other Spaces, Other Times, somewhat marred by the fact of being edited together from previously published pieces, and the related fact that it doesn't thus cohere into a single narrative, or cover his career all that well. Christopher Buckley, master of the modern comic Washington novel, showed previously untapped depths in writing about the last days of his parents in Losing Mum and Pup. And I greatly respected David Mazzucchelli's Asterios Polyp, but, if I'm being honest, I'll have to admit that I liked and appreciated Seth's George Sprott: 1894-1975 -- another story of a supposedly successful man's fears and losses and regrets -- even more.  

October: I re-read Guy Talese's pioneering world of New Journalism, Thy Neighbor's Wife -- seeing it for the first time as an adult -- and decided that it works best these days as a signpost than as a landmark. I was overjoyed to be able to read the unexpected memoir This Is Me, Jack Vance!, which isn't great but is full of the inimitable voice of Jack Vance. Matthew Hughes's novel Template was a lovely diversion. And the best by far this month was Jeff VanderMeer's novel Finch, a fantasy police procedural that succeeds brilliantly in both genres.

November: I spent the first week of this month on vacation, reading very little -- though I did mange to get through two enjoyable books: the New Yorker humor collection Fierce Pajamas and A. Scott Berg's biography of probably the best-known book editor of all time, Max Perkins, Editor of Genius. I also found a thoroughly entertaining (though faintly smelling of Morals) novel for young readers, Scott Lieb's I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President. But, for the best book of the month, I have to bend my unwritten rule and pick something two decades old: the best book by far was Ken Grimwood's magnificent 1986 novel Replay.

December: I quite enjoyed David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries, a collection of essays on art, cities, and bicycles. I was also very impressed with The Quitter, another piece of comics autobiography from Harvey Pekar (illustrated by Dean Haspiel). And the best book of the last month of the year was the Charles Burns-edited Best American Comics: 2009, the fourth in the increasingly essential series collecting the best contemporary comics.

So, then, my Top 12 of the year, once re-organized alphabetically, looks like this:
  • Charles Burns, editor, Best American Comics: 2009
  • Todd DePastino, Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front
  • Jules Feiffer, Explainers
  • George Macdonald Fraser, The Reavers
  • Ken Grimwood, Replay
  • Matthew Kneale, When We Were Romans 
  • Lefevre, Guibert, & Lemercier, The Photographer
  • Elizabeth McCracken, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
  • Seth, George Sprott: 1894-1975
  • Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki, Skim
  • Yoshihiro Tatsumi, A Drifting Life
  • Jeff VanderMeer, Finch
Of the twelve of them, six are prose and six comics, with four non-fiction and eight fiction (for those who like categorizing).

Running through what I read this last year to make that list, I kept thinking that I'd read an awful lot of of mediocre comics this year. (And a somewhat smaller number of books of mediocre prose as well, which took up as much or more of my reading time.) There were a few gems, but it was mostly category filler this year. I may need to adjust what I'm reading; there's very little point in spending so much time reading so much that is so frivolous.


The Brillig Blogger said...

How many of you are there? You have a day job. You have a family. You see James Bond movies every Saturday. And you read 407 books during the year as well? Maybe you don't sleep? One category of posts I haven't seen is "fascinating dreams from last night."

Andrew Wheeler said...

It's actually pretty easy to read a book a day, especially if you read a lot of comics/graphic novels (which I do).

And I definitely don't sleep as much as I'd like to!

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