best of 2009

The Best Books of 2009

Every book on this list is the culmination of an obsession, either lived or imagined. There are a handful of megabooks — the fruits of sustained fixation on a sport (Simmons), a region (Vollmann, Sanderson), or a literary form (Davis). There are characters on all-consuming quests — to gain freedom (the slaves in The Book of Night Women), to save the world (Lowboy), to save a daughter or a community (There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby). All ten of them are worth spending some hours obsessing over.

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Translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers The work of Petrushevskaya, one of contemporary Russia’s most celebrated authors, was suppressed for decades — not because it was politically subversive, but because it was too creepy. This first English collection of her stories emphasizes that creepiness: fables about plagues, miniature daughters, home-wrecking ghosts, and a memorable heart sandwich.
Sports, for Simmons, is the hub of all human culture: a jackpot of master narratives and interpretive codes (the Ewing Theory, the Manning Face, the Tyson Zone) that apply to all other facets of life. And the boiling molten core of sports is basketball. This book tries to answer, in over 700 pages, every important question anyone could ever ask about the game. The result is funny, infuriating, excessive, and — for hoops junkies — totally addictive. (Check out our recent
This debut collection manages to be compulsively likable in spite of its dark and violent subject matter: abusive carnies, Vikings eviscerating monks, and a truckload of rotten moose meat.
Vollmann originally wanted to write a novel about migrant workers. When that failed, he vomited out the gloriously indulgent Imperial, an obsessional slab of nonfiction about his ten years haunting the border territory between California and Mexico. It’s equal parts history, memoir, agitprop, prose poem, diary, metaphysics, and gonzo journalism. The keynote is Vollmann’s charmingly compulsive enthusiasm: lovingly hand-drawn maps, awkward amateur charts. When he runs out of money, halfway through the book, you want to send him a donation.
A to-the-bone realistic story about a socially awkward, emotionally repressed Englishman named Patrick Oxtoby — a 23-year-old mechanic who leaves home after a bad breakup, moves into a seaside boarding house, and commits a life-changing act of impulsive violence. Hyland’s short, bare sentences pull you through bleak territory without ever giving you the option to stop. “This is as real as it gets,” she writes. “This is how it goes.”
Here’s what I wrote back in June: Levenson gives us a historical metamorphosis you’d never believe if it weren’t so well-documented: Isaac Newton — the antisocial human calculator who revolutionized Enlightenment science — as badass London supercop. In the 1690s, England faced a financial crisis that almost destroyed the country: Newton aimed his genius at the problem while tracking, Law & Order style, a counterfeiting supervillain. The plot is fast, loaded with rich pockets of history (gravity, alchemy, bubonic plague), and strangely resonant with current affairs. Imagine Stephen Hawking solving the global financial meltdown while also busting Ponzi schemers.
A schizophrenic boy goes off his meds and disappears into the New York City subways. What ensues is an adventure story on several levels: the boy’s actual journey (garbage, baffled train-mates, rats, crack addicts) versus his perceived journey (a dramatic quest to save the world from apocalypse), and a detective’s effort to hunt him down before he hurts anyone.
Few novelistic depictions of slavery allow their moral compasses to wander in so many directions at once. James refuses to idealize anyone involved in this story of a nineteenth-century Jamaican slave revolt. Brutality infuses just about every relationship: slave to slave, slave to master, master to overseer, escaped slave to escaping slave. Our protagonist is an amoral green-eyed slave named Lilith — proud, rash, scheming, vengeful, ungrateful — who gets pulled, in spite of herself, into the uprising.
We’ve always known, on an intellectual level, that Manhattan was once a natural paradise. But to see actual images of that paradise, at this level of precision — hill by hill, pond by pond, wetland by wetland — is shocking: A vision so natural, it’s totally alien. Sanderson, a landscape ecologist, has re-created the island circa 1609, before Europeans came and paved it, when Times Square was probably a beaver pond and Harlem was a hunting ground. “If Mannahatta existed today as it did then,” Sanderson writes, “it would be the crowning glory of American national parks.”
A big fat collection of tiny masterpieces: The shortest is a sentence, the longest is 47 pages. Laid end to end, the micro-stories take on a strange cumulative force — themes and words recur, ghost narratives rise up in the spaces between them. This is a rare thing: a body of stories not diminished but enhanced — even completed — by the act of collection.
The Best Books of 2009