Monday, January 4, 2010

The Best Books I Read in 2009...

So, umm, I read a lot. You may have noticed this from my reviews on this blog and on Facebook. In doing a little research, I discovered that I read about 105 books in 2009...not too shabby, huh?

In thinking about all of the books I read this past year, I've picked out the 15 that resonated the most with me, those that have stuck with me long after the book went back on my shelf.

Here they are, in no particular order:

This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper:
Judd Foxman is having a tough time. His marriage is over since he caught his wife in bed with his shock jock boss, his father just died and his father's dying wish was for his entire family—mother, sister and two brothers—to sit shiva for seven days. Everybody brings their families and their emotional baggage. And no one will be the same.

Holy hell, I loved this book. Granted, I love me a good story about family dysfunction, but this really was fantastic. I'd never read anything by Jonathan Tropper before, if for no other reason than I tend to shy away from books that critics bill as "hysterically funny," since they rarely are. But this book made me laugh and even moved me a little. I was sad when I was done with it, yet I couldn't stop myself from rushing through it to the end.

The Song is You by Arthur Phillips
This is a book about music, how songs remind us of a certain moment or how hearing the right song at the right moment can convince us to act or not to act. This is a book about love, both falling in and out, and trying to find your way once your life seemingly falls apart. This is also a book about insecurities when your dreams start coming true...or when they don't.

I had a little trouble starting the book but I'm beyond glad I gave it a go. Phillips packs a lot into each page, so while I read the bulk of the book quickly, I didn't feel as if I were flying through it. If you like good fiction, read this book. And then tell me when you do so I have someone to discuss it with!

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University by Kevin Roose
Kevin Roose was a sophomore at Brown University when, after being intrigued by an encounter with student parishioners at Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church, he decided to spend a semester at Liberty University to better understand the young evangelical crowd. A non-practicing Quaker raised in a liberal household, what Roose discovers about his fellow students and what life is like at an evangelical college is at the heart of The Unlikely Disciple.

I really loved this book. I'll admit that I expected this to be much more tongue-in cheek and critical than it was. Roose makes no bones about how he feels about certain issues, such as the evangelical community's view of homosexuality or the theory of evolution, and how hearing both sides didn't sway his feelings. But he approached this whole assignment with a tremendously open mind, and what he discovered changed him in ways he didn't expect. But don't get me wrong, this book is not a love letter to Falwell and Liberty University either.

Love Begins in Winter by Simon Van Booy
Some of the most beautiful short stories I've read in a long time. This collection is not very long but each of the five stories packs an emotional wallop and has definitely stuck in my mind more than a week after finishing the book. As you can tell from the title, each of these stories has to do with love—and each approaches the subject from a different angle. I've never read anything that Simon Van Booy has written but I'm definitely going to find his other book now. If you like short stories, I'd encourage you to read this book. It will make you look at love—and those you love—in a whole new light.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
This book is c-r-e-e-p-y because you realize just how real the situations the characters find themselves in can be. Dan Chaon is an amazing writer and I found this book to be a fantastic, quick read, that I probably need to read over again in order to ensure I didn't miss any of the nuance.

This book tells three parallel stories: Lucy, who flees her Ohio town with her high school teacher; Ryan, a college student struggling with the pressures of being who his parents want him to be, who finds out a secret about his life; and Miles, who has spent years running all over the place in search of his twin brother Hayden, who disappeared years ago but keeps telling him where he is and then eluding him. How these characters interact is one of the things that makes this book so creepy, and the fact that the story has at its premise identity theft (and how easy it is to pull off) is the other. As the book ultimately unfolded, I found myself a little confused, but it didn't detract from the power of this book.

The Cold Spot by Tom Piccirilli
This book was freakin' amazing! Honestly, if real life and work didn't get in the way, I would have read the book from cover to cover and not put it down until I was done. This story had some terrific action, great characters and a really interesting story. And even though I had a feeling about some of the things that were going to happen, it didn't matter, because it didn't take away from the story at all. I'm definitely looking forward to his next book and I'm going to go back read some of his previous ones, since I hadn't heard of Piccirilli before. It's Hollywood all you see are remakes of old movies and TV shows, sequels and the occasional "new" idea. Yet here's a book that in my opinion, is crying out to be turned into a movie. I'd love to see that happen at some point.

Breath by Tim Winton
I thought this was fantastic. I was completely captivated from start to finish. And what's interesting is I've never been to Australia and never surfed, yet this novel about the amazing pull of surfing, hero worship and living outside your comfort zones totally resonated with me. This is a short book with tremendous weight; most of the characters are multi-dimensional and have stuck in my head. If there was anything keeping me from falling head over heels for this book it's that I felt it took an utterly depressing turn toward the end.

A Quiet Belief in Angels by R.J. Ellory
This book starts in 1939 in rural Georgia. Young Joseph Vaughan is growing up without his father, challenged by an inspirational teacher and affected by what appears to be a serial killer targeting young girls in the communities around where he lives. Joseph assembles several of his friends to become "the Guardians," self-appointed protectors of the community and the girls, but the killer finds his way around everyone. And then Joseph spends a good portion of his life dealing with the aftereffects of these murders.

Ellory is an absolutely fantastic writer. His use of language at times throughout the book was magnificent. At times the plot got a little predictable but I still found Joseph and his story tremendously compelling. Read this one!

The Ramen King and I: How the Inventor of Instant Noodles Fixed My Love Life by Andy Raskin
Ok, so the book had me at the title. But unlike so many other books, this one lived up to the expectations its title generated. Andy Raskin seemed to have it all. He was a successful writer, musically talented, had several jobs that allowed him the opportunity to live in Japan for long periods of time, and he seemed to have no trouble attracting women. But underneath all of that, his life was in shambles. Through a series of events, he becomes obsessed with Momofuku Ando, the inventor of instant ramen, and Ando even becomes his spiritual guide. This book is amusing, chock-full of information you'd never think you were interested in and much more psychologically deep than you'd expect. And I wouldn't read it on an empty stomach!

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
I have loved EVERY book Richard Russo has written, and while his books tend to feel a little familiar to me in certain ways—the rudderless middle-aged protagonist, the difficulty with women, the interesting relationship with mom—he really is a brilliant writer.

That Old Cape Magic tells the story of Griffin, a middle-aged college professor who has never quite settled into the second story of his life, despite his marriage to Joy and a beautiful daughter, Laura. Although he tries to keep his parents out of his life, both tend to have a pretty heavy part in it. As events unfold over a year, he has to confront a lot of issues—with himself, his marriage, his parents, his job—and these make for pretty great reading. In my mind, you can't go wrong with a Richard Russo novel. If you've never read him before, add him to the top of your list!

Rain Gods by James Lee Burke
Rain Gods introduced a new main character in Burke's books, Texas Sheriff Hackberry Holland, cousin of one of Burke's regular protagonists, Billy Bob Holland. Hack has the unfortunate "luck" to unearth a shallow grave in which nine young Asian women, illegal aliens all, were buried after being brutally murdered. And this discovery sends him on a hunt for the killer, during which he comes into contact with no shortage of lunatic contract killers, strip club owners and people looking to bring others down for money. But that's just the start.

Few authors can describe a setting like Burke can. His words are amazingly picturesque and his action scenes are just fantastic. This book takes a little longer than I would have liked to get to the end, but other than that, this was another fantastic read from one of my favorite authors.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
This collection is about relationships of all kinds and the emotions that these relationships uncover and foster. From the opening story, "Travis, B.," which tells of a young ranch hand's desire to open up to a lawyer working as a night school teacher in rural Montana, to the closing story "O Tannenbaum," which highlights marital discord and temptation during the holiday season, Meloy's writing is at times humorous, at times heartbreaking, always memorable and always terrific. All 11 stories hit slightly different notes and provoked different reactions in me, but I also found myself struck by her fantastic use of language.

If you're a short story fan, add this to your reading list, stat. If you're not, I'd recommend you pick this up anyway. You won't be disappointed.

The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd
It's the last summer before college for Dade Hamilton. He cannot wait to leave his stifling hometown and his parents' disintegrating marriage for what he imagines will be the idyll of college. Plus there's the matter of his sort-of boyfriend not wanting to acknowledge his existence most of the time, and a misfit from high school spread a rumor that Dade put the moves on her at a party. And then Dade meets Alex, the "dreamy loser" who makes him realize that he is worthy of being loved and living the life he wants to.

Nick Burd accurately captures the post-high school angst of his characters, the conflicts they have with wanting to fit in and be "normal" as well as wanting to live their lives the way they want. Dade is a complex character and Burd allows him and those around him to be both appealing and flawed. What I liked so much about the book is that Burd wasn't willing just to tie everything up with a neat bow at the end. I don't read a lot of YA fiction but this, along with Peter Cameron's Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, are two remarkable books worth reading.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
I enjoyed this book a lot. This is the story of Tassie Keltjin, a Midwestern college student in the throes of no ambition and general boredom, who is hired by a couple to watch their baby. As anyone who has had a nanny, babysitter or other child care professional in their lives knows, the more time this person spends with you, the more they get to know your family--and their foibles. And that is precisely what happens with Tassie. While she is caring for baby Emmie and navigating her employers' relationship, she is also dealing with a brother whose lack of focus pushes him to join the military in post-9/11 times and parents getting older.

Parts of this book are absolutely heartbreaking, parts are a bit predictable and parts are a little slow, but the whole is clearly a terrific read. I didn't always love the characters but I was compelled to find out what happened to them.

It Feels So Good When I Stop by Joe Pernice
Usually when I read books featuring characters who can't seem to commit, hold a job or carry on any successful relationship, they tend to be as disappointing as I'd imagine the characters are to their friends and family. But this book really resonated for me. The author, Joe Pernice, is really talented--he and his brother have a band, the Pernice Brothers, and he's a great songwriter as well.

The narrator of this book (you never learn his name, and while I thought that would annoy me, it didn't) has just had yet another break-up with his girlfriend/wife, so he has fled to Cape Cod. In between trying to get back in touch with her, he starts taking care of his young nephew, and builds a bond with Marie, a woman who lives down the street from where he's staying who has issues of her own. The story switches between the current time and the start of the narrator's relationship with his wife. I really enjoyed the story, the characters, everything, except the ending. It was a bit abrupt and left the story feeling unfinished, so maybe that's a sign that Pernice will revisit this story again soon.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the book list. I love to read in my 'spare' time but I will definitely download a few of the books you liked to try them out. You are very passionate about your reads!