Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2009

A listing of the best books I read this year, with traditional one-sentence commentary (for the most part!), and provided in order of merit.

10. Absurdistan, Gary Shteyngart. A hilarious and inventive satire about the oafish son of a Russian mobster who travels from Brooklyn, NY to his home country of Absurdistan in order to clear his father’s name, only to find the former Soviet Republic in utter chaos, battered by war and the garish influences of Western culture.

9. The Ancient Ship, Zhang Wei. Epic novel first published in 1987 chronicles life in a small mill town in rural China over the second half of the 20th century, enduring seismic cultural shifts like Land Reform, the emergence of the Communist Party, and the Cultural Revolution – in scope and overall merit, it belongs on the shelf with better known works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Midnight’s Children.

8. The Long Goodbye, Raymond Chandler. Chandler’s famous private eye, Philip Marlowe, attempts to unknot a confusion around a damaged war veteran, his sultry wife, rakish cops and a Mexican gangster; loaded with classic (and extremely witty) noir dialogue, wry insights, and deft plot manipulations.

7. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass. Sprawling, bizarre, but unforgettable bildungsroman concerning Oskar Matzerath, a dwarfish youth from the city of Danzig on the Polish-German border, whose uncommon proclivities include constant communiqués via a toy drum, a high-pitched singing voice that can shatter glass on demand, and an unusual ability to navigate unscathed through the nightmare of Nazi Germany.

6. Already Dead, Denis Johnson. One of the most unusual and daring novels I’ve read in years, this somewhat unruly but intoxicating “California gothic” is nearly impossible to accurately describe, but it features a junkie, a psychotic killer, a practicing witch, and a barren, desolate California landscape – all of which, in Johnson’s hands, forms a hypnotic chronicle of violence and beauty that seems to take on nothing less than the charting of the tortured human soul.

5. Tori Amos: Piece by Piece, Tori Amos and Ann Powers. Although I’m a big fan of Tori Amos as a musician and an artist in general, I took on this autobiographical work with low expectations, but Amos’ collaboration with and her openness to rock journalist Powers’ wide-ranging exploration of her personal history and creative process yielded what is for me one of the most interesting and instructive portraits of an artist at work that I have ever come across.

4. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick. The first-ever young adult title to make one of my top ten lists, Brian Selznick’s beautiful and inspired novel has earned its way here; through spectacular black and white drawings and marvelously imaginative storytelling, it wonderfully combines the traditional and graphic novel formats, as well as a rich appreciation of the history of motion pictures, into an engrossing and uplifting story concerning an orphaned boy, an ornate Paris train station, and a mysterious synthetic man.

3. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. Never having read this world-famous novel before, it is utterly impossible not to include it here despite how well-known it is: the powerful, magnificent story of the Nigerian warrior Okonkwo and his family living in a small village who come into direct conflict with the power and influence of white Christian missionaries, this novel is important for innumerable reasons, and also profoundly impressed me with its brevity and economy of language.

2. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson. Although Johnson topped my 2008 list (see below) AND appears already on this one, Jesus’ Son is a modern short fiction classic that, much like Things Fall Apart, I had neglected for too long; it is a searing series of very short vignettes concerning a drug-addicted protagonist, and it contains some of the most insightful, penetrating and unsettling language about the darkness within all human beings that the English language has ever born witness to – indispensible.

1. Look at Me, Jennifer Egan. Breaking my own tradition, I need more than one sentence to explain exactly how Jennifer Egan’s second novel found its way to the top of my list this year. I already respected Egan a great deal, having enjoyed her other novels, The Keep (see #8 below) and The Invisible Circus. I admire Egan also for her ferocious literary ambition and the discipline and fortitude it must have required to write her novels. She aims high in all of them. Like her other books, Look at Me takes on too much at once and doesn’t quite bring all of it off – but it’s the fearlessness of the attempt that captivates me. In this novel there is a fashion model whose face has been shattered in a car accident and is surgically repaired; when she recovers and attempts to make a comeback, nobody recognizes her. There is a lonely teenage girl who becomes entranced by a strange older man, leading her into extremely dangerous territory through which she has no capacity to navigate (one astute critic wrote that this portion of the novel was like “watching a second car crash”, but at a much slower speed). There is also a troubled, identity-shifting man who hails from the Middle East who immerses himself into American culture in order to prepare a massive strike against it. Even leaving aside the astounding fact that Egan was writing this in the late 90s and the novel was published only days after 9/11, proving an extraordinary awareness and insight on the part of the novelist, I will say here that there’s really only one reason it’s my favorite book of the year: I simply could not stop reading it. It was engrossing, totally intoxicating, ambitious and mysterious, and I loved the experience. Not everyone would, but it still gets my most enthusiastic recommendation.

2008 List:
10. Night Shift, Stephen King.
9. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, V.S. Pritchett.
8. The Keep, Jennifer Egan.
7. Exiles, Ron Hansen.
6. Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI.
5. On Beauty, Zadie Smith.
4. Man in the Dark, Paul Auster.
3. Say You’re One of Them, Uwem Akpan, S.J.
2. An Imaginary Life, David Malouf.
1. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson.

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