Sunday, December 13, 2009

DUKE ALTUM'S TEN BEST BOOKS OF 2009

Without ado, since it has taken me forever to get this list up... here is the list of the ten best books I read this year, meaning, the ten that have had the most impact and I think are most likely to be read, valued and savored by your scribe for a long time to come... (remember, unlike Mutt's lists, mine come in no particular order!)

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Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner – In my opinion, this is the capstone of Faulkner’s entire body of work - not only his finest achievement as a novel, but the most representative of his concerns and themes as a whole. As the main character examines his tangled, conflicted family history, one can practically feel Faulkner wrestling the angel of his own ancestral heritage – and the family mansion going up in flames on the plantation at the end is as apt an image as any for his feelings about the Old South and its cultural legacy.

At the Mountains of Madness, H. P. Lovecraft – It’s an incredible shame that Lovecraft seems to be remembered only in genre circles, because as a work of sheer imaginative vision and power, it would be hard to top this bizarre, nightmarish account of a lost culture re-discovered near the South Pole. Lovecraft describes the alien architecture and history in such vivid detail that the reader is almost forced to draw comparisons to Tolkien – though on a smaller scale. Also included in my version of the book was Lovecraft’s helpful and fascinating essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” a must-read for anyone interested in the topic.

Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard – Each year (in my own head, if nowhere else) I choose the finest book of short stories I read, the one that has lingered in my consciousness the longest and is most likely to be read again. Shepard’s breathtakingly diverse and fascinating collection edges out Mark Helprin’s poetic, ethereal Ellis Island to grab the 2009 prize (which last year went to Denis Johnson’s superb Jesus’ Son). Shepard’s work deserves the widest possible audience, and his penetrating and heartbreaking insights into the emotional and spiritual terrain of fraternity can be quite profound and beautiful. The first entry of this collection, "The Zero Meter Diving Team," would be my choice for the best single story I read all year long, it's fascinating and deeply moving.

The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright – Probably the most important book I read this year, Wright’s exhaustively researched and riveting account of the evolution of Al Qaeda is required reading for any American who wants to understand, 9 years on, why we’re still at war in places like Afghanistan. His book also describes in fascinating detail how heartbreakingly close we came to exposing the plot before the Day of Terror occurred. No one has worked harder to help us understand the mindset and motivations of the men that attacked us than Wright – and he’s still doing so today with recent pieces in the New Yorker and elsewhere.

The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene – Quick: can anyone come up with a writer that combines the sharp dialogue and brisk pace of the best genre fiction with the spiritual insight of someone like Pascal, more effortlessly and powerfully than Graham Greene? Don’t even try. Greene cornered the market, and no one combines cinematic sensibilities and moral seriousness better. There is something incredibly refreshing and challenging, in this day and age, about a novel whose protagonist takes the mystery of the Eucharist seriously enough that he risks damnation (in his own mind) rather than partake of it hypocritically! The Heart of the Matter delivers as both a fascinating portrait of Britain’s failed colonial experiment in Africa and a searing study of a man’s moral weakness.

Moravagine, Blaise Cendrars – Seems like every year I tend to have a novel on this list that defies categorization… last year it was Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and this year it’s poet/novelist Blaise Cendrars’ bat-crazy portrait of a psychopathic monster run amok in the 20th century – not coincidentally, by far the bloodiest and most bellicose so far in recorded history. We first meet the title character in an insane asylum, and then follow (in flashback) the adventures all over the world that got him there, from revolutionary Russia to London to the Orinoco in the Amazon – culminating in Europe during WWI “when the entire world was doing a Moravagine.” Murdering and pillaging everywhere he goes, Moravagine seems the perfect nutcase to embody the insanity of modern man.

Shadow Country, Peter Mathiessen – Over 30 years in the writing, Mathiessen’s epic tale of crime and pioneer living in southwest Florida is a fascinating and wide-ranging survey of the history, culture, social life, and even the flora and fauna of the Everglades region. Focusing on the life story of a real historical figure, Ed Watson, the book is divided into three sections (originally published as three separate novels) that tell his tale from different perspectives: first that of his neighbors and community (multiple points of view and voices), second his son trying separate the fact from the fiction of his life, and third, his own (first person narrative). The result is an unusually rich and nuanced portrayal of a life and region that makes you think about our history (especially the treatment of minority races such as Native and African Americans – the “shadow” that looms over our “country”) in a different way.

The Confidence Man, Herman Melville – An even more fascinating portrayal of American history and culture than the one I just described, Melville’s multilayered and oddly comic story of the interactions and conversations between passengers traveling down the Mississippi in the height of the steamboat era is a forgotten masterpiece. Playing with the different meanings of the word “confidence,” Melville presents an America where everyone – businessmen, preachers, soldiers, entertainers, even the disabled! – is trying to pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes, and yet no one seems to know where this “craft” is really heading. Proving once again how far ahead of his time he really was, Melville even turns his own narrative on itself, inviting readers to speculate whether the whole thing is saying anything substantial about its subjects or is simply part of the great big, well, con.

Omeros, Derek Walcott – This one is going to linger in my mind and memory for a long, long time (admittedly, part of the reason for that is that I was reading it while staying at the beach this past summer when I had an accident and broke my leg – and spent many hours with it in the early days afterward when I was cooped up in my bed with very limited movement!). Walcott uses elements of the great Homeric epic poems to create his own epic about his homeland, St. Lucia, and the Caribbean culture in general from the native point of view. But by weaving in strands of British colonial history, Irish culture, the slave trade, African mythology and even Dante (he wrote the poem using the great Florentian’s famous terza rima style), Walcott fashions a magnificent tapestry that goes beyond mere homage to create a work that is visionary, enriching and a joy to read.

Selected Essays, Samuel Johnson – Johnson is of course best known as the subject of perhaps the most famous biography ever written in English (Boswell’s Life of Johnson), but his essays are magnificent pieces of writing - as exceptional for their wonderful language as they are for moral insight. For decades Johnson wrote columns for various English papers, and the resulting 3-4 page musings on topics various and sundry are an incredible wealth of erudition, wit and wisdom. He wrote about life, from the sublime to the ridiculous, but always with a keen eye and incredible turn of phrase. I try to read a few of these a week, just to treat my mind to the mental equivalent of 18-year-old scotch. I’ll finish this entry, and this list, with the final paragraph of a whimsical piece he wrote on (of all things) sleep, which shows how he could take on any subject and make something profound and useful of it:

Sleep has been often mentioned as the image of death[1]; "so like it," says Sir Thomas Brown, "that I dare not trust it without my prayers:" their resemblance is, indeed, apparent and striking; they both, when they seize the body, leave the soul at liberty: and wise is he that remembers of both, that they can be safe and happy only by virtue.


Honorable mentions: The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stephanie Schwam (Ed.); Why I Wake Early (poems), Mary Oliver; Ellis Island and Other Stories, Mark Helprin; Rise, Let Us Be On Our Way, Pope John Paul II; White Teeth, Zadie Smith; Cathedral, Raymond Carver

2 comments:

Mutt Ploughman said...

Terrific list here from Duke. He seems to think his annual lists suffer in comparison to my own, but his list always has intriguing qualities mine don't. For example, listing his honorable mentions, it's interesting to see what almost, but didn't, make the cut. Secondly, the notion of choosing the top story collection of the year for the list is a good one too. But what I really enjoyed here were the brief comments on the books; again, Duke thinks they're no good, further proof of the dope he seeems to be smoking with increasing frequency. The comments here on the work of Faulkner, Melville, Derek Walcott, and the contemporary master Jim Shepard all were enriching to this reader. I LOVE that H.P. Lovecraft made the list!! Note the extraordinary diversity of Duke's reading interests. If anyone reads this who is not related to us, I urge you to check out at least one of these great books.

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