Best reads of 2009 COMMENCE! I like to sort them by genre, and I have limited myself to five winners and five runners up in each genre. As if the word “limited” were valid in this particular sense. Again, if you would like to give the gift of books to me, click on the book titles for Amazon links and if you buy, I get a kickback of some sort. The option is there if you like it. So stay tuned over the next week for all my favorite book genres, and then, the grand finale – Best of the Best, my top 10 best reads out of all genres.
I know, exciting, right?
1. What Is the What by Dave Eggers
I have no reason not to answer the door, so I answer the door.
Last January, I was feeling super ambitious about reading, about reading widely and reading a lot, about reading more substantial books and reading the kind of books say you are going to read but never get around to it. I’m finding many of these early reads – January, February – popping up on my favorites list, even though newer, flashier books should still be on my mind. This is one of those books. Even the scratchy, jacketless cover stays with me. Dave Eggers crosses fiction with nonfiction when he recreates the life of Valentino Achak Deng in this book – Valentino is a real person, who told his life story, the story of his family, his village destroyed by civil war and family lost, and his subsequent childhood spent as one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.
This is the kind of book that would completely heartbreaking if it weren’t for Eggers. He creates, for Valentino, a voice that can tell a traumatic story with full emotion but without sentimentality. As Eggers spoke to Valentino and wrote his tale, Valentino is a young man, in his twenties, trying to navigate American life. A parallel plot to his bleak childhood is the even bleaker reality – that these Lost Boys have arrived in America, finally liberated from the refugee camps, but there is little infrastructure and assistance to make sure they can survive. The story is told in flashbacks as Valentino is subject to a violent scheme, perpetrated by dishonest Americans looking to rob him.
Believe me when I say I’m not doing this book justice. It sucked me in, big time. It will give you a second-hand look at what is really going on in these small African villages, as well as keep you reading to figure out what happens to the exceedingly likeable, seemingly doomed narrator.
2. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing
to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium.
I read this book because I saw the movie preview and really wanted to see it with my mom. I have a fairly strict personal rule about reading the book before I see the movie. It’s respectful, and I have the ability to judge two different forms of art on different standards. We didn’t watch the movie until it came out on DVD. It was okay, I thought, but didn’t touch the book.
Frank and April are living the 1950s dream. Frank has a good job. April stays at home with their two children. They have a nice house in a nice neighborhood. But of course, everything is secretly shitty. Frank hates his job and suffers from a constant longing for some kind of artistic, bohemian existence where he can “find himself.” April can’t figure out what will please her husband, and what will make her happy outside of the home. They are living in a constant state of hating each other and hating the world, so they decide to fix it.
… of course, it’s not as easy as they think.
If you are a fan of Mad Men – which I really hope most of you are – the theme and setting will really resonate. The deconstruction of the American Dream, dealing with dissolutionment, exponentially increasing consumerism- these are all very relevant ideas which the creators of the television show were keen to recreate with Don and Betty Draper. However, it stands to mention that Richard Yates wrote this book in 1961. It reads as if it were written today. Some things really don’t change, I guess. It also stands to mention that the ending nearly brought me to my knees. Yowza.
3. Autobiography of a Family Photo: A Novel by Jacqueline Woodson
Yes, I was assigned a few “adult” books this semester. This was one of them. And while Ms. Woodson has a remarkable children’s canon, which I’ve discussed before, this single book for adults still surfaces to my mind. And of course, it’s not one of those books that’s easy to explain. The narrator is nameless. The plot is episodic at best. It is the story of a girl’s broken family – her mother had another baby, and the baby is white, so her father left. It is also a coming of age, coming into sexuality story that walks the line between disturbing and heartbreaking. I read it and thought The Bluest Eye, immediately, which is a high compliment in my book. It is artful and tragic and true.
And very hard to find! If your library has a copy, check it out before it gets pitched! It happens to a lot of good books, especially those that slip under the radar.
4. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
I tell myself a lot of things that aren’t true. That I don’t like “Classics.” That I don’t like sci-fi. That I don’t like books that are old, books by old white males, books about old white males.
Oh, there are exceptions. A lot of them. I really like Kurt Vonnegut, even though his books fits all of these criteria.
I think this year’s theme for Best Adult Fic is “Books That Are Really Hard To Describe.” This book is about a man name John, who is on a plane, going to a Caribbean island. He is going to research a newspaper story he is writing, a story about where people were when the atomic bomb was dropped. He is specifically curious about the creator of the atomic bomb himself, Felix Hoenikker, and by association, Hoenikker’s ridiculous children. John has been chasing them around the country, but the reader’s not sure why he’s going to this island… and the story unwravels, backwards and forwards, while John narrates from the far future. Oh, and by the wayt, Far Future John is a member of an unfamiliar religion called Bokonon, which he explains as he tells his own story, looking back on his life and how the rules of Bokonon would explain and help the situations he was in.
And writing this, I think I’ve landed on one of the qualities that will make me forgive a book for being out of my league – it’s hilarious. Bokonon is ridiculous. The dialogue between characters is impeccable. The characterizations will make you roll. He makes you think, he makes you laugh, he makes you forget you aren’t supposed to like that kind of book. Oh, Vonnegut. I do like you.
5. Autumn Street by Lois Lowry
It was a long time ago.
Somewhere over the course of my Lois Lowry course, I became “The Girl Who Is Very Concerned With AUDIENCE.”
For those of you not in the writing/reading world, this is kind of a jab. We studiers of literature are not to consider audience! Much like we cannot talk about Authorial Intent! These are irrelevant, unscholarly pursuits.
I don’t know if I agree with that stance or not, but I will say that my classroom label is fairly FALSE. I am interested in audience, but I am not CONCERNED with audience. But it could be worse. Other classmates of mine have been incorrectly labeled as “The Girl Who Will Gladly Ask Respected Authors About How Their Books Are Racist.” Yikes.
Anyway. This classroom label stemmed from a single comment about this book, an early novel by Lois Lowry. As I read Autumn Street, the pages turning, the narrator’s world shifting and shifting again, I looked at the spine label and saw a big fat J. I couldn’t believe this. It was much, much too dark for juvenile, I thought, but the characters much, much too young for young adult. What was I reading? Who was this for?
Of course, my professor took this to mean I hated the book. I didn’t. I thought it was gorgeously written, very intimate and personal. This is an autobiographical story about a child, moved into her grandparent’s house with her pregnant mother when her father goes off to war. The house on Autumn Street is large, her grandparents wealthy, and the atmosphere stifling for a child. But there are respites – most notably, the cook, Tatie, and her son, Charles.
And then tragedy after tragedy befalls. Through the eyes of Liz, the very young narrator, the world shifts, the horizon moves. Much like Eggers, Lowry paints the pain with such detail that you “feel” rather than “feel for.” There is little nostalgia, just a bevy of complicated adult characters and the little girl who is learning how to navigate their world without help.
I’ve decided this is an adult book with a child’s sentiments. In another era, it would have been published as such. I almost wish it had so that more people might have read it. It is quite beautiful.