I am fully aware that 2009 still has three weeks to run, so posting a “best” list now is jumping the gun. On the other hand, those of us who love books are also quite aware that at this time of year friends often say “what book do you want for the holidays?” And other friends expect us to give them a great book. Perhaps this list will supply an idea or two on both counts.
And then there is the best gift of all. You find a book that you have not read, but want to — and it fits for a friend. So you buy two copies, one to read, one to give, and promise a holiday book discussion lunch once the reading is done. The perfect present.
Here is KfC’s list of the best 10 books that I have read in 2009, based solely on those that gave me the most pleasure and reward. I hope it both reminds you of a book that you would like to read or one that could be gifted. The list is arranged in alphabetical order by author — there is no way that I am going to try to rank my top 10.
Porcupines and China Dolls, by Robert Arthur Alexie
This incredibly impressive book has been around for almost a decade — the original publisher went bankrupt the week the first version appeared and Alexie’s book pretty much disappeared. It is a study of what Canada’s history of residential schools and their abuse produced. Written from both passion and personal experience, it is a most significant achievement. Full review here.
Ravel, by Jean Echenoz
I am indebted to the IMPAC jury for introducing me to the work of Jean Echenoz in 2009. This novella — reviewed here — is a perfect gem, with nine cameos that chronicle the French composer’s life and decline. As fiction, it also is a wonderful example of how a novelist can provide sketches of moments — and then leave it to the reader to link them. A short work that rewards not just a second read, but a third and a fourth.
The Bandini Quartet, by John Fante
I have read a fair bit of western American fiction, but the four books of the Bandini Quartet (Wait Until Spring, Bandini; The Road to Los Angeles; Ask The Dust and Dreams from Bunker Hill) are something truly special. You need to read all four and you need to read them in order, but it is a worthwhile investment. My review said that this quartet was a bridge between Chandler and Steinbeck — on reflection, that is confirmed. A wonderful reading experience.
The Bishop’s Man, by Linden MacIntyre
The first time I read this book (review here) I missed how good it was. I read it a second time before it won the 2009 Giller Prize and discovered what I had missed the first time around. Perhaps the best character study — and that is a fiction category that I love — that I read this year. MacIntyre’s novel is a most deserving Giller winner.
The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer
My personal favorite for this year’s Man Booker Prize (review here), the central feature of Mawer’s book is a house designed by Mies van der Rohe just outside Brno in the Czech Republic. Like the house, the novel is a study in modernism — there is a formality and discipline that is not to everyone’s taste. But if you can accept that conceit, it is an impressive piece of work. Also, the best book cover of the year.
Too Much Happiness, by Alice Munro
Is this Alice Munro’s last book? Perhaps, but I doubt it. Whatever, it does showcase the talents of the best short story writer that we know today. Some stories are set in Munro country in Ontario, others on the West Coast and the title story is a bit of historical fiction set in Europe. Munro won the Booker International prize this year — this volume is a perfect example of why Cynthia Ozick calls her “our Chekhov”. Full review here.
Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler
This is a book that will be looming on the horizon soon, since it is finally being made into a movie. Please, please read it before the screen version appears — it is one of the best satires that has ever been written. I reread it as part of a project to revisit some of the early Giller Prize winners — I appreciated it even more this time around than I did at first reading (review here). I do promise that there will be more revisits of Richler’s work coming up on KfC in 2010.
That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo
This is probably the most enjoyable read of the year for me — Russo is a personal favorite and his exploration of the academic world (and its foibles) crossed with a Cape Cod atmosphere produced a marvelous volume (review here). This is a very accessible novel and one that I hope will get recognition in the 2010 American book prizes — a very, very good read.
The Moses trilogy, by Sam Selvon
Okay, no one calls it the Moses trilogy, but I do (reviews here) — The Lonely Londoners, Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating. The first book has a justifiable reputation (Selvon introduces a dialect that is both accessible to readers and interests critics) but not that many people read all three works — in fact, finding a copy of Moses Migrating is a bit of a challenge. The trilogy is a perceptive study of London from a half century ago that is even more relevant today. A wonderful achievement.
A Far Cry From Kensington, by Muriel Spark
This is perhaps the biggest surprise on the list — even to me. I’ve known about Spark for some time but never really respected her and picked up this volume as a relief from heavier reading (review here). What I found was a most perceptive study of the London of the 1960s and a most delightful one at that. The Virago Classics edition that is featured here is a most impressive book — I will be reading more Spark in 2010. She is an author who deserves more attention than she has been getting.
So there is the list, chosen totally arbitrarilly from the books that I liked best this past year. Having said that, I’m rather chuffed at the way it turned out. Four of the 10 are older works; six are newer. Four are Canadian, three British, two American, one French. All of which, I would like to think, is a fair reflection of what this blog tries to achieve — an overview of writing in English, both past and present, that doesn’t confine itself to any geographic boundary.
Happy holidays. And I hope somewhere above there is an idea about a book that might fit.