That’s right! Along with just about everyone else out there in the blogosphere, I’m celebrating the New Year with looking back over the old one! I’m not too concerned with how many books, pages, new authors, foreign authors, female authors, or any other kind of category of reading, mostly because I just usually don’t pay attention to stuff like that, but I will say that 2009 has brought more than it’s fair share of really, really bad books. More than most years do, for some reason, but that being said, the good books of 2009 weren’t just good. They were GREAT, and putting together this list was probably one of the most difficult that I’ve had to do in a great many number of years (although this is the first one I’ve published, I’ve got Top Ten lists going back to 2000, and haven’t had a year this hard since 2001!) I’m pretty sure that none of these books were published in 2009, and there are some that I read a great many times before 2009, but for whatever reason, this year is their year! So, without further ado, I give you the Top Ten Books of 2009, RANKED IN ORDER!
1.) Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Previous Review: “I can’t really describe what it is I love about this book, other than Atwood’s plot turns and skills as a writer. I suppose its the same as what inspires my love for practically all other dystopian novels: there is something about it that feels eminently real. While I think that the world that Atwood describes is still far off (then again, who really knows just how far) there are sections of it – the huge, global fear of disease and ‘pandemics’, the money that there is to be made in even false-cures, and, of course, the desire by humans to create a more perfect world, which can often lead to the destruction of the world we currently live in – that hit home in the scariest ways.”
Current Thoughts: Even months after finishing this volume, I can’t get the damn thing out of my head! I’m still dying for someone close to me to read it so that I can discuss it at the ad naseum length that I’m dying to! Not only are the characters relatable (despite circumstances that should make it impossible for them to be so) but the entire unfolding of the plot is done with a mastery that only Atwood seems able to master. I won’t try to summarize the plot, other than saying that it has a lot to do with Jimmy (aka Snowman), Glenn (aka Crake), Oryx, the economy of disease, the manipulation that comes from living in a state of fear, and the power of the human life, even when placed within limits. Please, please, PLEASE read this book!
2.) The History Boys by Alan Bennett
Previous Review: “The play focuses on a group of boys whom are all trying to get in to Cambridge and Oxford with the help of three core faculty members: their female history teacher, they’re gay male “general studies” teacher, and a new teacher – Irwin – a young man wh is responsible for teaching the boys how to be original enough to actually get in to Oxford and Cambridge. The play’s main male lead, Dakin, is a cocky student who is used to getting what he wants. He’s an intelligent boy, who uses his intelligence to manipulate those around him. Its fantastic! I’m in love with him. So much so that there is a serious need for me to re-do my list of most desirable male fictional leads. The best part of the play, however, is what it has to say about the study of history in and of itself.”
Current Thoughts: I can’t not still be in love with this play! I was recently given the movie for Christmas (which is good, because Blockbuster LITERALLY put a note on my account that I wasn’t allowed to check it out anymore) and it looks so lovely sitting next to the copy of the play on my shelf! The dialogue of the entire piece is snappy and witty, with boys ‘taking the piss’ left and right. Not to mention the fact that the play deals with some of my favorite literary components: cocky boys, unidentified sexual identities, British boarding school, and drama drama drama! I’m not sure what else I can say to make you interested, other than perhaps mentioning the fact that the whole play clocks in at barely over 100 pages, and if you don’t really do the whole drama-reading thing (plays were written to be seen, after all) may I suggest checking out the just-as-wonderful movie? And remember, whether you like them cocky and bold (a la Dakin) or shy and struggling (a la Posner), there is for sure a History Boy for you!
3.) Becoming Abigail: A Novella by Chris Abani
Previous Review: “The book is about a young girl, Abigail, who is named for her mother, who dies during childbirth. Abigail comes from a Nigerian family, a highly patriarchal culture, and her father is completely distraught over his wifes death. His pain is made worse by the fact that Abigail looks just like her mother, causing her father to see only his dead wife in her. Abigail also suffers from bouts of insanity, spurred by her search for identity – she is compared to her mother so often by her father that she begins to loose sight of her own self, which she attempts to document by literally branding phrases, poetry, and memories of her mother on her skin. As a teenager, Abigail’s cousin Peter comes to take her to London, where he forces her in to a sort of home-based prostitution, in which he brings in paying customers to accost Abigail in her room at night. Although Abigail ends up getting her (rather fitting, albeit it rather disturbing) revenge, the pain she has to go through is almost incomprehensible. After the culminating incident with Peter, Abigail meets her social worker Derek (which is one of my favorite names EVER) and the two fall into a passionate but completely illicit affair, for which Derek is inevitably arrested. The ending of the book I won’t reveal, but let me just say that the plot of the book is remarkably touching for clocking in at under 150 pages.”
Current Thoughts: I can’t stop picking up this book and just flipping through it, hoping that maybe I’ll be able to absorb some of it’s greatness by osmosis. Abani writes with a style that makes me, as a writer, want to be better than I am, which, as a writer, may just be the best compliment I’m capable of giving to a work of fiction. Not only is the story told with passion and impact (so much so that, even though it’s number three, it’s the shortest fiction work on this list!) but the man behind the writing – who I was lucky enough to have the chance to meet – is just as soulful and just as passionate. Perhaps one of the greatest things Chris Abani taught me during our fated luncheon together (I was selected as an honors student to join the author in a private lunch after he gave a visiting lecture at our campus) was that the writer has a duty to the reader, a duty to commit to honesty and truth, whether that truth is beautiful or not. And Becoming Abigail is full of that truth.
4.) Feed by M.T. Anderson
Previous Review: “Feed is M.T. Anderson’s absolutely wonderful YA dystopian novel about a world where almost everybody has supercomputers planted into their brain, and thus is subject to 24/7 information, shopping, chatting and a veritable advertisement blitzkrieg. The novel focuses on Titus and his friends who, on a trip to the moon, meet a strange girl named Violet and end up getting touched by a hacker, which breaks their ‘feeds’, their name for the stream of information that is always incoming. Titus and his friends are fixed relatively easily, but because Violet had her feed implanted later than all the others, her feed isn’t as easily fixed and begins to break down more and more. The worst thing about this, however, is the fact that the feed is also tied to every singly bodily function, so as the feed begins to break, so does Violet’s body – she becomes sicker and sicker, presenting a large obstacle for Titus, who above all desirese normalcy and the staus quo. Also at had is Titus’s social standing, as Violet is not widely accepted in to his group of friends, mainly because she continues to talk about a life without the feed, which Titus and his friends can’t imagine.”
Current Thoughts: When my Children’s Literature class sat down to talk about which books of the course we liked or disliked the most, the class was pretty much split down the middle on this book: half loved it, half detested it. You can probably guess which side I was on, and it baffles me that anyone could find this book uninteresting, even if they do find it unenjoyable. The teenage narrators are both wonderfully teenager-y (they whine, they’re mean, they say and wear stupid things for stupid reasons) and yet they operate within a system full of adult worries and issues that become more and more relevant as our current technology begins to make more and more things possible, while at the same time doing unseen damage to nature and the way in which the world it quantified. I won’t promise that this book won’t bother you, scare you, annoy you, or strike you as relatively propagandist. But it will impact you, and isn’t that what good reading is all about?
5.) Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Previous Review: “Kambili Achike is a 15-year-old Nigerian girl whose father is, essentially, the head of the local church. Along with her brother and mother, the family lives in an almost constant state of fear because, in addition to being devotedly pious, Kambili’s father is also emotionally and physically abusive. For a period of time, Kambili is sent to live wither her aunt who is a university professor and who, along with her three children, teach Kambili what it means to laugh, to love, to have fun and to, most importantly, realize that social and political involvement isn’t a sin. Kambili has lived her life in the fear that she will never be good enough, either for her father or for God, a fear that was instilled in her by her father. Her stay with her aunt makes her realize that this may not, in fact, matter as much as Kambili once thought it would have.”
Current Thoughts: Adichie is said to be the best African writer since Chinua Achebe put the continent on the map of literary wonder. I can’t say whether or not this is true – I’ve done way less African reading than I would love to – but I can say that Adichie tells one hell of a story. This story made me hate certain characters, made me love certain characters, and ultimately frustrated me because it teaches a wonderful lesson that I just feel will never be learned by so many of the people who need to learn it most. I also appreciated the way that Adichie made the world of Nigeria come alive, especially the University system, which is full of the desire to learn and yet still so lacking in the tools and people that would make everything so much easier. I’ve put Adichie on my list for the African Diaspora reading challenge, and I can’t wait to get started on more of her wonderful work!
6.) The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
Previous Review: “This is the story of Michael and Hanna. Michael is a young German boy who meets and begins to conduct a passionate love affair with Hanna, a woman almost twenty years his senior. The two fall in love until one day Hanna leaves. Years later, when Michael is a law student covering the trial of female guards responsible for inmate death Auschwitz, Michael sees Hanna again, this time behind the defendant’s bench. Hanna is found guilty and spends years in prison. While she is there, Michael comes to the realization that Hanna is illiterate and this is why she enjoyed their old ritual of him reading to her. He begins to read to her on tape, sending her the cassettes and one day Michael recieves a letter from Hanna. She has learned to read and write, thanks to the help of his tapes, and she is facing release from prison soon. The events that follow, which I won’t spoil here because of how beautiful they are, make the last 50 pages of the book some of the most impactful.”
Current Thoughts: Having watched the movie shortly after reviewing this book for the first time, I will say that the book is far superior (as is usually the case!) to the film, although both did a good job of translating one of the things I loved most about this book: the power of one moment, one secret, to transform the lives of two people beyond belief. And although I remember the courtroom scenes, where Michael observes the Nazi guards put on trial, to be a little long-winded, and though I remember caring less about Michael as an adult than as a teenager, the fact that this woman was invariably saved by reading is a message that manages to not get lost amongst the much larger dramas also going on during the novel – the Holocaust makes a lofty background against which to set any story!
7.) The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Previous Review: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a book that is entirely based in opposition to Nietzsche’s theory that all events in life have already occurred, and will continue to occur for all time. Although the theoretical side is a little bit to encapsulate, I found a pretty good description from Wikipedia (I really HATE copying and pasting from other sites, but in this case I think it’s the most succinct method of summation): “The German expression Einmal ist keinmal encapsulates “lightness” so: “what happens but once, might as well not have happened at all. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all”; if concluded logically, life ultimately is insignificant. Hence, because decisions do not matter, they are rendered light, because they do not cause personal suffering. Yet, simultaneously, the insignificance of decisions — our being — causes us great suffering, perceived as the unbearable lightness of being consequent to one’s awareness of life occurring once and never again.” This principle is explored through four central characters in the book, three of whom are somewhat entertwined. Tomas is a successful surgeon who, although in love with Tereza, can’t stop his philandering ways, especially with his mistress Sabina. Eventually Tomas makes the choice to settle down with Tereza, leaving Sabina free to move from Prague (where the book is set during the Communist period, spanning from 1968 to 1984, roughly) to Zurich and eventually to America. Along the way, she takes another lover, Franz. Tomas and Tereza remain largely in Prague, where Tomas loses his ability to practice medicine due to “communist sympathies”. While the plot of the book isn’t necessarily the most quick-moving (in all honesty, not a whole lot of stuff really happens, plot wise – a lot of moving about and lamenting about lost possibilities, but not necessarily a lot of action) the book fulfills its main purpose, which is to pose an alternative philosophical stance.”
Current Thoughts: I’m still thinking through this one. It was THAT good. And takes THAT much thought!
8.) Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Previous Review: “Yate’s did a fantastic job of illustrating how one’s life can become something it was never inteded to be. Indeed, often the things we believe to be temporary end up becoming permanent, no matter how much we loathe those things to begin with. Frank and April live their lives in lies – to themselves, to each other, to those they know and love. And, just when it seems like they have the chance to rediscover who they are, they loose it – April becomes pregnant again and the couple cannot make the much needed and desired move to Paris that much of the middle of the book pends on. When this happens, the reader feels just as frustrated, just as afraid of what is to become of the young Wheeler couple. The only parts of the book I had problems with (other than the end) were some of the more moody fights between the young couple. Many times, it seemed like the young lovers went from friendly to fighting without so much as a stop in between. I understand that this is often what occurs sometimes, but it didn’t translate well to the page.”
Current Thoughts: Yates is a master of creating a world in which the reader feels just as much at home as the characters, and Revolutionary Road was no different. Even now, having read the book just after last New Years, I can still remember how short of breath and suffocated I felt just reading about how much Frank and April Wheeler wanted to be out of their own lives. And while I felt the ending, in which April makes what appears to be a rash, but is actually a well-thought out and selfish decision, was a little too much, it was still enough to make me think whether or not my life was what I wanted to be, or whether I was going to wake up in thirty years stuck somewhere I didn’t have any intention of ever being. I refuse to be April Wheeler, but so would April Wheeler, which is where the problems always arise from!
9.) Written on the Body by Jeanette Winterson
Previous Review: “the most original aspect of this book is that the gender and name of the narrator are ever given. The book chronicles the narrator’s experience with the women of his/her life, first their relationship with a woman named Jacqueline, who is then replaced by a woman named Louise as the narrator works pages and pages of heavily emotional descriptions of the passion he/she feels for both of these women. Winterson herself said that the reason the gender of the narrator is never given so that the maxims given can be applied to love of all kinds, not specifically hetero- or homosexual. And while I would say that this is definitely a lofty goal, and although this is generally the case, a lot of the time the phrases are just a bit to heavy-handed towards a kind of verbose sentimentality. Wonderful to read in short doses, but a bit too saccharin for my taste after hundreds of pages.”
Current Thoughts: I can still remember sitting and re-reading the pages and pages of quotes I copied from this hard-hitting, emotional work. I still do it on occasion. Skip the plot. Skip the characters. Love the words. This is a book about words without being about words, which may just be my favorite kind of book. Do yourself a favor. Let this book be written on your mind (I know, I know – corny! I just couldn’t help it!)
10.) Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Previous Review: “The book is about Ender (Andrew) Wiggins, who is selected as a six year old to go to battle school, an institution that uses games to teach Ender and a whole host of other brilliant children how to operate militarily in order to, eventually, go to battle against the Buggers, an insect-like alien race that threatens to destroy the world. Essentially, Ender is the “Chosen One”, and the adults abuse him his whole life (keeping him from making friends, subjecting him to grueling physical tasks, mentally breaking him down) in the hopes that he will survive long enough to save the world. The book isn’t very long, and is very science fiction-y (be prepared for some long passages of battle descriptions and the like) but it’s absolutely fantastic. Ender is precocious and a genius, both in battle and in life. The thing I always liked best about him, even when I read it as a kid, is that Ender is fully aware of the fact that the adults in his life are manipulating him. Although he can’t do a lot to change it, at least he is aware of it.”
Current Thoughts: I’ve recently re-done my list of favorite fictional male characters, and was surprised to see Ender Wiggin jump a number of spots, most likely due to my recent re-reading of a book that I loved SO MUCH as a kid! The book is typically seen as more of a ‘boy book’ because of the fact that it’s science fiction, as well as about fighting and playing video games and boys in general, but I never cared. And I still don’t. I maintain that this book should probably be put on the level-two science fiction books (it’s very much so science fiction, but has enough reality to it that it’s still easy to read for those who aren’t as much into science fiction) but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great book irregardless of it’s science-y parts! Do yourself a little escapist favor and pick it up ASAP!
Well, folks, there you have it, for those of you that are still with me! The Top Ten Books of 2009 – I just can’t wait to see what 2010 brings! Happy reading and happy New Year!