My Best Reads Some Highlights of 2009

I like the end of year lists.  They are self-indulgent, giving the reviewer a chance to reminisce and even become prideful about a year’s-worth of reading (at least, I admit to those feelings).  But as a fellow reader, I love to see others’ lists so I can see what books made the year’s reading pleasurable to others — and it gives me a chance to see what I’m missing.  So here’s my contribution: my second year-end review.

Making this list is impossible this year.  I was very selective in 2009, basically reading only books I was genuinely interested in from publishers whom I trust.  Also, it was my most international year ever (30 of the 89 — 34% — books reviewed since December 17, 2008, when I last posted this year-end list, were in translation), so many books I read were illuminating in one regard or another.  Indeed, I would have a difficult time coming up with ten books I didn’t like, let alone ten twelve I liked about all others.  So this year, rather than list my top reads, I’m posting a nonexclusive list of some highlights.  Each of these books, in one way or another, satisfied whatever mood I had at the moment, even if I wasn’t aware I was in the mood for anything in particular.

But before even listing the highlights, I’m going to put in this little paragraph that cheats.  How can one leave out Philip Roth or Gilead or By Night in Chile from this list?  These contemporary classics were obviously highlights of my reading year.  But perhaps even more mysterious than leaving those off my list, why leave off classics like Madame Bovary, “The Turn of the Screw,” The Age of Innocence, and Moby-Dick.  Well, here’s why I’m leaving them off the highlights list: because they have been highlighted time and time again, deservedly.  Instead, I chose to focus on books I’d never really heard of before this year.  While this will reveal some of the many gaps in my reading, I think it also might be helpful to others like me who have such gaps.  (Not to mention the fact that this little shenanigan allows me to link to more of my favorite books!)

So, here is my list (seven works in translation, five in English), in alphabetical order by author’s last name.  There’s just no way I can rank these in any other way.  In fact, when I tried, I had most of them in the number one spot at one time or another.  The list:

Aira

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter – “Even when I was unsure where this was going, I was thoroughly enjoying the voyage.  It is vast yet immediate, full of frenetic energy yet poised and controlled.”  I read this book in one spell-bound sitting, and I can still remember the way the light fell in the room while I was reading it.  It’s imprint on me and that moment in time are that vivid still.  I also absolutely loved his Ghosts, and How I Became a Nun is not too distant in third.

  

CasaresAdolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel — “One of the best things about The Invention of Morel, though, is that even when we readers understand the nature of what is going on, Bioy Casares doesn’t stop there.  Many lesser books stop with cleverness.  In this one, the intelligent construct is only incidental to an even more intelligent examination of love, lust, loneliness — and the ambiguities of immortality.”  The feelings of loneliness and interrupted silence stick with me as I think back on this dream-like book.  

 

CarrJ.L. Carr: A Month in the Country — “It was moving and peaceful and interesting.  In it Carr, about whom little is known but who has some whimsical biographical information detailed in the introduction to the NYRB edition, packs layers of nostalgia, making the reader aware of emotions lost to time but evident in what remains of the past.”  Another peaceful masterpiece, and one book I’ll read again and again.  I loved the complex arrangement of love, art, history, and nostalgia on a simple canvas.  A truly affecting work I feel almost reverent toward.

  

GavarryGérard Gavarry: Hoppla! 1, 2, 3 — “Each section carries the same people to the same event.  Each is still unique and compelling and important.  Indeed, through this book not only does Gavarry reveal some excellent insights into the roots of violence but, in doing so, he shows the power and vitality of literature.”  Several months later, I’m still amazed at the multiple perspectives Gavarry uses in this book as it tells, retells, and then retells again, the story of a murder.  And being stuck in traffic has never been the same.

  

KerteszImre Kertész: The Pathseeker — “If this sounds like it should be a work by Kafka, that’s completely understandable. . . .  However . . . unlike Kafka’s absurdity, this one is ‘real.’  Not that Kafka’s works aren’t real in their essence, but here is no heightened reality exaggerated for effect.  As bizarre as it might sound, as elusive as the author is being, the exercise in silence and inference creates a very realistic piece.”  For the year, this was my favorite book that succeeded by not saying directly what it was shouting indirectly. 

 

MaxwellWilliam Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow  — “So silently does the story progress that the moments of violence are audible to the reader and reverberate in the later pages though silence returns.”  Short, softly spoken, quietly impactful.  If I were back in college, taking literature classes, I’d demand to read this as an American classic.  A master-lesson in how to write directly, without all of the fanfare and preening, yet still engage in metafiction at its best.  Disillusioned me towards McEwan’s Atonement

 

PriceRichard Price: Lush Life — “Lush Life builds and changes its form in unexpected ways, and I’d hate to give away too much.  Then again, there is so much in the book that I could write in depth about aspects of it and it would still leave plenty for the reader to discover.”  Indeed.  I’m still uncovering layers of this excellent police procedural in downtown Manhattan.  Brilliant dialogue, fantastic descriptions, very profound as it deals with class and race and crime.  Why on earth haven’t I read Clockers yet?

 

RosalesGuillermo Rosales: The Halfway House — “A semi-autobiographical allegory, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and one of the best books I’ve read period.  It is stunning in its execution and its content—indisputably the work of a literary master.”  I stand by my review.  This book is brilliant in its depravity as it describes a Cuban exile’s time in a corrupt Miami halfway house where the narrator’s complicity in brutality comes out.  Very sad, very violent, very disturbing — if the book is any indicator, one can see why Rosales felt hopeless.

 

SebaldW.G. SebaldThe Emigrants — “One of tales is told primarily by Mme Landau, and she talks about ‘the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget. . .’  But Sebald suggests they don’t forget.  In fact, it’s all they can remember, and it follows them everywhere, to their death.”  I think one of the reasons I didn’t care for Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault was because I’d read this book just prior — this book was simply so so much better.

 

WalserRobert Walser: The Tanners — “The precision with which Walser captures the seasons and the times of day makes the experience of reading these impressions almost surreal.  Truly, Susan Bernofsky did a fantastic job translating this book.”  This was the only book I read this year that took me back to my early days of reading literature, back when I was still discovering the European greats (which is fitting since Walser was a European great).  There’s just something epic and yet fable-ish about this book — and it’s incredibly funny.

 

WodehouseP.G. Wodehouse: Leave It to Psmith — “[The first few lines] made me chuckle in the bookstore.  Despite that, however, I did not expect to be incapable of holding in my laughter while on the train.  But I couldn’t help it when unexpected things like legs dangling through ceilings and flung flower pots pepper the pages.”  My introduction to Wodehouse — surely it will be a long and pleasant relationship.  Since I read this book, I’ve purchased it for several people who could use a hearty laugh (in the wonderful Overlook edition, of course).

 

WolffTobias Wolff: Old School — “I’m not giving anything away when I say that Wolff completely reworks the perspective of the novel in the last few pages, not through a surprise twist or an epiphany but by unconventionally straying from the narrative he’d been so strict to follow up to that point, playing with our notions of the narrator’s aesthetic as well as his personal development — and justifications.”  I loved reading the narrator’s encounters with literature and authorship, and how they affected his downfall — as well as that of another of the school’s luminaries.

 

Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a very happy 2010.
                            — Trevor

25 thoughts on “My Best Reads Some Highlights of 2009”

  1. lena says:

    A great list! I’m glad you highlighted some of the lesser known books of the year. Makes for great book suggestions for 2010 :)

  2. Mrs. Berrett says:

    Brava-va-voom!
    I’m shocked Frankie didn’t make it though. And that you didn’t add in a special note just for Brundibar.
    And reading this made me proud of how much you’ve read this year, too!

  3. Nadia says:

    What a great list of books! I’m glad you had Wodehouse in there – his books are just so hilarious and have you laughing out loud. There are a couple of books that you have on there that are making my TBR list for 2010 – Old School and The Halfway House.

    Happy Holidays to you!

  4. Stuart says:

    I also read The Invention of Morel this year – wonderful, wonderful book.

  5. Trevor says:

    Thanks for your comments, everyone! Mrs. Berrett, thank you for all of your support! I did have Frankie in the homestretch, honestly (fantastic book), but it lost out to Old School which fit me better. It’s definitely one of those books that would be included on this list were it written on another day :). As for Brundibar — I haven’t reviewed that here, so it was inelligible. For those looking for an incredibly interesting, wonderfully rendered children’s book with historical and allegorical values, check out the now out-of-print! Brundibar. It’s whimsical and full of shadows. A great team up of Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner.

  6. John Self says:

    This is a terrific list, Trevor – by which I mean, pridefully, to say that all the titles in it that I’ve read would have been in my end of year lists for the years in which I read them (by way of proof, Lush Life and The Pathseeker both were last year!).

    That means that I must get around to The Halfway House very soon…

  7. Trevor says:

    (by way of proof, Lush Life and The Pathseeker both were last year!)

    It’s proof of my faith in your good opinion, John, that your end-of-the year list is precisely what made me read those books this year :). Are you going to post a year-end list this year? I’ve read all of your reviews, but it’s nice to see which ones stuck with you throughout. Plus, how will I know what to include on my 2010 list if you don’t post a 2009 list?

  8. Excellent list — I particularly appreciate the reminder about Carr (I’d had it marked down to purchase and somehow lost that — an error which has been rectified).

  9. Trevor says:

    I’m glad that you’ve corrected the problem, Kevin! Really, I don’t know how I could rank this year’s list, but I know that if I did A Month in the Country would be near or at the very top. I’m anxious for your take on it.

  10. kimbofo says:

    A wonderful list… I’ve only read one, The Emigrants, and spookily enough I read Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces shortly after (I liked Fugitive Pieces very much, but haven’t yet read The Winter Vault, mainly because I haven’t come across any reviews that have sung its praises highly enough).

    You have also given me good reason to extract A Month In the Country from my TBR pile, where it’s being languishing for a year or more.

  11. John Self says:

    Yes I do plan to post a list, Trevor, closer to the end of the month.

  12. Stewart says:

    Two I’ve read (The Invention Of Morel [in my best of 2008] and A Month In The Country, which is due a revisit as I barely remember it). Three I’ve got waiting to be read (Old School, The Pathseeker, and Hoppla! 1, 2, 3. That leaves five I’ve not touched at all: hooray! Aira and Rosales are definitely the ones I’d consider in the near future. Great list. And I really must try Wodehouse one of these days.

  13. Trevor says:

    Looking forward to the list, John.

    Kimbofo, I do hear that Fugitive Pieces is much better than The Winter Vault, so when I get over The Winter Vault I’m looking forward to seeing Michaels at her better.

    Stewart, your comment came up as spam! Luckily I salvaged it. Don’t worry people, his link is to a genuine book blog and not to a site trying to sell you something you don’t need. By the way, I’m pretty sure you’ll love Aira, Stewart. New Directions is releasing another of his books this spring, and I know that Chris Andrews is working on another — you need to catch up!

  14. Stewart says:

    Well, I have Ghosts to hand. Must read that over Christmas.

  15. Amy says:

    I only discovered your blog recently but I’m glad I did. Based on the ten books listed here, I’m looking forward to your reviews in 2010. Sevral of the book your read on this list captivate and intrigue me. I hope you don’t mind if I use this list to choose some wonderful reads next year. I’m particularly interested in “Old School”, “A Month in the Country” “The Halfway House” and “The Pathseeker”!

    ~ Amy

  16. Trevor says:

    Of course I’m thrilled to see others reading books I’ve loved, Amy. Enjoy them and come back to share your thoughts :)!

  17. Isabel says:

    I also loved Wolff’s work.

    Merry Christmas with Mrs. B and the kiddies.

  18. Trevor says:

    Thanks Isabel! Merry Christmas to you too!

  19. Kerry says:

    Absolutely great list. I have only read one of the books on your list (Old School), but it was very good. I have Clockers waiting and Sebald was already a must for 2010. Your list guarantees, though, that I will now pick up The Halfway House and, probably, The Pathseeker and The Tanners.

    Basically, it is starting to look like my 2010 list will be made up of selections from your and a few other trusted bloggers’ best of 2009 lists. I am going to try to find some books on my own…..if I can determine why that feels necessary at all.

  20. Sarah says:

    Thanks for an interesting list- I’ve really enjoyed A Month in the Country, Lush lIe, Old School and good old Wodehouse so will have to try your other picks. Maxwell and Walser await.

    Merry Christmas to your and your family too.

  21. Trent says:

    A late night net trawl landed me here. I’ve enjoyed perusing your blog. I’ve read the Casares, Carr, Kertesz, Price, Rosales and Wolfe titles (and the Aira has been sitting by my bedside book basket all year but haven’t got around to it, although I did enjoy “How I Became A Nun”); all fine choices. I’m sure I’ll be checking in periodically. Cheers.

  22. jimmy says:

    The first 3 books you listed were also ones I read in 2009 (although I only included one of them on my year end list, they were all excellent). I’m gonna put a few of your other suggestions on my to-read list. Thanks.

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