Well, everyone, it's that time of year when every pop culture website and publication comes out with its Best-Of-The-Year lists. So, here's another one! These are the eleven best books I read this year. They are from all sorts of years and writers, encompassing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. There were two guiding principles in the making of this list: 1) the books had to be read in the calendar year of 2009, and 2) they had to be first-time reads (no re-readings, which usually make up about half my reading selections in any given year). Reading-wise, this was a great year, and I hope to make next year just as great.
Beth's 11 Best Reads of 2009 (in order from great to greatest):
11. My Antonia, by Willa Cather: When I read this book for an American lit class, I didn't expect to like it so much. I can't really explain why this novel made such an impact, but I think it's because of the way Cather writes so proudly of the prairie and the small town her characters inhabited so many years ago. Not to mention all the sad but earned nostalgia involved, something that always seems to get to me as a reader.
10. The Good Thief, by Hannah Tinti: This book isn't particularly insightful about the human soul or human connections, but it IS fun and entertaining. This American Dickensian tale about a 19th-century orphan and the strange cast of characters surrounding him had me sneaking reads at any available moment, all in the name of some good plotting and a nice central mystery.
9. Men in the Off Hours, by Anne Carson: Carson's book of hyper-intelligent, allusion-heavy poetry isn't for everyone. But the literature-loving student in me adored it. Special props go out to the book's poems about Edward Hopper, Tolstoy, Anna Ahkmatova, and Lazarus.
8. The Rest is Noise: Listening to the 20th Century, by Alex Ross: Okay, okay, so technically I haven't finished this book yet (I'm about 2/3 of the way through), but it WILL be finished by December 31st, and it's such an enlightening, well-written history of 20th century classical music that I had to put it on here.
7. Home, by Marilynne Robinson: Nobody does the domestic, small-town novel like the amazing Robinson. This book, a companion to Gilead, touches upon familal connections in the astute, intelligent, and extremely humane way that only such a fine author could create. Gorgeously-written and paced slow as a snail, it's not a book for lovers of plot and adventure. But by the end, it left me in well-earned, bittersweet, unmanipulated tears.
6. Stop-Time, Frank Conroy: We read this memoir in my final college seminar, and I absolutely loved it. Conroy writes honestly about his hardscrabble, strange childhood, and he does it all without ever feeling sorry for himself or wallowing in misery. Instead, the book is very funny, beautiful, and full of glory and pain in equal measure.
5. Persuasion, by Jane Austen: Based on the recommendation of a major Austen fan who claimed it was her favorite book by the author, this made a wonderful summer read. Slight and charming, it features my now-favorite Austen male character, the upright and romantic Captain Wentworth, letter-writing extraordinaire.
4. Spooner, by Pete Dexter: At first, this novel grabbed me because it was so funny and well-written. But somewhere in the middle, it also became a very honest portrayal of the relationship between a man and his stepson. It's a tribute to Dexter's agility as a fiction writer that he can place a theme of connection in the ways we try and fail to love others smack in the middle of a humorous novel complete with ugly dogs, bar fights, and neighborly disputes.
3. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman: I read this children's novel during a single weekend this spring just for fun, and I had no idea it would turn out to be such a fantastic experience. Gaiman is an extremely gifted storyteller who writes loving and humane tales even in the midst of ghosts, vampires, and villains. A funny, absorbing, and occasionally heartbreaking read.
2. Philip Larkin: Collected Poems, by Philip Larkin: I've gone on and on about Larkin all year, and it all started in March, when I bought and read his collected poems (of which there is a surprisingly small amount) all in one week. Larkin writes about everything - life and death, love and grief - with equal intelligence, wit, and grace. I recommend him to everyone, poetry readers and non-poetry readers alike.
1. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson: This is an extremely non-surprising win for those of you who've kept up with my blog since this summer, and there's really nothing more I can say about it. Except this: It's one of those books that made me extremely proud to be human. Absolutely wonderful.
Honorable Mentions: Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich; Coraline, by Neil Gaiman; The Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson