Thursday, December 31, 2009

Best Books of 2009

This year I have combined my fiction and my nonfiction reading into one list of my 2009 favorites. The only two nonfiction books to make the list, in fact, sandwich my eight favorite novels of the year. After studying similar lists on other book blogs these last few days, I am fascinated that there is so little overlap on any of them, including this one. So many great little time to read them.

Even more fascinating to me is that six of the eight novels listed are debut novels. I doubt that will ever happen to me again.

1. Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women – Harriet Reisen
This Louisa May Alcott biography answered all the questions I had about the Alcott family and its relationship with many of the literary stars and great thinkers of its day. The book is written in a very readable style and, because most readers already know so much about Louisa and her family, it almost reads like a novel. From my review of the book: "There is so much here that even the biggest Alcott fan will come away with a new appreciation of what this great writer accomplished in her relatively short lifetime."

2. Spooner – Pete Dexter
Pete Dexter has what some would consider a rather peculiar sense of humor – and I enjoy it so much I could listen to him tell stories all day long. The next best thing to that experience is reading a Pete Dexter novel and Spooner, in which Dexter creates one of his more memorable characters (Warren Spooner), is a real treat for Pete Dexter fans. From my review of the book: "He arrived only a few seconds after his more handsome twin brother and, even though his twin never took a breath, Spooner knew that his dead brother would always be his mother’s favorite child."

3. Bad Things Happen – Harry Dolan
Harry Dolan pays tribute to those who preceded him. Bad Things Happen is of the Raymond Chandler/James Cain/Dashiell Hammett school of mystery writing and this, Dolan's first novel, does not suffer in the comparison. From my review of the book: Its finely-crafted plot, filled with unexpected twists and turns, will keep readers guessing the murderer’s identify all the way to the end – wondering even to the last page if they have it figured out this time.”

4. The Brightest Moon of the Century – Christopher Meeks
This debut novel, based on one of my favorite Chris Meeks short stories, begins when Edward Meopian is 14-years old and ends when he is 45. A lot happens to Edward in those three decades, very little of it planned, and most of it seeming to get him no closer to achieving his dream. And when he does finally get there, life happens. From my review of the book: “Meeks’s characters, and his slightly off-centered view of life, continue to remind me of John Irving’s early work, definitely a good thing.”

5. Etta: A Novel – Gerald Kolpan
If you’re like me, I’ll bet you still have an imaged embedded in your brain of Etta Place riding a bicycle in that classic move about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. I’ll also bet that pretty much everything you know about Etta Place, you acquired from that one movie. Really, not much is known about Etta and how she became an outlaw, but Gerald Kolpan’s version of “what if” is great fun to read. From my review of the book: “First-time novelist Gerald Kolpan now offers Etta, the perfect companion piece to the movie that reintroduced Etta to the world some forty years ago.”

6. Travel Writing - Peter Ferry
This is a first novel that takes a (excuse me for this) novel approach to storytelling. Peter Ferry is the main character of his own novel and, beginning with the book's dedication, the reader will be wondering what is real and what is not. Ferry pulls off to great effect here one of those "novel within a novel" things and I suspect he drove more than a few readers nuts in the process. From my review of the book: "Peter Ferry is a storyteller and his debut novel, Travel Writing, is one terrific story.

7. American Rust: A Novel - Philipp Meyer
Yet another debut novel, but a much more serious one than the ones previously mentioned, American Rust takes a long, hard look at life in small town America. Meyer's story is a tragic one involving a bright young man whose life goes wrong in an instant, so wrong that he fears he could end up spending the rest of his life in prison. From my review of the book: "American Rust, Philipp Meyer’s debut novel, is a hard story to forget. Beyond a doubt, it is one of the bleakest portrayals of small town America written since the Great Depression and its plot, for good reason, is a reminder of the fiction that came out of that era."

8. Rain Gods: A Novel - James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke is a master at his craft, a man I've read since the '80s and whose work I always snap up as soon as it is published. I feel like Dave Robicheaux is a personal friend; I even own a baseball cap that features Dave's old bait shop on the front and I actually wear it around town just to see if anyone gets the joke. Rain Gods, though, is a Hack Holland novel, not one of Dave's. I don't yet feel quite as attached to Hack as I do to Dave but Mr. Burke is getting me closer with every novel. This is one of the most atmospheric novels I've read in a long while and the writing is simply beautiful. Enough said.

9. Woodsburner: A Novel - John Pipkin
Would you believe another excellent debut novel? This one is about what had to be perhaps the worst day in Henry David Thoreau's life, the day he accidentally set fire to the Concord Woods and almost burned down the city of Concord. Pipkin uses this largely forgotten incident from Thoreau's life to create one of the best character studies of 2009. From my review of the book: "In the process of creating a back-history for each of his main characters, Pipkin provides a revealing look at Massachusetts society of the 1840s and theorizes on how Thoreau’s mistake heavily influenced the rest of his life and career."

10. Where Men Win Glory - Jon Krakauer
Pat Tilman is a hero, a special young man who felt it was his duty to defend America after the 9-11 murders. Most everyone knows how Tilman gave up a multi-million dollar contract to join the Army's special forces and of his death in Afghanistan. Jon Krakauer tells the rest of the story, including the military's attempt to cover up what really happened in the tragic firefight that killed Pat Tilman. From my review of the book: "Human nature being what it is, almost from the moment Tillman’s body was recovered, some on the ground seem to have been more concerned with covering up the poor tactical decisions that contributed to his death than they were about reporting the truth."


  1. Did you see the LMA documentary on PBS earlier this week? Very well done though much of the same information in the bio. I read so few NF books I didn't pick a favorite as I enjoyed them all. I really admire LMA now. I need to give Woodsburner a try as well! Happy New Year, Sam! :)

  2. I'd really like to read the Krakauer book about Pat Tillman. I've read other works by him and really enjoyed them. They are always well researched and offer fresh perspectives on whatever he happens to be writing about. Looks like you had some great favorites this year!

  3. You read so many great books that I've never even heard of, so thank you for making my TBR list even longer!! I hope you had a great new year :)

  4. You've got some very interesting books on that list, Sam. I'm particularly interested in the LMA and Etta. I'll have to track them down. Have a very happy, book-filled New Year!

  5. Danielle, I don't think my local PBS station bothered to run the show - at least not yet. That happens a lot. They are, right now, in perpetual fund-raising mode and I don't bother to tune in during those periods because the shows are constantly being interrupted. I hope to catch the show later.

  6. Katheleen, Krakauer is catching some flack from several directions because of some of the allegations he makes in the books and because some readers perceive him to be very anti-Bush in several sections of the book. One set of his statistics is being challenged (the numbers I mention in my review, in fact).

  7. Lu, I hope you find something you like from the books I've gone through...I always wonder about that.

  8. Robin, thanks for the good wishes. I think you'll enjoy both those books. They are very different, of course, but both are excellent.

  9. Sam, what a terrific display and discussion of your faves. What is so neat to see is books that are off the beaten path [so to say]. I've read none of these nine, but you make me want to look into American Rust and Woods Burner.
    Happy New year to you, Sam.

  10. Wonderful list of good reading for the year, and yay that Little Women made it :)

  11. So do I need to watch the movie before I read "Etta"? I've never seen it.

  12. I'm honored, Sam, that you have my novel, "The Brightest Moon of the Century" on your list. You're helping me have a great start of the year.

  13. Happy New Year, Cip. Stay warm up there, bud. I was a bit surprised that so many debut novels impressed me this year; goes to show how much talent is out there...very humbling, isn't it?

  14. Stefanie, that Alcott biography is amazing. It covers one of my favorite periods of American history and the bunch of people around the Alcotts is impressive. Quite a story.

  15. Annie, that would be my way to do it. The movie will give you the basic story of the book's three main characters...and you'll have nice visual images to go along with them. I don't often recommend doing it this way, but "Etta" is the perfect companion to the movie. Let me know how it works out for you.

  16. Chris, I thouroughly enjoyed your book. As I mentioned elsewhere, 2009 seems to have been my year to discover a bunch of really good debut novels. Thanks for stopping by.

  17. Greetings! I am enjoying your web site immensely. I found your best of 2009 post and had not read any of these books (thanks for the recommendations).

    Just finished reading Travel Writing by Peter Ferry. Indeed, very interesting, vexing and left me with many questions about what was real and not real by the end of the book. I think the entire 'Lisa Kim' story was fabricated, an exercise in fantasy that not only helped his students enter a creative realm but also distracted him from his increasing emotional distance from Lydia. Perhaps the fantasy was a way to move away from the person in his life that had to be "let go". Just a theory.

    Thanks for your blog; enjoy it I do!

  18. I accidently found your best of lists.
    Try "The Unit" by Ninni Holmqvist

  19. Kate, that's an interesting theory...makes a lot of sense when looked at that way. I really had fun with this book. :-)

  20. Thanks for the tip, Anonymous...I'll take a look.


I always love hearing from you guys...that's what keeps me book-blogging. Thanks for stopping by.