Best books of 2009

A score of the top books plus some poetry

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Asked years ago why the media are so obsessed with "the best of ..." lists, a grizzled editor answered, "Because we are, so do it."

I guess that answer must justify the process, regardless of the impossibilities. In a year when at least 200,000 titles were published, the chances that I can pick 20 of the truly best are slightly less than winning the Powerball.

I will improve the odds by limiting the selection to books covered in the Post-Gazette this year, so it's liable to be a little idiosyncratic, but here goes.


Fiction

"Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel. The British author takes a historical figure little known in America, Thomas Cromwell, and turns his life into a broad picture of Tudor England under Henry VIII. Her talent for humanizing 16th-century names like the willful monarch and his canny mistress, Anne Boleyn, is impressive.

"American Rust" by Philipp Meyer. This young native of Baltimore found the story of his first novel in the scarred landscape and souls of the Monongahela Valley around Brownsville. The lives might seem burned out, but the passion for justice is still hot.

"Generosity" by Richard Powers. The novelist who searches for the mystery of the heart among growing science of how the brain works, seized on the mechanics of happiness in his character of a 23-year-old Algerian exile. She remains joyous despite a tragic past, causing others to wonder whether there's something in her DNA, something that might help everyone.

"The Year of the Flood" by Margaret Atwood. The future's always been a bleak place in Atwood's fiction. Her latest is no exception with its world of biological collapse and looming human extinction, thanks to the deadly combo of big business and big environmentalists. Told with Atwood's sly and skeptical take on human nature, her novel's message is hard to ignore

"The Children's Book" by A.S. Byatt. The third member of the British Empire to make the list, Byatt brings her "exquisite" prose and powerful intellect, wrote reviewer Sharon Dilworth, to her version of an English manor in the grip of lustful intrigue.

"The Girl Who Played with Fire" by Stieg Larsson. No apologies for the fact that the late Larsson's second novel of his trilogy is a lurid crime story of conspiracy and sexual perversion. Those factors haven't prevented it from being a worldwide best-seller, as well as a provocative read.

"Lark and Termite" by Jayne Anne Phillips. A carefully woven tale of sibling love that can stretch between West Virginia and Korea in a time of war, Phillips, herself a Mountaineer, fills her pages with emotion and sympathy. It's a small gem of a book.

"Love and Summer" by William Trevor." An Irish village has been Trevor's turf for many years, a setting where this fine, careful writer turns over the lives of his characters with a universal embrace. Most of the human qualities, good and bad, play out in this tender, moving book.

"Inherent Vice" by Thomas Pynchon. OK, it's not "Gravity's Rainbow," but what is? Pynchon was having a ball writing this send-up of Southern California crime noir, complete with pot, surfboards and Ronald Reagan. Sitting among this year's usual collection of routine American crime novels, "Inherent Vice" is the proverbial diamond in the rough.

"Await Your Reply" by Dan Chaon. A talented short-story writer, Chaon seeks in the longer form to ask questions about the identity-shaping of modern Americans in this, at first, suspense novel, then a mediation on how lives are remade.


Nonfiction

"The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care" by T.R. Reid. When "death panels" was named "the biggest lie of 2009," it seemed proper to add this thoughtful exam of medical insurance plans around the world to the list to help us all get a clear picture of this difficult issue, written by an experienced journalist.

"Pittsburgh: A New Portrait" by Franklin Toker. The University of Pittsburgh art and architecture historian updated his 1986 overview of the city's buildings and neighborhoods in a handsome new, enlarged edition that takes in the many changes here. For longtime residents and new arrivals both, it's informative reading despite the occasional factual lapse.

"Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor" by Brad Gooch. Gooch is distinguishing himself as the biographer of American literary originals, first poet Frank O'Hara and now, the reclusive fiction writer, Flannery O'Connor. The Georgian left us 32 odd short stories and an even stranger novel, all steeped in Southern culture. Gooch is our careful tour guide into that culture.

"Cheever: A Life" by Blake Bailey. The second of two biographies of writers on the list, this account had far more material to draw on than Gooch did. John Cheever was a prolific journal and letter writer, and it's Bailey's impressive achievement to have sifted through these previously published writings to create a fresh view of the troubled chronicler of suburban life.

"Rebirth of A Nation: The Making of Modern America 1877-1920" by Jackson Lears. At last, historians are turning to the years between the Civil War and World War I for the changes that produced modern America. Lears has written a clear-eyed history of the nation as it began to look outward while the federal government flexed its muscles.

"The Ground Truth: The Untold Story of America Under Attack on 9/11" by John Farmer. Much to ponder here in the latest review of national security on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, by a lawyer for the 9/11 Commission. Remnants of the Cold War missile defense and arthritic responses on the federal level stand out as key drawbacks to defending against terrorists, as well as hurricanes over New Orleans. Hope somebody in Washington, D.C., is reading.

"The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution And The Birth Of America" by Steven Johnson. Just when we thought the Founding Fathers' era was covered to a fare-thee-well comes this digital-age view of 18th-century America in the life of scientist Joseph Priestly, discoverer of oxygen. Priestly's ideas fueled the Age of Enlightenment, informing those Fathers with new ideas.

"Woodrow Wilson: A Biography" by John Sherman Cooper. America's pre-eminent Woodrow Wilson expert, Cooper's career capstone is this one-volume summation of the 28th president's life. Wilson was a groundbreaker whose reach exceeded the grasp of his Republican opponents who were the first, but not the last, GOP members to show open disdain for a Democratic president.

"Imperial" by William T. Vollman. The field surveyed here by the 360-degree gaze of Vollman -- the Imperial Valley of California and the migrant community -- has yet to reach our Appalachian outpost, but its net effect on the economy is seismic. Vollman's work is encyclopedic. His study of the migrant world is a milestone.

"The Soul of A People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America" by David A. Taylor. This 1930s version of a stimulus package reinvigorated a starving artist class in America with jobs for out-of-work writers. The results, while uneven, were remarkable. Taylor provides a basic history of this project.


Poetry

"]Open Interval[" by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Van Clief-Stefanon's new collection makes music from science.

"Wheeling Motel" by Franz Wright. The subconscious voice of his father, James Wright, can be discerned in this collection with its roots in the Ohio River Valley.

"What the Heart Can Bear: Selected and Uncollected Poems 1979-1993" by Robert Gibb. From his vantage point above Homestead, this unassuming local poet crafts verse of quiet power. It's published by Autumn House Press of Pittsburgh.


Contact Bob Hoover at 412-263-1634 or bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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