BY DAVID DUHR
Read the other installments in our Best Books 2009 series here.
While the archives show that I reviewed only one, I read seven books published in 2009. Not even the smoothest-fielding shortstop can stick around the Majors if he hits .143, but for some reason these C4 guys are keeping me in their stable. I’ll be the first to say it—the emperors are wearing no clothes. And believe me, folks, being a former roommate of theirs, it ain’t a pretty sight. Lots of pasty white skin.
A natural number for any Best Of list is five, but all seven of these books met or exceeded my expectations, and discarding two proved too difficult. Any list comprised of all possible entries is, by logic, both a Best Of and Worst Of. So here, in order by author’s surname, are my seven best and worst (and middling) 2009 books.
The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie, one of Nigeria’s (and humanity’s) best young writers, has spent much of her life ping-ponging between Nigeria and the U.S., so it’s little surprise that the stories in this collection do the same. What is surprising is the consistency of her tone and delivery between these settings. Nigerians living in their own homeland feel no more comfort in their surroundings than do Nigerians in the States. All are adrift, steadily being weighted down by their own personal thing around their neck.
The intent here is to show both halves how the other lives, and Adichie accomplishes this with grace and style. If she expands the final story, “The Headstrong Historian,” into a novel, she’ll win the Booker, the Orange, the this, the that …
The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards, Robert Boswell
Not quite as affecting as Living to Be One Hundred, this latest collection nonetheless delivers Boswell’s usual cast of drifters, unhappy spouses, spiritual bankrupts, and loners seeking any port in the storm. Standouts include “In A Foreign Land,” “Lacunae,” and “A Sketch of Highway on the Nap of a Mountain.” For my full review, check out the forthcoming issue of Pleiades. For more shameless plugs, keep reading this post.
Even the dog won’t touch me, Tom Bradley
America’s favorite Bizarro writer smacks us in the face with a new collection of short fiction aimed at making us all realize how ridiculous we are, without making us feel like dogshit in the process. It’s funny, it’s absurd, and it’s frustrating. It’s forgettable and it’s memorable. It’s also reviewed in full by me here.
The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara and Lenin Play Chess, Andrei Codrescu
As far as pure entertainment goes, this was my favorite of the year. Codrescu is at various times sarcastic, deadpan, tongue-in-cheek, and absurd, but he gets serious when he needs to get serious. The book is an informative look at the origins of Dada and its colorful cast of characters, but it also delivers a narrative, both playful and ominous, involving a fictional game of chess between Tristan Tzara and V.I. Lenin. And it inspired a poorly-written review on this very website.
Homer & Langley, E.L. Doctorow
Nico’s thoughts on this novel pretty much mirror my own (Nico’s thoughts on anything mirror my own. I base all of my thoughts on Nico’s. In fact, Nico is right now over my shoulder, dictating this post to me. Stop it, Dave. Dave, delete that. It’s not funny. Stop typing, Dave.)
I’m convinced that Doctorow wrote this book as a reaction to the growing popularity of the A&E show Hoarders. If that show is actually growing in popularity. Which it is in my household. The novel is something of a bildungsroman, but that Homer Collyer never leaves the house. It’s both funny and heartbreaking to watch Homer inch toward Helen Keller status as his brother, Langley, grows ever more paranoid and bizarre. Not Doctorow’s finest, but nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a quick read, and well worth your time.
The Follower’s Tale, Stephen Roger Powers
This will likely be the best poetry collection based on one man’s fascination with Dolly Parton and her Tennessee amusement park, Dollywood, that you will read this year. The Follower’s Tale is one man’s search for a slice of Americana. Powers’ journey is a solo one, across back roads paved with regret, nostalgia, and yearning, but he’s never in too big a hurry to stop for sights like “The World’s Largest Model Railroad Display,” or to notice “layers across / the moon–gray, brown, crimson, rust black–above this country / road forty miles from anywhere.” His wanderlust is contagious, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself packing the car and pointing it toward Knoxville. Check out my interview with the author for a sample of his work and his mindset. He is a writer to watch closely in the coming years.
Into the Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea
This is a fine novel by a writer whose impact is not yet what it should be. Urrea lets us know right away that the book is inspired by The Magnificent Seven, and it works on all levels. Narco bandits take over Tres Camarones, a village from which all the men, save the old and homosexual, have fled and slipped across the border into the U.S. Nayeli and three friends attempt to do the same, in an effort to bring the men back and rid Tres Camarones of the threat.
This “threat” is a bit too implicit, but the novel clicks everywhere else. I had planned to write a review of this one, but by page 30 was so engrossed that I no longer had interest in taking notes about authorial intention. I scrapped the review idea and just buried myself in the story. Besides, Urrea’s intention seems to have been simple, anyway: write a gripping and entertaining novel that will appeal to anyone who likes gripping and entertaining novels.
Other great reads
A good reading year for me, at least when it comes to 2009 books. Seven read, seven enjoyed. Others that have come highly recommended include Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon, The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter, and Zoe Heller’s The Believers.
And in case anyone’s interested, the best novel I read this year was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, published back in 2004. Britain’s got talent, all right, but it all went to this dude.