Saturday, December 5, 2009

Books of 2009

The New York Times has posted its annual list of books: "100 Notable Books of 2009." The first 50 are fiction/poetry, the second 50 are non-fiction. As I noted last year when I wrote about this, the list comes from all the books that were reviewed by the newspaper. They've posted on the website the following disclaimer: "It was not easy picking the winners, and we doubtless made mistakes. To the authors who made the list: congratulations. To the equally deserving ones who did not: our apologies." Interestingly, there are 12 collections of short stories on the list this year, which they call a "heartening development" in this form of storytelling. I must agree.

Whereas last year I had not read a single book on the list, at least this year I can say that I read one, The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (2009). Here is their summary: "In Waters’s novel of postwar [i.e. World War II] anxiety, members of a decaying upper-crust English family start to come to sticky ends in their creepy mansion." Waters is one of my favorite authors, and this book was quite good. It wasn't as much of a scary thriller as the book jacket implied, but it did have its supernatural moments. The author's amazing ability to create believable characters is definitely among her strong points. I can still vividly see Caroline Ayres reclining on a couch reading, her legs tucked underneath her with the slightest trace of unshaven leg hair just barely peeking out from the long wool skirt she wears. Waters writes with an amazing eye for detail.

If we include my last read of 2008 [Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, about which I posted a review], I read 35 books this year as of today. Following up on Waters's book, I then read her absolutely amazing novel Fingersmith (2002). It draws on all of Waters's trademarks: Victorian culture, lesbianism, and mysteries. It is unlike anything you will have ever read before, and you will not be able to put it down. One of my other favorite fiction reads this year was Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905) [about which I posted a review], which still occasionally haunts me some mornings, financially speaking, if I stop to buy a $4 cappuccino at Dean & Deluca. Other notable fiction reads this year included Roderick Hudson by Henry James (1875), A Mercy by Toni Morrison (2008) [which was on the NYT's 2008 list], the mystery One Across, Two Down by Ruth Rendell (1971), and The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan (2001). The following were among the more interesting of the art historical books I read this year: 19th-Century Sculpture by H.W. Janson (1985), The Aesthetic Movement by Lionel Lambourne (1996), and Antoine's Alphabet by Jed Perl (2008), about which I may be writing a review soon. If you're wondering about the book cover you see here, it's for Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814), which I'm reading right now, along with the exhibition catalogue for Watteau, Music, and Theater (2009) and The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham (1992), but those will have to go on next year's list.

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