We asked Shelf Awareness people for their 10 (or so)
favorite books of the past year. Most of these titles were published in
2009, but not all, since we wanted to know what gave them reading
pleasure no matter the pub date.
Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga (Free Press). By the author of the Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger, this superb collection of stories unfolds like a tour guide to a small town on the southwest coast of India, each separate, spellbinding story sharing the same geography, taking place between the assassination of Indira Gandhi (1984) and that of her son, Rajiv Gandhi (1991)--a torrent of exhilarating, endlessly surprising, morally complicated narrative.
Tokyo Fiancée by Amelie Nothomb (Europa Editions). Young Belgian superstar Amelie Nothomb's fast-paced, light-hearted, frequently hilarious account of returning at age 21 to the Japan of her early childhood, where she teaches French in order to learn Japanese. She's promptly hired by a polite, good-looking, wealthy young student who falls in love with her. A delightful, touching cultural collision.
That Mad Ache by Francoise Sagan, translated by Douglas Hofstadter (Basic Books). One side of the book is a fresh, airy translation of Francoise Sagan's perceptive, ironic 1965 French novel about love in the upper classes, then flip it over and you'll find another book on the other side: a warm, funny, brilliantly written 100-page essay on the controversial art of translation by the translator himself--Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning genius who created Godel, Escher, Bach.
Translation Is a Love Affair by Jacques Poulin (Archipelago Books). Take an abandoned little black cat with a note begging for help hidden behind its collar. Add a stuffy old author with a fondness for cemeteries writing what could be his last novel. Include a lovely free spirit who likes bikinis and is determined to translate the author's masterpiece into French. They add up to an honest, charming story about the everyday mysteries all around us in a novel full of grace and light and pure reading joy.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's Books). Written with photorealism intensity, derived from hundreds of hours of taped interviews, this is nonfiction that reads like a thrilling novel, the infuriating account of hard-working, idealistic, utterly likable Zeitoun, a Muslim from Syria who's started a prosperous painting company in New Orleans, when Hurricane Katrina separates him from his wife and four kids. Zeitoun and three other survivors, rescuing their neighbors, are accused of being al Qaeda, stripped of their rights and thrown into a small cell in a makeshift FEMA prison. Nonfiction at its disturbing best.
My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy by Andrea Askowitz (Cleis Press). There's nothing Andrea Askowitz wants more than to become a mother, and her no-holds-barred account of that journey is the most upbeat, heartwarming memoir in years, bursting with laugh-out-loud humor, enriched by the author's deeply touching vulnerability, with a delightful cast of big-hearted women characters who accompany her on her mission toward motherhood.
Waltz with Bashir by Ari Folman and David Polonsky (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt). Adapted from the Academy Award-nominated film, this brilliant graphic memoir is a moody masterpiece of art styles and narrative sophistication, telling the true story of Ari Folman's attempt to regain the lost memories of his participation in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and of the day the Israeli troops began to realize they were participating in a genocide.
The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefevre and Frederic Lemercier (First Second/Roaring Brook Press). This oversize, gorgeous account of 29-year-old French photographer Didier Lefevre's three-month journey on foot with a caravan of Doctors Without Borders into northern Afghanistan, traveling illegally by night to avoid the invading Soviet army, combines boldly colorful graphic panels with Lefevre's actual black-and-white photos, some still in long proof strips, to create a compelling, one-of-a-kind reading experience.
Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, art by Alecos Papadatos and Annie DiDonna (Bloomsbury). With Proustian ambition and exhilarating artwork, this titanic achievement of more than 300 pages is a visual banquet chronicling Sir Bertrand Russell's lifelong pursuit of the Royal Road to Truth, of "certainty in total rationality." It's a tale within a tale, with the two authors and the two graphic artists ardently pursuing their own search for truth and appearing as characters in their own book, as their quest revolves around a lecture given by Russell at an American university in 1939, as the U.S. teeters on the edge of war.
Makers by Cory Doctorow (Tor). Doctorow's vision of the near future is so scarily real that I literally had to walk away from this book and take a deep breath. When I plunged back in, I was exhilarated, intrigued and inspired. Basically two geeks reinvent the world--out of trash. Is this science fiction or a new business model?
Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad (Ecco). Ollestad recounts the plane crash that cost three lives, including his father's, in 1979. Ollestad, just 11 years old, had to make his way alone down an icy mountain. He cuts back and forth to his California childhood, when his dad taught him to surf and ski and persist--skills that saved his life.
Godfather of Kathmandu by John Burdett (Knopf, January 12, 2010). While this may not be the strongest of his thrillers, I'm taking this opportunity to recommend Burdett's entire Bangkok series (starting with Bangkok 8). This one finds Thai police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep investigating the gruesome murder of a Hollywood director--but that's just the very beginning. Sonchai, a struggling Buddhist with a wicked sense of humor, narrates this journey through a seedy yet spiritual land.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (Knopf). Moore's first novel in 15 years was worth the wait. Tassie Keltjin, a naïve Midwestern college student, is hired to be a nanny by an upscale couple hoping to adopt a baby. Tassie comes of age amid revelations about marriage, love, class, race and so much more, all in spare, beautiful, occasionally hilarious language.
Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood (Doubleday/Talese). Though Atwood doesn't describe her work as science fiction, this dystopic vision of the future fits squarely in that category. Set in the same damaged world as Oryx and Crake, Year of the Flood expands on the consequences of catastrophic climate change and global pandemic, focusing on a small group of survivors and their developing beliefs.
The Dark Horse by Craig Johnson (Viking). Johnson vividly sets his Walt Longmire mysteries in the rugged landscape of Wyoming, and his characters become more complex and interesting with each noirish, witty volume. This is the fifth, in which the memorable Sheriff Longmire goes undercover to ascertain a woman's innocence.
Magicians by Lev Grossman (Viking) has been described as "Harry Potter for adults," and that's not inaccurate or bad. Quentin Coldwater, a slacker Brooklyn high school kid devoted to a children's series set in the Narnia-like world of Fillory, is selected to enter exclusive Brakebills College, where he's taught magic. Grossman's characters grow up a lot more than Rowling's, and there are some wonderfully entertaining moments--loved the scene where Quentin and friends turn into geese and fly halfway across the world.
Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel by Jeannette Walls (Scribner). In prose so dry you can almost taste the dust, Lily Casey Smith, born in West Texas in 1901, narrates this "true-life novel" by her granddaughter. As resourceful, outspoken and fiercely independent Lily recounts her hardscrabble frontier life, Walls (The Glass Castle) evokes her character so thoroughly that I still can't get her out of my head.
The Believers by Zoe Heller (Harper). When patriarch Joel Litvinoff suffers a stroke, his seriously screwed-up, über-liberal Jewish family attempts to deal. You probably wouldn't want to spend time with any of these characters in real life, but you won't be able to resist turning the pages to see what happens next.
Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (Knopf). I probably shouldn't count these as one title, but I will, since I plowed through them pretty much in one swoop. Rather than overdosing, I'm now addicted. While his prose (or perhaps the translation) can be clunky, the late Stieg Larsson's quirky characters are unforgettable.
Jennifer M. Brown
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (Scholastic). How did Suzanne Collins up the ante and further the characterizations from The Hunger Games? We discover there's even more to Katniss, Peeta and their mentor, Haymitch, than we thought (and there was a lot to begin with) as they travel from district to district on their Victory Tour... and even more is asked of them.
Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose (Melanie Kroupa/FSG). Nine months before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala., on December 2, 1955, a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin took the same brave action. This stirring account affirms Colvin's rightful place in history and gives young people a reason to stand up for what's right, even if the laws are not.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly (Holt). This debut novel introduces a turn-of-the-20th-century heroine for modern times: an 11-year-old girl stuck in the middle of three older brothers and three younger brothers who would much rather be observing grasshoppers than cooking and sewing. Luckily, she finds a champion in her naturalist grandfather. He sides with Mr. Darwin's theories, but his discussions on the subject with the family's minister serve as a model for respectful debate.
If I Stay by Gayle Forman (Penguin). Mia, a gifted 17-year-old cellist, winds up in a coma after her parents and brother perish in a car accident. Are the things she loves on earth--Beethoven, her rock musician boyfriend, her grandparents--enough to hold her here? Each memory serves either to pull her back to her life or toward her family. After you read Mia's description of hearing Yo-Yo Ma in concert, just try to experience his music the same way again.
The Lion and the Mouse by Jerry Pinkney (Little, Brown). Jerry Pinkney's wordless spreads show us that a lion's footprint can be as vast to a mouse as the Serengeti plains are to a wildebeest. In full-bleed spreads, the lion sets free the mouse that disturbed its sleep, and a series of panel illustrations follows the mouse as she releases the great beast from a hunter's trap. Pinkney's watercolors have never been more masterful--or heartfelt.
The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick). Peter, a 10-year-old orphan in the city of Baltese, believes that his sister still lives, despite his guardian's insistence that she does not. A fortuneteller tells Peter that an elephant will lead him to her. And when an elephant crashes through the glass ceiling of the Bliffendorf Opera House, it changes everything--and everyone. Kate DiCamillo invents a new emotional landscape with every novel, and here she creates a fable in which the impossible can happen if we'll only ask, "What if?"
Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca (Richard Jackson/Atheneum). During this year that marked the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, Brian Floca's picture book somehow captures not only the scientific achievement of Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin on their historic mission, but also the poetry of the experience of being on the moon ("cold and quiet,/ no air, no life,/ but glowing in the sky"). I will long remember the full-bleed spread of Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon's surface, looking up at "the good and lonely Earth, glowing in the sky."
Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (Norton). As a child, David Small contracted throat cancer, caused by his radiologist father. As an adult, he courageously steers us down the rabbit hole and deep into a childhood filled with silence, secrets and fear, then shows us how art can help us survive, make sense of and heal from seemingly cavernous wounds. He blows open the graphic novel format with a memoir that redefines the genre.
Tales from Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan (Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic). A water buffalo in an empty lot wordlessly dispenses advice until, forgotten, he disappears. A leaf-like exchange student, who stays in his host family's cupboard, leaves as a parting gift a small garden planted in castoff caps and peanut shells. Scraps of many citizens' discarded poetry gather together in a "distant rain" over cement sidewalks and box-like houses. With these images, rendered in an array of oil paintings, pencil drawings and collage, Shaun Tan wakes us up to a suburban landscape filled with possibilities.
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead (Wendy Lamb/Random House). Sixth-grader Miranda doesn't completely understand how time travel works, though she loves her weathered copy of A Wrinkle in Time. Nor why her friend Sal, who's lived in the same Manhattan apartment building since they were in strollers, no longer speaks to her--though she's making some new friends. But messages seemingly from the future tell her that Sal's in danger. All she knows for certain is that everything is changing. Rebecca Stead perfectly captures that moment in a child's life when the boundaries get bigger and she must find her way on an unknown path.