Read This: Ten (or so) Favorites of 2009


These aren’t the best books of 2009; I’m not widely read enough to make that particular assessment. But when I was thinking of my favorite books from the last year, they’re the ones that sprang to mind first. It’s mostly non-fiction because that’s what I read professionally for Publishers Weekly all year, but every now and then I did manage to sneak in a novel for fun (or at least find a way to get a Beatrice or GalleyCat post out of it)…

  • Appetite City: This “culinary history of New York” by William Grimes, the former restaurant critic for the Times is sprinkled with fascinating facts about long-gone restaurants and culinary subcultures, all of it making a strong case for New York City offering its residents the most diverse food options of any major metropolis.

  • Blues and Chaos: Robert Palmer (the critic, not the guy who sang “Addicted to Love”) set out to create an overarching definition of American music, “a set of procedures that will allow us to evaluate Charles Ives and James Brown” as he put it back in 1979. It’s a daunting task, perhaps an impossible one, but his best essays and feature stories made it seem achievable.

  • How to Live: I had the pleasure of interviewing Henry Alford about his “search for wisdom from old people (while they are still on this earth)” late last year for PW, and that conversation really underscored for me the empathy that he brought to his own conversations. This is a warm, honest, and heartfelt story about one man making a sincere effort to learn from others.

  • In Hanuman’s Hands: Yeah, yeah, another memoir from an addict in recovery… except Cheeni Rao’s higher power is the Hindu monkey god Hanuman. The combination of personal drama, family mythology, and emotional/spiritual awakening made for one of the year’s most promising debut memoirs.

  • Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: I also loved Rhoda Janzen’s memoir about moving back in with her parents (and a religious community she’d largely left behind as an adult) after her husband finally dumped her so he could be with other men. She mines the situation for humor, but consistently turns it on herself without wallowing in self-pity or making others the butt of her jokes, and the personal discoveries that unfold have a powerful ring of authenticity.

  • Pops: Now, I should point out that Terry Teachout’s outstanding biography of Louis Armstrong is published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which is where I’ll be working in 2010, but I hadn’t even begun interviewing for the job when I read this book—which interested me both because I was appreciative of Teachout’s accomplishments as a writer for both print and online outlets and because I’d interviewed a previous Armstrong biographer. Teachout makes two strong cases here, both of them refuting pervasive strains of conventional wisdom: First of all, he reminds us that Armstrong’s mass appeal doesn’t signify any compromise of his artistic achievements; second, he reminds us that Armstrong’s popularity among white Americans doesn’t signify any compromise of his racial identity.

  • Save the Deli: Another HMH book (this one I reviewed just before I began interviewing with them), this is travelogue and food diary and cultural journalism all wrapped into one. David Sax cares passionately about deli food, so much so that he visited not just the outstanding delis of the United States, but ventured up to Canada and across the Atlantic to England and Poland while he was at it. You read this and you’re going to have a long list of dishes you’ll want to try sooner rather than later.

  • Soulless and Tempest Rising: Over at Orbit Books, Gail Carriger and Nicole Peeler are doing a bang-up job of queering the paranormal romance. Whether it’s a Victorian comedy of manners with werewolves squared off against vampires or a contemporary girl’s introduction to the weirdness that had always been just beyond her reach, these two debut novels are good signposts for a not-so-subtle shift in fantasy—Carriger and Peeler probably aren’t the only two writers rewiring the genre’s conventions, but they’re two worth watching.

  • Sunnyside: I just love this novel. It’s a novel of ideas that still delivers on narrative delight, and when I compared it to Mumbo Jumbo earlier this year, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the link between Glen David Gold and Ishamel Reed was tighter than I’d imagined.

  • The Unlikely Disciple and I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed: I always think of these two memoirs together because I met Kevin Roose and Kyria Abrahams together, which I totally arranged because I thought their stories of grappling with two intense American religious subcultures resonated quite neatly with each other. (Although, yeah, I suppose fundamentalist Christianity is maybe a bit larger than a “subculture,” if you want to get technical.) Roose talks about deliberately plunging himself into a religious community that runs counter to his own experiences, and Abrahams is talking about breaking free of her Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, but both memoirs have a lot to teach us about what it means to put your beliefs to the test.

Note: I’ve deliberately left out books that were featured in the various reading series I curating, because I didn’t want to exclude any of those authors, but hosting events at the Center for Fiction, or Lady Jane’s Salon, or the Slipper Room has been a fantastic experience which has opened me up to several wonderful novels, and I’m looking forward to continuing down that path in the months to come. As I say, the books I’ve mentioned above aren’t necessarily the best—but they’re right up there.

31 December 2009 | read this |