Best books I read in 2009

What a great year for reading I’ve had! These are the twelve best books I read in 2009. If I blogged about the book then I’ve noted the date, so please check the archive for a fuller discussion of the book.

1. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
11 May 2009
A collection of short stories about a retired math teacher living in a small town in Maine. Doesn’t sound like much, but really, it is. Writers would do well to study these stories to learn structure, pacing and character. But everyone will appreciate the unflinching understanding of small town life and those who live there.

2. Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
16 March 2009
Set in a company caught in an economic downturn and starting to lay off employees, this story captures the nuances of the life most of us spend our weeks living. The main character is the collective “we” of the cadre of workers, which shouldn’t work, but does. Funny, accurate, and unexpectedly moving.

3. Stoner, by John Williams
16 November 2009
Another surprise: a quiet and unassuming story which mesmerised me with its honest depiction of a man’s life, an ordinary man, a man of his time and place. Growing up at the end of the 19th century on a poor clay farm in Missouri, Stoner life is changed when he is sent to the university as an agriculture student where he discovers the peculiar intoxication of literature. Stoner’s life may be easily summarised, but the joy of this book is in the detail. Although a stolid and quiet man, Stoner’s thoughts and feelings run very deep indeed.

4. The Painter of Battles, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte
5 October 2009
The story of an award-winning war photographer who has retired and taken up residence in an old tower on the coast of Spain where he is painting a mural depicting battles ancient and modern. Pérez-Reverte himself was a war photographer, so he speaks from a position of authority about what it’s like to be one, the degree of immersion he feels, and the degree of responsibility he has towards his subjects.

5. Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
21 September 2009
At sixty-seven, Trond Sander has moved to a small cabin in the woods to create a new life, a simple life, a life alone. Since the death of his wife in a terrible car accident three years previously, Trond has felt increasingly unable to go on with his prosperous life in Oslo. Interwoven with his quiet days are memories of a summer in his childhood at a similar cabin with his father, who was newly returned from the war. The way this book is structured is so delicate and yet completely sound, and the writing is just amazing: clear and simple sentences that resound with emotion.

6. Old Filth, by Jane Gardam
7 September 2009
Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge, is called Filth by his colleagues (an acronym for “failed in London; try Hong Kong”) in tribute to his successful career as an advocate in the Far East. Since the death of his wife, he has the chilliest of connections to the people around him, but events conspire to make him reflect upon his life and reconnect with people from his past.

7. Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman
11 February 08
Cassandra returns to Baltimore to research her next book and gets caught up in untangling her own past. I believe that what Lippman does here represents the best of what fiction is capable of. Yes, fiction can be entertaining and escapist, but where it really shines is when it opens our minds and our hearts and enables us to see the world from within someone else’s skin. This is what I look for in fiction, and what the books mentioned in today's blog have achieved so admirably.

8. The Friends of Meager Fortune, by David Adams Richards
4 May 2009
This is the story of a logging family and the rough men who work for them in the harsh, 30-below woods. It is also the story of the townspeople whose opinions shift with the wind of rumors born of boredom, envy, greed, or pride. Richards’ incantatory narration reminds us that this story happened a long time ago (just before and after the Great War) and far away (New Brunswick in the Maritimes), making it over into a legend, something that has been handed down in the oral tradition.

9. Maps and Legends, by Michael Chabon
2 February 2009
Readers of Chabon will be familiar with the subjects of some of these inventive essays, such as his passionate defense of genre literature and comics/graphic novels, his appreciation of Sherlock Holmes, the metaphor of the Golem of Prague. Where he takes these subjects, though, may astonish you.

10. In the Woods, by Tana French
14 September 2009
This award-winning mystery revolves around two cases twenty years apart in the same small suburb of Knocknaree in Ireland. It boasts an interesting story, a variety of characters, and enough suspense to keep me reading late into the night. What I loved most about this book, though, was the incredible writing.

11. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
This is the story of a French concierge who hides her reading of literature and philosophy from the wealthy residents of her apartment building and the young girl who discovers her secret. At 12, Paloma feels as out-of-step with the bourgeois existence her parents and the other residents lead as Renée, the widowed concierge does. A funny and touching tale of masks and secret lives.

12. The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins
27 July 2009
In this book, the first and some say the still the best detective story, Collins starts with a scene worthy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, an account of the storming of Indian town of Seringapatam by the English army, full of riot and confusion, death and plunder. The marauding army is obsessed by the tales of the Moonstone, a fabulous jewel that carries a curse on whoever steals it, said to be somewhere within the town. Collins creates a tangle out of a country house weekend, a returning prodigal son, family tensions, and the long wake of repercussions from a single act of treachery and heartlessness. And it’s a love story too. Amazing.

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