Thursday, December 31, 2009

Year-End Book Roundup

Back in May, I posted about my favorite books of the first 5 months of 2009. (You can find that list here: Sunday Book Recommendations, though I'll include a cheat sheet for those too lazy to click the link):

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver (serious novel)
Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (short stories)
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken (memoir)
The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman (light novel)

I still stand by those four books, but now that my reading year is just about over, I wanted to add a few more. They don't exactly fit into the same categories as the first four--it turns out that Jhumpa Lahiri's book of short stories was the only one I read this year. (That seems wrong, somehow, but so be it.) I'd also like to note that this is purposely not a Best Books list. (The fact of Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi turning up on so many year-end Best lists shows how subjective the whole thing is.) These were just the books I enjoyed the most, whatever their category.

Memoir: What I Thought I Knew, by Alice Eve Cohen. This actually is an interesting companion to Elizabeth McCracken's memoir. But while McCracken's is the story of a child lost, Cohen's is the story of a child found. At 44, after being told she's infertile and in menopause, Cohen discovers that she's 6 months pregnant. Her story of her ambivalence about her high-risk pregnancy--and the daughter it produced--is brief but deftly told and moving.

Epistolary Novel: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Okay, admittedly this is the only epistolary novel I've read in recent years. But still, I wasn't sure how to categorize it otherwise. This book was a bestseller and has been written about a gazillion times. For that reason, I avoided it. Until I didn't, and I ended up really enjoying it. Despite the twee title, the book itself isn't twee. In her first and only novel, Mary Ann Shaffer manages to write about a serious topic--the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands during World War II--with a very light touch. (Shaffer, sadly, got sick while she was writing the book and died before it was published. Her niece, Annie Barrows, a writer herself, finished it for her.) As letters fly back and forth between the main character, a journalist named Juliet, and her newfound friends on Guernsey, it's hard not to be taken in by their growing friendship. This year's lesson in, "occasionally good books do end up being bestsellers."

Mysteries: The Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries by Louise Penny

Louise Penny's mysteries were one of my great discoveries a few years back. Usually with mystery series, by the time I discover them, the series is well established, and I have to go way back and start at the beginning. I found Louise Penny's first novel, Still Life, on the new fiction shelf at the library, some time after it had first been published but before the next book was out. That's given me the opportunity to follow Louise Penny's burgeoning mystery writing career with great pleasure. It's not just that Penny seems to be a lovely person; she's also a good writer. In Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, she's created a detective of depth and charm, and in Three Pines, the rural Quebec village where most of the books are set, she's created a place I'd like to move to immediately except for the rather unsettling frequency of murders that happen there. Penny's characters are quirky and flawed and compelling, and the mysteries solid.

I haven't liked all five of them equally, but I very much enjoyed both that came out this year, A Rule Against Murder and The Brutal Telling, with the latter especially strong. I'm delighted that Louise Penny seems to have garnered both critical and commercial acclaim for her work, and I'm looking forward to more of the lovely Gamache and more of that idyllic but murder-ridden village, Three Pines.

Novel both light and serious: This is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper. Although I had read and enjoyed one of Tropper's earlier novels, it hadn't prepared me for how much pleasure I would get from Tropper's latest. This was a book that had me snorting inappropriately in various public places as I read it--the library, the waiting room at the garage--but had a serious undertone that serves as ballast for the levity. The novel's narrator, Judd Foxman, is recently separated from his wife--who, he learns in a particularly unfortunate way, has been sleeping with his boss for months--when he finds out that his ill father has died and that the father's last wish (despite being an atheist) was for his whole family to sit shiva for him for the full 7 days. The Foxman family is exquisitely dysfunctional, and their forced togetherness is a perfect set up for the novel. There are too many good parts to name; just read it.

Best Audio Book I haven't finished listening to yet: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley. Okay, so that's not really much of a category, but I wanted to make sure I wrote about this one, even though I'm only about halfway through it. Bradley is a 70 year old Canadian who'd never been to England until after he'd written this novel, yet his narrator is 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives at Buckshaw, a stately house in the British countryside. Flavia is precocious, in love with chemistry, a bane to her older sisters and determined to solve the mystery of how a dead man (with the villainly name of Horace Bonepenny) ends up in their cucumber patch. She's a wonderful narrator, and I loved his story (in an interview) about how he was actually writing a different book when "Flavia walked onto the page . . . and simply hijacked the story." Wisely, Bradley stopped writing the other book and gave Flavia her due. The narrator of the audio book, Jayne Entwhistle, has a quirky and interesting (though occasionally annoying) voice that seems just perfect for Flavia and all her eccentricities. This is the first of a series, and it's one I'm looking forward to.

So, that's my list for the year, a year that featured a rather significant amount of re-reading of beloved childhood books (which I think jacked up my overall number of books read, which still came in under 100, including audio books--a bit of a disappointment). But it will soon be a new year, and my reading slate will be clean again. I look forward to whatever literary discoveries 2010 has for all of us. Happy New Year!

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