Best Books of 2009By Greg Olear
December 14, 2009
Move over, Pulitzer. Step aside, Man Booker. National Book Award? Pfft.
We asked our esteemed TNB editorial staff to nominate their selections for best books of 2009. The only rules were: the book had to be published this year, and books by TNB contributors were not eligible. The result is the first annual TNB Best Books of the Year award—The Nobby, for short.
Here are the Nobby winners, presented in alphabetical order by author:
Great Balls of Flowers, Steve Abee
Steve Abee has been cranking out savage sensitive poetry in Los Angeles for three decades now. Confessional, post-Beat and distinctly 21st Century, Abee’s poetry deals straight with both sides of fatherhood, drug addiction, the acknowledgment of the minutiae of human dysfunction, and solitary prayers and rants emanating from a self-doubting yet powerful heart illuminating the injustices of the everyday shit that we all wade through, as well as the inherent beauty in this concrete palm-treed world. Beck calls Abee, “the love-powered bullhorn blasting down from the altitudes.”
(Write Bloody Publishing)
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon
A thrilling puzzle of an identity theft novel by one of our very best writers. Chaon knows when to stop writing and tell a story. This novel has great depth, yet it’s not the sort of depth that weighs the story down, but the sort of depth that harries the reader to plumb deeper and deeper. In short, un-put-downable. And it’ll haunt you, too.
Columbine, Dave Cullen
Memorable and riveting. Cullen’s book hits you with unexpected revelations. A shocking retelling of one of the most dreadful narratives of our times, and an amazing demonstration of the ways in which human beings will lie to themselves in an effort to cope with complex darkness.
The Adderall Diaries, Stephen Elliott
One of the most raw, honest, beautiful books I’ve read in recent years, Elliott’s meditation on forgiveness, love, violence and memory has the structural complexity of an innovative literary novel, the emotional truth of a memoir, and the gripping plot of true-crime TV. However unpleasant some of the material, this book is almost eerily pleasurable to read—you don’t want it to end, and when it does you are hard pressed not to challenge the way you look at your own past, grudges and demons. This is Elliott not only at his peak, but challenging reductive notions of “memoir” in the relevant tradition of In Cold Blood or Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Not to be missed!
The Iron Will Of Shoeshine Cats, Hesh Kestin
Best mob novel ever. Wise guy Russy Newhouse comes of age against a masterfully drawn background of America in the throes of its own growing pains, circa-early-60s New York. This novel is whip-smart, thrilling, suspenseful, and gorgeously written—with sharp, quick, hard-nosed sentences, a ton of atmosphere, and a male gaze that could wither granite.
Secret Son, Laila Lalami
The descriptions of contemporary Morocco are so stunning that a reader might fall in love even if there were no real story here at all. But the story Lalami tells is indeed an essential one. Youssef, a nineteen-year-old English student in Casablanca, learns that the father he believed to be dead is alive, successful, and willing to support him, but in rewriting his future and surrendering his past, things get complicated, making him easy prey for a fringe Islamic group called The Party.
The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell
Love it or hate it, The Kindly Ones is stunning in the breadth of its scope. The arcana Littell has absorbed is staggering: homosexual hangouts in pre-war Berlin, the linguistic history of the Caucasus Mountains, French classical music, the manufacture of lace, the topography and zoology of Eastern Europe, the politics of the various branches of Third Reich government, and the events and personalities of the war itself. He is supposed to have spent eighteen months immersed in all things Nazi to research his book—can you imagine a less fun way to spend a year and a half?—and I am left marveling that it didn’t take eighteen years.
How to Hold a Woman, Billy Lombardo
This novel-in-stories explores the multi-faceted life of a family following the loss of the eldest daughter to a violent crime, yet somehow in Lombardo’s deft, poetic hands, what emerges is anything but dark or hopeless. Revealing the complex layers beneath brotherhood and marital eroticism in deceptively simple prose, this meditation on what it means to be both an individual and part of a family unit is spell-binding in its quirky wit, bold emotion and ability to reveal truths about the experiences of men, women and children with equal wisdom and nonjudgmental clarity.
(Other Voices Books)
The Last War, Ana Menendez
The narrator, a photojournalist, and her husband, a respected reporter, are self-described war junkies who have covered Kashmir, Kargil, India, and Afghanistan, riding the rush of war reporting. But with her husband on assignment in Baghdad while she cools her heels in Istanbul, she comes to believe, in a somewhat clairvoyant way, something essential has given way in their marriage, and sure enough, a letter arrives at her flat describing her husband’s infidelities in Iraq. Provocative and lyrical, Menendez takes on love and war with a fresh and haunting intensity that readers and writers will admire.
Some Things That Meant the World to Me, Joshua Mohr
Almost the experimental brother of The Adderall Diaries, yet wholly its own, original entity, this trippy, hypnotic and volatile little novel packs immense punch into a slim volume. Mohr’s debut shows more than promise for a rich, risk-taking future, and, with irreverent wit and a jolting attention to detail, gives a whole new spin to novels about the aftermath of “trauma.” Amid a landscape of psychological surrealism, the protagonist, Rhonda, is unforgettably vulnerable and emotionally real.
(Two Dollar Radio)
Adland, James P. Othmer
James P. Othmer is one of the funniest writers at work today. Period. His keen eye for the absurdities of the modern world rivals the likes of George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte. You could sharpen knives on Othmer’s sentences. Prior to his 2006 debut novel, The Futurist, Othmer was honing his mad skills in the advertising racket, as an exec at Young & Rubicam. And though I daresay it was a colossal waste of his talents, I, for one, am glad he endured it, or we wouldn’t have Adland, a hilarious and insightful chronicle of the rise and fall of a modern ad man.
White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
As I read her, words spin in my head and expand into ideas, blue-shifting into my own ideas, from which I distill my own words. My usual bookmark for an Oyeyemi book is a sheet of paper with a poem or set of apothegms for which she provided instant inspiration. The sort of writing that reveals true terrors without deafening you with artless shrieking.
(Nan A. Talese)
Hell, Yasutaka Tsutsui
In this surrealist novel, we arrive in Hell with the confused and dazed Takeshi, a man involved only moments ago in a horrific traffic accident. In Tsutsui’s capable hands, Hell is a place where three days is the equivalent of ten years on earth, people are able to see events in both the future and the past, and often don’t know where the hell they are. Tsutsui, one of the most famous science fiction writers in Japan, is new voice for many American readers and showcases his love of literary fiction and dark humor in this vibrant and complex story.
The Financial Lives of the Poets, Jess Walter
Funny, lyrical, inspiring, it reads
Like the best literary fiction should.
The plot is sort of like “Weeds,”
These are, of course, just a bunch of the many excellent books published this year. Please feel free to submit your own choices in the “comments” section.
Great list. I add Thomas Glave’s The Torturer’s Wife for everyone’s consideration—City Lights did it, and it is sliding just under everyone’s radar.
I had so wanted Her Fearful Symmetry to be good enough for a list like this, and I was so sad it wasn’t. I would add Caprice Crane’s A Family Affair (funny and warm, with killer charm, just like Crane) and, surprisingly, Dave Eggers’ Wild Things (I say surprisingly because I wasn’t expecting to like it, and only bought it because, hey, Where the Wild Things Are! I can be a sucker like that).
I have to look up Othmer. Sounds like my kinda read, and Young and Rubicam ftw!
Did you work at Y&R, too?
I did. I was a commercial production assistant in 2000-2001. Left shortly after September 11th. Great experience there.
Graywolf press. I am boycotting them since they displayed exceedingly bad judgment in failing to take me on as an editorial intern about 5 years ago.
I regret to say that I have not read a single one of these books. Probably because only one of them is a poetry collection.
It’s okay though. I still have a lot of stuff to catch up on from last year. And a couple thousand years before that. :/
There’s quite a bit of poetry in FLOP, as the title suggests. Not often that novelists tip the cap to the poets, but there it is.
Perhaps the Graywolf was intimidated by the Tiger?
Probably unimpressed by my lack of any college degree whatsoever.
But WTF. I was just as brilliant then as I am now. I think it betrays a terrible lack of vision on their part. Crusty, conventional thinking all around.
Should have gotten me when they could.
and its a hell of a poetry collection
steve abee is pure fantastic. his book is at writebloody.com
So glad to see Columbine on this list. I thought it was an incredibly well-written, powerful book and have been surprised that it hasn’t been lauded more in the multitude of end-of-year lists.
Await Your Reply is my next book to read and I’m very much looking forward to it after having read the severed hand scene.
Thanks for the Nobby, Greg. And thanks for reminding me that the last 20 years of my life were a colossal waste! The Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats, and Walter are in the on deck circle, and now plan on adding Hell and more. Cheers.
It’s not as attractive on the mantle as a Clio, but on behalf of Team TNB, you’re welcome.
I, too, worked for Y&R, for six months right out of school. Here is what I remember:
1. The people in that place were gorgeous. I mean, whoa. There was one woman there who had to have been in her late seventies, and even she was hot.
2. Our department had a French intern. Like on “Better Off Dead.” I didn’t hit on her because I thought it would be inappropriate. She seemed sad about that when I left. C’est domage.
2. They had this event where Creative displayed all the print ads that benighted clients had passed on during the year. The event was called “Bring Out Your Dead.” Free Dr. Pepper was served.
One day at Y&R I met in back to back meetings with the highest ranking general in the US Army and Carrot Top. They were equally frightening. And free Dr. Pepper was served at both. That beautiful 70 year old woman was likely an ad bot, and not at all human.
I’m just relieved that Carrot Top and the highest ranking general in the US Army are not one and the same…
Ha! When did you guys work there? I’ve a feeling I was smack in the middle of both your tenures.
Greg, you’re so not kidding about how attractive everyone was. The commercial producers I worked for were unbelievably gorgeous.
Started in 1998 and left in 2005, lured by the big money and glamorous lifestyle of the contemporary fiction writer.
I was there for six months in 1995 — the assistant to the manager of the creative library. I was there, at work, when the OJ verdict was announced. I left for the even bigger money and even more glamorous lifestyle of the SAT practice test writer.
The Nobby! That’s funny. I would include Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord (2009, Harper).
Quite an eclectic group. FLOP is next on my reading list.
FLOP = awesome.
Greg, how nice to win a Nobby. (For Columbine.) Thanks. You gave me a great big smile.
(The downside, for you, is that you’re about to get a couple cut/paste comments from my little (what’s the opposite of entourage?) that google-alerts me with alternate agendas. Have fun with those. haha.)
On behalf of Team TNB, you’re most welcome.
And on this site, we welcome comments, so bring ’em on, Google alert folks.
Hmmmm. A few titles are missing, I dimly think. I wonder whatever they could be.
TNB people are ineligible for this list. How can we hope to have any street cred if we put our own books up? Otherwise, Banned For Life by our own D.R. Haney would have made the list. It’s not every year I go and compare someone to Melville, you know.
Really? That’s good to know. And, having glanced at the opening protocol, I was just being a smartass anyway.
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