50 books: 2009

Best Science Fiction / Fantasy
Nominees: To Say Nothing of the Dog, The Stress of Her Regard, Accelerando, Earth Abides, Perdido Street Station, The Dispossessed

Winner: The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin. Le Guin’s strength has always been to illustrate the odd quirks of human society by depicting them through the eyes of aliens. In lesser writers, this might come across as a condemnation; with Le Guin, it’s simple re-evaluation. How does the commodification of labor, food, comfort, shelter and everything else we take for granted in a capitalist society shape us? It may be the most efficient means of distribution yet discovered (as I believe), but it is if nothing else odd. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed makes that clear.

 

Best Mystery / Crime / Espionage
Nominees: The Tailor of Panama, The Surgeon, Persuader, No Second Chance, Shutter Island, Paranoia, One Shot, Gone for Good, The Hard Way

Winner: Shutter Island, Dennis Lehane. A tough one, really. All the Harlan Coben and Lee Child novels were roughly equivalent – good, diverting, fast-paced but ultimately just a little too contrived to merit a Best In Year title. But Lehane has a smooth, strong style like the pull of gravity. His tale of two federal agents investigating a disappearance in an insane asylum keeps the reader rattled, uncertain and hooked all the way through. Read it before the movie comes out.

 

Best Literature
Nominees: The Master and Margarita, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The House of Sand and Fog, Brave New World, No Country for Old Men, The Baroque Cycle

Winner: No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. Stephenson’s penchant for long-winded asides, though entertaining and informative, keeps his novels from being the focused vectors of craft that they ought to be. And Bulgakov’s whirlwind satire of Stalinism vaults confusingly – though whimsically – from point to point. It’s McCarthy’s highly regarded novel that earns the top slot. Though all of his best novels concern the absurdity of human plans in the face of mortality, No Country makes those plans easily accessible to a modern audience (how to steal two million dollars of the mob’s money). And he gives mortality a face and a name, in the person of Anton Chigurh.

 

Best Non-Fiction
Nominees: Fast Food Nation, Kitchen Confidential, A Brief History of Time, Your Religion is False, Gang Leader for a Day, Wanderer, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Empire.

kitchen-confidentialWinner: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain. I wanted to give it to one of the political depth charges I read this year – Bacevich’s The Limits of Power, Sharlet’s The Family, Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis. Ultimately, however, they all padded their word counts with exhaustive details that showed the depth of their research but sacrificed the grace of their story. Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, on the other hand, paints a vivid, unflattering and engrossing picture of the transactions going on in each restaurant kitchen in America. It’s a wild ride, and Bourdain deserves the fame this book has brought him.

 

Best Reread
Nominees: Declare, The Stars My Destination, Red Mars, The Ophiuchi Hotline, This Immortal

red-marsWinner: Red Mars, Kim Stanley Robinson. Perhaps I’m cheating somewhat here, as I never finished Red Mars as a teenager. But that gave Robinson the greatest burden to fight against. I knew what to expect from Powers, Bester, Varley and Zelazny going in, but I had low expectations for Robinson. “I couldn’t slog my way through this before,” I thought, “what hope do I have now?” Boy, was I off. A sweeping, detailed, realistic and ultimately very human look at how a disparate group of humans might terraform our neighbor planet.

 

Biggest Surprise
Nominees: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Surgeon, Xenos, The Confusion

brief-wondrous-life-oscar-waoWinner: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz. Picking up this critically acclaimed novel, I was expecting a dense bildungsroman set in the Dominican Republic, one of those Important Novels that everybody reads but nobody enjoys. Instead, Diaz treated me to a breezy trip through three generations of laborers, hustlers, players and geeks. He sprinkles his anecdotes with note-perfect references to sci-fi and early 80s RPGs as well – and trust me, I would have noticed if he got them wrong. Read it, love it.

 

Biggest Disappointment
Nominees: Button Button, Emergency, Jack and Jill, How the Mind Works.

neil-strauss-emergencyWinner: Emergency, Neil Strauss. Jack and Jill I should have known would let me down; more than enough critics have heaped their derision on James Patterson for me to be wise. And my inability to plow through How The Mind Works says as much of my short attention span as Pinker’s dense, myopic writing style. But Emergency was pitched to me as “how to be Jason Bourne […] a veritable encyclopedia for those who want to disappear” (thanks, Tim Ferriss!). Instead, I got a series of self-indulgent anecdotes by Neil Strauss on how he could have obtained the documentation and survival skills to go off the grid. But didn’t. It’s part of the growing genre of Do Something Weird Just For The Sake of Writing A Book About It (The Year of Living Biblically, Julie & Julia): the niche blog as bestseller. It’s interesting to read. But if you want actual useful information, go elsewhere.

 

Most Fun
Nominees: Boomsday, Anansi Boys, Kitchen Confidential, Paranoia, One Shot

lee-childWinner: One Shot, Lee Child. Really, any of the Lee Child books could have answered here. Jack Reacher, his sullen, hulking ex-MP hero, is like Sherlock Holmes meets Jack Bauer: competent enough to take anybody down with his hands or with a gun, but usually capable of outwitting them first. Perfect beach or airport reading.

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