Early in 2009, I decided to try to catch up on a number of classics that I had missed and to re-read some novels I had really enjoyed in the past. In other words, this year was more about discovering for myself great works already well-known by most rather than uncovering little known gems. As a result, if you are looking something great and obscure, and you haven’t already followed my links as they came up, click here and browse for others’ 2009 summations (or head over to Max’s for “Six of the Best” .
If you are still here, you must be curious about my opinions with respect to well-known and highly-regarded works. My favorite ten novels (okay, one memoir and one short story with novella) from those I read in 2009 are listed below. Order matters.
10. Number9Dream – David Mitchell
“What Mitchell does extremely well is to weave together multiple genres, really, into a single coherent narrative. Eiji’s fantasies are usually action-packed sci-fi tales, his mother writes grounded, emotional letters, the short stories are fables which anthropomorphize animals, the journal is historical fiction, and the narrative reality swings from romance to gangster noir. The mastery is not simply to include bits of so many genres, but to use this distinct voices in the service of a deeper meaning. Each element pushes forward Mitchell’s exploration of meaning and individuals’ need to create narrative to explain the world.”
Having placed this highly with his second novel, you can imagine the anticipation with which I am looking forward to his masterpiece: Cloud Atlas.
9. Embers – Sandor Marai
“The main characters’ erratic knowledge is doled out masterfully, revealing a somewhat bizarre meeting of long-estranged friends. The General, a man used to wielding power, even over his friends and lovers, tells Konrad (the estranged friend):
Every exercise of power incorporates a faint, almost imperceptible, element of contempt for those over whom the power is exercised.
“While the friendship is central to the book, the themes run deeper. As does any great work, Embers speaks on multiple levels simultaneously. With considerable skill, Marai explores friendship, aging, Hungarian society, and the human condition.”
Embers is the book most likely to be unfamiliar to those of you reading this list and, thus, most qualifies as a discovered gem. In addition to my own review, this excellent (and short) blog post also extols the novel’s merits.
8. Boyhood – J.M. Coetzee
“There is much more, and exquisitely written. Coetzee’s dissection of his childhood manages simultaneously to be coldly clinical and warmly touching. We see both the boy and the beast. The reader is shown every facet of the boy who grew into the author Coetzee.
“I picked this book up so that I could read Coetzee’s biographical trilogy (Boyhood, Youth, and Summertime) in order. I already admired Coetzee as a writer, but my experience with Boyhood pushes him up my literary rankings. I was already eager to get my hands on Summertime, now I am feverish with booklust. But Youth first.”
7. The Stranger – Albert Camus
This was a re-read, part of my existentialists/absurdists project in 2009. I really enjoyed these books the first time around, but reading The Stranger, The Fall, and The Immoralist in quick succession was quite enjoyable. I have not read Camus’ The Plague, a huge omission, and did not re-read The Myth of Sisyphus as part of this mini-project, so I have a second stage for this year, I suppose. A re-read of The Trial could fit in as part of that project.
6. The U.S.A. Trilogy (only 1919 and The Big Money in 2009, but…) – John Dos Passos
“Few literary works manage to be as distinctively original as U.S.A.. I would suggest that this alone warrants picking up the first volume of the trilogy, The 42nd Parallel, and giving it a try. If you need more encouragement, you should know that it has received copious praise from authors as diversely talented as Jean-Paul Sartre, Norman Mailer, and E.L. Doctorow, to name but a few. Further, the trilogy utilized innovative techniques, had an original structure, was ambitious in scope, and brought depth to its subject. Add that it is an entertaining read with well-written prose. What I am saying, is that U.S.A. made it into the canon for a reason.”
5. The Shawl – Cynthia Ozick
“Cynthia Ozick…[was] a new author for me. Thanks to the push of Kevin at KevinFromCanada and John Self at The Asylum, I picked up Ozick’s THE SHAWL. Consisting of a story and a novella, THE SHAWL takes on large subjects. Three characters are central to both the story and the novella: A mother, Rosa, her niece, Stella, and her daughter, Magda. The shawl of the title figures prominently in both the story and the novella.
“In the story, “The Shawl”, Rosa is in her early twenties, Stella is fourteen, and Magda is a baby. They are in a concentration camp. The story is only eight pages long, but dense with emotion….
“In the novella, “Rosa”, Rosa is an old woman living alone in Florida in a broken down “hotel” (the quotes are hers). Her social life consists primarily of writing letters to Stella (in English) and to Magda (in Polish). Her connections to the broader world are tenuous at best.”
This short story and connected novella combine as one of the most emotionally compelling books I read all year.
4. Pnin – Vladimir Nabokov (review forthcoming)
I am looking forward to tackling several of his lesser known and read works in 2010, including Bend Sinister which I actually intended to read in 2009. I will pick up a couple more of his works as his is an oeuvre I want to complete. That is not the case with many greats, but Nabokov is a special case. I view him as a once a generation (or three) genius. He is one of the very, very few whose works have taken their place alongside Shakespeare. So few are unquestionably the best of their time, but Nabokov is one of those.
3. Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
“The novel explores several themes. On one level, the novel is a close examination of one tragic hero. On another level, Okonkwo represents tribal Africa and its collision with European colonialism. The first half to two-thirds of the novel relates Okonkwo’s rise, fall, and redemption within his village of Umuofia. In the second half, modernity looms. Because Okonkwo’s personal identity is so closely linked to his status in the tribe, it is easy to interpret Okonkwo’s personal story as an allegory for the clash of cultures as it played out in Africa….
“Things Fall Apart is a brilliant and accessible work.”
2. The Waves – Virginia Woolf
“Woolf writes a sentence as well as anyone and THE WAVES is full of well-crafted sentences. What you will not find is an intricate or traditional plot. The psychology of the characters takes center stage. Know that is what the book is about and you will not be disappointed. THE WAVES is not my favorite of her books. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE is more accessible and, I think, more enjoyable. THE WAVES, however, has a depth seductive.”
1. The Fall – Albert Camus
“Camus writes with an intellectual depth seldom seen. In “The Fall”, Camus examines modern man and his absurd position in the world. Camus’ examination draws on Christian allegory and themes. Obviously, the title references the biblical story of Adam and Eve and I think Clamence, if not Camus, accepts some of the underlying psychology of that story. Clamence is convinced, and does his best to convince his listener, that we are all fallen, all guilty. He achieves this through one of the most thorough psychological examinations of a character in modern literature….
“Camus won the Nobel Prize shortly after the publication of this novel. While the award technically was for another piece, this novel is his finest literary achievement.”
This was a re-read of one of my favorite books of all-time.
The above order is not set in stone, but, at this moment, that is how I rate them comparatively. Of course, what I would recommend depends entirely on your preferences, so, this being a young blog, my 2009 year-end list is intended to give you an idea of my preferences. Also, if you haven’t read them, each comes with my highest recommendation.
As for books published in 2009, they are notably absent from the above list. In fact, my much more tentative full rankings contained only one of those in the top half of my 2009 reads: Love and Summer by William Trevor.
I will leave comparisons of the rest of the published-in-2009 novels for later. I am planning to post a fair amount in connection with the 2010 Tournament of Books, so I will keep whatever powder I have dry. Plus, I have plans to get to a number of additional 2009 books in the next few months.
2009 was a very enjoyable year of fiction for me. I look forward to an equally thrilling 2010. Happy New Year!