2009 Reading Roundup.

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)

This is the master at his worst (of those I have read) and it is still one of the best novels I read in 2009. Easily.

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!

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12 Responses to 2009 Reading Roundup.

  1. Oh! I have number9dream on my 2009 list as well. I’m also looking forward to reading Boyhood after I finished Summertime last year.

    Looks like you had a pretty good reading year. Congratulations, and long may it continue!

    • Kerry says:

      I have Summertime waiting on the shelf (and Youth too, but it’ll have to wait).

      I am very pleased that Number9Dream made it on your list too. I thought it was an excellent work.

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Hi Kerry, Yes, I’m ‘still here’ – I’ve subscribed to your blog using RSS and never miss your posts even if I only preview them in my email instead of visiting the blog. I know, I know, I should comment more often, it’s the lifeblood of blogging, and I love it when people comment on mine, even if they only write a line or two.
    I like your list. I haven’t read all of them, but number9dream was a favourite, and I loved Camus when I was at university. Maybe I should read them again to see if they have the same impact now?
    Maybe not. I have been planning my reading for 2010 and like you I’m trying to ‘discover for myself great works already well-known by most’. I’m going to have a ‘year of European reading’ (see http://www.librarything.com/topic/80302#1677870) and I don’t think I can fit in re-reads as well.
    Ah, so many books, so little time, and what a joy it is that there are always more books than I can ever hope to read in a lifetime!
    Lisa (ANZ LitLovers)

  3. Kerry says:

    Lisa,

    There is no “should” in blogging. Your reading and blogging take priority over commenting unless you feel moved to do so. The fact of eyes is more than I can expect, though I do enjoy comments. I read all your posts as well, though do not comment very often there, either.

    I have not linked to your 2009 roundup, but it’s great. I have only read Beloved from your list. It is great. The others, however, definitely give me TBR material. It almost goes without saying that War and Peace is eyeing me scornfully; Anna Karenina is in the growing list of “my favorite novel of all-time”. Otherwise, Patrick White and Kasuo Ishiguro seem essential. They are slated to be read in 2010 and are good candidates for my “best of”. Still, I intend to read mostly “guaranteed” winners all year.

    Anyway, I love the idea of a “year of European reading” and have immensely enjoyed your Ulysses posts. They will serve as an excellent reference when I muster the nerve.

    Thanks for stopping in! I hope 2010 is your best year for reading, for anything really, ever!

  4. Sarah says:

    Enjoyed your list, Kerry, and have come away furnished with several ideas… I have only read two Camus so far, and have one in the TBR, but The Fall sounds like something which I would enjoy. I am also hoping that 2010 will by my year to finally read a Virginia Woolf. The one I have is The Lighthouse, so am heartened by your remarks.

    With best wishes for 2010, in terms of reading, blogging, and the rest!

  5. A very interesting list, Kerry — I find it intriguing how many of the titles are acknowledged as “not the best” for the author, yet still make the list. Perhaps a good indication that excellent authors are still very good even when not at their very best. Like you, I try to make sure that some rereads and overlooked classics are on my reading agenda and it is usually this time of year when there are so few new releases when I get to them. I just finished Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and intend to move on to Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz next — the knowledge gained by experience often provides a very different take even on a well-known book.

    And I’ll make your blog my home for the Tournament of Books. I have not followed it closely before but the last couple of years it has been a good mix of books that I knew (and generally liked) and books that had appeal — Frankie Landau-Banks would have been my “left-field” choice of 2009.

  6. anokatony says:

    Interesting list. I’ve read all the authors on your list except John Dos Passos, but probably haven’t given Virginia Woolf or Albert Camus their due. I hope to remedy that in 2010. “The Fall” looks like a good place to start.

  7. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    I am happy you’ll be reading The Fall and To the Lighthouse as that gives me some interesting posts to anticipate. Both are in that select group of “all-time favorite novels” that would come with me to that dessert island. Yes, “dessert”, not “desert”. I mean, it is much more fun being on a dessert island, especially with great books.

    Kevin,
    I guess I had not stopped to count up the five of my ten favorites from 2009 that are not the author’s best. Of course, with Mitchell I am operating on hearsay regarding Cloud Atlas, but that seems a fairly sturdy limb. I think Love and Summer probably fits that mold, though it was undoubtedly Trevor’s best of 2009.

    I do like reading great books, re-reading a handful of well-loved books from the past, and then adding in new stuff. I used never to re-read, but maybe that way because I was too young to appreciate how much I change between readings, even if the book doesn’t.

    Tony,
    As with Sarah, I am looking forward to what you think of The Fall if that is your Camus for the year. I would predict that it is more suited to your tastes than The Stranger.

    Thanks all for stopping in. Happy New Year!

  8. Sasha says:

    Number9Dream is staring at me from my bookshelf. I admit to being afraid to touch it. However, I have decided to read me some Woolf (for the first time), and maybe read Summertime by Coetzee (after not liking two of his books, haha).

    Great reads this past year–I’ll be tuning in. Happy New Year! :]

  9. Kerry says:

    I really do not think there is much to fear in Number9Dream. The story moves, even if it takes a little while to get your bearings, and is engaging. As for Woolf, particularly because you read a number of short stories, I would start with at least a short story or two to get warmed up. (“Kew Gardens” and “The Mark on the Wall” are both great.) To the Lighthouse is a great place to start as far as her novels go. It is short, lyrical, and beautiful. The plot is almost non-existent, but expect that and you shouldn’t be too frustrated.

    I am gearing up to read Summertime also, but I have loved everything of his I’ve read. I look forward to comparing notes.

    Thanks for dropping in. Happy New Year to you too!

  10. […] the record, my other suggestions to Kevin were Embers by Sandor Marai (Number 9 on my Best Reads of 2009 List) and The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (which I read prior to 2009 and, for that reason, did not […]

  11. […] published in Hungary in 1924 (preceding the Hungarian masterpiece Embers by a couple decades), Skylark is a very quiet novel focused on the painfully real Vajkay family. […]

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