Saturday, December 19, 2009

Best Books of 2009

This has been a good reading year for me. Freed from the constraints of working on my own book – although I spent a great deal of time marketing Towers of Gold – I got a chance to read a lot. I think I read 41 books in 2009 (and there are still two weeks to go) which is the most I have read since 2005.

Which is why it is always surprising that so few books seem to make my “best of” list. I enjoy many books while I am immersed in them, but very few keep me thinking after a few weeks. And most embarrassing, I often forget which books I have read. That’s why I started to keep a book diary in 1995, a practice I now extend to my blog.

Here are the most memorable books I read in 2009, Not all of them were pitch-perfect, but I was absorbed by these book and learned something.


West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State by Mark Arax.  Arax, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores the unknown and obscure corners of California in this loosely connected series of essays. This is a wonderful and absorbing book that offers a fresh take on this large, eclectic state.

A Bomb in Every Issue: How the Short, Unruly Life of Ramparts Magazine Changed America, by Peter Richardson. Richardson traces the Ramparts story from its beginnings as a Catholic magazine in Palo Alto through its heyday in San Francisco when the whole world was watching, to its untimely end. A great history of an important magazine with wonderful insights into the counterculture.

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession, by Allison Hoover Bartlett. Now Allison is a member of North 24th, my writing group, so I am a bit biased. But she tells the almost too-crazy-to-be-true story of John Gilkey, who makes himself feel like a member of the intellectual elite by stealing rare books.

We Used to Own the Bronx: Memoirs of a Former Debutante, by Eve Pell. How many women could claim to be part of the ruling class,  then work to free prisoners in California jails, and end up as an investigative reporter? Pell can, and her memoir is a rare glimpse into a blue blood world that is so proscribed and controlling you will shed tears for the people born into it.

George Being George, the life of George Plimpton, edited by Nelson Aldrich, Jr. – I loved this oral history of George Plimpton, who started the Paris Review. While the book explores Plimpton’s life, loves, and work, it is also a history of the literary world of much of the 20th century.


Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz – I picked up this thick tome at the Brown University bookstore, during the middle of a college tour with my daughter. From its opening pages I was riveted by the story of  a Princeton college admissions administrator who suffers a midlife crisis and crisis of conscience. Korelitz had been a reader for the Princeton admissions office, too, and I liked seeing the fictional essays she created for the book.

All That Work and Still No Boys by Kathryn Ma. Ma, (another friend) has such an unusual – and somewhat subversive voice – that each of these short stories is a revelation. I still can’t stop thinking about the old woman who moves into a retirement home and finds herself worrying about her dining companions in the cafeteria.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe. I lost myself in this novel about a Harvard graduate student who moves back to her family’s home and finds herself plunged into the world of the Salem witch trials.

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostava – This will be released in January 2010. Her previous book, The Historian, was a huge bestseller and the publisher, Little Brown, plans to spen $500,000 alone to promote the new one. I enjoyed The Swan Thieves even more than Kostava’s first book but since there are no vampires in it,  it may not do as well. The book deals with a painter who has slashed a famous French impressionist painting and the psychiatrist who treats him – and gets drawn into a world of secrets.


nana said...

All of the books, do they have version in "ebook" type?

Frances said...

Some of these are already available in ebook forms, others are not.

Meghan Ward said...

I loved All that work and still no boys, but sadly, I've had very little time to read this year!

Diane said...

I just came across you blog today; it's great. I enjoyed you top 10 list - i also enjoyed The Psychic Book of D.D.