Making lists and ranking the value of things holds just as much interest for the list-maker as it does for the list-reader, so as a way of (hopefully) keeping all of us entertained, the 4th annual “Seth’s Notable List” has been re-christened in 2009 as the Catapult Notable List and been given a format overhaul. The top ten books I read in 2009 have received rankings (as voted on by the of variety of personalities living inside my brain) and they will be posted here each day over the next ten days as if from a book recommendation vending machine.
Granted, this is the list of the best that I read this year – there may be books out there that I never got around to that may be better – who knows. I’d still like to read Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, Ha Jin’s A Good Fall, and Colum McCann’s National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin – there’s always next year. I did read a few books this year – Perez-Reverte’s The Cavalier in the Yellow Doublet, JLB’s Rain Gods – that were quite good, but perhaps were enjoyed for my own personal, sentimental reasons and not for being fantastic literary works. There were others that I really enjoyed the majority of – Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Lethem’s Chronic City (surprisingly named one of the Ten Best books of the year by the New York Times) – but can’t wholeheartedly recommend as the cream of the crop, certainly not in light of those authors’ literary canons. I’ve also managed to pinpoint six other books that fell just shy of the Notable List and thus deserve some sort of honorable mention. So, before the Top Ten dispensory begins in earnest tomorrow, here are the best of the rest:
16. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
Tower has been the hipster’s choice as the hot author this year, and with good reason. His short stories of the soft white underbelly of American life have a grim, edgy humor to them that I particularly enjoyed. And the title story, written in a hilarious & decidedly contemporary style, is about marauding vikings battling the winter doldrums. “Djarf stood in the doorway wearing a mail jacket and shield and breathing like he’d jogged the whole way over. He chucked a handful of hail at my feet. ‘Today’s the day,’ he said with a wild grin. ‘We got to get it on.'”
15. The Tourist by Olen Steinhauer
As you may know, I’ve long been a fan of Olen’s series of brilliant Edgar-nominated detective novels set in the Eastern bloc (The Bridge of Sighs, The Confession). The Tourist is his first foray outside that world – and he ends up with a very successful, complex contemporary spy novel that deals with the real-world issues of modern spygames. What would happen if Congress realized that it was stretching its military budget too thin and noticed that the CIA was keeping deep cover operatives on retainer all over the civilized world? The full Catapult review.
14. The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Ruiz Zafon, author of the indie bestseller, The Shadow of the Wind, returns us to Barcelona’s “Cemetery of Forgotten Books”. A sprawling, labyrinthine novel that evokes the rich, vivid atmosphere of pre-Civil War Barcelona’s culture of literacy, yet cleverly provokes the reader with a narrator of dubious reliability & sanity – one of my favorite plot devices. The clack of the typewriter, the smell of the dusty old bookshop, the very idea of pulp short stories being printed in the newspaper – all are evocative of a lost era of literature and a culture surrounding the printed page. The vastness of the narrative layering is astounding, showcasing Ruiz Zafon’s remarkable storytelling abilities & inherent sense of time & place. By no means a perfect novel – he could have easily edited out several sections for purposes of narrative flow – but one worth escaping into, for sure. The full Catapult review.
13. A Quiet Flame by Philip Kerr
Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy – a modern noir classic – has been turned into a full-blown series by Mr. Kerr. Now in 1950’s Argentina, Bernie Gunther has been given a new life by the Perons, reluctantly joining the hidden ranks of exiled Nazis. When a disturbing case shows links to one he remembers from his more legit, pre-war days, the ever vengeful Bernie realizes that one of the Nazis in his midst is responsible for many of the ill turns his life has taken. The writing is extremely crisp, the dialogue sharp, and Gunther has more life in him than, well, most people I know. I never thought he could top the 4th book in the series, The One From the Other – and after reading The Quiet Flame, I thought the same thing. Wait until you read the forthcoming 6th book, If the Dead Rise Not – coming in March 2010. Goddamn! Somebody PLEASE give this guy an Edgar Award!
12. Homer & Langley by E.L. Doctorow
Check the the full Catapult review. The rundown: based on the real-life packrat brothers, Homer & Langley Collyer, who lived in the squalor of their Manhattan townhouse in the first half of the 20th century. Historical magician Doctorow brings them roaring back to life, in all their glorious, weird sadness. Homer is blind and relies solely on his insane brother, Langley, who is hellbent on collecting just about everything he can think of a use for. His collection began with newspapers – and it is this portion of home decor that ultimately traps the brothers in their darkening world.
11. Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
This would have easily made the top ten on sheer story alone but I was left wanting a little more out of Eggers, whose writing just seemed too pedestrian. I don’t know, maybe this was really his point, to just state the facts as he received them, but it seemed stilted and wooden most of the time. Regardless, this is an incredible story that every American needs to read. The horrible circumstances that befell the Zeitoun family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are so unacceptable and shocking that you’ll find it hard to believe that this happened in an American city in 2005. (My full review on the Warwick’s blog.) In his NYT review, Timothy Egan wrote, “50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to this once-great city during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”