As long as writers keep manufacturing the bookseller's drug of choice, booksellers will keep dealing and reading--whether or not there are any buyers for what they sell. While we wait for the final verdict on the future of print, take a look at the following ten books that I read and enjoyed in 2009. They'll still be around for you to enjoy in 2010.
The late Donald Harington's last book, Enduring, hit the shelves this fall, to the sadness and delight of his small but dedicated group of fans. Forty years ago, Harington created the little town of Stay More, hidden away in the hills of the Ozarks. He populated it with generations of families in search of open space, freedom from convention, and, simply, a world where time and history didn't matter very much.
In Enduring, Harington continues the themes of the Stay More series and reveals the mysteries of Latha Bourne, the heroine and of Lightning Bug and The Choiring of the Trees, who is set apart from her fellow Stay Morons, as Harington affectionately calls them, by her beauty, wit, and intense, unfulfilled sexuality. Harington is an acquired but necessary taste for the culturally adventerous.
Over his long career John Irving has become like a family friend whose stories we hear over and over again. Last Night in Twisted River is one of those familiar stories, with all the usual thematic suspects: bears, large breasted women and small statured men, a bit of wrestling and hints of incest, and the central narrative of a child growing up in the charge of wacky/neurotic/unreliable/and sexually ambivalent or adventurous adults. Last Night is certainly not Irving's best novel, but he knows--and we know--how disappointed we'd be if Last Night's expected and inevitable conclusion was anything other than the one he gives us.
The poet Ann Carter's new book, Sweetness: Collected Poems 1974-2009 is a simple gift. Among the 58 poems that comprise this slim volume are cameo appearances of a heroine who always knows the score in games of romance and recites them in a wise-guy little-girl voice that is ironic and wistful at the same time. Among my favorite lines are Since I swore off romance, the full moon rise/Is tonight's big event, a celestial floor show/Where a Mae West moon shoulders out/In iridescent orange and then lets those clothes/Fall for the moon white skin she's in.
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis is an oldie but very Good goodie that sells well, not only to Christians but to people of all faiths and persuasions who seek to live quieter and more introspective lives. The recent Clare L. Fitzpatrick translation lacks some of the elegance of earlier translations, but Fitzpatrick succinctly captures a Kempis' central messages: mind your own business; keep your nose clean; keep it simple. The Imitation is hands down the best book of daily meditations in print.
The British writer David Lodge is one of the funniest guys working today. His 1989 novel Nice Work pits Industry against Academia and asks if a no-nonsense manufacturing engineer and a feminist-lefty college teacher can fall in love--and sustain it. Nice Work, like Lodge's novels Therapy and Small World, is funny, intelligent, and a believable account of the surprising discoveries that one might make while traveling in a stranger's parallel universe. Lodge deserves a much wider American audience.
The Language of God by Francis Collins argues that science and faith are compatible and refutes the notion that science is hostile to religion. Collins, a devout Christian and imminent scientist who heads the Human Genome Project, explains his own journey from atheism to belief, and then takes his readers on a journey that that shows how medicine, chemistry, physics, and biology all fit together with belief in God and the Bible.
Muscle for the Wing, by Daniel Woodrell fits into that extraordinarily narrow genre we call country noir. They story pits low rent citizens of a steamy bayou town against lower rent non-citizen baddies "muscling in" on the town's action. The result is brutally funny, raunchy, sweaty, and viciously colloquial. If this is any justice Woodrell will be the next Big Deal in Am. Lit. I hope to see it happen.
Dakota by Kathleen Norris is about faith, religion, small towns, and how they relate to the unrelentingly desolate and harsh landscape of the Great Plains. Here, Norris supposes that small towns are like monasteries during the Middle Ages, highly ritualized in both operation and in culture. Yet, the inability of these small towns to receive outside criticism results in their creating institutions that are mediocre and unstable--and will only survive, like monasteries, when embraced by people who can see the spiritual and mythic qualities of place.
Larry McMurtry's When the Light Goes Out is just awful. It is the fourth and probable final book about Duane Moore, who we first met in The Last Picture Show as a teenager and then followed discursively through adulthood in Texasville and incipient old age in Duane's Depressed. Why I've stuck with the series can only be explained by saying that McMurtry, beneath the novel's pedestrian storyline, perfectly describes the gracefulness that some men demonstrate as they grow up, and as their light goes out. For that, I give him a pass for his hacky prose.
Finally, the best book I read in 2009 is Michael Pollan's Second Nature. Pollan, who has deservedly become godlike in sustainable agriculture and foodie circles, published Second Nature in 1991 and today, nearly twenty years later, it is still the best gardening book on any bookshelf. As are all Pollan books, Second Nature is beautifully written, inspirational, and an uncommonly successful blend of meditation, autobiography, and instruction. It is Walden for modern man.
Happy reading, friends. I look forward to hearing about your 2010 adventures in literature.