December 30th, 2009
02:37 PM ET
At my current rate of about a book a week, I’ll never read more books than I acquire - but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying. Here are some of the best books (from an admittedly limited stack) I read that came out this year –- I’m stretching the definition to include 2008 books released in paperback, too - as well as some picks for books of the decade:
“Netherland,” Joseph O’Neill (Vintage paperback): A Dutch immigrant finds his way through pre- and post-9/11 New York, guided by his love for cricket and his friendship with a shifty Trinidadian, told through O’Neill’s gorgeous, pitch-perfect prose. (The author’s description of a road-safety class and its “destroyed-looking” lecturer is a world in a handful of sentences.)
“Lords of Finance,” Liaquat Ahamed (Penguin hardcover): David Halberstam’s “The Best and the Brightest” showed how a group of brilliant men could get the United States mired in the Vietnam War, partly through their own hubris. Similarly, Ahamed’s book chronicles how another group of brilliant men watched the world financial system fall apart in the 1920s and ‘30s, thanks to their hidebound beliefs. The hero of the book is John Maynard Keynes, but nobody listened to him until it was too late.
“Closing Time,” Joe Queenan (Viking hardcover): I didn’t want to like Queenan’s memoir. He starts out pompous and hard-shelled, sneering at his brutal, alcoholic father and helpless mother. (In other works, this Queenan can be acidly hilarious, but here he seemed pointlessly cruel.) But by the end he’d become – dare I say it? – vulnerable, even compassionate. He’ll probably berate me for saying so.
“Last Words,” George Carlin (Free Press hardcover): If Carlin’s posthumously assembled (by Tony Hendra) autobiography is occasionally uneven, it’s worth it for his sharp observations, and above all for its gaspingly funny opening line. Grab a copy at your local bookstore and read it yourself.
“As They See ‘Em,” Bruce Weber (Scribner hardcover): Weber’s book about the trials of being a major league umpire actually made me sympathetic to the men in blue; they have an almost impossible task made harder by the lack of consideration they’re given by their employers. Still, Phil Cuzzi, how did you miss that call in the Yankees-Twins playoff series?
(Stacked and waiting: “Let the Great World Spin,” Colum McCann; “Lark & Termite,” Jayne Anne Phillips; “The First Tycoon,” T.J. Stiles; “Cowboys Full,” James McManus; “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War,” Neil Sheehan.)
Best of the decade
“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” Michael Chabon (2000): The roar of mid-century America never lets up in Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a pair of comic-book artists and the woman they love.
“The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright (2006): In Wright’s gripping history, the grumbling, sniping group of people in al Qaeda is less SPECTRE than, at times, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Which, given their determination to wreck the world, makes them even more dangerous.
“Middlesex,” Jeffrey Eugenides (2002): Another Pulitzer Prize winner – the notoriously hit-or-miss committee got it right a lot in the ‘00s – Eugenides’ work is about the coming-of-age of a Greek-American hermaphrodite. But it’s also the story of 20th-century Detroit, which is told with the same heartbreaking detail Philip Roth brought to Newark in “American Pastoral.”
“Oh the Glory of It All,” Sean Wilsey (2005): A memoir told with almost self-flagellating rectitude; Wilsey gives his side of the story as the skatepunk son of a divorced couple – and gives almost as much time to everyone else’s version.
“The Crimson Petal and the White,” Michel Faber (2002): First, I was daunted by this 800-page novel of Dickensian detail about a 19th-century London prostitute. Then, I was enraptured.
(Honorable mention: “Moneyball,” Michael Lewis; “Empire Falls,” Richard Russo; “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” Susanna Clarke; “No Country for Old Men,” Cormac McCarthy; “America: The Book,” the writers of “The Daily Show.”)
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