Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best Books of the Year

Unlike the New York Times Book Review and other such publications’ year-end lists, which are so stodgy—including only books published in the most recent calendar year—my list is comprised of the best books I read in 2009 regardless of when they were published.

1. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall. McDougall weaves a number of threads together in this engrossing work of journalism that looks at running injuries, ultramarathoning, the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico's Copper Canyon, and the evolution of humans. An unforgettable cast of characters makes this compelling, almost unbelievable reading. McDougall also takes on the sacred cows of the running world, while also returning us to the true childlike joy of running. This book was the closest thing to a religious text that I read this year. Thanks to the good folks at Micawber's for pointing me to this one.

2. Stoner by John Williams. This unfortunately titled novel was originally published in 1965, and it is that rare thing, a work of fiction set in academia that isn’t farcical. What makes it even rarer is that Williams doesn’t hit a wrong note in the entire thing. There isn’t a single word out of place. The protagonist of his sad, beautiful novel with the understated tempo of a Townes Van Zandt ballad is William Stoner, who, we are told in the first paragraph, "did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses." Though he may lead a life of quiet desperation, he is a man of heart-breaking principle. More on this unforgettable book from Morris Dickstein and Steve Almond.

3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Originally published in 2002, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel combines a sympathetic protagonist, Magical Realism, a global and historical scope, and a loving portrayal of that most beleaguered of cities—Detroit. The last chapters seemed to me to lack the imagination and brilliance of the first nine-tenths of the book, but there was so much in the first 400-plus pages that blew me away that I can't complain too much about the slight drop-off at the end.

4. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. This novel about a 19th century buffalo hunt in the mountains of Colorado echoes Heart of Darkness and Moby-Dick, yet—like Stoner—it manages to be gloriously understated. It is clear early on that nothing good can come of this expedition, and there is more than just a bit of Ahab's monomania in Miller, the leader of the hunt, but every step (and misstep) of the journey is worth watching. Originally published in 1960, this book is likely to gain a larger audience in coming years as major Hollywood players are signing on to bring it to the big screen.

5. A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. I almost didn't include this one since it was a re-reading for me rather than the first time through, but it is so damn good. A beautifully-crafted work that is about nothing less than beauty itself, and how rare and brief it is. I was crying among strangers at 37,000 feet when I finished it.

Honorable Mention (because it's not a book): Pat Jordan’s beautiful short essay on aging from Men’s Journal.

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