So, here are a handful of my favorite books of 2009 -- a couple of which might've snuck out a bit earlier than this year but which are very much still worth reading regardless of publication date. There are many others that came out this year I haven't gotten around to as well -- finding a copy of Chuck Klosterman's latest down here is danged tricky, for instance.
But of the 75 or 80 books I read in 2009, here's what I liked best:
"2666" by Roberto Bolaño and "The Savage Detectives" by Roberto Bolaño - For someone who's been dead since 2003, this Chilean writer has had quite a year. His last few books of fiction have been translated into English and they're not quite like anything else out there -- surreal and vicious and intense and passionate, he was one of Latin America's most exciting voices. "2666" is a monster of a book, nearly 1000 pages (and apparently not entirely finished before his death) divided into three parts, an apocalyptic and nightmarish journey that circles around a plague of serial murders in Mexico and a secretive German writer. Bolaño had a knack for creating a disturbing, unsettling atmosphere. It's an epic book and by the end I felt truly changed a little by it in some undefinable way, which is what the best stories do. "Savage Detectives" is "lighter" in tone than "2666" but also marvelous, a kind of Kerouacian road trip following two poet buddies traveling around the world. It's both idealistic and disillusioned at the same time, and Bolaño's twisting, gorgeous prose is in full swing.
The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English by Mark Abley - People love to complain about how English is being "destroyed" by the Generations Y and Z, with all their LOLZ and txtspk. Abley genially upsets that assumption by painting a portrait of how English is always changing, always fluid, and how it has truly become a global language in the last few decades. In a great piece of anecdotal journalism he skips about the world looking at Japanese teens' "Japenglish," Hispanic Spanglish, the influence of hip-hop and the Internet, and how the way we communicate is constantly shifting. Instead of being debased, Abley argues that English is being constantly improved as a tool that works best for its particular audience at the moment. Thought-provoking and trivia-packed. (His "Spoken Here," about dead and dying languages, is also worth looking for.)
"Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood" by Mark Harris - Five movies that don't seem to have a lot in common -- "The Graduate," "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," "Dr. Dolittle," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Bonnie and Clyde." But they were all nominated for Oscar's Best Picture of 1967, a year that changed the movie industry. This fascinating book explores the genesis, production and reaction to all five movies, each of which symbolizes a different aspect of Hollywood, whether it's maverick independence or bloated studio extravaganzas. The fertile explosion of film in the '70s can be directly credited to movies like "Clyde" while the more calculated blockbuster mentality is seen in a stumbling vanity production like Rex Harrison's "Dolittle." Harris' smart and funny narrative is a must-read for any fans of movies.
"Under the Dome" by Stephen King - I know, a Stephen King book on my "year's best" list, there goes my literature street cred I carefully built up with the dead Chilean writer above. But "Dome," while not King's best ever by any means, is a great "cheeseburger" of a fiction read, a very fast-paced 1000-page epic about a small town in Maine and what happens when a mysterious giant dome is placed over it. Yeah, sounds like a "Simpsons" episode, but King deals it up with his trademark mix of horror, humor and invention and a fair amount of satire on the post-9/11 American mentality. Sure, characters may be thin and 1000 pages may be padded, but I'd still call "Dome" his best in several years and to use a cliche, I could barely put it down while reading it.
Sunnyside" by Glen David Gold - I loved Gold's first novel, 2001's "Carter Beats the Devil," and it's been a long wait for his next book. "Sunnyside" is a challenging but quite satisfying read that entwines Charlie Chaplin, a would-be Hollywood stuntman, World War I and a cast of dozens of real-life and fictional personages of the 1910s. "Sunnyside" sprawls all over the place in its narrative that loosely explores the birth of the "modern" world of Hollywood, imagery and warfare, but it's Gold's portrait of Chaplin that holds the center -- his Chaplin is a confused, brilliant genius pulled in different directions by his muse.
"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann - Mysterious lost cities in the jungle of the Amazon? Sign me up! I've been on a big "exploration lit" kick for a while now and David Grann's stirring tale of the search for an ancient lost city is great fun. The focus of Grann's book is on legendary explorer Percy Fawcett, who disappeared into the Amazon in 1925 and was never seen again. Dozens -- perhaps hundreds -- of valiant explorers have also been lost searching for traces of Fawcett. Grann does a great job revealing the secrets of the world's hidden places and giving us rollicking real-life Indiana Jones-style adventure.
"Juliet, Naked" by Nick Hornby - Hornby's latest novel is a nice return to his "High Fidelity/About A Boy" form after a few lesser books. "Juliet, Naked" is almost "High Fidelity 2" in how it digs into that strange world of music obsessives (um, not that I know anything about that), spinning a tale of fixated fans, reclusive musicians and lovelorn museum curators that's a real brisk, good-hearted and enjoyable read.