January 4, 2010

The Year In Books 2009: Best of the Best

The Year in Books 2009: A CCLaP essay series

(For an introduction to this series, as well as links to all four parts, please click here.)

Of the 90 or so books reviewed here in 2009 that were eligible for this best-of list (so that is, of the books that were published between 2007 and 2009), a total of nine of them received scores of 9.4 or above, technically making them the "best" of all the titles reviewed here last year. Here below is a look again at all of them, listed this time in alphabetical order.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
By Neal Stephenson

One of only two books to score a perfect 10 at CCLaP in 2009, this is the brilliantly obtuse science-fiction author at his most challenging, telling no less than an alternate version of the entire last three thousand years of human history and a fictional version of the next three thousand, within a planet almost exactly like Earth but where science itself has been treated as a form of religion since the ancient Greeks. Along the way, then, Stephenson makes a compelling argument for the blasphemous idea that there's actually not that much difference between science and religion, looking in detail at such actual historical figures as Plato and the alchemists of the Royal Society to show how science (in its 17th-century prototypical guise of "natural philosophy") actually did start as an offshoot of traditional Christianity, and that it was the birth of Evangelicism in the 19th and 20th centuries that first propositioned science and faith as an "either/or" situation. Of course, this being Stephenson, he makes these points through sometimes highly abstract conversations (the scientists of his world are literally cloistered monks, who work out the details of subjects like quantum physics through stick drawings in the dirt), combined with the usual visual fever-dreams we've come to expect from the author of such cyberpunk classics as Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. So big and meaty that my original review ran in two parts, this was one of the few titles in 2009 legitimately worth investing six weeks of your life to finishing.

Descartes' Bones, by Russell Shorto
Descartes' Bones
By Russell Shorto

As I've mentioned many times, I've become a big fan this decade of so-called "NPR-worthy" nonfiction books, in which solid academic research is combined with an engaging narrative writing style to tell the story of a fascinating period of history; and one of the best I read in 2009 was Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones, which takes the chaotic real story of the Enlightenment hero's remains to examine the bigger picture of the uneasy relationship between reason and faith over the last 400 years. Along the way, Sorto touches on the fascination for religious relics that existed during the late Renaissance, the rise in both legitimate science and quackery in the Victorian Age, and the 20th-century debate over such issues as evolutionary theory; and he does so by examining the inherently interesting true story of just what happened to Descartes' skeleton during all those periods, leading us from a French Revolution "church of knowledge" to carnival sideshows, modern DNA labs and more. Highly entertaining and thought-provoking at the same time, this is just the trick for those seeking a great nonfiction read.

Earthquake ID, by John Domini
Earthquake I.D.
By John Domini

A Tomb on the Periphery, by John Domini
A Tomb on the Periphery
By John Domini

Although technically only one of these is eligible for CCLaP's best-of list, I thought I'd go ahead and mention both; they are both by the same author, after all, make up the first two volumes in a coming thematic trilogy, and I read them in a row last year in preparation for my interview with Domini for the center's podcast. And in many ways it's highly appropriate to consider these as two pieces of a coming whole, despite their vastly different subject matter (Earthquake I.D. is a contemporary human-interest drama with magical-realism touches, while Tomb is a traditional noirish caper tale), because this academic veteran and Pulitzer nominee means for them to causally relate in these intriguing ways; both set in Naples, Italy in the aftermath of a fictional early-2000s earthquake, the two not only share minor characters and certain plot developments but also a common love for poetic, densely layered language, making these in the tradition of John Irving and Philip Roth a rare example of novels that can be adored not only by professors but also the beach-and-airport crowd. Truly one of my favorite reading experiences of 2009, and a great reminder of why I decided to become a book critic in the first place.

Israel vs. Utopia, by Joel Schalit
Israel vs. Utopia
By Joel Schalit

A late entry in CCLaP's best-of list (it was originally reviewed just a few weeks ago), this is one of those illuminating books of cultural essays that makes me want to run around slapping copies into the hands of random Americans while screaming, "If you'd just read this, you stupid clueless f-cking American, the world would be such a better place!" A Jewish alt-journalist who has lived in both Israel and the US, Schalit here takes a complex and sometimes unforgiving look at all the thorny issues surrounding the subject of "Zionism" (or the belief that God means for the nation of Israel to exist), told from a mindset meant specifically to educate and inform us ignorant "Seinfeld" watching Americans, including such "revelations" that there are both liberal and conservative Jews in Israel, that they often don't get along, that the conservatives are often sabre-rattling censors and the liberals often pie-in-the-sky hippies. I put "revelations" in quotes, of course, because all of these things should be obvious to anyone who stops and thinks even a little about it all; and that's another big point of this book, to show how over the last 60 years, Americans have been fed an all-positive diet concerning Israel that makes most of us view that far-off nation as some sort of utopian fantasyland, a criticism-averse "Jewish America" that's causing more and more conflicts in people's heads with such tricky recent events as the forced resettlement of thousands of non-Jews in the region by the Israeli government. A rewarding and eye-opening title from our friends at Akashic Books, who in general put out just a ton of great books in 2009.

Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi
By Marjane Satrapi

I'm using a technicality in order to include this in CCLaP's best-of list for 2009 -- although the chapters in this autobiographical comic first started appearing in Europe way back in 2000, here in the US a new bound version of the entire story was just put out again last year, to capitalize on its newfound success here because of a recent Oscar-nominated film adaptation. Oh, but what a story! A coming-of-age tale from a feisty Iranian female punk-rocker, the first half of Persepolis is a look at Satrapi's childhood under the oppressive Islamic Republic there in the '70s and '80s, where by her teenage years her uncontrollable temper and smart mouth were constantly on the verge of getting her arrested and executed; the second half, then (much less loved by the general public but personally my favorite section), sees Satrapi's parents shipping her off to Europe in the vain hopes that she will get in less trouble there, while in reality she eventually becomes a homeless gutterpunk and drug addict, before finally climbing out of her hole again through the power of the indie French comics scene of the 1990s. Laugh-out-loud funny at points, heartbreakingly sad at others, with a much more transgressive message than you'd expect from a movie your mom likes, it's no surprise that this has recently become an explosive bestseller here in the US, at a time when our collective interest in the Middle East has never been stronger.

Ruins, by Achy Obejas
By Achy Obejas

Just like has been the case the last several years, 2009 turned out to be a great year for Chicago literature, with the city seemingly going through a kind of artistic renaissance right now not seen since the poetry-slam days of the 1990s; for example, take the cultishly popular gay Cuban-American author and DePaul professor Achy Obejas, whose latest title Ruins is an unexpectedly powerful change of pace for her, and takes her far away from her usual comfort zone of topics that her previous fiction has mostly been based around. It's essentially a look at all the ways Cuba has fallen apart since the end of the Soviet Union, told through the prism of aging revolutionary "Usnavy" (yes, named after the Batista-Era American warships that used to dock there back then), as he desperately tries to deal with the Orwellian nightmare his country has become by the time of the "Special Period" there in 1994 (a particularly anarchic time in Cuba's history, when both the national economy collapsed and hundreds of thousands of people were allowed to leave en-masse for the first time). By turns deeply upsetting and comically Kafkaesque, this is Obejas really flexing her artistic muscles, turning in a dark and critical look at her homeland that will surprise many of her longtime fans. A riveting read, and I'm looking forward to my interview with her for the podcast a little later this year.

Saturn's Children, by Charles Stross
Saturn's Children
By Charles Stross

This is the third novel in three years I've now reviewed by this prolific science-fiction author, a personal favorite of mine; and here he delivers yet again, turning in an unofficial sequel not only to Isaac Asimov's "Robot" series but Robert Heinlein's space operas, updating the conventions of both to reflect the complex "Singularity" times in which we live. Essentially taking Asimov's concept of the "Three Laws of Robotics" and extrapolating it hundreds of years into the future, the book basically looks at how such an android society might work if humanity itself was to eventually go extinct, but not before creating billions of self-repairing artificially intelligent creatures charged with pre-colonizing the solar system, in preparation for the human settlers who will now never be arriving. Under this genre veteran's capable hands, the answer becomes one of feudalism combined with an endless bureaucracy, a universe where the ten percent of "independent" robots (freed by their human owners before the Apocalypse) force the other 90 percent to be their endlessly toiling slaves, where elaborate loopholes in the law have been created simply for daily survival, because of none of the robots having the authority to actually change the existing laws of the now-dead human race. As usual with Stross, though, a simple recap can't begin to do this book justice, with its main joy being the hundreds of stunning images and concepts he implants on nearly every page; like the best of SF, it simply needs to be read in full to truly appreciate, and I encourage both genre fans and non-fans alike to ignore the horrific cover art and take a chance on it.

The Slide, by Kyle Beachy
The Slide
By Kyle Beachy

And then this is the other book to score a perfect 10 at CCLaP last year, and a title by a Chicagoan no less; and not only that, but this was Beachy's debut novel as well, making its surprise national success even more astonishing. And yes, perhaps I gave this book a slightly higher score than a lot of others would, because of it touching on so many things in contemporary literature that I particularly love -- it's a look at a crumbling Industrial-Age city in the American Midwest (St. Louis, where I happened to grow up myself), told by an unreliable narrator who turns out to be kind of a villain by the end, with a Michael-Chabon-like sophisticated combination of plot and characterization, an exquisitely written book that nonetheless contains the kinds of legitimate surprises not usually seen in academic fiction. But hey, isn't that enough to make this one of the best novels of 2009, perfect score or not? Brilliant precisely because of its unassuming nature, The Slide marks Beachy as a major new force in the American arts, as well as a big element of this "Chicago Renaissance" the city's literary community seems to be going through these days.

Coming tomorrow, a look at nine more books I consider the best of 2009, picked this time subjectively instead of based on score. I hope you get a chance to stop by again and check it out.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:59 PM, January 4, 2010. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Profiles | Reviews |