Thursday, December 31, 2009

My "Best of" List

The year began with I See You Everywhere, by Julia Glass (liked it), and ended with A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (didn't like it). In between were some very good books, some very bad books, and many in the middle. Here are my favorites:

Best Fiction: Little Bee, by Chris Cleave

This shocking story is narrated by Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria, and Sarah, the British magazine editor who encounters Little Bee in Nigeria and again at home in London's suburbs. Little Bee spends two years in a British detention center. When she escapes (thanks to another detainee's willingness to give sexual favors to a guard, she makes her way to the home of Sarah and her husband, setting off a startling chain of events. The book deals not only with the UK's response to immigration issues and violence in Africa, but also middle class ennui and infidelity. Nothing is truer in the book than Little Bee's admonition, "So when I say I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge."

Little Bee's voice is one I cannot forget. Here are some other examples:

"We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived!

"They carried themselves like weather presenters preparing to lower expectations for the bank-holiday weekend."

"I was very young then, and I did not miss having a future because I did not know I was entitled to one."

Best Nonfiction: Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell

Using research, case studies, and his own story, Malcolm Gladwell helps us understand why some people succeed at a very high level and others don't. Perhaps surprisingly for readers, the answer is seldom greater innate ability--rather, the story of success involves ability plus intense and lengthy practice, accidents of timing, and cultural influences. After reading this book, I bored people by talking about it repeatedly for weeks (perhaps months). While Gladwell may not be right about everything, he gives the reader much to think and talk about.

Best Poetry: Bicycles, by Nikki Giovanni

Lovely accessible poems about love and loss. Giovanni teaches at Virginia Tech, and the perpetrator of the mass murder there had been in one of her classes; she includes two very different poems about the event (a line from one: "But we will be the same....willful ignorance will overpower indignation every time...."). But most of the poems are upbeat. As Giovanni says at the end of the poem "In Simpler Times":

Taking the roasted chicken
With root vegetables out of the oven
It's easy to see
The delight I am taking
In this life

Best Mystery: The Late, Lamented Molly Marx, by Sally Koslow

I read a lot of mysteries and this year, too often, they were bad mysteries. I'm not even sure The Late, Lamented Molly Marx would be shelved in the mystery section, but it has elements of a mystery--the police are trying to determine what happened to Molly Marx (murder? suicide? a simple bike accident?) and so is she. Yes, that's right, the title character is dead but not quite ready for "The Duration" (Koslow's take on the afterlife). Through her eyes and memory, we reconstruct what happened in her life and death (and death seems to have improved her). An entertaining read.


I want to make note of the great writing that appears in popular magazines, which are dying almost as rapidly as newspapers. This year, I read excellent articles by such noted novelists as Joyce Maynard (More), Karen Joy Fowler (Real Simple), Chang-Rae Lee (Food and Wine), and Pam Houston (one of many luminaries writing for O). Esquire's sarcastic hipster tone often made me laugh. And Newsweek's feature on children's perceptions of race made me think--and talk (it was another one of those pieces I couldn't stop telling people about). Those are just some examples. So next time you're at the bookstore, pick up a magazine along with your books.

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