Saturday, January 9, 2010

Six Quick Picks: What Was the Best Book You Read in 2009?

In this week's edition of Six Quick Picks, I offer up a list of the best books I read in 2009.  I hope you'll join in the conversation and offer me and the Motherese community the names of some of your recent literary finds.

1. Home, by Marilynne Robinson (2008): Robinson won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for the powerful, atmospheric Gilead, which offered the reflections of Congregationalist minister John Ames on the lives of his pacifist father and radical abolitionist grandfather. Another reflection on faith and family, Home is a companion novel to Gilead, addressing the life of the aging and ailing Reverend Robert Boughton (dear friend of John Ames), his loyal daughter, and his rebellious son.  According to A.O. Scott's New York Times review, Home "is a book unsparing in its acknowledgment of sin and unstinting in its belief in the possibility of grace. It is at once hard and forgiving, bitter and joyful, fanatical and serene. It is a wild, eccentric, radical work of literature that grows out of the broadest, most fertile, most familiar native literary tradition. What a strange old book it is."

2. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein (2003): Big Boy was given this children's picture book, winner of the 2004 Caldecott Medal, by his Oma.  This luminous, heart-stopping book tells the story of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who walked between the two towers of the World Trade Center on a tightrope in the summer of 1974.  Reverent, but never maudlin, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers celebrates Petit's spirit of adventure and pays homage to the now fallen towers.  I still get goosebumps every time I read it to my sons.  If you have a child, if you know a child, treat her - and yourself - to a copy of this remarkable book.

3. The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan (2006): I came to The Omnivore's Dilemma later than many, but I nevertheless found Pollan's exploration of the industrial, organic, and local food chains fascinating.  His tale is both fascinating and fluid and I eagerly joined him on his adventures through a feed lot and on a hunt for mushrooms.  According to Bunny Crumpacker's review in The Washington Post, Pollan's "approach is steeped in honesty and self-awareness. His cause is just, his thinking is clear, and his writing is compelling."

4. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (2006): I would not necessarily recommend reading this book while eight months pregnant and on bedrest (as I did).  After all, McCarthy's 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner is perhaps the bleakest book I've ever read.  Reading it made me cry out of fear, suspense, terror, and sadness.  The Road presents the story of a father and son wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape searching for other "good people," but encountering mostly desolation and roving bands of cannibals.  Despite the grim gravity of the novel, it is perfectly written and presents a tremendously moving and ultimately transcendent picture of parent-child love.  (Please note that, despite my deep and abiding affection for Viggo Mortensen - who, in 2001 replaced Harrison Ford as my all-time celebrity crush - I do not plan to see the recently released movie version of The Road.  The mental images from this particular novel, which I have not been able to shake since reading it, are more than enough for me.)

5. Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (2008): Pulitzer Prize winning author Jhumpa Lahiri is probably my favorite living author.  (What was up with me and Pulitzer Prize winning authors in 2009?  Hmm...) On the surface, her subject matter is the experience of Bengali immigrants and especially the intergenerational challenges between immigrants and their children.  But Lahiri's milieu is far wider-ranging.  Like so many Vermeers, her short stories in this collection deal with the everyday with a touch that is both deft and revelatory.  With sensitivity and eloquence, she paints tales that leave me hollow and full all at the same time.

6.Operating Instructions, by Anne Lamott (1993): I've written before about the impossibility of preparing for parenthood until you've actually lived it, but if there is a book that even hints at the transcendence, power, humility, rage, exhaustion, and humor that one experiences in the early days of motherhood, it is Operating Instructions.  I wrote earlier this week about my newfound fondness for Anne Lamott, and here her discerning eye and truth-o-scope are in full effect.  I believe this book should be required reading for all prospective parents - and all new parents who wish to feel validated, encouraged, and heard.

What was the best book you read in 2009?


  1. Oh! If you liked Gerstein's book, you should see the movie Man on Wire! It's all about that hi-wire stunt and is fascinating!

    A few good ones from this year: Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg.

  2. Two books I really enjoyed were Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin, and Happiness Sold Separately, by Lolly Winston.
    I loved The Road. I'd tried Cormac before, and he is SOOOO bleak. But something about The Road was different, maybe because it wasn't a contemporary setting. Don't know if I'd want to see it as a movie tho.

  3. I don't know if I could pick a favorite. I loved Jimmy Buffet's A Pirate Looks at 50," which promptly became a gift for my friends as they approached 50.

    I re-read, usually an annual experience, Spencer Johnson's "Who Moved My Cheese?"

    I loved Suzy Welch's "10-10-10: A Life Transforming Idea."

    I also devoured Jean Hanff Korelitz's "Admission."

  4. Amy Lemmon's collection of poetry, "Saint Nobody" (Red Hen Press) was a joyful find.

    And in the perpetually interruptive lifestyle of a single parent, poetry is one of those things that you can pick up and set down and pick up again.

    I highly recommend this book (Amazon and B&N both have it online). Lemmon's poetry has everything - heartbreak, parenting, elegant music that only the finest poetics provide.

  5. I love this post but it makes me so sad. Books have fallen by the wayside. Time for reading has been replaced by blogging (also reading?) and by trying to trace the whereabouts of my peaceful mind and sanity once the kids have gone to bed. Not sure I'll ever find it, but I gain a little bit of serenity with mind-numbing television, movies of every genre, and then there are the nights (plenty) that I sit and listen to--and stare at--the fire.

    Oh novels, how I miss you. Cannot even remember what I have read this year. Now THAT, is BLEAK. Olive Kittredge? Yes. Good. Am now attempting to re-read The Time Traveler's Wife after seeing the movie. Have about 35 books on the shelf just waiting for me, a cozy blanket, and time.

    I always recommend this one...but try The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. One of my absolute favorites. Might have been from 2008...does this count as a quick pick for 09?


  6. I loved The Road and The Unaccustomed Earth (I just can't stop myself from picking up something she has written, the writing is so beautiful). I also liked the Book Thief and the Kite Runner. Two nonfictions I enjoyed were the Worst Hard Times (about the dust bowl during the depression and Emperors of Chocolate (about the rivalry between Hershey and Mars). I should point out, redundantly after listing those books that I like darker books. I picked up the History of Love from the library yesterday to read.

  7. I devoured Diane Setterfield's "The Thirteenth Tale." ( I think that was my favorite, by far.

  8. such FANTASTIC recs... i am so biased towards jhumpa lahiri and so i would in then suggest her book "the namesake." also another fave of mine this past year was "still alice" by lisa genova... so terrific with an amazing perspective since the narrator is the main character who happens to have early onset alzheimers.

  9. Yeah, The Road. So good. Unlike you though, I will be going to see Viggo in it. :)

  10. Hi Kristen, I had a great reading year. All I read now are memoirs, since I'm forever teaching myself to write.

    If I have to pick, I'd say my favorite book was Elizabeth McCracken's "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination," an exquisitely constructed memoir of her stillborn baby spliced in with the live baby she's holding a year later - funny and tragic - love, love, love it.

    I also loved "Autobiography of a Face" by Lucy Grealy and the better yet "Truth and Beauty," Anne Patchett's memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy.

  11. I'm not sure I can answer this yet; I have to think back. But, I LOVE LOVE LOVE Operating Instructions, and I just had to tell you that Anne Lamott has a place in a post I've been working on. Perhaps time to revisit it and get it out there. Thanks, Kristen!

  12. I just hopped over from Trains, Tutus and Twizzlers and am delighted I did. A blog with posts labeled Anne Lamont? Yes, please!
    Operating Instructions was the best, or at least most personally relevant and meaningful, book I read in 2008, just after the birth of my son.
    In 2009 I read and loved Marilynne Robinson's Houskeeping; Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food; Jennifer Haigh's The Condition; Jane Smiley's One Thousand Acres; and Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club.
    Thanks for sharing your list and for including a book for the little ones.


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