My favorite books this year are mainly the ones I found at the library or bookstore by sheer chance and lovely coincidence. 2009 was also the year I probably read fewer books than at any other time in my life except for my first three when I was still illiterate. The problem was that in between publishing my own books, The Great Scarab Scam and Better Than Perfect (definitely favorites of the year!) and working full time, I was usually too tired to get beyond page one of many of the books I tried to read. A plot or subject had to be pretty compelling to get my attention this year and the following books are what pulled me in and kept me reading right through till the end.
Best Fiction: Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami.
I had been waiting to read this book for a long time, ten years! I found a copy at the library by accident while I was looking for an entirely different title, don’t ask me what. Seeing a few of Murakami’s books on the bottom shelf reminded me that I had wanted to read Norwegian Wood but had never got around to it. This particular library copy was a miserable, stained, dog-eared, and torn paperback I would normally pass up on hygiene reasons alone, but I wanted to read it so badly I ignored my squeamishness. Norwegian Wood was first recommended to me by some friends who belonged to a Japanese book club in Atlanta. Japanese fiction has long been one of my favorite genres. Ever since I discovered Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse as a teenager, once again perusing the shelves of a small, suburban library in Auckland, New Zealand, I’ve been hooked. I love the straightforward clean prose of Japanese authors, and I’m intrigued by their somewhat harsh, maybe even nihilistic outlook. Japan has always been a country I have wanted to travel to, perhaps because of my reading. Norwegian Wood lived up to all my expectations: dark, stark, and the equivalent of reading very pure jazz. I never wanted it to end. Now I want to go to Japan more than ever.
Best Poetry (and Nonfiction, too): Rilke and Andreas-Salome; A Love Story in Letters. Translated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler. I love Rilke’s poetry but had no intention of buying this book until the night my book club got yelled at. For some inexplicable reason the management of the bookstore where we used to meet went ballistic that night, saying we “took up space and never bought anything.” Not true! I still dread going to my book club every month because I always come home with an armload of books. While explaining this to the manager, I picked up the nearest book in the store and said, “See? I’m buying this one right now!” I grabbed a purple sketchbook as well just to make my point, and I’ve been delighted with both purchases ever since. But boy was I mad. Still seething all the way home, I had no idea what I had bought except that it was something about Rilke. And what a something it turned out to be: a biography in letters filled with poetry, heartache, longing, and a lot of complaining. Rilke was very whiney, as well as fascinating, a genius, and a poet without equal. Lou Andreas-Salome, the recipient of his letters, was spectacular in her own right, too. Many of her letters back to Rilke are also included. This book is truly a keeper.
Best Rediscovered Classic: Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. This was a book club selection and when it was first announced no one other than the member who had chosen it wanted to read it. No way were we going back to tenth-grade English class and besides “we all knew the story.” Or so we thought. Re-reading Wuthering Heights was a shocking experience to say the least. When I first read it at fifteen, I thought it was romantic, rebellious, and exciting. As an adult—the book was horrifying! Hateful, spiteful, vicious characters locked in a macabre dance of fate and misogyny; I was compelled to read every line. The Brontes were freaks of nature. Where they really came from, what planet they were channeling, and how they wrote so well will be always be a mystery I’ll never be able to solve. (And I do know "Bronte" should have an umlaut over the "e." I just couldn't find how to get it there!!)
Honorable Mentions: The year wouldn’t have been complete without The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory and The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson. I loved both of these books. The Other Boleyn Girl was beautifully written, and despite years and years of reading books on Henry VIII and his many wives, I couldn't stop reading this one. I just had to “find out what happens” as if somehow the events of history were going to miraculously change and reveal an entirely different ending. I kept telling myself I was nuts to be so glued to such a familiar story, but Gregory’s writing is compulsive. The Gargoyle was special in that it was such a surprise: lyrical storytelling combined with the horrors of a burn ward; not a combination I would ever have thought readable let alone likeable or entertaining. While some parts were difficult to read through (warning: the descriptions of injury and pain are graphic) they were well worth the effort. A book I won’t soon forget.
Tip of the Day: It’s the holidays! Give in to your cravings and read like there’s no tomorrow. Reading fills a writer’s soul. The need to read should always be honored and respected.