Monday, December 21, 2009

Miss Whistle's Favorite Books of 2009

I am accused by my family of reading too many books.  The truth is, I don't feel as if I read enough. There are stacks by my desk I'm dying to get to and hopefully the Christmas break will allow that indulgence. The ten books that had the biggest impact on me in 2009 are listed below, in no particular order. As you will see, some of them weren't published in 2009.  They just took me a while to get to.  Other books I love may be found at the jolly red link on the right hand side panel.

Give books this Christmas!

1. Lit (2009), by Mary Karr
A fearless and inspiring memoir, Karr's third, which chronicles her journey from alcoholic non-believer to finding God. Her acerbic wit, brutal honesty and ballsy personality lift this up from the triteness of the genre.

2. Cheerful Money (2009), by Tad Friend
Friend is an intimidatingly brilliant writer. This book about the rise and fall of the WASPs, a group into which Friend was born, is both funny and honest and never feels sorry for itself.  My earlier appreciation is here.

3. I Capture The Castle (1948), by Dodie Smith
Simply put, this is a book that every teenage girl should read. I found it later than most, but it thrilled me nonetheless. The narrator, a bright 17 year old girl who lives in a crumbling English castle with her poverty-stricken aristocratic family, finds humour where there ought to be none and with funny and poignant journal entries makes you fall head over heels in love with her.

4. Ottolenghi, The Cookbook (2008)
Maybe it's unfair to include a cookbook on this list, but to leave it out would be wrong.  My friend Sian, with great prescience, introduced me to this book in the later summer of 2008 and it has been part of my life ever since.  I have learned about za'atar and sumac and black mustard seed, and I've discovered I was indeed Middle Eastern in another life. I am responsible for sending hundreds of friends to the restaurants in London and have bombarded my family with dish after dish from the book.  They never tire of it and neither do I.  Great kudos to Sian Rees for her kind suggestion.

5. The Help (2009), by Kathryn Stockett
This was a selection of our awesome book club. I expected it to be lite and a quick read but the book is surprising on many levels. The finely drawn, obsessively observed portrait of upper middle class white women and their black maids in the American deep South circa 1961 is un-put-downable.

6. The Believers (2009), by Zoe Heller
So, this book is fascinating. The satirical portrait of a dysfunctional, influential, socially minded family in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11, it explores our filial relationships and digs into the uncomfortable bits of ourselves.  For the first hundred pages at least I cared little for any of the characters. They are all deeply flawed, hypocritical, funny and depressing. But somewhere along the way the book grabbed me by the throat and wouldn't let go.  The dialogue is flawless. Heller is fiercely intelligent and her use of redemption as a device quite mind-boggling.  On another level, I loved the insights into the world of Orthodox Judaism.

7. Somewhere Towards the End (2008), by Diane Athill
This is a book that both my mother and I loved about a subject that isn't written about enough -- old age. I am effusive here (the link also includes an excellent BBC interview).  

8. What Was Lost (2007), by Catherine O'Flynn
A stunning debut novel about a little girl who disappears.  I liked it more than my book club compadres.  The humour (in the midst of intense, tragic drama) is decidedly British.

9. The Summer Book (1972), by Tove Jansson
I believe that Tove Jansson and my grandmother, Tove, have a lot in common.  This book mirrors my own summers spent in my Mormor's summer house in Norway. It's certainly far, far away from the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.

10. Crow Planet (2009), Lyanda Lynn Haupt
The subtitle of this book -- Essential Truth from the Urban Wilderness -- is telling.  I'm going to have my Koyaanisqatsi moment here (a film the Maharishi took me to see very early on in our courtship), but I'm interested and disturbed by the idea that we are cut off from the natural world around us and that we have much to learn from it. From page 98:
Thoreauvian walkers know where we like to walk best. We like to walk in Nature. Capital N nature. With trees tinkling shadowy over our heads, and the thunk of a wood-rot pathway guiding our feet, with grasses brushing our thighs, or a stony escarpment sweeping up our side. We shamelessly proclaim our romantic aspirations. We want to feel renewal in stillness and birdsong and the hidden movement of worms, the unabashed truth of decay. We want to pay attention, to know the wonders of life in secret places, to watch and be watched, to learn and unlearn.


So Lovely said...

That's a brilliant list. Thank you so much for your recommendations - I read Crow Planet and The Help, both of which I loved and will need to read again.
I have a stack of books that I'll be lugging with me on my travels and am looking forward to lazying in the sun, reading to my hearts content.
Merry Christmas.
xx C

LPC said...

I've put the Tove Jansson book into my shopping cart. I read the Moomintroll books as though they contained the secret to the meaning of the universe. May as well learn something about the woman who wrote them.

LPC said...

Oh, and I reviewed Tad Friend's books too. How could I not? My father and his father were at St. Paul's together...and so on. Then I gave my personal reaction:

shayma said...

i enjoyed reading your write-up- somewhere towards the end is a book i would like to read-thanks for sharing that with us. as i board a plane this evening for Pakistan, i wish i had bought The Help, which CharlieCircus had also recommended. wishing you a lovely christmas/new year's with your fam. x shayma

Eliza S. said...

I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite books ever and I discovered it as an adult as well. Can't wait to introduce Eliza to it when the time comes!