Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

'Fire,' 'Flood,' and more

A survey of 2009's notable new nonfiction, fiction, and poetry - plus the return of a classic page-turner.

Edward M. Kennedy's "True Compass" was the year's big memoir.
Edward M. Kennedy's "True Compass" was the year's big memoir.Read moreFrom the book jacket


o review

means "to see again," and to review 2009 means to see again a lot of great books and a lot of great Inquirer reviews:

Nonfiction. Ours is often called an age of nonfiction, and that's the truth. Timothy Egan, one of our best nonfiction writers, published The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27), a story of a huge fire that spawned the modern conservationist movement. Our reviewer, ecologist Rick Bass, called it "a remarkable story, filled with fantastic characters, cowardice and heroism."

Among many big, true books, few are truer, or bigger, than William Vollman's magisterial Imperial (Viking, $55), a panoramic survey of California's Imperial Valley and those who make their lives there. Reviewer Andrew Ervin wrote that Imperial, along with its companion book, Imperial: Photographs (Power House, $55), "provides an amazing and unparalleled contribution to our understanding of who and what we are as a nation."

Blockbuster memoirs studded the year, none bigger than the posthumous True Compass: A Memoir by Edward M. Kennedy (Twelve, $35), which historian Sean Wilentz called "an affecting story of triumph and tragedy," "a testament to his resolve and persistence," and also a "recognition of all that has vanished with him."

And could we forget Going Rogue: An American Life, by former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin (HarperCollins, $28.99)? This publishing sensation is attracting controversy for its author's self-portrait and views on the 2008 elections.

But there must also be basketball. Megastar LeBron James and former Inquirer writer Buzz Bissinger have given us Shooting Stars (Penguin, $26.95), the story of James' path to NBA stardom. Reviewer Bill Lyon called it an unflinching, deftly done "coming-of-age tale."

And Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life (Knopf, $24.95) made a brilliant, stylish argument that these two men were the great beginners of the contemporary condition.

Fiction. Eminent Canadian Margaret Atwood brought out The Year of the Flood (Nan Talese/Doubleday, $26.95), a postapocalyptic tale. Reviewer Abby Frucht called it a "sad but exhilarating work" in which "finally, and wonderfully, Atwood's warmth prevails."

Yiyun Li's The Vagrants (Random House, $25) is a lacerating look at life in post-Cultural Revolution China. Reviewer Daniel Torday hailed this first novel as a "masterful" book full of "simple brushstrokes and cutting acuity." Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Pantheon, $24) is sort of two novels, sort of a memoir. It's also brilliant. Reviewer Dan DeLuca lauds this writer whose works are "often as hilarious in riffing on the self-loathing slacker writer's plight as they are impressive in their wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and expertise."

British writer Nick Hornby returns to his great comic theme, the fan's life, in Juliet Naked (Riverhead Books, $25.95), which reviewer and novelist Jane Smiley called "both insightful and hilarious."

African fiction had a breakout year, with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Thing Around Your Neck (Knopf, $24.95) and Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah's lacerating story collection, An Elegy for Easterly (Faber & Faber, $23).

Want a true ripsnorter? One of the all-time page-turners? It has just been reissued. Umberto Eco, who writes the introduction, says it's one of the most poorly written of all the classics. Except you can't stop reading! One for long winter nights, fire roaring, blanket wrapped round your legs. And a whole lot of fun. Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo (Knopf/Everyman, $25.95).

And the Library of America keeps churning out its unparalleled series of our great writers, with collections this year of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Philip K. Dick, Manny Farber, A.J. Liebling, Abraham Lincoln, and Thornton Wilder.

A poetic year. It was a year of huge, much-needed anthologies, including The Greek Poets: Homer to the Present, edited by Peter Constantine, Rachel Hadas, Edmund Keeley, and Karen Van Dyck (Norton, $39.95) and The Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry, edited by Cecilia Vicuña and Ernesto Livon Grosman (Oxford University Press, $49.95)

The C.P Cavafy: Collected Poems, edited exquisitely by Daniel Mendelsohn (Knopf, $35), assembles this fine poet's work in a definitive collection. Pulitzer-winner Franz Wright scored again with Wheeling Motel (Knopf, $26.95). Reviewer Anis Shivani wrote that these poems "find continuity in a faith whose sincerity and clarity are indisputable." Local poet Miriam Kotzin published Reclaiming the Dead (New American, $14.95). Louise Glück offers Village Life (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26). And then there's John Updike's Endpoint and Other Poems (Knopf, $25), a last word, praised by reviewer Frank Fitzpatrick for its heft, brilliance, and poignant power.