Best of 2009: Books

Tobias Carroll’s picks

Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca
Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler
by Amelia Gray
Lowboy by John Wray
The Other City by
Michal Ajvaz

Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson

Between Jan Elizabeth Watson’s novel of a brother and sister raised in isolation and Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor, this was a good year for novels evoking childhood. Both Watson and Whitehead deftly suggest their narrators’ adult destinies with a few turns of phrase — in Watson’s case, it’s done almost entirely through implication. That the unsettling and compelling mood that Watson establishes in the first third of the novel isn’t dispelled when its setting is disrupted is an impressive feat as well.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor is neatly precise in its focus: the hand-drawn maps that greet you as you open the book, the occasional points in which cleanly arranged fonts give way to hand-written explanations of the anatomy of insults. It’s a personal geography — hell, a personal reference shelf — writ large. And his evocation of the outskirts of New York City in the mid-eighties summoned up many a wary flashback to Top 40 radio and long summertime drives.

Big World by Mary Miller

There is, I would say, a fine literary tradition of short stories focusing on lives that could be called marginal: situations that could disintegrate at the loss of a paycheck, relationships whose implosion could be anticipated by even the most casual of bystanders. Her protagonists are sometimes heartbreakingly transparent and at others maddeningly inscrutable, but they never fail to earn the reader’s empathy.

Jason Diamond’s Picks

Favorite Fiction Collection

Not sure if it’s due to my own ignorance or just a severe lack of proper translations, but I haven’t read as much contemporary fiction from Russia. I guess the closest I’ve come is the wonderful collection Wild East: Stories From the Last Frontier, which doesn’t really count, nor does the crop of writers from post-Soviet countries living in America like Shteyngart, Gessen, Hemon or Anya Ulinich. This is why I found Rasskazy: New Fiction From a New Russia to be a very welcomed addition to my bookshelf this year. While I can’t say I loved every single story in the Tin House collection, Rasskazzy stands to remind us that Russia is a country still putting out vital literature — despite the memory of censorship that creeps into its writing.

Favorite Non-Fiction

Kari Lydersen’s tale of the Republic Windows & Doors factory takeover, Revolt on Goose Island (Melville House), was not only a great account of an extremely interesting moment for 21st century labor activism, but it was a book that should place Lydersen’s name alongside Sinclair, Royko, and Terkel in the canon of great Windy City political reporting.

Also of note:

Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin
The Adderall Diaries by Stephen Elliott
Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! by Jonathan Goldstein
Studs Terkel’s Working by Harvey Pekar, & Paul Buhle (Graphic novel)
Lowboy by John Wray
Granta’s “Chicago Issue”