Booked for the Holidays

Slate picks the best reads of 2009.

Michael Agger, senior editor John Updike’s Endpoint is a final burst of fluency from the New England master. Who else could spin a charming poem out of a trip to Best Buy to buy a new computer? “Brave world! The geeks in matching shirts/ talked gigabytes to girls with blue tattoos.” Updike’s lyric gift carried him to the end. His words meet death both obliquely and directly. Read this book late in the evening, with a stiff drink by your side. Then marvel at Updike’s metaphors, like the one about Payne Stewart’s swing: “its aftermath shimmered in the air: dragonfly wings.” Or at his cold-palmed observations, as when studying the departure gate for Florida: “Now, agèd, average, dullish, lame, and halt/ we claim our due, our fun doom in the sun.” And at his gentle knocks on your soul: “Birthday, death day—what day is not both?”

Emily Bazelon, senior editor and DoubleX co-editor In A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert tells a set of interlocking stories about the women who populate the branch of one family tree, moving from a British suffragette of the 19th century to her contemporary descendants in Manhattan and Delaware. Grandmothers and mothers pass along more damage than wisdom, and Walbert shows us how this stunts the growth of their daughters and granddaughters. The prose is spare; Walbert, who was my fiction teacher in college, at moments reminds me of another master stylist, Marilynne Robinson. In the end, the novel adds up to more than the sum of its chapters because of its historical arc and its images. The suffragette starves herself as a political statement, and when her young daughter crawls into bed with her at the end, it’s a death made senseless.

Christopher Beam, political reporter President Obama’s decision to double down on the war in Afghanistan invites comparisons to the last surge—the influx of more than 20,000 troops to Iraq in 2007—which David Finkel recounts from the perspective of one battalion in The Good Soldiers. The commander of this east Baghdad force, Ralph Kauzlarich, tackles the mission with relentless optimism: “It’s all good,” he repeats, as everything goes from not-good to less so. Even when the war’s stats improve—fewer attacks, fewer American and Iraqi deaths—morale deteriorates. IEDs litter the roads. Rockets and homemade bombs rain down on the base. Successes, like killing an Iraqi who detonated a roadside bomb, scar the soldiers as much as their failures. Finkel cuts back and forth between Washington and Baghdad, Congressional hearing and Humvee on fire. The reality gap is astonishing. Soldiers marvel at the certainty of American politicians and analysts, both for and against the war. After watching friends die, what begins as an earnest refrain—“Good thing we’re winning”—by the end becomes a punchline. (Fred Kaplan, Slate’s “War Stories” columnist, seconds this selection.)

Christopher Benfey, art critic I took Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi to the beach last summer and didn’t want it or the trip to end. It felt like the perfect vacation book, a novel about a hack writer’s working holiday that ends more or less the way Gustav von Aschenbach’s does in Death in Venice. The Venice half of the book is deliriously funny, sexy, and deft—the international art world is skewered perfectly. The India section is a perfect counterweight, spiritual and profound. When I finished Dyer’s book, I wanted to prolong the pleasure, so I went back and reread Mann’s novella. It was much funnier than I’d remembered, with sentences here and there that I could have sworn Dyer himself had inserted.

Sara Dickerman, contributor With Chronic City, genre mix-master Jonathan Lethem takes the stuffiness out of a Manhattan society novel by overlaying it with dystopian fantasy. An unending winter has descended over a parallel New York. A former child star, whose astronaut fiancé is marooned in outer space, befriends an agoraphobic retired street philosopher amid a skunky cloud of pot smoke. A mysterious creature (or is it a machine?) is destroying entire city blocks with each sporadic attack. Needless to say, conspiracies emerge. There’s something a little gaudy about Lethem’s huge cast of characters—the gazillionaire mayor, the heiress, the misanthropic artist—but thanks to his impossibly vigorous language, I couldn’t get enough. And for all the roiling plot and characters, the book is surprisingly tender, a knotty skein of city nostalgia and improbable alliances.

Jessica Grose, managing editor of DoubleX
The Liars’ Club, Mary Karr’s first memoir about her unfortunate childhood in East Texas, was about such a singular experience—how many other women can say their mamas tried to kill them with a butcher knife?—that I wondered whether she had used up all her best material. Though her most recent memoir, Lit, is about the more common trials of alcoholism, divorce and spiritual discovery, it is just as compelling, and beautifully written, as that first effort. Following Karr’s rise from unpublished, drunk poet to sober, Godly literary darling is the funniest damn thing—even her forays into the institution (“the mental Marriott,” in Karr’s parlance) are a riot, and the humor never seems forced. But it’s not all a cynical yuk-fest. Though the self-proclaimed “habitually morbid bitch” may not want to admit it, the pleasure of reading Lit is a very earnest one.

Johann Hari, contributor To my surprise, the books I most adored this year all belonged to a genre that is often dismissed as old-fashioned: the collection of essays. Wallace Shawn’s—titled simply Essays —are elegant and nimble and leave you feeling as if you have been disemboweled. He picks apart how, simply by living our lives as nice people in a Western society, we are complicit in atrocities towards the world’s poor, and we choose not to see it. With a sweet smile, he rips up all our self-justifying delusions, and shows us what we have become.

George Scialabba’s What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a beautiful exploration of how to be a left-wing intellectual without becoming despairing or delusional or a sell-out. It is a little bag of polished polemical diamonds. Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind is a gorgeous grab bag of essays that restores to literary criticism a quality that has been drowned out for too long by irony and postmodernism and willful obscurity—moral passion. I loved them all.

Nathan Heller, copy editor John Cheever was underappreciated through most of his career and tends, in death, to be too swiftly pigeon-holed. Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life (which I reviewed earlier this year) sets both scores straight. This carefully researched biography highlights the author’s constant innovations on the page and chronic restiveness in life, drawing out the intricate dynamic between the two. Fortunately for Bailey, Cheever was as eloquent in private correspondence as in published work, and the book is rich with its subject’s wry, bawdy voice. (“I’m afraid I was a nuisance about money,” Cheever once wrote an editor, “but I have this nightmare where I push a super-market wagon across River Street—macaroni and cold cuts—and am either run down by Roth in his Daimler or buzzed by Updike in a new flying machine.”) The result is an unusual thing—a careful and humane biography that’s as rollicking and irresistible as a beach read.

Ann Hulbert, books editor Don’t be fooled by the reflexive comparison of Alice Munro with Chekhov. Her most recent collection of stories, Too Much Happiness, will take you into Flannery O’Connor terrain. Trapped in her kitchen by a garrulous murderer, a widow spins a cathartic story. A young mother, her world blasted apart by a gruesome event, stumbles forward alone. A mysterious new arrival in a London, Ontario, rooming house lures a fellow student into dark recesses of humiliation. A son goes missing and resurfaces in a baffling guise. A childhood crime against a girl—mentally challenged, and loathed for no reason other than “the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life”—goes unconfessed but haunts two women. In this gothic realm, the grace is in the artlessly artful prose, which disturbs your innards and your map of life.

Juliet Lapidos, associate editor If you’re in the market for new ways to abuse your friends and family this holiday season, you might try reading Wells Tower’s excellent debut story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. In the title story, marauding Vikings hang monks from trees and subject a priest to a grotesque ritual called the “blood eagle.” (For details, see my full review.) At least these punishments are relatively swift—the modern American characters, who populate the rest of the stories, like their torture long and psychological. Take Matthew, the narrator of “Retreat” who invites his brother, Stephen, to Maine for a hunting trip, then antagonizes him compulsively. He’s late for the airport pickup, pressures Stephen into spending his life savings on an ill-advised real estate venture, and farts audibly when Stephen tries to communicate his sense of loneliness. Tower’s characters treat their loved ones exactly as badly as they treat themselves. It’s like the golden rule. Perfect for Christmastime.

Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor The most important legal book I read this year was Karen Greenberg’s The Least Worst Place, about the first 100 days at Guantanamo. It’s a detailed look at an unmined sliver of history: the very first decisions taken about the camp detainees. As it turns out, career officers tried to implement humane policies, only to be thwarted by Bush administration officials. While we tend to think of the disaster that is Guantanamo as an inevitability, Greenberg provides a taxonomy of what went wrong and shows us that it could all have come out very differently.

Noreen Malone, copy editor Quiet Midwestern girls such as myself rarely get to play the literary muse. Perhaps it’s because, as Lorrie Moore writes in her novel A Gate at the Stairs, we have a tendency to respond to any situation with such thrilling utterances as “sounds good,” whether it does or not. (“It appeared to clinch a deal, and was meant to sound the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except it was promiseless—mere affirmative description.”) But Moore skillfully excavates beneath the outwardly unremarkable, “sounds good” surface of her heroine, 20-year-old farm girl Tassie Keltjin—to thrilling effect. Tassie works in her college town as a nanny to a sophisticated couple that’s adopted a biracial child, she in turn excavating beneath the surface of their marriage. Critics have faulted the plot for veering off the rails in the last third of the novel, when the aftermath of 9/11 looms large in some all-too-convenient ways. They’re not wrong. But Moore’s writing is so lucid and witty and absorbing that you’ll barely notice.

Troy Patterson, television critic Appearing five months after the writer’s death and clocking in at 1,200-odd pages, The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard thus resembles a commemorative slab or a gravestone. Its scale is appropriate to Ballard’s career-long engrossment in impossibly steep heights, dreadfully vast distances, and terrible immensity. One early story, “The Concentration City,” opens with snatches of conversation overheard on Millionth Street in an infinitely extending town—a kind of nightmare omnipolis from which its hero cannot escape. In “The Drowned Giant,” which deserves a place in any anthology of 20th-century stories, the corpse of a colossus washes up on a beach to be prodded at, scrambled over, and finally picked clean of its flesh. Rendered with a surgeon’s cool precision, lit by a mad scientist’s visionary passion, these and many of the other 96 stories are vertiginously tall tales.

Robert Pinsky, poetry editor Jim Powell’s Substrate has an eloquent, precise fury that may surprise readers skeptical about contemporary poetry. I suggest that such readers begin with the book’s final, title section, a history of the colonization and development of California through actual, individual lives. I am proud to acknowledge that several of the poems, including the amazing “Two Million Feet of Vinyl,” were first published in Slate. As Powell’s fellow-Californian Frank Bidart says in a blurb, “Powell’s subject is nothing less than how energy and power rise, decay, then reconstitute themselves.” To that subject, Powell brings clarity, passion, a true poet’s ear, and an eye for the natural world and social realities—both perceived with a sharp awareness of violence and grace.

David Plotz, editor It’s easy enough for a novelist to conjure Tudor England: a king (lascivious), a galleon (gold-laden), a feast (meaty, meady), a maiden (rosy), a bodice (ripped). But in all the millions of pages written about the period—in all those Jean Plaidy novels I gobbled up as a boy—there probably wasn’t a single kind word about Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer, minister, and hatchet man who enabled Henry VIII to divorce his wife, marry Anne Boleyn, and break with the Catholic Church. Cromwell is universally loathed in fiction and film, notably as the villainous foil to Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. But the Cromwell of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is the most sympathetic hero I’ve met in years. As he rises from gutter poverty to counsel to Cardinal Wolsey to confidante of Anne and the king, Cromwell is a man of infinite complexity: tolerant, just, loyal, flexible, ruthless, generous, witty, careful, and four steps ahead of the dopey earls and rigid bishops who oppose him. Wolf Hall is pure pleasure to read, a 560-page man crush.

Jack Shafer, “Press Box” columnist Not just for journalism hounds, John Maxwell Hamilton’s Journalism’s Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting   ladles from the last two and a half centuries a detailed history of American reporting from abroad. In the beginning, foreign correspondence was practically that—interesting letters from people living overseas published alongside pieces stolen without attribution from foreign newspapers. James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald was the first to bring genuine enterprise to the form, coordinating a network of European correspondents in the 1830s to compose timely, insightful dispatches. Hamilton, a former foreign correspondent turned academic, assembles the components of the big foreign-reporting machine—the editors, publishers, reporters, fixers, and shooters as well as technologies such as transoceanic telegraph cables, television, the geosynchronous satellite, the personal computer, and the Internet—to produce an authoritative book. There is nothing like it in the library.

John Swansburg, culture editor OK, I admit it: In college, I wrote a villanelle about the moon. And I was sort of proud of it. Villanelles are hard. I also once sang happy birthday to A.R. Ammons. Long story. Suffice it to say I came to Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist as something of a lapsed poetry enthusiast, which is a nice way to come to it. The novel is essentially a long, discursive monologue by Paul Chowder, a poet who can’t seem to finish the introduction to an anthology he’s edited. By way of procrastination, he edifies the reader with his theories about why poems don’t rhyme any more, why iambic pentameter isn’t as big a deal as you’ve been led to believe, and why his girlfriend left him. Chowder’s passion for poetry can be wild-eyed, but it’s also infectious—he keeps making you want to put down the novel and run to the nearest volume of Mary Oliver. What keeps you coming back is Chowder himself—a frustrating, self-destructive, utterly amiable man who is impossible not to root for. Finish the book, Paul! Win back the girl!

June Thomas, foreign editor After wolfing down Joan Schenkar’s The TalentedMiss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, I have now read as many books about Patricia Highsmith as I have by her—two. And although Schenkar makes the case that her subject wrote “five or six of the more unsettling long fictions of the twentieth century,” I’m content to take her word for it and never make it to three. I would, however, read anything else Schenkar writes. She’s the perfect guide to the life of a disagreeable but dedicated writer—confident, clear, and appropriately judgmental. Patricia Highsmith was a manipulative, exploitative, selfish, self-hating, obsessive, racist, alcoholic anti-Semite who prioritized her work and her definition of success above all else. But by providing the raw material for this wonderful biography, Highsmith did the world a great mitzvah.

Tom Vanderbilt, “Transport” columnist With Soccernomics, the Financial Times’ indispensible Simon Kuper and top-flight sports economist Stefan Szymanski bring scrupulous economic analysis and statistical rigor to a sport long dependent on hoary—and, it seems, unfounded—assumptions. Just in time for South Africa, Kuper and Szymanski doggedly unpack some of soccer’s (and yes, it OK to call it that, they note; it’s what England called it for most of last century before a fashionable turn toward football) most enduring questions. Most pressingly, why England loses—but also why capital cities fare poorly in European competition, what sorts of players are overpaid (older center-forwards), and the thorny game-theory of penalty kicks (“So Anelka knew that Van Der Sar knew that Anelka knew that Van Der Sar tended to dive right against right footers”). They also fairly demolish an Alexandrian library of sporting clichés—e.g., that the NFL’s socialistic “parity” system makes for a more equitable distribution of champions than England’s free-market Premier League. (It does only by a negligible amount.) Gripping and essential.

Jonah Weiner, pop critic Bank Notes compiles the work of the country’s highest-paid writers: self-published, anonymous scribes who can command upward of $1,800 a word. They’re bank robbers who pass notes to tellers, forgoing weapons in their holdups. As anthologized by Ken Habarta—who reprints the notes alongside security-camera shots, available details of the robberies, and icons indicating the jobs’ success or failure—these thieves are practitioners of a fascinating, urgent literature. What other writing seeks to do so much in such little space, and with so much at stake? There’s unlikely poetry: “No die,” one note goes, a reference to anti-theft dye-packs that doubles as a chilling threat. (Success.) There’s blunt, utilitarian prose: “Give me a thousand dollars and don’t fuck up.” (Busted.) There’s black comedy: “I have amtrak,” a thief writes, likely meaning anthrax. (I won’t spoil that one.) Some robbers look unremarkable. Others wear painter’s masks or fake moustaches. The information provided is bare-boned, but every page is a gripping mini-drama.

Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of The Slate Group As a judge of this year’s BBC Samuel Johnson Prize, I spent the first half of the year reading loads of nonfiction. One of our finalists, which I haven’t stopped thinking about, was The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes’ account of the Romantic era’s relationship with science. If, like me, you didn’t study much science after high school, this absorbing narrative will make you appreciate the gravity of your mistake. At one level, it is simply an enchanting group biography of the great British discoverers Joseph Banks, Humphrey Davy, and William Herschel, and their relationships with the likes of Keats, Coleridge, Byron and the Shelleys. At another, Holmes’s book is a persuasive plea to heal the pointless breach between the “two cultures” of science and the humanities. Reading it made we want to do college over, this time as a history of science major.

Emily Yoffe, “Dear Prudence” and “Human Guinea Pig” columnist Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room, short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, opens in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia. It is a brief era of Czech independence from the usual domination of neighboring countries, and the main characters, a Jewish industrialist and his gentile wife, build a radically modern home made mostly of glass to celebrate the throwing off of the dark, dead past and the welcoming of a world of light and freedom. Then the rest of the 20th century happens. In this exquisite novel, the vast tragedies that befall the Czech people—Nazism, communism—are told through the successive inhabitants of the house. But the people in glass room often remain opaque to themselves and others. It’s a brilliant stroke by Mawer to have the convulsions of the 20th century play out in this sparkling house built on optimism. Wait until you finish to read the story of the real house, Villa Tugendhat, designed by Mies van der Rohe.

And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers and contributors: Dumb Money: How Our Greatest Financial Minds Bankrupted the Nation, by Daniel Gross; 1959: The Year Everything Changed, by Fred Kaplan; The Great Depression: A Diary,edited by James Ledbetter; The Best Legal Writing 2009, edited by Dahlia Lithwick; Reputation: Portraits in Power,edited by Timothy Noah; Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Single Word of the Bible, by David Plotz; My Two Polish Grandfathers: And Other Essays on the Imaginative Life, by Witold Rybczynski. The F-Word, edited by Jesse Sheidlower; and Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France, by Michael Steinberger.