At 9:00 on December 31st, I finished A Wind at the Door by Madeline L'Engle. That made 50 books for 2009, but didn't leave much time to write my backlogged reviews. A few of the books on my top 10 for the year don't havea proper review, so I'll leave all the 50bers with these capsule reviews and a pledge to do better next year.
This collection of short stories built around mankind's repeated attempts to colonize Mars runs the gamut from humorous to chilling, sometimes within the same story. Less than 200 pages long, this, like most of Bradbury's work, doesn't waste a word.
In Two Words: Alien Sensation!
Given its portenteous title and considerable length, I expected Bonfire to be tough. I read it on Chris's recommendation, and was glad to be proven wrong. Bonfire is at times hilarious, at times moving, and never dull. It satirizes the excesses of the 80's without the ironic distance characteristic of satire, and managed to make me sympathize with Sherman McCoy. Well-worth the read.
In Two Words: Flaming Fantastic!
Carlton recommended this to me, but, joke on him, I was already planning to read it. What plays as a religiously-tinged adventure story becomes a thought-provoking metaphor of the search for God, and has stuck with me longer than I expected.
In One Portmonteau: Indiancredible!
If 2008 stands out from a literary standpoint, it will be as the year I discovered Graham Greene. Although I've only read a few of his books, he may be the tightest prose stylist I've ever read. Very few of his books crack 250 pages, but they're all packed with thought-provoking scenarios and brilliantly simple turns of phrase. Monsignour Quixote is a riff on Don Quixote, one of my favorite books, and, although it's only the second best Greene I read this year, it didn't disappoint.
In Two Words: Monsignour Magnificent!
The Princess Bride by William Goldman
If you've seen the fantastic movie adaptation of The Princess Bride, nothing in the book is going to take you by surprise. However, the Granfather-Fred Savage framign device is replacing by a Pale Fire-esque commentating editor, and all the charm is fully intact. It was more fun than anything else I read this year, so it's on the list.
In Two Words: Truly Lovely!
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Unlike The Princess Bride, Moby-Dick could hardly be more different than its various adaptations. Although the base story, a sea captain's obsessive search for the mysterious white whale, is indeed in the novel, the narrative takes up maybe 1/3 of the book's 700 pages. The rest is a vast, infinitely interpretable metaphor for God, the human race, evil, obsession, all couched in the terminology of whaling and seafaring. If it sounds dull, I won't lie—sometimes it is. But the prose is beautiful and the whole, transcedent. It's also one of the primary forerunners of modernism and a serious contender for greatest American novel ever written.
In Two Words: FromHell'sDarkHeart IStabAtThee!
The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
I've never been a fan of war books, but The Things They Carried is hardly your standard war novel. Set in Vietnam, it's structured as a series of interconnected vignettes following the members of the O'Brien's company both in and out of wartime. It's gut-wrenching and never glorifying, which reminds me a little of my next entry.
In Two Words: Boom! Auuuuugh!
I think I said everything I wanted to say about this book in my review, but it's great. Read it.
In Two Words: Kilgore Trout
Anna Karenina is the prototypical Russian great novel. A massive cast of characters, a setting in the 1800's, themes of redemption, Christianity, politics, fox hunting, and plenty of soap operatic melodrama. It also features Tolstoy's most brilliant passages, a forerunner to the stream-of-conciousness that dominated modernist literature. No one writes people like Tolstoy, and the Pevear/Volkhonsky translation reads as easily as Dan Brown.
In Two Words: Pevear Volkhonsky
When I finished The Power and the Glory, I knew it was very good. When began analyzing it and thinking about it afterward, I realized it was great. Greene's story of a persecuted priest in early 20th century Mexico is haunting and human in a way nothing else this year was. Greene's method of questioning Christianity, specifically Catholicism, is both thought-provoking and encouraging, and the whiskey priest's struggles are familiar to anyone struggling to reconcile or find faith in a world that doesn't always make sense. This has my highest recommendation and is one of the best books I've ever read.
In Two Words: Power, Glory
I intentionally read a lot more pulp this year, and it resulted in some real stinkers. Here they are, least bad first:
The Homing, Jeffrey Campbell – More like The Boring.
Doom: Knee Depp in the Dead, Dafydd ab Hugh and Brad Linaweaver – This book was better than I expected, but... I wasn't expecting much.
It's been great, everyone. See you in 2009.