Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

It is about -6 degrees Celsius outside the farm this morning and in an attempt to avoid taking the dog for a walk until it warms up at least a degree or two (an event which involves a considerable amount of bundling for Mademoiselle Petitvore), I thought I would begin to write about some of my favorite reads from 2009. These are in no certain order of importance and my categories may stand on shaky ground:

For making history something magical and mysterious:

  • Onitsha, J.M.G. Le Clezio – A young boy travels with his mother to colonial Africa to meet his until-then absent father. This is an extraordinarily beautiful book which captures perfectly how that kind of displacement must feel to such a young child.
  • Burnt Shadows, Kamila Shamsie – It’s very hard to capture what this book is about in just a few lines but I will attempt it and hazard that the central preoccupation of Burnt Shadows is how ignorance and fear, mostly fear, breed violence. Aside from that weighty focus, the book is uniquely constructed and beautifully written.
  • The Passion, Jeannette Winterson – A fairytale. I don’t know how else to describe this book. It’s short and lovely. If you like history (the Napoleanic Wars in this case) and a good, bittersweet love story witha real magical quality, then just read it.

For the sheer beauty of the prose:

  • Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson – Set in a cold and gray town in the midwest United States, this is the story of two sisters and their coming-of-age after their mother’s suicide. They are first cared for by their grandmother, and then a set of elderly great-aunts, but eventually their mother’s sister (an eccentric woman who has spent her adult life adrift, riding trains back and forth across the country) comes to live with them. Her presence is not a stabilizing force and the novel, told in the voice of the older sister, details the ultimate collapse of the small family unit. There is also a gentle exploration of what I can only call mental illness, but that term seems too strong…how about psychological fragility.  
  • Featherstone, Kirsty Gunn – A book about two tragic events in a small town. But the way Gunn creates the atmosphere of this town is truly remarkable. She does this from the inside out, I believe, creating characters with inner lives so intense, so intricately emotional that they all feel ready to burst. I really enjoy this view of humanity.

For making me laugh:

  • Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray – A romp through 19th century Europe and a hilarious satire of the “beautiful people” of that era. What made this book for me was the narrator and his tongue-in-cheek delivery of the story. Long, but brilliant fun. 
  • Into the Beautiful North, Luis Alberto Urrea – This book was funny, but the humor worked to soften an otherwise critical and serious story about life in small-town Mexico and how The United States looms and hulks over its southern neighbor. Some of the most unforgettable characters I’ve read about in a long time.  

For being something completely different:

  • Goldberg: Variations, Gabriel Josipovici – I had no idea what to expect for my first sampling of Josipovici but I loved this strange novel. The same story (but never really ever the same story) told from a variety of perspectives and time periods.
  • The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard – In essence a love story but what intrigued me so much about this book was the way in which Hazzard’s characters experience their lives. Their thinking and the way they approached their situations was unique and asked me to re-evaluate or re-consider how I might approach a similar event.

So that is a start, I have more to come!

14 Responses to “a start on the best reads of 2009”

  1. Sarah

    Wow I can’t imagine how cold -6 is, I’ve tried to avoid going outside today but because of the heat!

    I’m delighted to see The Passion, Vanity Fair and The Transit of a Venus on your list, as they’re all books I’ve greatly enjoyed.

    I’ve been unsure where to start with Le Clezio, Onitsha it is. I’ve also been meaning to try Gunn, so thanks for the reminder.

  2. Steven Riddle

    Dear Blogmaster,

    Thank you for this. On the basis of dismal Amazon Reviews, I had nearly removed Onitsha from my present list to read. On the basis of the strength of this list of recommendations, I’ll make sure to get through it. Thank you for the encouragement.



  3. Smithereens

    I have to read Le Clezio, but I confess: I’m afraid of his books; they seem too difficult for me. But considering your praise, I’ll put him again on my 2010 list!

  4. Stefanie

    This time of year is so much fun as my favorite book bloggers start posting lists like this! The only thing on this list I’ve only read a few of the books on your list but I am happy to see Josipovici made it! And it’s only -6 C there? We’ve been around -19 most mornings and are hoping to warm up to close to -6 today. Stay warm!

  5. verbivore

    Sarah – I loved Onitsha, but I’ve also heard wonderful things about Desert. I’m planning to read that one next.

    Steven – Thanks for leaving a comment. I’ll be interested to see what you think of Onitsha. I’m curious why the amazon reviews were so bad…

    Lilian – I was able to read a bit more this week and I loved it. I’m hoping the pattern keeps up 🙂

    Smithereens – I was really intimidated by Le Clezio as well, especially for a non-native speaker like me, I thought they would be way-too-difficult, but i was pleasantly surprised to the contrary and I look forward to more of his work. I’ll be curious to see what you think of him!

    Stefanie – I also love reading other bloggers favorites list, gives me tons of new books to check out. I can’t believe you’re at -19!!! I am miserable at -6, now I feel like quite a wimp 🙂

  6. Steph

    These all sound wonderful, and many of them are books that I own but have yet to read! So you’ve given me many wonderful thinks to look forward to! Can’t wait to see what your other favourites were (and must get started on my own list!)!

  7. Laurie

    Great roundup! Our book club is reading The Transit of Venus next. I’ll have to look up a few more of your suggestions, here. …

  8. Dominique

    Hi! I haven’t read any of these yet, but after reading your post will be adding them to my “to be read” list. Thanks!

  9. Dorothy W.

    Great list! I’m glad you enjoyed the Robinson so much and the Josipovici. There are a couple names on your list I’ve heard about only through you, and I’m curious to check them out.

  10. verbivore

    Steph – I look forward to your list when you get it put together!

    Laurie – Thank you! I hope your book club enjoys the Transit of Venus. I would have loved to read this one with a group as I suspect we would have had a great discussion.

    Dominique – I hope you enjoy some of these!

    Dorothy – I’ve really got to read some more Josipovici. I loved Goldberg:Variations and I have the sense it only skimmed the surface of what he can do.

  11. litlove

    What a great list here! I couldn’t finish L’etoile errante by Le Clezio, but certainly not because it was poorly written – far from it! I might try Onitsha instead. So glad you enjoyed Josipovici and I have that Hazzard novel on my shelves, waiting to be read. Just moved up a rung on the ladder now, thanks to your recommendation.

  12. Biblibio

    I can sort of see how Vanity Fair might amuse, but I still really had trouble reading it. And yet I enjoyed it. I’m still not sure how that works. You’re right though – the narrator makes it a very different type of book…

  13. Pete

    I’ve not read any of these but the Le Clezio sounds interesting and I’ll add it to my list. Currently a bit snowed under with reading but there’s always space for more!

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