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!