2009 Best Books

I go through a lot of books in a year: new and old, fiction and non, borrowed and bought. At year’s end I like to look back through the stacks and call out a few titles that really stood out. So here you go.

FICTION

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Erickson was one of my happiest discoveries of the year, a wildly imaginative writer with an enviable prose style. I’m about halfway through his back-catalog and this is my favorite so far, a dark fable of Hollywood that’s right up there with “Day of the Locust” and “Barton Fink.” This guy really knows his movies – the book is riddled with enough film references to keep even a cinemaniac running back and forth to IMDB. And he creates a truly mythic character in Vikar, a “cinema savant” who’s so in love with the movies that he has a scene from his favorite film (A Place in the Sun) tattooed on his head. Erickson is also on my super-short list of writers who really understand L.A. – in good company with novelists like Didion and Chandler. I just couldn’t put this one down.

The Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses/The Crossing/Cities of the Plain) by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy, IMO one of our greatest living writers, is finally getting his due with the back-to-back successes of “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road.”  This trilogy is mid-period Cormac, halfway between the Faulknerian whimsy of “Suttree” and the gaunt minimalism of “The Road.” In this mode he reads a lot like Hemingway: lots of ands and ands and very few commas. The dialog is unattributed and unpunctuated but fairly easy to follow, except when it gets into Spanish, which is pretty often. Unless you’re bilingual you’ll want to keep a Spanish dictionary close to hand. But it’s entirely worth the hassle. I don’t think I’ve ever read a better Western saga, postmodern or otherwise. These stories are set in the 1940s but the cowboy action is timeless. Young men in love with horses, Mexican women, and an obsolete sense of personal honor, not necessarily in that order. There’s enough gunplay and knife-fighting for a whole season of “Deadwood,” and some truly unforgettable characters.

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

Epic and kaleidoscopic, full of profound weirdness and stunning, hallucinatory prose. Magical-realist, yes, but forget comparisons to Garcia-Marquez; this is more Pynchonian in its lucid irrationality, a waking dream of Spain’s conquest of Mexico that straddles multiple centuries, from Aztec creation myth to Millenial apocalypse. Alternately frustrating and mind-blowing – I came close to quitting it more than once, particularly in the first book, “The Old World” – but Fuentes kept dragging me back with his wild imagination and beautiful writing. The second book, “The New World,” stands on its own as an epic re-imagining of Mexico’s origins and conquest. And the third book, “The Next World,” is just a complete mind-bender, with side trips to ancient Rome and a savage version of modern Mexico, where human sacrifice has been reinstated and dissent is suppressed by the US military. A dark & twisted masterpiece from the lion of Mexican lit.

Fool: A Novel by Christopher Moore

It takes balls to fuck with the Bard, and Moore’s got a honking big codpiece. This is “King Lear” retold from the fool’s perspective, spinning tragedy into fine black farce. The fact that he’s rogering all three of Lear’s daughters adds some unique insights to his observations on the celebrated dysfunctional family.  Moore’s best and funniest book since “Lamb.”

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

While I’m not a fan of his music (with or without the Bad Seeds), I was knocked out by this strange and delicious novel from junk-rocker Nick Cave. Set in the south of England, it’s told from the POV of an outrageously sleazy traveling salesman and fanatical cocksman. When his long-suffering wife commits suicide, he embarks on a strange road trip with his sensitive young son. As the title implies, things do not end well for Bunny – but the journey is well worth the ticket, propelled by a keen eye for character and a relentless, savage black humor. In the words of Irvine Welsh, “Put Cormac McCarthy, Franz Kafka and Benny Hill together in a Brighton seaside guesthouse and they might just come up with The Death of Bunny Munro.”

Pygmy by Chuck Palahniuk

Palahniuk is definitely on a rebound, and this latest novel is one of his best. The title character is a deep-cover secret agent from a nameless Asian fistocracy, trained from infancy to disrupt the American heartland through acts of murder, sabotage, and mayhem. So what if he’s still in junior high? Described by one reviewer as “South Park meets the Manchurian Candidate,” Pygmy is simultaneously a martial-arts suspense thriller, a school-crush comedy of manners, and a wry, punishing look at Wal-Mart middle America. Not for the easily offended, it’s full of shocking violence and shameless humor.

Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami

Like his namesake Haruki, the “other” Murakami has an abiding hunger for the surreal, a darkly satiric sense of humor, and a talent for bringing the reader in one little twist at a time. But this story, which tracks the lives of two infants abandoned in a Tokyo train station, also hits a sustained note of Japanese angst and nihilism, with shades of Yukio Mishima and Natsuo Kirino. In other words, it’s informed by some of the best of earlier generations of Japanese fiction, and still entirely its own creature. It also benefits from a terrific translation – highly readable, with a deft use of slang and profanity.

NONFICTION

The Joke’s Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson and Me by Ralph Steadman

Who better than Steadman to add a second POV to all that fabled Me-journalism? While Ralph’s not the greatest writer, he has some great stories to tell, and makes up in earnest English weirdness what he lacks as a prose stylist. He also includes a rich collection of photos and drawings from his many assignments with Hunter. Unless Oscar Acosta suddenly turns up alive in Mexico after all these years, this is the best HST sidekick-story we’re ever likely to see.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays by Joan Didion

A great collection of essays. The title piece is a standout: a hard-boiled, eyes-open report from the Haight in ’67 that burns down the conventional hippy mythology in a bitter cloud of speed-smoke, paranoia, and dead brain cells. There are also some more reflective pieces on the history and geography of California that are real classics, capturing the sense of tragedy and loss that underlay our far-west obsession with progress. Not every piece is a home run, but the good ones are terrific.

Jupiter’s Travels: Four Years Around the World on a Triumph by Ted Simon

Four years. 78,000 miles. 45 countries. In the 1970s. On a Brit bike. The classic case of a bad idea well executed, and a great story in the bargain. My only complaint: some countries zip by pretty quickly, with not a lot said. I would have liked this book even more if it had been a bit thicker.

Across America By Motor-Cycle by C. K. Shepherd

Another ripping  yarn of two-wheeled adventure, and an amazing snapshot of America in the early 1920s. The author, a British WWI vet, has a great self-deprecating wit, and is a keen observer of Yanks in their native habitat. Half Jeeves and half Wooster, Shepherd is admittedly clueless about motorcycle mechanics, eloquently hateful of bad roads, and exceptionally fond of ice cream. I wish all travel books were this much fun to read.

Hunting Pirate Heaven: In Search of the Lost Pirate Utopias of the Indian Ocean by Kevisn Ruhby

The pirate theme is a minor note in this excellent travel saga, set in the wilds of southern Africa. Rusty cargo ships, truck motors repaired with bundles of dried grass, AIDS-riddled hookers, and decaying colonial plantations are what it’s really all about.

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