2009 Best Books

January 12, 2010

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.

Read the rest of this entry »