Ten Great Books of 2009

Here are excerpts from
ten reviews of what we believe to be
the best books of 2009.

The Last Prince of
The Mexican Empire

Catherine Mansell Mayo
If this is all too confusing, don't sweat it: everything is made clear, charmingly so, in The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. The book is chockablock full of royal families, royal rumors, royal disputes, as well as being an Upstairs, Downstairs to 19th Century royal life of uplands Mexico. It is also packed with the lore of that country from 140 years ago. The views to the twin volcanoes to the east. The brilliance of the sky. The omnipresent jarring rattle of coaches driving across the cobblestones of this (and all) 19th century cities. The dulces de cacahuate, the frijoles con epazote, the humble taco and tortillas.

Outside of the food, and the parties, and the dances, and the royal visits, there were a few problems that presented themselves during the short reign of Carlota and Maximilian. Like the fact that they were in an occupied country. And that some, namely the Mexican president, Benito Juárez, along with many of his subjects, didn't want them there.

The French soldiers weren't so enchanted either: they don't think too much of spilling their blood over a wasteland 5,000 miles from home. There sits the emperor "on his cactus throne," says the tough old French General François-Achile Bazaine. "For the glory of France" soldiers are dying of "typhoid, cholera, gangrene, syphilis, meningitis, yellow fever." They have been "shot, stabbed, burned alive and castrated, disemboweled."

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Freeman Walker
David Allan Cates
Historical fiction? Bildungsroman? Picaresque? How about all three .... and then some.

Freeman Walker is a dandy travel book taking us through mid-19th Century America and England. It's a funny coming-of-age tale for our half-slave, half-freedman. It's crammed with characters from London, America, the battlefields, the graves, the old west: A father who carries the Declaration of Independence around in his pocket, a Jewish thief who always leaves half of the loot behind (in case his victims might need it), the Irish Colonel Cornelius O'Keefe, who led one of the many uprisings against the English, who appears as "Acting Governor" of the "Western Territory," with his band of ghostly Irish soldiers:

    One night he stopped, however, and I could see the reflection of his face grow grim. 'I've seen enough fighting,' he said, 'to last until eternity. And have you noticed how I'm trailed everywhere by the dead.'
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An Odyssey of
Pacific Ocean Debris

Bonnie Henderson
(Oregon State University Press)
Henderson knows how to write dispassionately and clearly about the seashore. Her enthusiasm for the usual trash to be found on a beach (for instance, the different types of glass floats) mixes well with her fascination for the dramatic (how a Coast Guard helicopter sets out on a rescue; what happens to a container ship in a hurricane).

There is the unexpected: how eBay has distorted the market for the Japanese gomi; the words of an expert on floating debris ... oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer: "My view is that plastic is eventually going to end humanity."

And then there is the nakedly comic: 29,000 rubber duckies spilled out of a container in the middle of the Pacific (most are still floating around the vast ocean); adventures with some highly regarded scientists in a launch in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, collecting "whale poop." It's a wonderful ride along the whole Strand.

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As a Friend
A Novel
Forrest Gander
(New Directions)
The wonder of this is the concentration of it. It's Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio married to Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts, brought together with overtones of Faulkner. (It's no accident that there is a character here named Quinton, whose name will set off bells for those of us who have been reading and rereading The Sound and the Fury for lo these many years.)

Forrest Gander? Did he make up that name? By page 7 you can't tear me away. By page 20 I am thinking where did he come from (Mars? Venus?) And by page 50 I am wondering that there are writers and there are writers and this guy takes the cake. How do these novelists do it?

Dylan Thomas said it was all a matter of "a craft and sullen art." It sure as hell is not something they teach you in school. Don't ask me. I tried.

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Nights in the
Pink Motel

An American Strategist's
Pursuit of Peace in Iraq

Robert Earle
(Naval Institute Press)
Fiction? Who can possibly know if all the people appearing here are real: Condi Rice, Colin Powell, John Negroponte, H. K. George, George W. Casey, George Bush (The Elder), George Bush (The Younger), George Washington, George V, Boy George? (I just threw in these last three to see if you were paying attention.)

Above all, there is here one Robert Earle: a novelist and, perhaps, a journalist in the style, most improbably, of Daniel Defoe. Did he make all these people up? Did he make himself up? It's that oldest of Hegelian paradoxes: who are we? Who is it that makes up your mind? Who is this Robert Earle? Ought we worry?

No matter who he is, he's a wizard with words ... and completely believable. He tells us on page two that his psychiatrist is "not pleased" with his decision to go to Iraq. And when he is shipped home (the first of three returns) with a dangerous blood-clot in his leg, his nurse --- a modern-day Army Nurse Ratched --- chastises him for taking just too many tranquilizers without her specific permission.

His trips to the Middle East consistently make him sick, damn near kill him, certainly plunge him into despair. And I'm thinking that if I had to live with, deal with, answer to those who made up American policy in Iraq over the last few years, I'd feel pretty ill meself.

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Matthew Dickman
(American Poetry Review)
The thirty outsized poems here can reach inside of us to build a funny world of funny people doing and seeing funny things with a sense that is so pure we can see it as the American dream, taking the commonplace and elevating it in jazz riffs to turn the simple into an elegant but beautiful vision.

    I can't tell you how strangely romantic the Atlantic becomes when the sky
    is dumping snow into it.

It is the task of a poet to take things that don't belong together and wrap them up in the same blanket and as you read it you nod your head and know that it is right and good and proper. Dickman can take snow falling in the black Atlantic, transform it into "seeing, for the first time / a naked body."

    Even though you know her name. You have even played a part
    in making her naked, but now she is something
    altogether different.

This isn't show-off stuff, a poetic version of name-dropping. It is, rather, the right stuff: marrying things that should perhaps have been wed all along.

Pat McGuiness writes that during the anarchist attacks in Paris in 1894, Stéphane Mallarmé expressed disgust. "Only one person had the right to be an anarchist: me, the poet, because I alone produce something that society doesn't want, in exchange for which it gives me nothing to live on." Dickman is just such a figure: giving us not only what we should want, but, at the same time, demanding nothing in exchange.

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Candida Lawrence
Sixty years ago I read a story about the ultimate punishment. It told of people who are forced to live on and on (and on). They are in a hospital/prison where people --- 110, 125, 150 years old --- simply want to get out, be gone. But those who run the system bring in the best medical care, state-of-the-art to patch up the old folks after the usual multiple attempted suicides. It's the law of the land. You have to keep on going. No abandoning ship until you have served your time.

The ultimate twist in Vanishing lies in the very last essay, about sister Anne's own dementia and death. (She's the one who earlier on found Molly "deeply asleep.") At Anne's memorial service, people said, "Oh, you must miss her so much," and I said: "I do, I do..."

    I remember her phone number and sometimes I call her and her answering machine says: "Hello, this is Anne. Please leave your name and number. I'll call you back as soon as I can."

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Conquest of
The Useless

Reflections from
The Making of Fitzcarraldo

Werner Herzog
Krishna Winston,

This nut project. And this nut, Herzog, by the majesty of his screwy vision, drags all these people --- hundreds, thousands --- friends, family, associates, investors, Indians, Peruvians, Germans ... drags them into this lorky project, so that it becomes their project, so much so that they come to him, to try to talk him out of this screwy idea, in that land of trees and monkeys and bugs and soldiers and Indians and egomaniacal actors and whores and fighting drunks and paranoiacs: to talk him out of this project, because he is mad to have even conceived it, and, even worse, is madder yet .... no? ... to keep on so that they will too (maybe) have to go ahead and do it with him and go mad too.

It is the way power works, no? There he is, our modern-day Maximilian, there in the director's chair, assuming his own power, swaying his followers into thinking they too can be part of this screwy world of visionaries, those who dare to haul massive boats over massive peaks before the camera (the very one he stole from the Munich Film School; it was his right ... he told them).

And it worked: they bought into his cracked idea, had to watch as the world they thought they were creating slowly spun apart. The demand of destiny; the demand of history.

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Crow Planet
Essential Wisdom from
The Urban Wilderness

Lyanda Lynn Haupt
(Little, Brown)
She is a delightful writer, and obviously, because she is looking for crows, she sees them everywhere. She even claims to have seen a batch of them at an Indigo Girls outdoor concert at the Seattle Zoo. "A few songs into the first set, about twenty crows settled in a tree at the edge of the field, and every one of them sat there quietly, with toes and faces pointed to the stage."

    I watched the three on the "front-row" branch. Were they ---? I can hardly suggest it, and it was barely perceptible. Were they nodding their heads in time? "If the world is night --- shine my life like a light."

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The Twin
Gerbrand Bakker
David Colmer, Translator

(Archipelago Books)
Being twinned. That's one of the themes. Alone on the farm with the animals and a dying (and laconic) father is another. Intergenerational, often silent, battles. Old loves, twisted in fantasy. Men who may or may not love other men ... but who are sure they shouldn't. Strange animals (a hooded crow figures prominently in The Twin). Life and dying.

Last month, we reviewed another book from Archipelago, The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre. We tried to address the vexing question of writing about someone who has a dull life ... how to make it interesting. We wondered how you could write a book about a fifty-seven year old waiter in a Paris café and not put us to sleep. How do you make the reader care, much less go on until we get to the end. We weren't so sure that Fabre's Waitress succeeded. But Bakker, in The Twin, has solved that problem, and in a most diverting way.

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The Bird of Dawning
Or, The Fortune of the Sea
John Masefield
(National Maritime Museum)
I don't know where Masefield gets the power of his words and the ability to put together such a stupendous narrative, complete with a compelling knowledge of the sea, but he has it, and as we speak, I am in it and I am about to leave you and plunge (wet, cold, dangerous, perhaps fatal) back into that longboat again.

I guarantee you, The Bird of Dawning won't leave you alone, and you won't want it to. It's like the black shark that hounds the clinker-built launch, about as long as it is, too, and soon enough you know as do the sixteen stranded sailors that the lack of water will finally get to you. As the old salt Kemble says of his previous days adrift on the ocean,

    "We were four days before we got ashore somewhere on the East of Cape Horn, and eleven days living there on shell-fish and sea-weeds and trash. But the thirst before we got ashore was the thing that killed us. We chewed buttons, and the eyelets from a sail we had. But we used to look at each other and think, 'My God, that fellow is full of blood and I could drink it.'"
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