The Best Books of 2009


Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned
by Wells Tower
FSG, 256 pp., $24

The one about the creatively sadistic Vikings is also the most big-hearted and uplifting story in Wells Tower’s debut collection, which traces varieties of disturbance from the domestic all the way to the carnie-perpetrated. A North Carolina–raised devotee of the more squirmy versions of the Southern Gothic, Tower has a way of looking even closer at the exact wretched moment when the rest of us would turn away. ZACH BARON

Hold on to Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973–1992

by Tim Lawrence
Duke, 392 pp., $23.95

Russell was an experimental musician as comfortable playing cello for poet Allen Ginsberg, or Talking Heads, as improvising jazzy melodic hooks for underground dance classics like “Is It All Over My Face?” Friend and colleague Philip Glass became only the first to assemble a posthumous album from individual and collaborative recordings left behind. The passionate, revelatory anecdotes collected here follow Russell through those liminal downtown nightclubs, loft spaces, and recording studios that made his life and music possible. CAROL COOPER

Inherent Vice
by Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, 369 pp., $27.95

A detective story in which the crime is, basically, the murder of the 1960s hippie dream, Pynchon’s best book this century starts kind of sexy and ends with a literal fog descending onto the Santa Monica Freeway. In between, the book’s hero, Doc Sportello, will lose a sandal, a bad bet on the 1970 NBA Finals, and a good part of his faith in free love, though he never does get around to changing the name of his PI business: “Location, Surveillance, Detection”—LSD, for short. ZACH BARON

The Interrogative Mood
by Padgett Powell
Ecco, 194 pp., $21.99

It’s funny and philosophical and not afraid to ask, “If a gentle specimen of livestock passed you by en route to its slaughter, would you palm its rump?” A short book in which every sentence is a question, The Interrogative Mood is a kind of stylistic Hail Mary, reminiscent of David Markson or . . . well, nobody really, but with better rhythm and jokes where the Wittgenstein references would otherwise go. Not that it doesn’t have those, too. ZACH BARON

No Quarter: The Battle of the Crater, 1864
by Richard Slotkin

Random House, 432 pp., $28

No American war mirrors the nation’s character more accurately than our Civil War. Combat is never pretty, but the details of exactly how and why Union troops lost the infamous Battle of the Crater don’t flatter our national self-image. Nevertheless, Slotkin argues that unless we study and eradicate the racist logic that made white Union soldiers assist the enemy in slaughtering hundreds of their black Union comrades that day, we’ll be condemned to repeat such political tragedies no matter how many black presidents we elect. CAROL COOPER

Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh

by Adrian Heathfield and Tehching Hsieh

Live Art Development Agency and the MIT Press, 382 pp., $49.95

Between 1978 and 1986, New York artist Tehching Hsieh performed a series of five year-long projects that involved, respectively: confining himself to a large cage; punching a time clock every hour on the hour; living outside; remaining tied to Linda Montano with an eight-foot rope; and having absolutely nothing to do with art. Out of Now beautifully and meticulously documents each of these works and more. Copiously illustrated and containing helpful reflections by scholars and fellow artists, the book brings into focus a career that, until recently, was mostly the stuff of art-world legend. ALAN GILBERT

Poems: 1959–2009

by Frederick Seidel
FSG, 509 pp., $40

“I for years was unable to decide,/Tits or ass? And don’t forget legs.” A writer of transparent appetite and exacting self-confession, Frederick Seidel makes it easy to miss the darker psychological depths of his poetry. “I write about going fast,” he recently told The Paris Review. “I write about wanting things and liking things.” Yes, and yet—there is a humbling, too, and a pervasive, almost nostalgic sense of doubt beneath his poems’ brash veneer. ZACH BARON

Strength in What Remains
by Tracy Kidder

Random House, 278 pp., $26

If you’ve never read Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains will make you want to read everything he’s written. It’s a cheek-rippling narrative ride through the life of Deogratias, a young African refugee who flees the genocide in his native Burundi (neighbor to Rwanda) for New York City. Naturally, he finds it nearly as difficult to survive here, until a succession of benevolent New Yorkers takes him in, renewing his faith in humankind. Through masterful storytelling and a kind of humanist grace, Kidder bestows the same gift upon his readers. JED LIPINSKI

Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman
by Jon Krakauer

Doubleday, 416 pp., $27.95

There have been many indictments of the Bush Doctrine, but few make the tragedy of war more personal than Krakauer’s sobering account of Tillman, an NFL player who enlisted in the Army following 9/11. As with Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, Krakauer’s protagonist is an iconoclast, one who dreams of meeting Noam Chomsky after completing his military service. But Tillman was felled by friendly fire in Afghanistan, and a sense of outrage propels this riveting book: anger at the operational errors that left Tillman and his men stranded in the mountains, and at the ensuing cover-up, in which White House and Pentagon officials made propaganda of the Tillman tragedy while lying to his family. No mere hagiography, this is investigative reporting at its best. ALEXANDER NAZARYAN

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 434 pp., $26.95

In Atwood’s funniest novel in ages, two women have survived a pandemic, one barricaded in a beauty salon, the other sequestered in an endangered-species-themed strip club. In flashbacks, we learn they’re both members of an environmentalist group called “God’s Gardeners,” which doubles as an ecoterrorist cell. Always a brilliant social satirist, Atwood lovingly parodies Christian idealism—or does she embrace it?—while offering a sneaky feminist take on dystopia: The Road as hen party. JULIE PHILLIPS

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