California Literary Review

Critics’ Picks: Best Books of 2009

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December 14th, 2009 at 9:42 am

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Fiction

All The Living, by C.E. Morgan
All the Living by C.E. Morgan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Every now and then, a writer comes along that makes you sit up and scent the talent. C.E. Morgan is one of those. Her debut novel, All the Living, is a meditation on love and living, set in the hardscrabble soil of a tobacco farm. It’s also a damn good read. ” — Elinor Teele

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt (Knopf)

“A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book skillfully combines her own fictional families with the historical cast of the Fabian Society and their free thinking, free-loving communities. It depicts their certainty of a coming social upheaval, of change, of a more open society. Wonderfully readable, wholly engrossing, all seven hundred pages of it (something of an achievement in itself!).” — Julia Braun Kessler

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press)

“Pynchon did his own book trailer for Inherent Vice, and it’s worth listening to just for the priceless ending. Inherent Vice is going to be his gateway book. Filled with quirky characters populating a neo-noir landscape (L.A. in the 70s), it’s Pynchon’s version of Chinatown with a wise-ass detective drawn into the tale by his “ex-old lady.” The book is a long strange trip of a story laced with sex, drugs and rock and roll. Emphasis on the drugs. And the rock. And in answer to the timeless question: The Beatles or the Stones? This book comes down squarely on the side of the Stones.” — Katherine Tomlinson

Knife Song Korea by Richard Selzer
Knife Song Korea by Richard Selzer (State University of New York Press)

“Octagenerian Selzer’s tale of forbidden love in an often forgotten war: It is a poignant telling of the story of two lost souls and may some day receive considerably more acclaim than it currently enjoys.” — John R. Guthrie

Stitches: A Memoir by David Small
Stitches: A Memoir by David Small (W.W. Norton & Co.)

“I cannot get Stitches: A Memoir by David Small out of my mind. When I close my eyes, the drawings of this graphic novel come back to me with the vividness and jolt of Edvard Munch’s famous lithograph, The Scream. Small has taken his nightmare childhood and turned it into a fairy tale, grimmer than Grimm, but his survival leaves you with hope. ” — Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten
Valeria’s Last Stand by Marc Fitten (Bloomsbury USA)

“This novel tells the story of a middle-aged woman who discovers new love as her small Hungarian village emerges from Communist rule to discover the twenty-first century. Fitten’s voice is sharp and full of mirth, and his protagonist is a strong, willful, and powerful heroine whose relentless lust for life stays with you long after the book is done.” — Katie Cappello

Non-fiction

Churchill by Paul Johnson
Churchill by Paul Johnson (Viking Adult)

“How often is there the temptation to contemplate our greatest figures as re-introduced into history? To see them transplanted into another period and confronted with the challenges of this age? Just how might they have handled our dilemmas? Can we picture Napoleon coping with the sudden fall of France in WW II, imagine Franklin Roosevelt tackling today’s American health care muddle, or Ronald Reagan addressing Iran’s tyrants, Khomeini and Ahmadineajad?

Especially tempting for such an exercise is someone like Winston Churchill. To think of possibilities for this giant, commonly regarded as the statesman who did more to preserve Western civilization and to maintain the freedoms inherited from the Enlightenment than anyone else, stuns the imagination! How would he have dealt with religious fanatics, nuclear weaponry, and more particularly the war in Afghanistan, the re-emergent Russian corporate state, among other striking challenges of the era.

It is even difficult to conceive how any biographer can convincingly depict this hero’s prescience and stamina during his long life, forever surrounded by the menaces of democracy’s destruction. Yet Paul Johnson manages just that, in a book that runs no more than 160 pages!” — Julia Braun Kessler

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins
The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution by Richard Dawkins (Free Press)

“Promotes the worthwhile business of rational discourse and lucid thought.” — John R. Guthrie

James E. Freeman 1808-1884: An American Painter in Italy
James E. Freeman 1808-1884: An American Painter in Italy by John F. McGuigan Jr, Mary K. McGuigan (Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York)

“As a youth the academically trained artist James E. Freeman wandered New York State painting portraits, but in 1836 left the U.S. for Rome, where he joined the expatriate community of artists. Continuing to live there until his death at seventy-six, he became celebrated for his elegantly colored depictions of the lives of ordinary Italians–street urchins, beggars, farm women–in what were defined as “fancy” paintings because they aroused the onlooker’s imagination. Freeman’s career, which included a stint as a diplomat, was neglected until art historians John F. McGuigan Jr and Mary K. McGuigan spent a decade in researching his life and works. Midway between a biography and an exhibition catalogue, their book also explores the search for an authentically American art, and 19th century American and European genre painting and its precursors. A repeat performance of last year’s Munson-Williams-Proctor exhibition is scheduled for Rome in 2011.” — Judith Harris

One Big Happy Family, edited by Rebecca Walker
One Big Happy Family edited by Rebecca Walker (Riverhead)

One Big Happy Family is a well-rounded collection of essays written by those with non-traditional families, including adoptive and homosexual parents, non-married domestic partners, open-marriage participants, and stay-at-home fathers. The essays are well-written, funny, realistic, and above all, hopeful.” — Katie Cappello

A Strange Eventful History by Michael Holroyd
A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and Their Remarkable Families by Michael Holroyd (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

“Michael Holroyd, prince of literary biographers, returns with another gem. A Strange Eventful History evokes the lost world of the Victorian stage in a joint biography of the acting team of Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, with a supporting cast of Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw and Isadora Duncan. The first two-thirds of the book, detail how Irving and Terry made London’s Lyceum Theatre into the epicenter of spectacular meladramas and Shakespeare revivals. Holroyd’s narrative skill and human insight make these opening chapters a joy to read, while saving the book’s finale, which surveys the erratic career of Terry’s self-obsessed son, Edward Gordon Craig, from a disappointing last act.” — Ed Voves

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