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Reads you need: Best of '09

We asked Day staffers to list their top picks from the gazillion books that were published in 2009. You may not find a lot of these on the bestseller lists, but you'll be missing out if you don't check them out.


1. "Devil's Garden" by Ace Atkins (Putnam)

An extraordinary historical novel about the manslaughter trial of Hollywood silent film star Fatty Arbuckle - at once elegant, brutal and divinely structured. Crime fiction as literature. The best book this year.

And, yes, Atkins is a friend who originally rescued our dog Gumbo. That has nothing to do with my affection for this work.

2. "Columbine" by Dave Cullen (Twelve)

Forget everything you thought you knew about Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris and their motivations for perpetrating the Columbine High School massacre. Wow. Cullen is a master reporter and stylist. Prepare to bathe in the emotional fountains of disbelief, anger, sorrow and, ultimately, amazement over the dark potential lurking out there.

3. "The Alternative Hero" by Tim Thornton (Knopf)

One of the very rare excellent music novels (are "Jambeaux" and "Glimpses" still in print?). Indie rock geek Clive Beresford discovers his lifelong idol, the recusive Lance Webster, actually lives a few houses down. He develops a friendship with the star, but for a variety of hilarious reasons must do so hidden behind a false identity. No matter who your musical heroes are, you'll relate and love this.

Also well worth the time: "Rain Gods" by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster); "The God Question: What Famous Thinkers From Plato to Dawkins Have Said About the Divine" by Andrew Pessin (Oneworld); "Nuclear Jellyfish" by Tim Dorsey (William Morrow); "The Gates" by John Connolly (Atria).


1. "Zeitoun" - Dave Eggers (McSweeney's)

This is the one book I ran out to read in 2009. If you've read Eggers' "What Is The What," about a refugee from the war in Sudan, you'll understand. "Zeitoun" is the story of one family, that of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian-born painting contractor, who is a victim not only of the hurricane but of the racist mindset that guided Bush administration anti-terrorism policies. The beauty of the book is that it's never preachy; it simply tells the story of what happened to this one man and his family, and that story says it all.

2. "Raymond Carver: Collected Stories" (Library of America)

More than a collection of one of the last century's greatest short story writers, this edition proves revelatory by including Carver's "Beginners," the manuscript of the collection that became "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." Reading Carver's work here before it was so severely edited by Gordon Lish, we have new insight into how much of Carver's minimalism was the work of his editor, and we have a new frame through which to view his later, richer work.

3. "C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems" and "C. P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems" translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (Knopf)

Years ago, I tried to read Cavafy and found him wearying at best. Now, in this astonishing new translation, I find that it wasn't Cavafy's fault but his translators'. Mendelsohn turns the poet's Greek, both high-flown and demotic, into riveting verse unlike anything written by anyone before or since. Cavafy was a strange bird, a 19th century government functionary living in Alexandria, Egypt, whose homoerotic musings found metaphors in ancient history. Through his words, the past becomes immediately present and irresistible. Consider the first lines of "In Despair:"

He's lost him utterly. And from now on he seeks

in the lips of every new lover that he takes

the lips of that one: his.


1. "The Help" - Kathryn Stockett (Putnam)

It's been a bestseller for more than 35 weeks, and for good reason. This first novel is told from a very real perpective, as Stockett grew up in the South in a family with a black maid. She takes on a difficult challenge - telling stories in the voices (and vernacular) of such maids who cleaned white women's houses and took care of their children during the early years of the civil rights movement. But she does it well, with hope and humor that will surely translate well to the planned movie version.

2. "The Weight of Heaven" - Thrity Umrigar (Harper)

I love books that truly envelop you in another place, and Umrigar's India does just that, with its beauty and its sorrow. But what she does best is capture the spectrum of human emotion, as she describes an American couple who move to India to deal with the loss of their young son. It feels haunting and genuine without being sappy.


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