I'm determined to run down my favorite reads of 2009 on this blog, but I think it might take a few posts. So this is the first, in grand hopes that I'll make it to the last.
In the order in which they were read:
1. The Darkroom of Damocles: The plot of this detective fiction is just a hair less convoluted than that of The Big Sleep, but Damocles is making more of a point with its madness. The book follows an ordinary Dutch man brought into the ranks of the resistance during World War II. He's asked to do things that transgress everyday morals and he does them, thinking he's fighting on the side of the good guys against Nazis. But is he really? The plot of this book gets so complex and so layered that it can be tough to say. Willem Frederik Hermans wrote this book to dramatize the fog of war, and in 1958 (when it was published) this was a huge issue for Holland, which was still dealing with guilt over collaborating with the Nazis to an extent greater than most other European nations.
3. The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig This is my first Zweig, though it certainly won't be my last. The plot follows a young woman from the Austrian provinces in the years after World War I when the empire was in decline. She's suddenly thrust into high society by a wealthy relative, but then has it all taken away. But once you've lived the high life . . . Here Zweig is an amazing observer of an empire on it's last legs and the ordinary people who must make sense of their lives within it.
4. Fin-De-Siecle Vienna by Carl E. Schorske This series of related essays tells you everything you need to know about the origins and great artists (Freud, Klimt, Schoenberg) of the culture that Zweig chronicles so effortlessly in the above title.
5. Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth Roth starts this book at what any decent person must call the gates of the antipodes of human depravity, and then he spends the next 500 pages charging as far past them as he dares. Mickey Sabbath, the dirty old man to shame dirty old men, was the most fascinatingly repulsive protagonist I spend time with in 2009. At times I hated him, but I could never stop wanting to know about him (perhaps never more so than in the multi-page footnote when Roth gleefully provides the transcript of a phone sex conversation between professor Sabbath and his young student (said conversation being used by an abused women's support group on campus to get Sabbath fired)). There's a reason James Wood holds this among Roth's best.
6. Three Lives by Gertrude Stein To be honest, I could hardly read more than 10 pages of this book in an hour. I kept pausing to linger over the syntax, to feel the way Stein's consonants crunched together like gravel. I could simply love this book for Stein's unrelenting ability to make an ultra-stripped-down vocabulary sound fresh again and again, but "Melanctha" must be one of the truest, best-observed, most nuanced presentations of difficult love I read in 2009, or any year before it. And yet Stein does it with so few words than a third-grader would almost certainly know them all.