The best books of 2009.

The best books of 2009.

The best books of 2009.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 10 2009 3:08 PM

Booked for the Holidays

Slate picks the best reads of 2009.

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Johann Hari, contributor To my surprise, the books I most adored this year all belonged to a genre that is often dismissed as old-fashioned: the collection of essays. Wallace Shawn's—titled simply Essays —are elegant and nimble and leave you feeling as if you have been disemboweled. He picks apart how, simply by living our lives as nice people in a Western society, we are complicit in atrocities towards the world's poor, and we choose not to see it. With a sweet smile, he rips up all our self-justifying delusions, and shows us what we have become.

George Scialabba's What Are Intellectuals Good For? is a beautiful exploration of how to be a left-wing intellectual without becoming despairing or delusional or a sell-out. It is a little bag of polished polemical diamonds. Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind is a gorgeous grab bag of essays that restores to literary criticism a quality that has been drowned out for too long by irony and postmodernism and willful obscurity—moral passion. I loved them all.


Nathan Heller, copy editor John Cheever was underappreciated through most of his career and tends, in death, to be too swiftly pigeon-holed. Blake Bailey's Cheever: A Life (which I reviewed earlier this year) sets both scores straight. This carefully researched biography highlights the author's constant innovations on the page and chronic restiveness in life, drawing out the intricate dynamic between the two. Fortunately for Bailey, Cheever was as eloquent in private correspondence as in published work, and the book is rich with its subject's wry, bawdy voice. ("I'm afraid I was a nuisance about money," Cheever once wrote an editor, "but I have this nightmare where I push a super-market wagon across River Street—macaroni and cold cuts—and am either run down by Roth in his Daimler or buzzed by Updike in a new flying machine.") The result is an unusual thing—a careful and humane biography that's as rollicking and irresistible as a beach read.


Ann Hulbert, books editor Don't be fooled by the reflexive comparison of Alice Munro with Chekhov. Her most recent collection of stories, Too Much Happiness, will take you into Flannery O'Connor terrain. Trapped in her kitchen by a garrulous murderer, a widow spins a cathartic story. A young mother, her world blasted apart by a gruesome event, stumbles forward alone. A mysterious new arrival in a London, Ontario, rooming house lures a fellow student into dark recesses of humiliation. A son goes missing and resurfaces in a baffling guise. A childhood crime against a girl—mentally challenged, and loathed for no reason other than "the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life"—goes unconfessed but haunts two women. In this gothic realm, the grace is in the artlessly artful prose, which disturbs your innards and your map of life.


Juliet Lapidos, associate editor If you're in the market for new ways to abuse your friends and family this holiday season, you might try reading Wells Tower's excellent debut story collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. In the title story, marauding Vikings hang monks from trees and subject a priest to a grotesque ritual called the "blood eagle." (For details, see my full review.) At least these punishments are relatively swift—the modern American characters, who populate the rest of the stories, like their torture long and psychological. Take Matthew, the narrator of "Retreat" who invites his brother, Stephen, to Maine for a hunting trip, then antagonizes him compulsively. He's late for the airport pickup, pressures Stephen into spending his life savings on an ill-advised real estate venture, and farts audibly when Stephen tries to communicate his sense of loneliness. Tower's characters treat their loved ones exactly as badly as they treat themselves. It's like the golden rule. Perfect for Christmastime.


Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor The most important legal book I read this year was Karen Greenberg's The Least Worst Place, about the first 100 days at Guantanamo. It's a detailed look at an unmined sliver of history: the very first decisions taken about the camp detainees. As it turns out, career officers tried to implement humane policies, only to be thwarted by Bush administration officials. While we tend to think of the disaster that is Guantanamo as an inevitability, Greenberg provides a taxonomy of what went wrong and shows us that it could all have come out very differently.


Noreen Malone, copy editor Quiet Midwestern girls such as myself rarely get to play the literary muse. Perhaps it's because, as Lorrie Moore writes in her novel A Gate at the Stairs, we have a tendency to respond to any situation with such thrilling utterances as "sounds good," whether it does or not. ("It appeared to clinch a deal, and was meant to sound the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except it was promiseless—mere affirmative description.") But Moore skillfully excavates beneath the outwardly unremarkable, "sounds good" surface of her heroine, 20-year-old farm girl Tassie Keltjin—to thrilling effect. Tassie works in her college town as a nanny to a sophisticated couple that's adopted a biracial child, she in turn excavating beneath the surface of their marriage. Critics have faulted the plot for veering off the rails in the last third of the novel, when the aftermath of 9/11 looms large in some all-too-convenient ways. They're not wrong. But Moore's writing is so lucid and witty and absorbing that you'll barely notice.