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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Troy Patterson, television critic Appearing five months after the writer's death and clocking in at 1,200-odd pages, The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard thus resembles a commemorative slab or a gravestone. Its scale is appropriate to Ballard's career-long engrossment in impossibly steep heights, dreadfully vast distances, and terrible immensity. One early story, "The Concentration City," opens with snatches of conversation overheard on Millionth Street in an infinitely extending town—a kind of nightmare omnipolis from which its hero cannot escape. In "The Drowned Giant," which deserves a place in any anthology of 20th-century stories, the corpse of a colossus washes up on a beach to be prodded at, scrambled over, and finally picked clean of its flesh. Rendered with a surgeon's cool precision, lit by a mad scientist's visionary passion, these and many of the other 96 stories are vertiginously tall tales.

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Robert Pinsky, poetry editor Jim Powell's Substrate has an eloquent, precise fury that may surprise readers skeptical about contemporary poetry. I suggest that such readers begin with the book's final, title section, a history of the colonization and development of California through actual, individual lives. I am proud to acknowledge that several of the poems, including the amazing "Two Million Feet of Vinyl," were first published in Slate. As Powell's fellow-Californian Frank Bidart says in a blurb, "Powell's subject is nothing less than how energy and power rise, decay, then reconstitute themselves." To that subject, Powell brings clarity, passion, a true poet's ear, and an eye for the natural world and social realities—both perceived with a sharp awareness of violence and grace.

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David Plotz, editor It's easy enough for a novelist to conjure Tudor England: a king (lascivious), a galleon (gold-laden), a feast (meaty, meady), a maiden (rosy), a bodice (ripped). But in all the millions of pages written about the period—in all those Jean Plaidy novels I gobbled up as a boy—there probably wasn't a single kind word about Thomas Cromwell, the lawyer, minister, and hatchet man who enabled Henry VIII to divorce his wife, marry Anne Boleyn, and break with the Catholic Church. Cromwell is universally loathed in fiction and film, notably as the villainous foil to Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. But the Cromwell of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is the most sympathetic hero I've met in years. As he rises from gutter poverty to counsel to Cardinal Wolsey to confidante of Anne and the king, Cromwell is a man of infinite complexity: tolerant, just, loyal, flexible, ruthless, generous, witty, careful, and four steps ahead of the dopey earls and rigid bishops who oppose him. Wolf Hall is pure pleasure to read, a 560-page man crush.

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Jack Shafer, "Press Box" columnist Not just for journalism hounds, John Maxwell Hamilton's Journalism's Roving Eye: A History of American Foreign Reporting   ladles from the last two and a half centuries a detailed history of American reporting from abroad. In the beginning, foreign correspondence was practically that—interesting letters from people living overseas published alongside pieces stolen without attribution from foreign newspapers. James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald was the first to bring genuine enterprise to the form, coordinating a network of European correspondents in the 1830s to compose timely, insightful dispatches. Hamilton, a former foreign correspondent turned academic, assembles the components of the big foreign-reporting machine—the editors, publishers, reporters, fixers, and shooters as well as technologies such as transoceanic telegraph cables, television, the geosynchronous satellite, the personal computer, and the Internet—to produce an authoritative book. There is nothing like it in the library.

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John Swansburg, culture editor OK, I admit it: In college, I wrote a villanelle about the moon. And I was sort of proud of it. Villanelles are hard. I also once sang happy birthday to A.R. Ammons. Long story. Suffice it to say I came to Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist as something of a lapsed poetry enthusiast, which is a nice way to come to it. The novel is essentially a long, discursive monologue by Paul Chowder, a poet who can't seem to finish the introduction to an anthology he's edited. By way of procrastination, he edifies the reader with his theories about why poems don't rhyme any more, why iambic pentameter isn't as big a deal as you've been led to believe, and why his girlfriend left him. Chowder's passion for poetry can be wild-eyed, but it's also infectious—he keeps making you want to put down the novel and run to the nearest volume of Mary Oliver. What keeps you coming back is Chowder himself—a frustrating, self-destructive, utterly amiable man who is impossible not to root for. Finish the book, Paul! Win back the girl!

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June Thomas, foreign editor After wolfing down Joan Schenkar's The TalentedMiss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, I have now read as many books about Patricia Highsmith as I have by her—two. And although Schenkar makes the case that her subject wrote "five or six of the more unsettling long fictions of the twentieth century," I'm content to take her word for it and never make it to three. I would, however, read anything else Schenkar writes. She's the perfect guide to the life of a disagreeable but dedicated writer—confident, clear, and appropriately judgmental. Patricia Highsmith was a manipulative, exploitative, selfish, self-hating, obsessive, racist, alcoholic anti-Semite who prioritized her work and her definition of success above all else. But by providing the raw material for this wonderful biography, Highsmith did the world a great mitzvah.

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Tom Vanderbilt, "Transport" columnist With Soccernomics, the Financial Times' indispensible Simon Kuper and top-flight sports economist Stefan Szymanski bring scrupulous economic analysis and statistical rigor to a sport long dependent on hoary—and, it seems, unfounded—assumptions. Just in time for South Africa, Kuper and Szymanski doggedly unpack some of soccer's (and yes, it OK to call it that, they note; it's what England called it for most of last century before a fashionable turn toward football) most enduring questions. Most pressingly, why England loses—but also why capital cities fare poorly in European competition, what sorts of players are overpaid (older center-forwards), and the thorny game-theory of penalty kicks ("So Anelka knew that Van Der Sar knew that Anelka knew that Van Der Sar tended to dive right against right footers"). They also fairly demolish an Alexandrian library of sporting clichés—e.g., that the NFL's socialistic "parity" system makes for a more equitable distribution of champions than England's free-market Premier League. (It does only by a negligible amount.) Gripping and essential.

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