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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Michael Agger, senior editor John Updike's Endpoint is a final burst of fluency from the New England master. Who else could spin a charming poem out of a trip to Best Buy to buy a new computer? "Brave world! The geeks in matching shirts/ talked gigabytes to girls with blue tattoos." Updike's lyric gift carried him to the end. His words meet death both obliquely and directly. Read this book late in the evening, with a stiff drink by your side. Then marvel at Updike's metaphors, like the one about Payne Stewart's swing: "its aftermath shimmered in the air: dragonfly wings." Or at his cold-palmed observations, as when studying the departure gate for Florida: "Now, agèd, average, dullish, lame, and halt/ we claim our due, our fun doom in the sun." And at his gentle knocks on your soul: "Birthday, death day—what day is not both?"

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Emily Bazelon, senior editor and DoubleX co-editor In A Short History of Women, Kate Walbert tells a set of interlocking stories about the women who populate the branch of one family tree, moving from a British suffragette of the 19th century to her contemporary descendants in Manhattan and Delaware. Grandmothers and mothers pass along more damage than wisdom, and Walbert shows us how this stunts the growth of their daughters and granddaughters. The prose is spare; Walbert, who was my fiction teacher in college, at moments reminds me of another master stylist, Marilynne Robinson. In the end, the novel adds up to more than the sum of its chapters because of its historical arc and its images. The suffragette starves herself as a political statement, and when her young daughter crawls into bed with her at the end, it's a death made senseless.

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Christopher Beam, political reporter President Obama's decision to double down on the war in Afghanistan invites comparisons to the last surge—the influx of more than 20,000 troops to Iraq in 2007—which David Finkel recounts from the perspective of one battalion in The Good Soldiers. The commander of this east Baghdad force, Ralph Kauzlarich, tackles the mission with relentless optimism: "It's all good," he repeats, as everything goes from not-good to less so. Even when the war's stats improve—fewer attacks, fewer American and Iraqi deaths—morale deteriorates. IEDs litter the roads. Rockets and homemade bombs rain down on the base. Successes, like killing an Iraqi who detonated a roadside bomb, scar the soldiers as much as their failures. Finkel cuts back and forth between Washington and Baghdad, Congressional hearing and Humvee on fire. The reality gap is astonishing. Soldiers marvel at the certainty of American politicians and analysts, both for and against the war. After watching friends die, what begins as an earnest refrain—"Good thing we're winning"—by the end becomes a punchline. (Fred Kaplan, Slate's "War Stories" columnist, seconds this selection.)

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Christopher Benfey, art critic I took Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi to the beach last summer and didn't want it or the trip to end. It felt like the perfect vacation book, a novel about a hack writer's working holiday that ends more or less the way Gustav von Aschenbach's does in Death in Venice. The Venice half of the book is deliriously funny, sexy, and deft—the international art world is skewered perfectly. The India section is a perfect counterweight, spiritual and profound. When I finished Dyer's book, I wanted to prolong the pleasure, so I went back and reread Mann's novella. It was much funnier than I'd remembered, with sentences here and there that I could have sworn Dyer himself had inserted.

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Sara Dickerman, contributor With Chronic City, genre mix-master Jonathan Lethem takes the stuffiness out of a Manhattan society novel by overlaying it with dystopian fantasy. An unending winter has descended over a parallel New York. A former child star, whose astronaut fiancé is marooned in outer space, befriends an agoraphobic retired street philosopher amid a skunky cloud of pot smoke. A mysterious creature (or is it a machine?) is destroying entire city blocks with each sporadic attack. Needless to say, conspiracies emerge. There's something a little gaudy about Lethem's huge cast of characters—the gazillionaire mayor, the heiress, the misanthropic artist—but thanks to his impossibly vigorous language, I couldn't get enough. And for all the roiling plot and characters, the book is surprisingly tender, a knotty skein of city nostalgia and improbable alliances.

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Jessica Grose, managing editor of DoubleX
The Liars' Club, Mary Karr's first memoir about her unfortunate childhood in East Texas, was about such a singular experience—how many other women can say their mamas tried to kill them with a butcher knife?—that I wondered whether she had used up all her best material. Though her most recent memoir, Lit, is about the more common trials of alcoholism, divorce and spiritual discovery, it is just as compelling, and beautifully written, as that first effort. Following Karr's rise from unpublished, drunk poet to sober, Godly literary darling is the funniest damn thing—even her forays into the institution ("the mental Marriott," in Karr's parlance) are a riot, and the humor never seems forced. But it's not all a cynical yuk-fest. Though the self-proclaimed "habitually morbid bitch" may not want to admit it, the pleasure of reading Lit is a very earnest one.

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