Every year, I keep a running list of the books I’ve read, with an asterisk beside the ones I particularly like. In 2009, I had a pleasingly rounded list of 10 asterisked books, with an even more pleasing symmetry: both the first and the last books I read in 2009 were starred, and both were by Stephen King.
Here are my first five top books from 2009. I’ll post the second five later today or tomorrow.
Please only comment if you’ve read these and want to discuss them — I’ll put up a post where you can leave your own recommendations shortly, just to keep things convenient.
1. The Stand by Stephen King. I like Stephen King on a wide canvas, and he gave himself one here. Not everything rang true to me psychologically, but the story is riveting and mythic in its power to stick in memory.
2. Intuition by Allegra Goodman. Ms. Goodman got her start writing about the arcane and claustrophobic world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, and she’s even better here, limning the intellectually spacious, yet physically and emotionally cramped, world of elite academic science. (My friend Amazing Genius Science Girl thought Goodman got it right, who am I to argue?)
3. The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. Unfortunately, there is no way to write about this without making it sound like a horrible gimmicky rom-com: alternating chapters of two different futures for the heroine, in one of which she stays faithful to her husband and one in which she begins an affair with a friend, a raffish but loving snooker star. Somehow, the book is far more compelling than any description of mine, thank heavens.
4. The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer. This is significantly weaker than her earlier novels The Position or The Wife, but Ms. Wolitzer’s eye for detail is spot on. There’s a lot to object to — I’ll leave “mommy war” critiques out of it, but I was taken aback by the notably short shrift given the book’s Asian couple, and their stereotypical upbringings. Still, mediocre Wolitzer is better than good nearly anyone else.
5. The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim. No, I did not star this out of atonement for the casual racism of Ten-Year Nap, it just worked out that way. Calligrapher’s Daughter, the story of a Korean family at the turn of the last century, was published by my own publisher a few months before MCMoM, and the publicist gave me a copy. The author was inspired by the life of her mother, but decided to write a novel rather than an historical book or biography. Her research shows, though; I learned a lot. This is a contemplative book — you can read a chapter or two a night before going to bed and not stay up all night finding out what’s going to happen next. But its images and conflicts hang on.