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Novels of the Year

Arts & Lit, Year-End | By The Top 13 on December 30, 2009

In a terrific year for the novel, The Top 13 struggled to whittle down our list to our standard baker's dozen. Ultimately, of course, we did it, and the resulting Top 13 offers a collection of fantastic books, including a pair of beautiful debuts and typically strong novels from a number of literary heavyweights.

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Nicholson Baker - The Anthologist

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Nicholson Baker - The Anthologist

Baker's eleventh book is narrated by Paul Chowder, a little-known poet dealing with writer's block and a host of personal problems as he tries to write the introduction to an anthology of poetry he's selected. Like in many of Baker's stories, little actually happens in The Anthologist, but he has written a fantastic novel about poetry, as Chowder reflects upon poets throughout history and their work. The Christian Science Monitor called the book "a corker, a brilliant, hilarious, utterly eccentric paean to rhyme and meter." The Top 13 calls it the best novel of 2009.

Colum McCann - Let the Great World Spin

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Colum McCann - Let the Great World Spin

Earlier this month, McCann received the prestigious National Book Award for this, his fourth novel. The Top 13 agrees wholeheartedly with the pick. The Irish author, who now lives and teaches in New York, sets his novel around August 7, 1974, the day that Phillipe Petit walked on a high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center. But this fantastic portrait of New York City isn't about Petit – it's about the lives of ten New Yorkers and the intense grief they suffer. Writing in the New York Times, Jonathan Mahler called it "an emotional tour de force" and "one of the most electric, profound novels I have read in years."

Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall

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Hilary Mantel - Wolf Hall

This year's well-deserving winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize (awarded every year for the best original novel written in English by a citizen of the United Kingdom), Wolf Hall is set in England in the 1520s and offers a contrarian perspective in telling the fascinating story of Henry VIII’s minister, Thomas Cromwell. The Washington Post raved: "Enfolding cogent insights into the human soul within a lucid analysis of the social, economic and personal interactions that drive political developments, Mantel has built on her previous impressive achievements to write her best novel yet."

Jonathan Lethem - Chronic City

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Jonathan Lethem - Chronic City

Recently named one of "The Top 10 Books of 2009" by The New York Times, Chronic City is set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and focuses on a pair of unlikely friends, a former child star now better known for his relationship with a space-stranded astronaut and an underemployed cultural critic. This is perhaps Lethem's best novel, at least since his classic, The Fortress of Solitude. Amazon.com opined: "Chronic City thrives instead on the brilliance of Lethem's ear and eye. Every page is a pleasure of pitch-perfect banter and spot-on cultural satire, cut sharply with the melancholic sense that being able to explain your city doesn't make you any more capable of living in it."

J.M. Coetzee - Summertime

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J.M. Coetzee - Summertime

Shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, Summertime is the third in a series of fictionalized memoirs from South Africa's finest living writer and one of our very favorites. Written in the distancing third person, this novel consists of two selections purportedly from Coetzee's notebooks, along with five other chapters, each of which is based on an interview with a different person who had known Coetzee. Britain's The Observer wrote: "Summertime is both an elegant request that the sum of Coetzee's existence as a public figure should be looked for only in his writing, and ample evidence, once again, why that request should be honoured."

Jayne Anne Phillips - Lark and Termite

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Jayne Anne Phillips - Lark and Termite

Phillips' fourth novel was one of five finalists for this year's National Book Award for fiction. This fantastic coming-of-age story recounts parallel six-day periods in July; the first one, in 1950, tells the story of the last hours of the life of Robert Leavitt as he serves his country in South Korea, while the second takes place nine years later and focuses on Leavitt's profoundly disabled son, Termite, and his half-sister, Lark, and the anguish of their lives in a tiny West Virginia town. The New York Times opined: "Jayne Anne Phillip's intricate, deeply felt new novel reverberates with echoes of Faulkner, Woolf, Kerouac, McCullers and Michael Herr's war reporting, and yet it fuses all these wildly disparate influences into something incandescent and utterly original."

Chris Cleave - Little Bee

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Chris Cleave - Little Bee

The second novel from this British newspaper columnist, Little Bee was initially released in the U.K. in 2008 with the title The Other Hand. Without giving too much away, we can say this about the novel's shocking, yet brave and affecting story: Cleave alternates between the voices of his two main characters – Sarah O'Rourke, a British magazine editor, and Little Bee, a teenager from a small Nigerian village, who cross paths in a brief, horrifying encounter that changes both their lives. The Washington Post raved: "Little Bee is the best kind of political novel: You're almost entirely unaware of its politics because the book doesn't deal in abstractions but in human beings."

John Wray - Lowboy

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John Wray - Lowboy

Although John Wray was chosen in 2007 by Granta magazine as one of the "Best of Young American Novelists," more than any other novel on The Top 13, this one caught us by surprise. Lowboy is an entrancing story about a 16-year-old schizophrenic who stops taking his meds, walks away from his mental hospital, and – convinced the world is about to end – heads underground to the New York City subway system in an attempt to save it. The New York Times praised the book: "Wray's third novel, Lowboy, is uncompromising, often gripping and generally excellent. . . . This is a meticulously constructed novel, immensely satisfying in the perfect, precise beat of its plot."

Thomas Pynchon - Inherent Vice

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Thomas Pynchon - Inherent Vice

Pynchon's eighth novel is a serious departure from his typically intricate and layered works. Taking a cue from Raymond Carver, Pynchon has given us a shaggy dog detective story about a hippie private eye doing small-time jobs in a Southern California beach town in the early 1970s. And he executes it perfectly. The Washington Post raved: "Imagine the cult film The Big Lebowski as a novel, with touches of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential thrown in for good measure. . . . Most of all, imagine sentences and scenes that are so much fun to read that you wish Inherent Vice were twice as long as it is."

C. E. Morgan - All the Living

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C. E. Morgan - All the Living

A timeless and moving story about love and life on a southern farm in the mid-1980s, All the Living is The Top 13's favorite debut novel of 2009. C.E. Morgan masterfully tells the story of a young woman who moves onto her boyfriend's isolated tobacco farm after his family dies in a car accident, only to struggle mightily with the question of whether she should stay or regain her independence. The Chicago Tribune wrote: "But here was a first novel so self-assured and unto itself, so unswerving in its purpose, so strummed through with a peculiar, particular, electrifying sound, that I found myself reading in a state of highest perplexity, and also gratitude and awe."

Yiyun Li - The Vagrants

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Yiyun Li - The Vagrants

In the second important debut novel on The Top 13, Yiyun Li tells the at times unbearable story of how a group of residents of a fictitious provincial Chinese town in the late 1970s are affected by a woman's execution at the hands of the oppressive Chinese regime. The Providence Journal raved: "Li's clear, confident narrative moves with grim certitude. The storytelling never falters. Each character is vulnerable, seeking dignity, thwarted by circumstance, recklessness or idealism. Li turns real events into a story of love and death in a time of oppression that, in the end, transcends its particular people, place and moment in time, so it is unforgettable."

Ron Currie, Jr. - Everything Matters!

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Ron Currie, Jr. - Everything Matters!

Perhaps the most unique novel on The Top 13, Everything Matters! is actually structured as a countdown of 97 numbered passages, though Currie is too unpredictable even to stick to his countdown. Currie tells the life story of a man, who at birth learns that the earth will end in 36 years and spends his life dealing with that knowledge. The New York Times wrote: "What these opening passages also announce is that Mr. Currie is a startlingly talented writer whose book will pay no heed to ordinary narrative conventions. . . . Above all Everything Matters! radiates writerly confidence. . . . It's about seeing what Mr. Currie will try next."

A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book

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A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book

Another novel shortlisted for this year's Man Booker Prize, The Children’s Book is loosely based on the life of noted British children's writer Edith Nesbit. While telling in lush detail the story of several related fictional families during the deceivingly peaceful period leading up to World War I, Byatt skillfully weaves in real historical figures such as Oscar Wilde and J.M. Barrie. The Washington Post opined: "Bristling with life and invention, it is a seductive work by an extraordinarily gifted writer. . . . That Byatt marries this novel of ideas with such compelling characters testifies to her remarkable spinning energy."

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Comments Leave a comment

stillathreat ★★

I have a hard time accepting The Anthologist as the best book of the year. It was ok, but not even Baker's best work in my opinion. Inherent Vice is fantastic.

10:02 AM   Dec 30, 2009

PulpAffliction ★★

How the FUCK was I unaware that Pynchon had written a new novel!? I must run out and grab it at once, along with everything else on this list.

1:05 PM   Dec 30, 2009

ajay ★★

I've been meaning to get my hands on Let the Great World Spin.
God is Dead was one of the worst books I've ever read, so I have a hard time believing Ron Currie Jr.'s new book is any good.

10:26 PM   Dec 30, 2009

holmessss 

I agree that Anthologist was not the best book of the year. That said, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. Very funny, charming, and filled with Baker's typical wry comments on life's minutiae and digressions on esoteric topics (here, mostly poetry, but even that is interesting!).

Let the Great World Spin was fantastic. Beautifully written, McCann captures an array of disparate voices and creates, in my mind, one of the great NY novels. Really great stuff.

12:48 PM   Jan 05, 2010

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