The one, the only, the eagerly awaited, highly controversial, and incredibly...uninfluential 9 Best Books I Read During 2009, by me. Not a critic, not an expert, just a girl with a library card and no fear of using it.
When I went back through my book posts to look at my options for this list, I was surprised at how many books I either had little feeling for or outright bored me. This was not a banner year for my book selections by any means. To be honest, at first I had trouble coming up with more than four titles. But I did.
Here are the rules, for those of you who are new to my list (and really, how did that happen? where have you been?): this is not a list made up of books published in 2009, just the ones I read in 2009. Some are new, some are older, all are recommended for one reason or another. Titles are linked to my original write up.
9. Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art Out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn
A history of the Federal Theater Project, a source of fascination for anyone with an interest in the Depression, the WPA, and of course American theater. More informative than thrilling, but still always readable, Quinn's book is clear, comprehensive, and full of the stories and characters that made this venture such a rare and exciting time in theater.
8. The Murder of Helen Jewett, by Patricia Cline Cohen
Cohen's book tells the story of Helen Jewett, a prostitute who was murdered in New York City in the early nineteenth century. The murder trial that followed. The trial became the blueprint for all the sensational "trials of the century" that have since followed, and arguably gave birth to the tabloid press in America. Cohen's research is awe-inspiring--she digs through the layers of exaggeration and fiction that have covered the case over the last one hundred years, and manages to find some truths. The result is the reclamation of Helen Jewett as a person, rather than a victim in a penny dreadful.
7. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, by Amanda Ripley
An entertaining--and helpful--look at the history of people and their behavior during disasters, and what you can do to help yourself if you are (hopefully not) ever caught in some kind of catastrophe. You wouldn't expect this book to be a page turner, but trust me, it is.
6. Dancing to the Precipice, by Caroline Moorehead
Moorehead's book details the eventful story of Lucie de La Tour du Pin, a French noble woman who came of age right before the Revolution, and spent the rest of her life alternately running from one regime and winning favor with another. Paris, Bordeaux, London, Rome, and of course, Troy, New York, were just some of the places where Lucie landed. Moorehead works off of Lucie's own memoir, but also puts it in context with plenty of background about the period; if you need a clear, thumbnail history of the French Revolution and years after, this is a great place to start (provided you don't have the version I wrote for an AP European History Exam study guide, ha ha).
5. Wedlock, by Wendy Moore
This is the harrowing story of Mary Eleanor Bowes, an 18th century English heiress--indeed, one of the wealthiest women in the country at the time--and her (almost) fatal marriage to the manipulative and abusive fortune hunter Andrew Robinson Stoney. Moore's description of Stoney's horrifying treatment of Mary--everything from starving her to beating her to blatantly flaunting his mistresses in front of her (he got the nursemaid pregnant and wanted to move her into their bedroom)--makes you marvel that she survived. And not only survived, but successfully sued for divorce in an era when that was almost impossible for women. If someone wrote a romance novel that used the story of Mary's kidnapping and escape from Stoney after she finally left him and took him to court, that author would be laughed at for being too melodramatic. Moore tells this almost unbelievable story with just the right amount of drama and coolheaded evidence.
4. The Forger's Spell, by Edward Dolnick
A book about one of the greatest art forgery scams of the twentieth century--the manufacture of a bunch of fake Vermeers by a hack Dutch artist during World War II that were sold to great museums and taken by greedy Nazi collectors. How did Han Van Meegeren fool so many people, including some of the world's best known art experts? Dolnick explains everything. The lesson is how easy it is to convince people that they are seeing one thing when the evidence so glaringly says something else. We do see what we want to see.
3. The Judgement of Paris, by Ross King
King's book mostly focuses on two artists who meet at the turning point of art in 19th century France: traditionalist Ernest Meissonier and Impressionist pioneer Edouard Manet. I know little about art, but learned a great deal from King's always entertaining book--especially about how art was as discussed and debated in France in that period as any episode of American Idol. Different times, indeed.
2. The Lost City of Z, by David Grann
Grann not only writes about Percy Fawcett, the English explorer who disappeared into the Amazon jungle in the 1920s while searching for El Dorado, but also of the multitudes of people ever since who have obsessively followed him, hoping both to find Fawcett or El Dorado--including eventually, reluctantly, the author himself. Grann does an excellent job of interweaving the stories of Fawcett, the building of his legend after his disappearance, and his own adventure in the Amazon. You won't be able to put it down--it's the kind of book that will make you miss your stop on the train. Like I did.
1. River of Doubt, by Candice Millard
I actually found this book courtesy of Mr. Grann, who referenced it in his book about Amazon adventurers (always check the bibliography of a book that you enjoy). Millard tells about Theodore Roosevelt's dangerous journey through the Brazilian rain forest, another attempt by him to quench the restlessness he felt after his early and unwanted exit from American politics. Roosevelt originally was scheduled to voyage down a known and manageable river, but when, after arriving in South Americ, he was offered the chance to navigate the unexplored Rio da Dúvida (River of Doubt), he leapt at the chance. The expedition was already living dangerously, thanks to Roosevelt's choice of a completely incompetent provisioner, who overloaded the travelers with useless, fancy goods; they were even more poorly prepared for the newer, more difficult route. There was danger, privation, and death at almost every bend of the river (Roosevelt himself nearly died from an infection). In the lengthy history of disaster expedition literature, this story stands out because so many of the problems were preventable, caused by pride and carelessness.
This book isn't just about the jaw-dropping story of the journey, though--it's also about the Amazon and the rain forest and the horrible and amazing flora and fauna that live there, rulers and survivors of their own strange world, unknowing and uncaring of us. Millard shows how the trees, plants, fish, birds, and insects all combine to make the jungle a heaving, living, seething entity, where the only thing more terrifying than the strange sounds that come from nowhere is silence itself. Millard creates this place with such color and economy that it makes me think I should just give up writing.
The Last Duel, by James Landale
Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, by Jim Steinmeyer
The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War, by Alexander Waugh
Previous Years' Lists
2006 (this is my favorite list, by the way)