Favorite books of 2009

‘Tis the season for publishing year-end lists, which means I need to provide a wrap-up of my favorite books of 2009.

In perusing my postings on Facebook and LinkedIn, I noticed that I read a lot more mystery and science fiction this past year than literature and nonfiction. I suspect this may be due to a desire to escape from the depressing economic times into a world where the detective always solves the crime or the hero always conquers the impossibly powerful or crafty villain.

Which is not to say that there isn’t amazing, thought-provoking work being done in mysteries and science fiction. In fact, scifi is often the best place to look for such topics – think Philip K. Dick or William Gibson. In 2009, I read my very first graphic novel, The Watchmen, which is laden with cold war anxiety. And yet, I know I’ve missed some good writing because of these choices. Therefore, my New Year’s resolution will be to read outside that genre box.

So, let’s get to my lists. These are not books published in 2009, just books that I finally got around to reading in 2009. I’ve organized them by category, but otherwise they are in no particular order:

Geography III: Poems by Elizabeth Bishop
They Carry a Promise: Selected Poems by Janusz Szuber
The Circle Game by Margaret Atwood
Divine Comedy by John Kinsella
Time and Materials by Robert Hass
The Goose Bath Poems by Janet Frame
Things I Must Have Known by A.B. Spellman

Aura (Cara y Cruz) by Carlos Fuentes
The Bone People by Keri Hulme
An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke
Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom
The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death by Charlie Huston

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett
The Water Room by Christopher Fowler
Bamboo and Blood by James Church
The Ice House by Minette Walters
The Prince of Fire by Daniel Silva

Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett
Proust was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer
Leaving a Trace: On Keeping a Journal by Alexandra Johnson

What’s on tap for 2010? I enjoyed Jess Walter’s Citizen Vince, so I’m looking forward to his latest, The Financial Lives of the Poets. A friend told me that I simply must read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace – and disregard the movie, which he claims did not do it justice.

I’m always a bit behind, so although 2009 was the 20-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I have yet to read Putin’s Russia by Anna Politkovskaya or 1989 The Berlin Wall by Peter Millar. I have also heard good things about Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith, which is not about perestroika at all, but is set in Stalin’s Russia in 1953.

I was peeking over a friend’s shoulder as he read “Hello,” Lied the Agent by Ian Guntz, which appears to be a hilarious account of working on TV shows in Hollywood, so he loaned me the hardcover.

And on my visit home for Thanksgiving, I stopped at a wonderful little bookstore in Dixon, IL – Books on First – and picked up A Grave in Gaza by Matt Rees. This is the second in a newish mystery series, so I’ll have to read The Collaborator of Bethlehem first. Oh, the hardship!

My poetry bookshelves are bursting with unread volumes: Campbell McGrath’s Shannon, Kay Ryan’s Uncle, Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad and Saadi Youssef’s Without an Alphabet, Without a Face. On the classical front, I promised myself I would read Horace’s Odes.

Finally, I started reading Don Quixote over the summer, but stalled somewhere in the mountains with the madman beating upon poor Sancho and the Knight of the Sorrowful face turning naked cartwheels. I resolve to finish!

I wish you all happy reading.

Divine envy

Poor Arachne,
proud of her accomplishments,
a woman ahead of her time,
weaving herself
from poverty to fame
with nought but a loom
and her wits,
unrepentently boasting:
no goddess was her teacher.

Pallas Athena,
jealous, enraged,
battling shuttle to shuttle
with a mortal
and losing,
lashing out in a catfight
of purple and gold thread,
thwarting a suicide
with her heavenly magic.

Now Arachne swings forever
in dusty corners –
helpful flytrap, horror icon –
while the goddess of Athens
into unremembered myth.

“And there upon the looms of Tyrian purple… / gold thread to bind them, / to weave the story of long years ago.” Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book VI

Reify this

Oh, if I ever use the word “reify,”
please revoke my poetry license,
slap my knuckles with a sonnet,
and search my home for literary criticism.

Throw them out; add them
to the lists of banned books.
Sit me in a plain, wooden chair,
brew me a cup of bitter tea,
and hand me a book of Bukowski.

Charles knew a poem was a metaphor –
a lover and a savior and a thief.
Reify? He’d reify your brain with a bottle.

The poetry reading is canceled

I’ve rushed across town for these moments of culture,
but Bidart is injured; there will be no reading.
I descend instead into subterranean quiet,
the American galleries, far from the crowded Impressionists,
to visit with Sargent and Eakins and Ms. Elizabeth
Sparhawk-Jones (1885-1968).
Her women shoeshopping in oils could be any women
today: feet and skirts lifted, cast-off slippers
littering the floor, unspoken judgments, a glance or a nod,
deciding the merits of this pump or that, only
their flowered hats and bustled dresses
betray the year, 1911. I gaze at Ms. Jones’s homage
to a new temple of commerce, the Department Store,
and remember another contemporary poet, Robert Pinsky,
who wrote of “shopping malls and prisons,” farms and
downtowns, the poet’s “figured wheel” rolling over the land,
painting his own picture of America.

By hand*

Black lines appear by magic from the nub,
Go looping, sweeping o’er the lined, white page,
And sounds of gentle scratching rise and fall,
And metal smells as fingers warm the pen.
Pristine before you make your first mistake,
But soon one crosses out a word or phrase
With dashes, arrows, jagged lighting strikes,
And soon the page devolves into a storm.
The edit can be done with mouse and screen,
But writing is communion with the pulp –
To revel in the blackness of the ink,
The visual rhythm of the shape of words.
Tomorrow I will sweep them into forms;
For now I put down pen with happy sigh.

*I took an earlier poem and put it in a loose Sonnet form. Unrhymed, but with meter.