Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The Best of Oh Nine: Books*

December 29th, 2009 · 9 Comments

As with yesterday’s list, the asterisk is in the post title for a very good reason—namely, to tip you off that the titles mentioned below didn’t necessarily come out in 2009. They are, rather, things we read and dug over the past 12 months. Apologies for the relative brevity of the list, but our most common reaction to books this year was “meh.” Perhaps that’s because, due to the nature of our polymathic work, we often read books because they contain esoteric information, not because they’re great literature. But the ones below passed the test by a country mile. In no particular order, and not including the obvious:

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream A killer non-fiction account of the whole Golden Venture fiasco, wrapped into a narrative about the human smuggling racket. There were several times throughout when we stopped and simply marveled at the reporting—Patrick Radden Keefe left it all out on the floor with this one.

Papillon The ultimate tale of escape, featuring one of the coolest culture-clash set pieces we’ve ever come across. The movie version pales in comparison.

The Twelve Caesars We struggled with this one for the first hundred pages or so, but the pace picks up once the emperors start turning crazy. We also learned a ton about the minutiae of Roman politics, which in turn shed light on the contemporary Beltway soap opera we now endure. How little has changed in the public sector since the heyday of gladiatorial combat.

Crime and Punishment We put this one off for years, thinking it would bum us out to no end. Well, we weren’t wrong, but the trip was wort it. Raskolnikov is a paragon of unreliable narration, and Fydor does a stellar job of evoking the seediness of St. Petersburg’s darkest corners.

Harp of Burma Dismiss this as a young adult book at your peril. A powerful meditation on the soul-crushing awfulness of war and the promise of reinvention, disguised as a read-in-one-day adventure.

The China Lover The best historical fiction we’ve read in recent years. We’re a sucker for anything that starts out set in Manchukuo, then ends up involving the Japanese Red Army some four decades later.

The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? Granted, this tale gets a bit too tangled toward the end, but perhaps that was the point. A deeply disturbing journey into the nefarious heart of Guatemalan politics.

The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam’s Holiest Shrine and the Birth of al-Qaeda A must-read backgrounder on the late-seventies terrorist incident that ended with a major victory for Wahhabism. We couldn’t help but be awed by the depth of Yaroslav Trofimov’s reporting—how did he track all those ex-cultists down? And what happened to the American amongst the Mecca raiders? We’d like to think he’s now living quietly in suburbia, tending to his lilacs.

Two Lives of Charlemagne All we can say is, the first Holy Roman Emperor lived a very different life than us. Color us somewhat envious.

Suggestions for our 2010 list in comments, please. Preferably things available in paperback—we just got a $115 parking ticket, so our book budget will be miniscule for the next little while.


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9 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan


    “The Places In Between” by Rory Stewart, which is about walking across Afghanistan not long after the NATO invasion of 2001.

    “The Worst Hard Time” and “The Good Rain”, both by Timothy Egan. The first is a very well constructed narrative about the history of the Dust Bowl. The second is a wonderful history of the Pacific Northwest, centered around the various natural features that have shaped the people who live there.

    For a quicker read, I finally picked up a copy of “Skaggy the Lost” by Igor Baranko, which is a graphic novel about a Norse relative of Eric the Red who sails down to the Yucatan in search of the “Golden Skraelings”.

    Last, but not least, “Shroom” by Andy Letcher, which sets out to reconstruct the history of magic mushroom use in history, with an emphasis on reconsidering the claims made by Gordon Wasson.

  • Gramsci

    Since you read The Siege of Mecca, you could look at Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower, which is uneven but has some devastating detail about the rise of al-Qaeda.

    Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s “Half the Sky” is also worth the time.

  • hubcap

    I read “The Twelve Caesars” back in college and was surprised to find it was actually entertaining, and not just entertaining compared to other course reading. I can also second “The China Lover” and “The Places In Between.”

    In fiction from 2009 I would recommend “American Rust” by Phillip Meyer, “Love and Obstacles” by Aleksandr Hemon and “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann.

    I think nonfiction depends more on where each reader’s particular interests lie. But FWIW I thought Liaquat Ahmed’s much-acclaimed “Lords of Finance” might have been the single best thing I read this year. And far more interesting than you might think.

    It’s quite old, but Marguerite Yourcenar’s “Memoirs of Hadrian” is excellent.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Thanks for the recs, all. Some were already on my list, but some are news to me.

    The Stewart and McCann books are particularly high on my list; my book editor highly recommended the latter, and I trust her implicitly.And “The Looming Tower” is a personal fave of my pal (and blogebrity) Ta-Nehisi Coates. Maybe I’ll borrow his copy, the next time I head over to reclaim my copy of “The Wu-Tang Maual.”

  • eraserhead

    Based on your list, you probably would like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, but that’s definitely a project. It also helps to know Latin, as all the juicy bits in the footnotes are left in that language.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Alas, I remember only two words from 7th-grade Latin class: puella parva (“small girl”).

    Still, I would like to check that book out at some point. I’m fascinated by the rapid-fire succession of all those 3rd-century emperors. I briefly flirted with launching an “Obscure Roman Emperor of the Week” feature here on Microkhan, but that idea’s been back-burnered for a while now.

  • Brian Moore

    I really need to read the Siege of Mecca. From what I’ve read, it’s crushingly sad to see what might have been, if that event didn’t happen.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Brian Moore: You’ll dig it–a fast and richly detailed read. The author certainly makes the case that the siege tipped the nation’s balance of power in favor of the most conservative clerics, whose blessing was necessary in order to conduct a military assault of Mecca. Not sure it’s quite that cut-and-dried, but it’s definite food for thought.

  • Brian Moore

    I’ll definitely grab it next time I wander through the history section. I keep seeing it, but figured it would just be kinda depressing.