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.