Posted by: Nathan | December 15, 2009

My Top 10 Reads of 2009

This year I haven’t had the chance to read as much as I’d like to, but I am approaching thirty books for the year. Since it’s the end of the year and everyone else is writing year-end and decade-end lists, I thought I’d add my own humble voice to the cacophony. So here, dear reader, are my favorite books of 2009. To clarify, these are the books I read in 2009–not books that were published in 2009. That sort of list would be far too relevant.

Runner-up: The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch. ★★★★ (finished April 18).

I don’t generally go in for nonfiction, but Lynch’s work is thought-provoking and poetic. He is a poet who also runs a cemetery, so death and dying are concepts that he lives with daily. It is no surprise that he has much to say on the subject.  The chapter “Uncle Eddie, Inc.” is a tour-de-force wherein Lynch asks a lot of questions about death, abortion, and suicide:

For if we live in a world where birth is suspect, where the value of of life is relative, and death is welcomed and well regarded, we live in a world vastly more shameful, abundantly sadder, and ever more perilous than all the primitive generations of our species before us who were sufficiently civilized to fill with wonder at the birth of a new life, dance with the living, and weep for the dead.

The book is easy to read, profound, and even funny at times. I got a lot out of it.
10. The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. ★★★★ (finished April 23).

The Power and the Glory is the tale of a “whiskey priest” in 1930s anti-Catholic Mexico, who is hunted simply for being a priest. The irony (and power) of the book lies in the priest’s struggle to understand his faith vis-a-vis his overwhelming sense of shame. He has to fall to understand grace and love. The next best thing was the way Greene weaves minor characters in the plot throughout the book and then brings them all back in the end, showing how their lives have altered after their encounters with the whiskey priest. It shows the caliber of Greene’s writing ability and vision. This was my second trip through a Greene novel, and I will be back for more.

9.The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. ★★★★ (December 5).

Having just finished reading Ovid (you’ll notice its absence from this list), I was in the mood for a page turner. I had been meaning to read Doyle for a long time, and I’m glad I spent some time with him and his famous sleuth. No, Baskervilles is not a perfect novel by any means, but it is engaging, gripping and–dare I say it–fun! My only complaint is that Holmes isn’t around enough in this one. The story is always better when Holmes is front and center. There were enough characters to keep one guessing, at least for a little while, and even after you find out who the guilty party is, Doyle has one or two more tricks up his sleeve.

8. A Room with a View by E. M. Forster. ★★★★ 1/2 (March 8).

I remember this book fondly. Room is a terrific novel that is executed extraordinarily well. Forster’s plot is well structured, and his prose–his prose!–is superb. He is able to render scenes, dialogue, and description with equal alacrity and depth. The characters are all very intriguing, especially Lucy, the protagonist. Forster’s stylistic prowess is even more enjoyable because with it he takes the reader to beautiful places (Florence and rural England), and the reader absolutely sees what he evokes. Forster also employs narrational flourishes I’ve never seen before and liked.
All this excellent workmanship carries a simple love triangle plot. Bonus: it’s only 199 pages!

7. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. ★★★★ 1/2 (August 11).

This book is wonderfully conceived, well written, and enthralling. The time travel element automatically makes a book more challenging to organize and arrange well; Niffenegger orchestrates her novel brilliantly. There are so many beautiful, poignant moments. The relationship between Clare and Henry is always powerfully and movingly evoked. Niffenegger’s style is lush and deep. The characterization is excellent. The plot is complex and gripping. I loved reading this book and was always loath to put it down. There are a few regrettable elements, but overall it is fantastic.

6. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. ★★★★★ (June 7).

I read The Imitation for ten months, so I’m afraid I lost a lot of my sense of the totality of the book. I can say that God met me several times in its pages, and what is better than that?It was my devotional reading for most of that time, and it serves that purpose fairly well. There is a special blessing that comes with reading the works of authors from centuries past. Their world was so different from yours, so they have thoughts and ways of putting things that you do not. Thomas à Kempis is supremely devout and humble in his approach to God, which I need a lot more of. I learned a lot from his example and passion for the faith.

5. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton. ★★★★★ (July 30).

This will sound weird for nonbelievers, but I reread Merton because God told me to. I didn’t know what to read, so I prayed about it. “Read Thomas Merton,” said the voice in my mind.

“I meant what novel should I read,” I clarified.

“Why did you ask if you weren’t going to listen?” So I read Merton, and I am so glad I did.  This is a powerful memoir recounting Merton’s coming to Catholicism and then a Trappist monastery, but it is also so much more. Merton writes about Spiritual matters with clarity, depth, and power because he knows the Lord God and knows Him well.

More importantly (for me anyway) was that God had a lot to tell me in those pages. I was frustrated by life at the time, and I desperately wanted direction. I remember reading one passage where Merton writes about how God guided him via a path he couldn’t understand so Merton would learn to trust. I knew I was going through exactly the same thing.

4. Perelandra by C. S. Lewis. ★★★★★ (February 28).

Perelandra blindsided me. It is the second in Lewis’ space trilogy, and I definitely did not expect it to be so spectacular. There are two things that make Perelandra exceptional in my view. The first is the world Lewis evokes in the book. It is incredibly creative, well thought-out, and complete. It is also extraordinarily vivid.

The second, and best, aspect of the book is its philosophical and religious engagement. The protagonist, Ransom, travels to Perelandra (Venus) while its still in its Edenic state. He eventually realizes he’s been sent there to keep it from falling into sin. There are several compelling sections where Ransom argues against the Unman about good and evil that held me spellbound. There is also an amazing passage that bridges the gap between Calvinism and Armenianism, which I loved. Lewis has a mind that can grasp at the enormity and complexity of God better than any author I’ve read.

3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. ★★★★★ (February 18).

Yes, I read it. All of it. War and Peace is renowned as one of the greatest novels for good reason. I was most impressed with the novel’s scope and characterization. This novel is immense, and I’m not talking about pagination only. Tolstoy takes on so many disparate topics and somehow manages to fuse them into a cohesive book. Amazing. As for the people who live in these pages, they are myriad and deep. Sure, there are a few flat characters, but many characters are engaging because they are in flux constantly. You like and dislike the main characters as they change, but they do not bore.

Is every page exciting? Certainly not. Tolstoy goes on about history far too much for my taste, especially at the end. However, the novel is on par with the best books of all time, and it was on my “lifetime reads” list. It’s rewarding to finish a book like that, even if it did take me three months.

2. Slaughterhouse-five by Kurt Vonnegut. ★★★★★ (June 9).

Had it not been for Chambers, this would have been my best read of the year. Vonnegut melds humor, gravitas, entertainment, and meaning in an astounding and complex way. I’ve read nothing like it.

The story is of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII veteran who comes unstuck in time. The narrative jumps around in Billy’s lifespan, and he experiences different moments in his life and jumps to others. Billy’s life is an interesting one: he is in WWII at the bombing of Dresden, gets unstuck in time, is abducted by aliens (the Tralfamadorians) and put in their zoo. Vonnegut uses all these disparate experiences (and some other, more pedestrian ones) to make profound insights and humorous commentary alternately.

Fascinating, funny, engaging, and never dull. I loved it. I wanted to reread it as soon as I turned the final page.

1. My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. ★★★★★ (still reading).

It is somewhat of a surprise to me that a book of devotions is the best book I’ve read this year, but I couldn’t choose any other. Chambers is my daily companion in my walk with God. He is the sort of companion who keeps saying things I need to hear but don’t want to. He challenges me almost every day. Time and time again, he has convicted me of wrong in my own life, shown me who God is, shed light on complex topics, and given comfort. He is imminently quotable; I’ve underlined practically every other line.

My Utmost came recommended to me by everyone who had ever read it. Now I add my voice to the choir of people who cherish this book. I’ve used Chambers as inspiration for writing in my class, and he has been my masthead quote on this blog several times. I’ll finish the book on December 31, as each day has its own devotion. I know I’ll return to it soon.

And now, one of hundreds of highlighted passages from my copy: “There is only one relationship that matters, and that is your personal relationship to a personal Redeemer and Lord. Let everything else go, but maintain that at all costs, and God will fulfill His purpose through your life. One individual life may be of priceless value to God’s purposes, and yours may be that life.”

There you have it. If you’ve read this entire blog post, I salute you! I hope these recommendations are of use to you, and I look forward to more reading in 2010.

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Responses

  1. Wow – a whole list of books I’ve never read. That is odd as usually I’ve read a couple of the books on these lists. That said, there look to be some interesting books on this list though I won’t be plunging into War and Peace anytime soon. The closest I’ve come to reading it is reading the essay that argues that War and Peace is actually a comedy.


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