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The Best Books of 2009

PUBLISHED: January 1, 2009

Two thousand and nine is nary a day old, but its fiction has long since been written. If I were a betting man (and fiction were a betting game) these are the books I would put my money on 2009. In fact, if there are any takers out there, I’m willing to wager twenty dollars that at least one of these six books turns up on the New York Times’ Best Books of 2009.

A Mind at Peace, Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar. Archipelago Books, December 2008.
This one’s off by a month. But when Orhan Pamuk calls a book “the greatest novel ever written about Istanbul” you can make exceptions. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar was a leading light of Turkish letters and A Mind at Peace is his magnum opus. It’s amazing this book is only now being translated into English, sixty years after its initial publication. Kudos to Archipelago and translator Erdag Goknar (of My Name is Red fame) for taking it on.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press, August.
When Pynchon comes out with a new book, you can’t not put it on a list like this. According Jacket Copy, the Los Angeles Times’ book blog, Inherent Vice is a detective novel set “at the tail end of the psychedelic sixties in L.A.” What more do you want? Speculation abounds, as one would expect.

The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, Reif Larsen. Penguin Press, May.
Reif is my friend, so I’m inherently baised. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Ann Godoff (the president of the Penguin Press, who has edited Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, and Thomas Pynchon to name a few) called the novel “completely unique from page one” and said it’s “so good it resists publishing hyperbole.” Illustrated throughout with cartographic drawings, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet tells the story of a 12-year old genius mapmaker from Montana.

The Siege, Ismail Kadare. Canongate, February.
The Three-Arched Bridge, Kadare’s novel chronicling the construction of a bridge in a fourteenth century Albanian town, is a favorite of Ottoman buffs like myself. His name is perennially bandied about by Nobel Prize speculators and in 2005, he won the inagural Man Booker Interational Prize. The Seige continues Kadare’s Albanian-Ottoman theme with the story of an Christian citadel beseiged by the Ottoman Army.

The Vagrants, Yiyun Li. Random House, February.
In his letter recommending Li for permanent residency in the US, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote that she is among those “destined to become the leading writers of their generation.” The application was denied, but Remnick’s pronouncement has already begun to come true. Her spare and elegant first book, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, was awarded the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and she was recently selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists (even though she was neither a novelist nor an American at the time). The Vagrants, Li’s debut novel, recounts the true story of a young Chinese woman sentenced to death in 1979 for counter revolutionary activity.

The Wilding, Benjamin Percy. Graywolf Press, Winter.
Refresh, Refresh,” Percy’s story about teenage boys in a small Central Oregon town with no fathers (they’re all off fighting in Iraq), won a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 2006 edition of Best American Short Stories. A winner of a Whiting Award, Percy’s woodsy surrealism has been described as “big-hearted,” “revelatory,” “sinewy,” “radiant,” and “brutal.” His first novel, The Wilding, features five interwoven storylines, including some marital drama, a hunting trip gone wrong, and a bear on the loose.

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