Friday, November 13, 2009

Here Come the "Best of..." Lists

Much like the gun-jumpers who insist on decorating for Christmas in early November, a few Web sites have already put out their Best Books of 2009 lists. No doubt we'll soon be inundated with such lists, but I thought I'd point out these two, in order to ease us all into the "Best of..." season.  

Publishers Weekly released its list a few weeks ago, and has distinguished itself for picking books in its Top 10 that almost NO ONE has read and for including a grand total of zero women authors. PW claims that's just how things shook out, and the no women thing is just a coincidence, but many book bloggers were incensed — no Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, nor A.S. Byatt, who all published noteworthy novels this year.

PW split its list into several categories, including Comics and Mass Market, which I think is sort of like giving an all-conference high school basketball player the same recognition as the NBA MVP. But, whatever... I've added several of the novels from the fiction list to my 'to be read' pile, and I did read and greatly enjoy several of the novels on the list. I'd recommend these to anyone looking for a great read:  Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead; The Believers, by Zoe Heller; and Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese.

Amazon's Best Books of 2009 list is a bit more traditional — it mashes all genres into a straightforward ranking of 100 books. Its #1 is Let The Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, which is the far-and-away favorite to win the National Book Award for Fiction when the winner is announced next week. Just to highlight one book in particular on the list: Zeitoun (#54) by Dave Eggers, is an absolute must-read. It tells the story of a Syrian immigrant who paddles around helping people after the levees broke in post-Katrina New Orleans. Producer and director Jonathan Demme, of 'The Silence of the Lambs' fame, has purchased the rights and is planning to make the story into an animated feature, which I think is a fantastic idea!

Of the books on amazon's list I've read, my only quibble is with #83, American Rust, by Philipp Meyer. This novel about a teenager who runs away from a dying Pennsylvania steel town just didn't do it for me — too many point-of-view shifts and the somewhat amateur writing were both huge turn-offs.

One final note: Neither of these lists include my favorite book of this year: Arthur Philips' brilliant, lyrical, not-put-downable The Song is You. I couldn't recommend this one more highly. 

Any thoughts on these lists?  Have you read any of the novels that made these lists that are must-reads?  Anything left off the lists you feel is a glaring omission?


  1. Great post - I was thinking about this very thing and plan to write on something vaguely similar later today! :)

    I think the most obvious glaring omission on the PW list is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell - it won the Booker Prize for goodness sakes! Luckily Amazon is a bit more with it (it's #3 there). I totally agree with you on the omission of Atwood, Kingsolver and Byatt. Just criminal, in my view.

    I think the 2 that I most want to read on the Amazon list are Atwood's The Year of the Flood and Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

  2. I love the Best of time of the year! I'm a a little bit surprised to see Her Fearful Symmetry on the list, as it didn't get great reviews. Columbine also seemed like a strange choice - a popular book and an interesting topic, but not the best journalism.

  3. here is a link to a short article on a female aussie writer's point of view on the publisher's weekly debacle

  4. @kathmeista - good point about Wolf Hall. That omission is very strong evidence of PW's male bias.

    @Julie - Yeah, it's too bad Her Fearful Symmetry was so universally panned (except for the folks at amazon, apparently)...I was really looking forward to it.

    @mummazappa - HA! Great article, thanks! "This list proves that the only support women authors get is from our Wonderbras..."

  5. Hi Greg

    Great blog, and I love your energy around books. We could really use some of it at, where as well as posting reviews you can add information, images, video, music and links to illustrate and explore your favorite books.

    There's even $3,000 to be won by the best Contributors!

    Hope to see you at soon.

    Hector Macdonald

  6. Greg,
    Nice post. Thank you for taking the time to pull these lists together for us. I loved Cutting for Stone, though it was a little long. I want to add I too was disappointed by PW's list. Mantell should have made the list.
    I do not normally chose my reads from these types of lists. I like to see what other bloggers are reading and what is being talked about. I know a lot of other people who never look at these lists, so I wonder; are they still relevant?

  7. @sariJ - I guess I'd argue that the lists are still relevant inasmuch as they're a good conversation-starter...and they're kind of fun. Certainly, amazon, at least, has a vested interest in creating a list to create buzz and sell books.

    I don't necessarily select my books from these lists either, but if one is rated highly, it's certainly another factor in moving a book up my priority list. For example, Jonathan Tropper's 'This Is Where I Leave You' did pretty well on amazon's list, and I've heard nothing but great things about it, so it being high on the list reminded me I need to get to it sooner rather than later.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and for following!

  8. Really, really glad that Cutting for Stone was on there. I absolutely LOVED this book, and I loved even more that Dr. Verghese sent me an email after I wrote my review!

  9. Hi, Greg! Thanks for dropping by at KyusiReader. I love your blog too! You have very intelligent posts.

    Have you read the list the Telegraph made on the best books of this decade? It's also pretty diverse. I don't have a thing for lists though, but it's fun counting the book I've read that are included in the list.

  10. yeah, it's pretty funny! I've seen Kathy interviewed on the TV a few times, and she is hilarious, but underneath it all lies a very angry woman, and some of the comments she has made were a tad man-hating which put me off reading her books, but she makes a good point here i think :-)

  11. I have This Song is You on my bookshelf right now. Glad to know you enjoyed it. I'm starting to think we have the exact same taste in books.