Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Best Books of 2009

Everybody else does a best books list; why not me? Mine is shorter and easier to get through.

1. The Family Man, Elinor Lipman. Another warm, funny novel about human relationships by an author often characterized, not unfairly, as a latter-day Jane Austen. Uncharacteristically, the most important romance in the book is between two gay characters. Characteristically, the two gay men offer Lipman a chance to say something wise and humane about what being a "family man" is really all about.

2. As They See 'Em, Bruce Weber. A book by a New York Times reporter that examines the roles of umpires in baseball, and explain what it's like to be an umpire. If this wasn't the best book about baseball in 2009, the better ones must be pretty great.

3. The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome, Stuart Kelly. I love to read about the later Roman Empire/late antiquity/the "Dark Ages." I read more than one such book this year; this was the best. Kelly shows how the Huns damaged the Roman Empire not just by helping to cause a series of invasions by various tribes, such as the Goths, but also illuminates how Attila's attacks critically hindered the Eastern Roman Empire's efforts to bring north Africa back into the Roman fold.

4. The Healing of America, T.R. Reid. If you want to understand how health care systems work in other countries, this is where to go. Reid's book suffers from flaws and bias, as any book on such a politically-charged topic is likely to do, but I learned a lot from it and and admired the way he could clearly illuminate difficult topics.

5. Transition, Iain M. Banks. Banks is the best science fiction writer in the world who has never won a major SF award (such as the Hugo). I'll defend such statements by pointing to books such as this one, a politically-charged, masterfully-plotted alternate worlds novel. What an indictment of our literary culture that outfits like NPR and the New York Times ignored this book.

6. Create Your Own Economy, Tyler Cowen. Cowen shows how technology has allowed each of us to create our own private university (or "economy," as the George Mason University economist puts it. The book could have benefitted from a little editing to force Cowen to define his terms more and tease out his arguments, but the book is full of sharp insights.

Notes and Honorable Mentions: I thought Roger Zelazny's "The Dead Man's Brother" was quite good; others seemed to disagree. I read quite a few excellent books that just weren't published in 2009, among them 2008's "Little Brother" by Cory Doctorow. (His 2009 book, "Makers," also is quite good). I finally got around to reading "The Dream of Scipio" by Iain Pears, which is maybe the best historical novel I've ever come across.

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