You Know You Want to Know

I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned more than once that I’m not a big fan of “best of” lists. They are big every year, particularly at the end of a decade (apparently, since I can’t remember all that was going on at the end of the last one beyond building my end-of-the-world, Y2K-proof bunker). They also stress me out, because so much of the stuff I get that gets ranked every year — books, movies, music — is stuff scattered across decades. It’s hard for me to remember what came out in a given month, let alone the whole freakin’ year. I think writer Max Allan Collins pretty well nails in in this line:

I despise year’s best lists. They are completely arbitrary and invalid, as the critics cannot have read everything out there. There are exceptions to this rule, however — those exceptions are the lists that include work by me.

So what follows is one that is certified awesome. I’m not on the list, mind you, but it is my list.

Chris La Tray’s List of Favorite Books Read in 2009

2009 was a good reading year for me. I rediscovered my love for fiction, as well as dug into an entire new (to me, anyway) genre: crime fiction. I also started reading comics and graphic novels regularly again. So if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be “fun.” And anything summed up with “fun” has got to be awesome, right?

I read 64 books (24 nonfiction, 40 fiction) total, and an additional 39 graphic novels. That’s quite a contrast from ’08, when I read 15 novels to 39 nonfiction, and didn’t keep track of graphic novels (probably 10 or so). For my list, I figured I’d list 5 nonfiction, 5 graphic novels, and 10 novels. Not all of them came out in 2009, though some of them did. As always, the links are to Amazon for convenience, but if you go after any of these books, please consider getting them locally!

5 Favorite Nonfiction Books, 2009, in No Particular Order

The Best American Magazine Writing, 2008, by American Society of Magazine Editors.

Arguably the best anthology I’ve ever read. Most of the stories left me thinking, or pissed, or simply entertained. I will start picking this up every year! Stuff on politics, culture, people, you name it. I would strongly recommend everyone pick up the 2009 edition at your local indie bookstore and get in on this. I know I will. Just some outstanding writing top to bottom.

The Secret History of Dreaming by Robert Moss

I was on the road for work listening to a program on NPR where Moss was being interviewed, talking about the book, and it sounded very interesting. His stories on cultures that have used dreams as guides for life, as well as anecdotes about Joan of Arc, Churchill, Mark Twain, Harriet Tubman, etc. were fascinating. It has made me try and keep better track of my dreams and reveries, which has been hit and miss. If you have any interest in this kind of thing, this book is well worth your time.

Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 by Anthony Beevor

What a brutal book. If you find war unfathomable, this will only make it more so. It is heartbreaking how horrible people can be to each other, and the depths to which we will sink. If you ever get an urge to fuck with the Russians, particularly in winter time, make sure and check in with this book first.

Badass: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live by Ben Thompson

I wrote a review of this book not long ago, so not much more needs said. I really had a blast with this book — I laughed aloud so many times I kept Julia up late at night more than once. It’s not particularly deep (there’s an understatement for you), but there are nice little tidbits of trivia that I appreciated. And the bibliography is awesome.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall

This book is equal parts adventure book, natural history book, and book about running as an extreme sport. I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Makes me want to go run about 500 miles. McDougall, who originally wrote parts of this as articles for Men’s Health Magazine, writes in an engaging way that makes the book a real page turner. I found it very inspiring.

5 Favorite Graphic Novels, 2009, in No Particular Order

Many of the graphic novels I read this year were collections of ongoing series that I had read previously, or had heard about but never read prior to picking up the collected trades. I tried to stick with standalone graphics for my list, or collections of series that are no longer ongoing. There is an exception, or two, though.

Parker: The Hunter (Richard Stark’s Parker) by Darwyn Cooke and Richard Stark

I’ve mentioned this one many times since reading it, and have also credited it as the work most responsible for turning me onto crime fiction. I can’t possibly imagine the graphic novelization of vintage crime being done any better; Darwyn Cooke is a genius and obviously approached this classic story with unlimited love and respect. The little details in the first 30 pages or so of text-free images are beyond fantastic.

Criminal (Deluxe Edition) by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Collecting the first three Criminal trades, this is top shelf noir/crime writing that’s gritty, violent, and real. A perfect blend of characters weaving in and out of each thread of stories makes it all the more compelling. Brubaker has created a perfect little world to set his tales in, and while I’d heard of the series before I hadn’t read any until they came out in this collection. This hardcover edition is just gorgeous as well.

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli

Perfection. Not only is the story timeless, but the use of the graphic medium could not be better. The different fonts and word balloons as part of the individual characters. The shapes and drawing techniques to indicate conflict. Just awesome. When I first heard of this, it was described as “groundbreaking.” That is correct as far as I’m concerned.

I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly and J. M. Ken Nimura

No, there isn’t any spandex or vampires, just a ton of emotion and fantastic storytelling. It’s basically about a little girl who may, or may not, actually be a warrior facing down mythical giants. Or she could just be trying to deal with her mom’s dying from cancer. I actually teared up a little bit reading this one.

Scalped by Jason Aaron

Scalped is the only ongoing series of the five I’ve listed. Right now there are 5 collected trades out, spanning something like 30 issues of the comic, and it hard hitting stuff. It takes place on a fictional Indian reservation in South Dakota, for all intents and purposes Pine Ridge. The main character is an undercover FBI agent sent to bring down the local Indian crime boss. Nothing that happens is pretty. It’s like The Wire meets Deadwood on The Rez. Since we’ve caught up (there were already three volumes out before I got on board), I’d be buying the monthly book but my wife would probably kill me. She picked it out to read first, and she can’t handle reading comics in monthly installments. So I’m forced to wait for the trades.

10 Favorite Novels, 2009, in No Particular Order

The Hunter: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels) by Richard Stark

After reading the Darwyn Cooke adaptation, and seeing a couple movie versions, you know I had to go back to the source and read where it all started. The book doesn’t disappoint. I read two more Parker novels afterward, with more in my “to read” pile for 2010. Even Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, The Given Day) sang the praises of this book and the relentlessness of Parker as a character during a crime fiction panel I saw last fall. If Dennis is on board, you should be too!

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

Pelecanos, whom I knew of from his association as one of the writers of The Wire, was on the same panel at the Montana Festival of the Book that I mentioned Lehane participated in. I picked this book up after that event and dug in shortly thereafter. Pelecanos seems a very interesting guy, and this was a great read. It read like a season of The Wire, with various plot threads winding through the story that don’t all wrap up neatly and happily. I’ll be reading more of this writer in ’10 as well!

The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley

This is the author, and the book in particular, that brought such crime luminaries to Missoula. Crumley lived here, and died just prior to the previous year’s (2008) festival. This year had several events set up to honor him, and a panel on this book was the highlight for me. Lehane called it the best American crime fiction book ever written. Laura Lippman named it better than Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, and that Crumley’s writing holds up better than Chandler’s across the board. I’m not educated enough in the form to take sides, I just know this was a damn fine book, and will stay on my shelf for future re-reads. I can’t say that about many books these days.

The Motel Life: A Novel by Willy Vlautin

This was a novel recommended to my by my friend Hank. Populated by characters that are generally hopelessly down and out and total fuck-ups, I still found something to like in them, which often isn’t the case. I’m not a fan of drug and booze tales, but this one was definitely a different version of that trope. A sad but ultimately hopeful story. A lonely drive of a novel.

Tower by Ken Bruen and Reed Farrel Coleman

Another book I reviewed a while back here on the blog. This is a great, fast moving crime story with a very deft switch of point-of-view mid-book. A fine read. Interesting link for those interested: Coleman writes about the collaboration, explaining the process behind part of what made the book so interesting. Pretty cool background information!

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

I read three different Jim Thompson books last year, and this one was my favorite. I visited his home town too, which was . . . interesting. This was a dark, compelling, spooky first person story from the perspective of a serial killer. A gripping read from beginning to end. Tight prose, no bullshit. Loved it.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

I actually tucked into a little science fiction this year, and this classic work was the pinnacle of what I read. This book won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel of the Year back in 1974 or something. It is basically an allegory for the Viet Nam War. I really liked it. What I found most fascinating is the author’s vision of how society on Earth may change over the coming centuries. I’ve not read much sci-fi over the years beyond the first 3 Dune books, and this was a great place to dive in, especially in what was a pretty good year for science fiction movies too.

Peepshow by Leigh Redhead

Another one I reviewed. This may not be the best written book on this list, but it was sure a lot of fun. Others may scoff, who knows — it just struck a chord with me. I like my gritty and dark fiction as much as anyone, but this one kept a good tone throughout that didn’t make me feel depressed, which a string of dark fiction can do. It’s got strippers, sex, drugs, and rock n . . . er, mostly country music. And that’s one of the things I loved about it! The fact that this book, by an Australian writer, references so much of the country music from my collection (Steve Earle, Vanessa Williams, Johnny Cash, et al) made it damn fun.

These last two aren’t single books, but are subjects that made my reading in 2009 particularly enjoyable, and that I will expand on in upcoming blog posts. Between the two they make up eight of the 64 novels I read.

Christa Faust

I read five Faust novels this year: Money Shot, Hoodtown, Control Freak, Triads (with Poppy Z. Brite) and Snakes on a Plane. I loved them all for different reasons. A couple were fun, a couple were dark, and a couple were both. I fell in love with Faust’s writing, and Money Shot was the first real “crime” book I read this year, and it really made me sit back and say, “Wow, this stuff is awesome!”

The books all have a similar feel to them (even the movie novelization of Snakes on a Plane, the story of which was likely, for the most part, out of her hands), and a certain attitude that I like. Julia read at least three of these books too, and liked them. I’m looking forward to two more books from her this year, I believe. I can’t wait!

Gabriel Hunt

This is a new series of books that I love. Gabriel Hunt is an adventurer; think Indiana Jones-meets-James Bond. Each book is portrayed as an actual adventure “as told” to a particular author by Hunt, as if he is a real person. Besides coming in at #6 on my Top 13 Studly Male Characters of 2009 list, I also read all three of the books currently available; Hunt at the Well of Eternity; Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear; and Hunt at World’s End.

Some people might call these books “trash” (those same “some people” would say that about most of the stuff I like, for that matter, but they can go get bent), and that’s fine. I enjoy them as books to read between headier stuff, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. I like the exotic locations around the world where the action happens, the fisticuffs, the gunplay, and the situations Hunt and his companions get into. I’m stoked that these books are being produced; they are a new generation of the great pulp stuff from the past, and that is fantastic. It looks like three more are scheduled to come out in 2010 (including one written by Christa Faust!), and I can’t wait!

So that’s it. More than you probably cared to know about my reading habits in 2009. Here’s to an equally fun 2010!

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