2009: The year in books

By JON GARELICK  |  December 22, 2009

• Tracy Kidder, Strength in What Remains (Random House)
Kidder's immersive journalism at one time epitomized the art of invisibility (see 1995's House). More recently, however, he's begun to re-emerge as a character in his own books. In the wake of his reflective 2005 Vietnam War memoir, My Detachment, comes this intensely personal global investigation subtitled "A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness." Following a refugee from the 1994 civil war in Burundi to New York City, where he struggles to make a new life, Kidder takes both narrative and personal risks, his involvement with his subject becoming part of the story. And the story is all the more powerful because of that.

• Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (Henry Holt)
This year's Booker Prize winner for fiction, a character study of the 16th-century English statesman Thomas Cromwell, is lengthy and dense but also stark — and as bare-bones as such a book can get. Told from Cromwell's perceptive and at times haunted viewpoint, it delves deep into a most complicated man, focusing on the period 1527–1535, the years of his service to Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. Like Mantel's masterful retelling of the origins of the French Revolution, 1993's A Place of Greater Safety, Wolf Hall depicts a world in which major social changes come about through pragmatic, often expedient choices made in private.

• Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (Harvard)
Moreton counters the conventional Northeast-and-Midwest-centered narrative of the American worker with an account of the sing-hallelujah service culture that began incubating in the '60s in the agricultural communities of the Ozarks, where Wal-Mart is headquartered. It was Sam "Daddy" Walton's genius to frame the big-retail ethic in terms of "family" while removing the taint of servitude from what was, after all, unproductive service labor. To understand the lingua franca of today's workplace — with its talk of networking, entrepreneurialism, leadership, community service, and, above all, PR and communications — this book is indispensable reading.

• Alice Munro, Too Much Happiness (Knopf)
Anyone familiar with Munro's stories knows that the title of this collection has to be highly qualified. Which is not to say it's downright ironic. Munro's characters could fill a room of Adulterers Anonymous, her children are forever turning on their parents, and debilitating illness is never more than a defective gene away — yet her ability to strip away illusion and replace it with clarity and insight does afford them a certain satisfaction. It also justifies the frequent comparison of her short stories with Chekhov's.

• Robert Palmer, Blues & Chaos (Scribner)
Palmer, who died in 1997 at 52, was eulogized in Rolling Stone (to which he had long contributed) as "America's Pre-eminent Music Writer." These 60 pieces — magazine and newspaper articles, profiles, interviews, liner notes — show why. Palmer's writing is valuable not simply for his clarity, focus, and descriptive powers, but for his seemingly bottomless insight into every musical genre. He saw music as a half-mystical continuum where Roscoe Mitchell and the Gnawa clansmen of Morocco and Charles Mingus and Darius Milhaud were all colleagues.

• Colm Tóibín, Brooklyn (Scribner)
Although set in the New York borough of the early 1950s, this novel is about deep American truths — the isolation of the immigrant, the painful passage through homesickness to you-can't-go-home-again, the indelible stamp of ethnicity and what it means to be uprooted. Tóibín relates the story of a young Irishwoman, Eilis Lacey, who emigrates to Brooklyn's Cobble Hill section, works in a department store, and lives in a boarding house. By the end — which includes a trip home to Ireland — Ellis is shedding her Irishness, much as Brooklyn has, and becoming American. Which means, in this novel, one who has suffered through and been, perhaps, annealed by great loss.

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