04 January 2010

Favorite reads of 2009

And in our own reading lives, every day, we come across that blue river of truth, curling somewhere; we encounter scenes and moments and perfectly placed words in fiction and poetry, ... which strike us with their truth, which move and sustain us, which shake habit’s house to its foundations ...
– James Wood, How Fiction Works

It’s time I assess the books I flipped the whole year of MMIX.

Take a quick look at my (virtual) shelf and see which books I put a heart on, which pages I enjoyed, and which I abhorred. Which ones bored me and made me suffer and yet, upon reflection, I still called a good read in the end. Which are unforgettable and which are mediocre. Which are comfort reads, fillers, and time-killers.

I know most people classify a book as “not for everyone” or call it “an acquired taste.” I know a lot of people have said “2666 is a great book but it’s not for everyone, because it is difficult and unfinished, so I wouldn’t actually recommend it.” But be done with it. These not-for-everyone books are the ones I look out for.

Here’s a shortlist of my favorite books in 2009, in the order I read them and categorized into fiction and nonfiction. (Perhaps I can make a top ten later.) I highly recommend them as well worth spending your time on. They are for me the books that shook mannerisms to its foundations. My notes on some books are contained elsewhere on this blog.


1. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
2. The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco
3. Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño
4. Rashōmon and Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke
5. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
6. Perfume by Patrick Süskind
7. You Lovely People by Bienvenido N. Santos
8. Everyman by Philip Roth
9. Trese: Mass Murders by Budjette Tan & Kajo Baldisimo (graphic)
10. The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald
11. Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal (translated by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin)

It’s one of the best years of reading fiction for me as I liked a lot of the books I read. The reason for this is that I intentionally went for my kind of books and avoided the ones I know I will have bad things to say about.

I recognize that my “best books” are not necessarily my “favorite books.” My favorite books are the great books whose flaws I can tolerate at any time. Books I cherish even if the flaws are evident. The closest thing I can describe my best books is that they are elusive books whose very perfection lies in the apparent flaws in them. That is to say, they are great precisely because their flaws make them so. I recognize this to be a paradox. Perhaps I can better point out my selectivity through my future reviews.

This is the year when I get to read all of the remaining books in English of Roberto Bolaño that I haven’t read – all seven of them. The hype around Bolaño I find really too tame to give justice to his accomplishments. My most favorite book this year, 2666, exhibits all of Bolaño’s idiosyncratic styles. It’s a highly and consciously artistic book, the one where Bolaño pulls all the energy of his brute force method of writing to leave an enduring legacy in literature, that is to say, in life.

Another favorite of mine by Bolaño is the highly inventive Nazi Literature in the Americas. It’s one of the best literary science fiction I have read. More than that, Nazi Literature in the Americas is a novel for monsters, yet another compendium of literary lives, of the fictional sort. At the heart of each of its “mini-wiki” entries is a deceptive question: What makes for a Nazi writer, the written work or the life led? The alternative answer is probably worthy of a new theory.

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco makes me yawn, but this does not prevent me from acknowledging its ambitions. It has moments and passages that come alive like jewels. In some ways a tropic novel of sunlight, not the dreary old-fashioned novel bathed in darkness, although it is old-fashioned.

Akutagawa Ryūnosuke is a Japanese master of the form. In his hands, a short story is a short story. That is to say, it is quick. His words are efficient, without sacrificing the complexity of a plot. His tales are suffused with nuance and concrete details. His themes are large themes. His main concerns are basic. He is interested in the ambiguities of human choice, the uncontrollable passions suddenly flaring, the travails of the outcast, and the futility of moral justifications. There can be no doubt that the six pieces – six master pieces – in the book are among Akutagawa's finest. Any collection that contains the first two in this book, “In a Grove” and “Rashōmon,” is a book to be treasured. The book is a small sampler of Akutagawa’s literary output.

Perfume by Patrick Süskind is one of those twisted fairy tales that only a devious writer smiling inside himself can tell. For Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, its protagonist, the fragrant end rationalizes the evil means. Süskind is presenting a parable of the cult of artistry and genius through a tale of one of the most anomalous characters in fiction. The narrator of the novel does not make excuses for Grenouille’s acts, and he doesn’t criticize it either. He doesn’t make any value judgment or attempt to psychoanalyze its main character. The objective presentation is just superb. Its readers squirm in the fragrant spell of its grotesquerie.

More on the other books later.


1. Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
2. Written Lives by Javier Marías
3. A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
4. Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh
5. How Fiction Works by James Wood
6. Why We Are Poor & Why We Are Hungry by F. Sionil José
7. The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier

A book of the most perfect despair, The Mystery Guest by Grégoire Bouillier is something rare in the confessional memoir. There's a laugh in every page. The jester's voice is polite and honest and heightened by a pathological sense of "turtleneck paranoia."

For a book about maths, Fermat's Last Theorem by Simon Singh is a very moving accomplishment. Granted, my proof of this (somewhere on this blog) is too lame. I kind of love the subject of mathematics. This book is a self-questioning journey of one man toward the completion of his proof. It is also a journey of several mathematicians through the centuries of doubts and human failings.

James Wood’s How Fiction Works is the best nonfiction explaining fiction. The book’s register is that of a self-knowing critical reader: probably the reason why other critics get irritated by Wood's polarizing opinions. The sweeping assertions and poetic explorations are sometimes dizzying in their clarity. This manual of fiction is a product of deep reflection on the art of novel writing. It is a way of fictive thinking in itself, a synthesis of creative imaginations that informed the choice(s) of writers in the book.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner. Abortion lowers crime rate, and other controversial ‘freaky’ ideas from a pair of journalist and economist. They concocted amusing premises, did some un-fuzzy maths and quantitative analyses, and reached some unlikely conclusions that convince nevertheless.

Written Lives by Javier Marías. Smartass Marías literally becomes a “writer’s writer.” Here he sketches some famous and obscure literary lives, in small doses or vignettes, not really in objective fashion, highlighting certain aspects of the writers’ personalities, shattering some myths about them, perpetuating others. The book closes with a chapter on something like “portraits of the artists as portraits.” Marías considers this the most enjoyable book he ever wrote. The sense of joy is with the reader too.

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold. A classic foundational text on environmental and conservation ethics. It is a well constructed prose poem/philosophical tract that enters and alters the frame of mind and speaks to the soul, to clear the debris of nonsense. It is a powerful and silent plea to conserve all wilderness areas. More trees should be felled to reprint copies of this book.


  1. Wow, Rise. Your reading list never fails to impress me. On my part, this is the year when I will finally read a Bolano.

  2. Oh, fanta, I'm looking forward to your review of Bolaño. I'm re-reading some of his books this year. My favorites are the long ones: The Savage Detectives and 2666.