This year, people talked about how they were reading as much as what they were reading. Electronic reading and the related gadgets or programs dominated the conversation in a way no single book could. You could be excused for thinking "Kindle" was the great American novel of 2009. In part because of the hype, I gave it a shot. I clicked through a few pages on a Kindle and found the screen crisp and gentle on my eyes. I followed a great essay on Twitter, an engaging but confusing format. I listened to a few audio books, a resurging trend thanks to the MP3 market. I read a book in PDF format on my laptop. I slid my fingertips along the glowing screen of an iPhone, scrolling through a book bought on the Kindle app.
After all that, I was neither dismayed nor impressed. I was a little surprised that after hundreds of years, no one has come up with a better product than hardcover book technology: Nothing was as clear or fast as paper and nothing was as handsome and user-friendly as a good cloth binding. I'll admit I felt my initial, Luddite suspicions were confirmed. None of this year's most talked-about technologies was as interesting as the books that were published and the stories that were told.
It seems like a million post-Katrina books came out in 2009 – or at least enough to fill a separate bookstore section. Of the ones I read, Dan Baum's Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans (Spiegel & Grau) is the standout. Nine Lives is a work of creative nonfiction that brings to mind the best of oral history volumes crossed with the structure of epic drama. Charting a story that begins around Hurricane Betsy, nine New Orleanians tell their life stories leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina. Instead of wallowing in the disaster as if it were the only thing to ever happen in New Orleans, as many books have done, Nine Lives presents the city in a vivid context of personal and geographical history. Baum, a former AJC reporter, attempts a kaleidoscopic perspective, crossing from Uptown to Algiers to the Ninth Ward and managing a spot-on tone for each distinct neighborhood. Baum allows subtle details to tie the disparate stories together, rather than working toward contrived connections. By the end, Baum's made good on his promise to convince the reader to "Stop thinking of New Orleans as the worst-organized city in the United States and start thinking of it as the best-organized city in the Caribbean."
Atlanta produced some memorable works this year, including Amanda C. Gable's debut novel The Confederate General Rides North (Scribner). The best work about Atlanta, though, came from an outsider, Warren St. John, with a nonfiction story of refugee soccer in Clarkston. Outcasts United (Random House) will most likely be a heartwarming film one day, but I doubt it'll tell the story of refugee resettlement and small-town change as well as the book does.
National Book Award nominee Padgett Powell returned in a big way this year, breathing vigorous life into contemporary fiction with his genre-breaking novel The Interrogative Mood (Ecco). The novel, comprised only of questions, succeeded in bringing experimental fiction to a wider audience. One hopes publishers will take heed and get behind some riskier books next year.
Speaking of promise, no 2009 debut was as stunning as Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The short-story collection presents rural and suburban American life in a magnified prism, both clearly surreal and crookedly quotidian. Each sentence is focused and clean, like a cut gem of distilled contemporary experience. Families are often a central element, and these vivid, short dramas build on the tension of blood relations and occasionally bloody conclusions. It ends unexpectedly, on the titular story about Viking marauders. As it turns out, though, even Vikings long for and grow fond of family life, even after their cohort pulls a man's undulating lungs through sword wounds in his back. The story ends in quiet fear, "But still you wake up late at night and lie there listening for the creak and splash of oars, the clank of steel, the sounds of men rowing toward your home." That last page has stayed with me since I read it at the beginning of the year. One can only listen, and patiently wait, for a new year of reading to begin.