DeFlip Side #97: Best (and Worst) Reads of 2009


DS97.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Clear space on your shelves and listen up, because it’s time, once again, for DeFlip Side’s annual Best Reads segment, where I outline the best and worst genre books I’ve read in the past year.

As always, the books featured were not necessarily published in the last year; that’s why I call it “Best Reads” instead of “Best Books.” And some of you may experience déjà vu, since a couple of the books featured have been reviewed on previous DeFlip Side segments. Now, on with the list for 2009!

5) Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
I’m largely ignorant of Vonnegut’s work, and Breakfast of Champions is his only book I’ve read beside Slaughterhouse Five. I wish I’d read it sooner, because now I want to read everything the guy’s ever written. On the surface, Breakfast of Champions is about an unknown Science Fiction writer named Kilgore Trout and his fateful meeting with Midwest car dealer Dwayne Hoover, who happens to be going insane and takes one of Trout’s stories as literal truth. But it’s so much more than that.

Vonnegut called the book his 50th birthday present to himself, an effort to empty his head of all its accumulated junk. The resulting prose is breezy, chatty and page-turning. But as Vonnegut relentlessly piles seemingly errant thoughts, one atop another atop another, the book becomes a writhing, percolating brew of surreal ideas that somehow distill into a grand catharsis about America. It’s freaking brilliant. But to get the most out of Breakfast of Champions, you MUST read it in one go. If you don’t, you’ll lose some of its cumulative impact.

4) Ghosts of Yesterday by Jack Cady
Cady returns to my best reads list with this posthumous story and essay collection, a beautiful edition released by Night Shade Books. The stories in Ghosts of Yesterday have much the same sensibility as Cady’s previous list-maker, The Haunting of Hood Canal—folkish Americana that explores the murky intersection of reality and the supernatural or unexplained. Standout stories include “The Lady with the Blind Dog,” and “The Ghost of Dive Bomber Hill.” At turns wistful, funny and scary, Cady’s work is a prime example of modern American literature; if there is such a thing as a uniquely American mythology, Jack Cady has tapped into its soul.

3) Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow
Anyone familiar with Morrow’s work knows that he tackles dark and troubling themes with playful prose and keen satire, and this novella puts his talent and wit on grand display. In Shambling Towards Hiroshima, B-Monster Movie actor Syms Thorley is drafted into a WWII biological warfare program designed to defeat the Japanese with giant fire-breathing lizards. Syms’ assignment: suit up as the lizard monster Gorgantis and stomp a scale-model Japanese city, convincing the Japanese to surrender in the face of actual lizard warfare.

At once a scalding discourse on the dawn of the nuclear age and a loving homage to the classic monster movies of yore, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is utterly smart, utterly original and utterly entertaining; in other words, utterly Morrow.

2) Kalpa Imperial by Angelica Gorodischer
This book is subtitled “The Greatest Empire that Never Was,” and the stories within recount bits of history from a vast and timeless fictional empire, forming a mosaic treatise on the nature of power—primarily the power of the stories that we tell ourselves, and their role in shaping our collective reality.

That being the case, Kalpa Imperial’s prime character is the storyteller herself, a conscious narrator who reminds us again and again that we are reading, and that power lies not only in what happened, but what we say happened.

Angelica Gorodischer is an award-winning Argentinean writer, and this is her first book translated into English—by Ursula K. LeGuin, a good fit, since both authors share similar thematic sensibilities. Stylistically, Gorodischer’s prose reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez; but unlike Garcia Marquez, her stories are actually enjoyable and readable. Upon finishing Kalpa Imperial, I came away thinking that it was the exact sum of its parts. It did what I believe the author set out to do—a considerable achievement—but in no way transcended itself, say, like Breakfast of Champions. Yet it turned out to be the book I reflected on most over the course of the year. So, like the storytelling it celebrates, it’s more powerful that it at first appeared.

Kind of like the protagonist in our number one book of 2009:

1) It’s Superman! By Tom De Haven
Let the fanboy criticism fly, on many levels. There is nothing more inherently genre than Superman, the superhero prototype; and this is De Haven’s third appearance on my best reads list, his second at the top spot. Yet De Haven wins again, yes, because I just really like him and wish he would write more, but also for taking a story that is ubiquitous in American culture and providing a fresh reinterpretation.

In It’s Superman!, De Haven places the Superman mythos squarely within an American historical context and gives us a more realistic take on the life journey of a poor kid from Kansas during the Great Depression. There’s no Superboy in sight, no sudden, glorious instance where Kal-El dons the mantle of The Man of Steel. Instead, we follow a Clark Kent shaped by circumstance, as he bootstraps his way to Metropolis, via the WPA and a brief stint in Hollywood as a stuntman. But for all its realism, It’s Superman doesn’t wallow in the disaffected, antiheroic rhetoric of Watchmen or The Dark Knight. De Haven gives us realism without losing any of the character’s magic. Instead, he gives that magic texture and depth. And he scores extra points for evoking the Fleischer cartoons of the 40s.

Moving on to some Honorable Mentions, I’d like to highlight The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, primarily for renewing my faith in the Wheel of Time series; and the duo of novels Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross, further proof of his mastery of hard yet imaginative SF; and finally, a fresh nod to Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, which I reread in preparation for the film, reminding me why the graphic novel was the best read in 2002.

So that only leaves the Worst Read, awarded this year to Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear. Yeah, it won the Nebula, but that doesn’t make it any less of a tedious bore. I really dislike stories driven by ideas instead of characters, in this case the idea that human evolution is propelled in spurts by retroviruses encoded in our DNA. And when the characters forced to carry this speculative water are boring and uninteresting—well, you get a book like Darwin’s Radio.

So there are my picks of Best Reads for the final year of the decade, a distinctly and unintentionally American stack of literature. From the Great Depression of the 30s, to the nuclear paranoia of the 40s and 50s, to the anti-establishment attitudes of the late 60s, flavored by a healthy dose of timeless North American folklore and a bit of Latin American flare.

As always, if you read any of these books based on my recommendations, please e-mail me and let me know what you think. The e-mail address is cdeflip@yahoo.com. And if you have any titles of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more.

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