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Jonathan Yardley

Jonathan Yardley's favorite books of 2009

"Monument Wars"
"Monument Wars" (Katherine Frey/twp)
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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, December 13, 2009

Day by day, minute by minute, the senior moments come faster and more frequently. Looking back on 2009 from the vantage point of early December, I assumed that in the first half of the year I hadn't reviewed a single book worthy of inclusion in this annual best-of-the-year retrospective. Then I actually went back into the files to have a look. So much for my memory. It turns out that 11 books make the list this year, five of which -- not far short of half -- were published before the end of June.

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Not merely that, but it's a good list, considerably better than I'd thought it would be. Four of the 11 are works of fiction, and there would be five if I'd reviewed John Grisham's collection of long short stories, "Ford County," but that happy task fell to my colleague Carolyn See, who dispatched it with her customary acuity and brio. The only novel by an American writer that makes my list is Exiles in the Garden, by Ward Just, which continues this splendid writer's career-long examination of life in the more elevated and powerful circles of Washington, D.C. Here his subject is a photographer, the son of a famous senator, who is wrestling with the meaning of his decision to spend his life on the sidelines rather than in the arena.

Two British writers make the list. Richard Mason is a gifted young novelist whose third novel, Natural Elements, is something of a tour de force, in which he not merely tells the moving story of a woman sliding into Alzheimer's but does so against the improbable but convincing background of the Boer War and sophisticated commodities trading. At the other end of the age spectrum is Jane Gardam, whose The Man in the Wooden Hat continues the story of the marriage of Edward and Betty Feathers, which she began three years ago in "Old Filth"; that one was from the husband's viewpoint, this one is from the wife's, and both are surprising and wise, especially on the subject of marriage itself.

The best new novel I read in 2009, though, unquestionably was The Informers, by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, handsomely translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. Vásquez, who is in his early 30s, is a Colombian, and in the course of this novel he pays affectionate tribute to his country's master writer, Gabriel García Márquez, but he is very much his own man. During World War II, Colombia (like much of the rest of Latin America) had a substantial German population, members of which were under strong pressure to deny any sympathy for Nazi Germany. This led to a tangled web of alliances and betrayals, which Vásquez portrays with a knowledge and sensitivity remarkable in one who was born long after the war's conclusion.

The North American presence is considerably stronger in my list of nonfiction works, six of which can be roughly characterized as biographies or memoirs. Robert J. Norrell's Up from History is a revisionist biography of Booker T. Washington, and a welcome rejoinder to those historians, social activists and others who have derided Washington as an Uncle Tom. To the contrary, as Norrell fully and persuasively demonstrates, he was a sublimely subtle, resourceful pragmatist who advanced the African American cause with impressive results at a time when the Jim Crow laws and everything they enforced were in full power.

Entirely different in tone and subject matter is Wendy Moore's Wedlock, which packs a mouthful of a subtitle: "The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore." The subject of this story was a rich 18th-century English woman who had two marriages, one bad and the second dreadful. How she defied male authority and won back her freedom and her fortune is at its core another story of civil rights, this one the rights of women. Moore, a British journalist, writes exceptionally well and resists the temptations of boilerplate rhetoric.

Another British journalist who writes elegant prose is Diana Preston, the author of Cleopatra and Antony. You'll note that she reverses the order in which Shakespeare lists the two protagonists; she argues that Cleopatra was the more important of the two celebrated lovers and the most powerful woman of her time. This story has been told so often that another trip around may seem gratuitous, but Preston's version is exemplary reading, for those who know the story by heart and for those coming to it for the first time.

Joe Queenan's memoir, Closing Time, is an unsentimental take on a subject often smothered in bathos: Irish American family life. Life in the Queenan household in Philadelphia in the 1950s and '60s was no day at the beach. Queenan's father was drunk, angry and abusive, and he put his wife and children through hell. Queenan is hard on his father, but he also tries to understand him and grants him a measure of forgiveness. By contrast The Essays of Leonard Michaels isn't autobiography per se, but many of the pieces it collects have to do with Michaels's boyhood in a family where Yiddish was spoken and with the effects of this on his development as a writer. Inasmuch as, for my money at least, Michaels was as fine and original a prose stylist as this country was lucky enough to have in the second half of the 20th century, that subject is inherently interesting.

Joan Waugh's U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth is not a conventional biography, though it does sketch the outlines of the great general's life, but a consideration of how his reputation rose so high in his own time and then fell so far about half a century after his death. For years Americans ranked Grant with Washington and Lincoln among the country's greatest leaders, but various influences combined to diminish his standing in the first decades of the 20th century. Waugh, who teaches history at UCLA, describes and analyzes this process clearly and thoughtfully.

There's also much about Grant in Kirk Savage's Monument Wars, a highly original and very important study of the monuments of Washington and their evolution over the past couple of centuries. The magnificent monument to Grant at the foot of the west façade of the Capitol marks, in Savage's view, the beginning of a transition from statuary and other monuments as celebrations of military heroes to more sober and ambiguous tributes to war's foot soldiers and victims. The book will make you go back to the National Mall, but you'll never again see it in quite the same light.

That's all, folks. Happy holidays. See you in January.


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