In this issue...
Tom's Picks
Liberty's Picks
Jody's Picks
Michele's Picks
Gwen's Picks

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RiverRun Bookstore's forty favorite books of 2009

 Being sold at 20% off this month, in-store only!

We love books, and chances are if you've signed up for our newsletter, you love books too.  That's why we are delighted to present you with our favorite reads of the year.  Come to the bookstore this month and enjoy a twenty percent discount on the books mentioned below!
If you have a second, check out our picks for the best book covers of the year. We contributed to a guest blog post over at The Book Design Review.
Happy Holidays from Tom, Liberty, Jody, Michele, and Gwen!

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster, Hardcover)
Paul Chowder (just the name makes me laugh) is supposed to be putting the finishing touches on his introduction to a new anthology of rhyming poetry.  He hasn't started yet.  His girlfriend has moved out, he's not sleeping well (his bed is full of books), and he keeps acquiring small injuries.  That's the plot; it's the telling that is genius.

The Lacuna
by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper, Hardcover)

This novel is epic and sweeping, but the narrative feels personal and close.  It feels like you are there with Harrison Shepard as he navigates his way through the twentieth century, from Mexico in the 1920s to the US during the red scare.  She's one of the best, and she claims this is her best work.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore (Signed Copies Available!) (Knopf, Hardcover)
My favorite short story writer gives us a whole novel this time.  No one is as funny and sad as Lorrie Moore, and she does it all at the same time.  A farm girl goes off to college and encounters all sorts of woe.  Her outer self is quiet and unassuming, but her inner monologue is hilarious, knowing, and touching.

Hound by Vincent McCaffrey (Signed Copies Available!) (Small Beer Press, Hardcover)
Presented as a mystery, this great, quiet little novel is most effective as rumination on nostalgia, inertia, and what it takes to make us become the main character in our own life.  Henry is a rare book dealer who sets out to solve the mystery of a client (and old flame)'s murder.  The Boston setting is excellently depicted.

The Song Is You by Arthur Phillips (Random House, Hardcover)
Follow along with eyes cringingly averted as Julian, a super-hip, music-loving director of shampoo commercials becomes slowly obsessed with an up-and-coming Irish rock singer half his age.  The narrator is not wholly reliable, and you are never sure if this is a budding romance or a simple obsession.  In Phillips skillful hands the book manages to explore philosophical ideas and be emotionally moving at the same time.  For fans of Nick Hornby and Arthur Phillips.

Sesame Street: A Celebration of 40 Years of Life on the Street by Louise Gikow (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Hardcover)

Take a look at forty years of life on The Street.  Read about the fascinating origin of Sesame Street as an experiment:  Can Television Teach?  Full of color photos and cool behind-the-scenes info, plus a DVD of the pilot episode.  Sunny Day!

50 Things to Do with a Book (Now That Reading Is Dead) by Bruce McCall (It Books, Hardcover)
From building a tabletop replica of the Himalayas to pitching them at trees in an effort to literally kill a mockingbird there's no end to the joys that books can bring.  Actually opening them is not required.  Plus, they are cheap and plentiful, lying around everywhere, unread.  New Yorker regular McCall has got an idea just right for you.

Magnum Magnum (Thames & Hudson, Hardcover)
A definitive, by which I mean large and heavy, history of Magnum, the photography collective that has included Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Bruce Davidson and dozens of other greats.  A wonderful gift book with image after fabulous image with just enough text to introduce each member.
Liberty's Picks

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (Random House, Hardcover)

This book is simply gorgeous. McCann tells intertwining stories revolving around the day Philippe Petit walked on a high wire between the world Trade Center Towers in 1974. Beautiful, realistic tales, full of love, loss and anguish. This was my favorite book this year, hands down, and winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction.  

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín (Scribner, Hardcover)
What's with books written about NYC in 2009? They're all fantastic!*  Brooklyn is the sweet tale of Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant living in Brooklyn in the 1950s. Working in a department store to send money home to her family, Eilis is just getting over her homesickness and finding love in the States when tragedy strikes at home. Tóibín's writing is precise and lovely. A masterpiece. 

*See also Chronic City and Let the Great World Spin.

When You Reach Me
by Rebecca Stead  (Wendy Lamb Books, Hardcover)

Miranda is cozy in the routine of her 6th grade NYC life, hanging out with her best pal Sal and her game show-crazed Mom. But all that is about to change when Miranda finds a mysterious note telling her that her friend is in danger, but not to worry, he'll be saved. Original, smart and touching, this book is Newbery-bound.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway (Vintage, Paperback)
THIS BOOK IS GENIUS FUN! Gonzo and his best friend are fighting a war against a new weapon - one that actually makes whole parts of the surface of the Earth "go away."  
Jam-packed with humor, heroism, romance - and kung fu! If you love (and miss) Kurt Vonnegut, this is sure to assuage the pain a little. I LOVE THIS BOOK!

2666 by Roberto Bolańo  (Picador, Paperback)
Bolańo pulled no punches with this epic - it's brilliantly crafted, gorgeously written and remarkably disturbing. Told in a series of five interconnected tales, centered around hundreds of murders in a Mexican town. Make no mistake - this book is not for the faint of heart. But those willing to take the dark journey will be rewarded with a masterpiece.

Go with Me
by Castle Freeman, Jr.  (Harper Perennial, Paperback)

What a deliciously evil little punch in the mouth this is! A young woman is being tormented by the town's villain. When the law fails her, a group of townies come to her aid. Clever, nasty and funny - it will give you whiplash.

Kittens of Boxville
by Ryosuke Handa  (Chronicle Books, Paperback)

Loads of kittens! In boxes! Squeeeeeee! Squeeeeeee! Squeeeeeeeeeeee! *  

*Wow, this book is cute!

Francis Bacon edited by Matthew Gale (Skira Rizzoli, Hardcover)
I love Francis Bacon. Alarming would be a good word to describe his paintings. As would grotesque, sensual and demented. His subject matter is usually dark, screaming pulp and twisted flesh, with lots of reds and oranges. This collection of his work is the best to date.
Jody's Picks
Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life by Todd Oldham (Ammo, Hardcover)

What better bio of a prolific visual artist could there be? The distinctive, engaging work in this collection-ranging from the 1961 Giant Golden Book of Biology through covers for the Ford Times to paintings and ads-reveals who Charley Harper was more clearly than words (although the Q&A with Todd Oldham up front is well worth the read). We can only hope for follow-up volumes!

Tales from Outer Suburbia
by Shaun Tan
(Arthur A. Levine Books, Hardcover)
To call Tan's creations "children's books" is misleading: all share a streak of haunted darkness and a visual intricacy that's highly complex. Things are a little brighter in this sun-baked, seemingly orderly suburbia, but the oddest things keep happening-a water buffalo who gives directions, slow-moving stick people who appear in yards and on streets. As always, Tan's illustrations are fabulous.

A New Literary History of America edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)

Proceeding chronologically from the first mention of America on a map (1507) to the election of Obama (2008), by way of the Salem witch trials (1692), Thoreau (1846), Little Nemo (1905), Citizen Kane (1841) and dozens of other historic touchpoints and literary figures, this intriguing compendium of essays by more than 200 diverse writers is as good as a semester-long course. (Don't worry-you're not being graded.)

by Sharon Werner and Sarah Nelson (Blue Apple Books, Hardcover)

Llllet's talk about lllletters-no, better yet, lllet's llllook at what imaginative things you can do with not-so-ordinary-after-all type. Each featured creature in this kids' book is designed using the initial letter of its name; even the background bits are done with type, and the margins are full of other suggestions and visual jokes. Beastly good fun, especially for typeaholics like me.

Pictorial Webster's by John M. Carrera (Chronicle Books, Hardcover)

Ever lingered over those fascinating little images swimming amid a sea of type in the dictionary? This collection of illustrations from editions of Merriam Webster's from 1851 to the 1900s will occupy you for hours-and send you to the wordy version of the dictionary for enlightenment about things you never really considered. Plus there's some quite quirky material in the Pancreas (Carrera's version of an Appendix). Great old-fashioned cover, too!

How Fiction Works by James Wood (Picador, Paperback)

There is much to mull over-and much to discuss-in Wood's thoughtful and thought-provoking gem of a book. Narration, character, sympathy and complexity, dialogue, realism, even a history of consciousness in fiction come under consideration. Wood is a passionate (and playful) partisan of literature, be it Flaubert or Make Way for Ducklings; you may not always agree with him, but you'll come away invigorated and inspired.  

The Bedside Book of Beasts by Graeme Gibson (Nan A. Talese, Hardcover)

Darwin rubs elbows with the Upanishads, Henri Rousseau with Barry Lopez in this marvelous menagerie, which mingles myths, travel writing, essays, sacred texts, fiction, and a lush array of art from across centuries and cultures to explore the visceral connection between humans and animals. (And, yes, the short pieces are perfect for bedside reading, if you can stop at just one or two).

The Infinity of Lists
by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli)

What comes after books on beauty and ugliness? Infinity, of course, expressed as a plethora of lists and multiplications in artwork and literature. Leave it to Eco to draw together such disparate bits as  New Yorker covers, Rabelais, reliquaries from the Imperial Treasury of Vienna, Homer, and Salvador Dali in discursions on how such lists are used to depict the multiplicity of our world and to suggest all that lies beyond our comprehension.  
Michele's Picks

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt (Knopf, Hardcover)
Byatt is known for mixing fact and fiction together, and using the finest brush to emphasize the most minute details of the time period she writes about.  Stories are the central motif in this Dickensian narrative.  Byatt creates a world that isn't black and white or all surfaces.  The tendril that curls its way through the pages is color.  The late 1800's and early 1900's pop to the surface in dazzling hues most certainly influenced by some of the best British writers of all time, like George Eliot. 

Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli (Pantheon, Hardcover)

The illustrations in this graphic novel have a classic feel to them, and the story that goes with it, of a professor of Architecture going through a mid-life crisis, is a compelling one.  Mazzucchelli shows the complexities of human relationships, and how sometimes it's important to revisit our memories and make new ones in the process.  A smart and complex book that is just as engaging and rewarding as literary fiction. 
Tinkers by Paul Harding (Bellevue Literary Press, Paperback)
I'm slightly obsessed with Tinkers because it's just so darn good.  If you value writing over plot, you'll love Paul Harding's first work of fiction. I can't speak highly enough about this slim, powerful work of fiction that encompasses so much in an astonishingly short amount of time.  The novel is set in New England, and tells the tale of a dying clock repairman, his father, and his grandfather. Memory flows seamlessly as three generations in a family are examined with the precision of thread through a needle.  I picked it up in the first place because there was a blurb on the front from Marilynne Robinson.  Now I can't stop recommending it!
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis (FSG, Hardcover)
Lydia Davis is the master of the unusual short story.  Anyone who cares about words and poetry should read her.  Many of her stories are what's considered flash fiction, sometimes only a pararaph or a few sentences long but packing as much punch as a longer narrative.  See "Odd Behavior" on page 182 for an example of how offbeat but simultaneously wonderful her writing is.  Lydia Davis is simply brilliant!
Night in Montreal
by Emily St. John Mandel (Unbridled Books, Hardcover)
Mandel's first novel is an impressive debut.  At the heart of the book is the mysteries of the heart.  Why does Lilia always tend to flee from where she lives and abandon her lovers when she gets too close to them? Mandel's book has become a darling of independent booksellers, and it's easy to see why.  This is the kind of book you want to share with your friends after reading it.

Await Your Reply

by Dan Chaon (Ballantine Books, Hardcover)
My favorite book of Fall 2009 (which is saying a lot, because so many great books came out this past season).  Chaon pays homage to some of his favorite writers, like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Shirley Jackson, in this literary page-turner. Chaon focuses on identity through the eyes of three characters; a twin searching for his troubled brother, a teenager who runs away with her former history teacher, and a college dropout.  This is one of those rare books that has a compelling plot AND terrific writing.
The Great Perhaps
by Joe Meno
(W.W. Norton & Company, Hardcover)
Calling all fans of Tom Perrotta who like dysfunctional family stories! Meno is quirky and profound in the best way.  He successfully captures the anxieties and tribulations of each member of the Casper family, and manages to say a lot about our failings and successes as human beings. 
Essential Pleasures edited by Robert Pinsky (W.W. Norton & Company, Hardcover)
Who doesn't like reading poetry aloud? This anthology features a lot of the well-known poets, and includes, as the title suggests, some of the absolute essentials.  It also comes with a CD of the poet Robert Pinsky reading some of his favorites.  A wonderful gift for all fans of poetry.  Check out the cool website for the book. 
Gwen's Picks
Dragonbreath by Ursula Vernon (Dial, Hardcover) 
This is a new favorite of mine.  Meet Danny Dragonbreath and his sidekick Wendell the iguana.  When Danny gets an F on his science paper, he has to re-do the paper--but this time he has to actually do the research. Danny takes Wendell along on a trip to visit his cousin Edward the Sea Serpent who lives in the ocean.  Edward takes them on an adventure in the sea.  There are sharks and whales and puffer fish (oh my).  Lots of fun and excitement for kids (and adults) ages 8 and up. 
Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell (Back Bay Books, Paperback)
What a fun book! I couldn't wait to see what would happen next, and then I was sad that it was over.  Mafia hitmen, outrageous action scences, sharks--fun, fun, fun.  It's been a long time since I had such a visceral reaction to a scene in a book, and this one was quite intense.  I still shiver thinking about it. 
The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yoko Ogawa  (Picador, Paperback) 
Although this book is a departure from the types of books that I usually read, I enjoyed this novel from start to finish.  Ogawa tells the story of the relationships between the three main characters-- a math professor, his housekeeper, and her son.  Following an accident, the professor is unable to retain memories for longer than eighty minutes at a time.  He remains forever in the year 1975.  I thought this was a beautifully written story about time, relationships, and the power of memory.
 Requiem, Mass by John Dufresne (W.W. Norton & Company, Paperback)
Dufresne tells the story about a family coming apart at the seams, and about the young son who is trying his best to hold them all together.  Johnny's mother is having some "issues", including a diagnosis of Capgras's syndrome (she believes her children have been replaced by exact replicas of themselves).  His father is a truck driver and rarely at home.  His sister Audrey appears to be struggling with issues of her own.  Johnny is trying to make everything right for his family, but his parents are fighting him off every step of the way.  Dufresne alternates between Johnny's life today, and the memoir that he is writing about his past.  This was a fun novel, with some serious family issues thrown in to darken it up a bit. 
Asylum by Christopher Payne (The MIT Press, Hardcover) 
This is an amazing and powerful collection of photographs depicting some of America's abandoned state mental hospitals.  Payne's photos are both historical and harrowing.  He has collected shots of the buildings (both prior to and during demolition), the grounds, and most memorably, the items left behind on the premises after the buildings were abandoned.  The pictures themselves are beautiful, but having worked in the field for many years, they were especially intense and moving.
Binky the Space Cat by Ashley Spires (Kids Can Press, Hardcover)
Meet Binky, the housecat whose goal is to travel into "outer space" (also known as anywhere that exists outside of the house).  He spends his time protecting his humans from aliens, training for space travel, and building a nifty rocket ship.  Kids and adults will all love Binky and his mouse friend Ted (I'm a huge Ted fan!)
Firmin by Sam Savage (Delta, Paperback)
Okay, so I was initially suckered in by the marketing genius of the book--I'll admit freely to that. I was fully expecting a "cutesy" tale about a rat living in a bookstore.  What I wasn't expecting was the story that unfolded.  It is a sad, but touching summary of Firmin's life--his hopes, fears, aspirations--which eerily reflect many of our own. 
A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz (Spiegel & Grau, Paperback)
I thought this was a very well-written account of the relationship dynamics between a father and son.  Toltz did a great job of writing from the different perspectives of each of his characters. I was particularly impressed by his ability to write from Martin's point of view, offering a moving account of his mental status.  There were parts of this book that were hysterically funny. Toltz has a dry, sarcastic sense of humor that, luckily, he offers up freely.