Little Ms. Polymath

aka the know-it-all

best of 2009: books January 3, 2010

Filed under: books,celebrate,life — mspolymath @ 7:32 am
All month long people have been posting their top-everything lists for 2009 (note: I began writing this in December of LAST YEAR). Who am I to snub my nose at such a hallowed tradition? That being said, I’ve always struggled to narrow things down. Plus, I have problems coming up with stuff on the spot. People will ask me what I’m reading, or who my favorite bands are, and my mind just goes blank, and then it gets swirly with names and titles and covers all meshed together and I get flustered. So, while I can remember mundane details about most Facts of Life episodes, I’d be hard pressed to tell you what I read this past year, let alone what I liked. Fortunately, I keep track. Here are some of my very favorite books from 2009.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Honestly, I thought I knew pretty much everything I needed to know about Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Then in struts Thomas Cromwell via Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and blows that belief right out of the water. Mantel’s Cromwell was a downright genius, and I spent a lot of the book with my mouth agape at his political maneuverings. Sure, hindsight is 20/20 when it comes to crafting historical nonfiction, but the book is so alive I felt like I was reading Cromwell’s secret braindump diary. I also started to understand the allure of Anne Boleyn – she had a charisma that brought men to their knees and run to do her bidding. 

The Kids are All Right by Diana and Liz Welch, with Dan and Amanda Welch


The idea of losing both parents, then being torn apart from your siblings while you were still a kid is like something out of a soap opera (it’s even more strange when your mom is a soap opera actress). Yet it’s the very real collective nightmare shared by the Welch kids, who lost their father to a car accident, their mother to cancer (on Christmas), and each other all within a few short years. Their collective memoir details their coming apart, and how they found each other again. 

The Magicians by Lev Grossman


I love a book that takes me to another dimension within our own world. The Magicians pulls together some of the best ideas from children’s fantasy classics and weaves in a modern feel of ennui and the pressure to be special. 

People are Unappealing* (*even me) by Sara Barron


I’m recommending this book solely for the first two essays in this book , which made me laugh out loud. Then I read part of them out loud to Jason and we both laughed. In fact, The Porn is one of the funniest stories I have ever read, and I’m laughing just thinking about it. 

I'm Down by Mishna Wolff


I’m Down is funny and sad and off-putting in a mild way. I don’t think it was her intention, but I saw Wolff’s father as the villain for the entire book, and when I think of it I think of how much I’d like to smack her dad. Growing up white while submersed in black culture (in Seattle), Wolff’s dad wanted her and her sister to stay true….to their black roots. It doesn’t help that he’s a pretty terrible father, and the pressure he places on his kids to become something they’re not makes the reader squirm. But there is redemption, and Wolff does find her true identity, and heals her family wounds along the way. 

The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson


I’m itching to get my hands on the third part of this series, so much so that I may order a copy from England. Which begs the question: why was this book released in England nearly a year before it will be released in the United States. Because I want to read it RIGHT NOW. Not much of a book review, I know. Lisbeth Salander is one of the most compelling, interesting characters in modern fiction. You really just need to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire for yourself. 

The Story Sisters by Alice Hoffman


I’m a little surprised, but this was the first Alice Hoffman book I’ve ever read. The magical realism is, well, magical, and this book is lovely and haunting in so many ways. I first heard about this book from Hoffman’s Twitter attack on a Boston Globe book reviewer. If it was a publicity stunt, it worked. 

Closing Time by Joe Queenan


Joe Queenan and I both have bad dads. Mine never beat the shit out of me, but I understand the weird obligation he feels toward his father. As I wrote shortly after I read the book, ” I completely identified with Queenan’s father being so close to complete strangers but alien to his own family – a charisma that can charm only those who don’t truly know him. ” 

Waiting for the Apocalypse by Veronica Charter


Waiting for the Apocalypse: A Memoir of Faith and Family is riveting and pretty scary. Why NOT run off to Portugal because you’re convinced Vatican II is the end of the world? Why not put your children at risk and live somewhere you don’t speak the language or have hope of working based on the word of a near stranger? Looking back, it seems I’ve read quite a few bad dad books this year. Hm. Maybe there’s a theme? 

The Help by Kathryn Stockett


I’m proud to say I read this book a week or so after it came out. And I adored it. I even wrote a fan email to Kathryn Stockett, and she wrote me back. There are mixed feelings on the racial implications of The Help, but there’s no denying it’s a page turning story by an author who knows how to captivate the reader. 

Under the Dome by Stephen King


I read Carrie when I was in the fourth grade. I think I picked it up after loving the supernatural element of Willo Davis Roberts’ The Girl with the Silver Eyes. Yeah, it was quite a leap from Davis Roberts to King, and I don’t know that I’ve read a Stephen King novel since. Under the Dome is different. I can’t put it (well, my Kindle) down. King knows how to create a cast of villains and heroes that won’t let you walk away. 

And, in case this list isn’t comprehensive enough for you, here are a few other books I enjoyed in 2009: 

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

Admission by Jean Hann Korelitz 

The Girls from Ames: A Story of Women and Friendship by Jeffrey Zaslow


easy reader, vol. 2. November 5, 2009

Filed under: books,life — mspolymath @ 12:27 pm

I made a mistake last night – I started reading a new book an hour before bedtime. Normally this isn’t a big deal, but I picked up The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt, which is turning out to be a Great Book. The novel has its detractors – it’s dense, wordy and thick, but that’s one of the things I like about it. As a fast reader, it’s forcing me to slow down and absorb the rich language along with the abundance of information.

Set on the cusp between Victorian and Modern England, The Children’s Book (as far as I’ve read, anyway) centers around fairy tale author Olive  Wellwood and her family. At the book’s open, she and her son Tom are visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum. As Tom and the curator’s son wander through the museum’s treasures, they find hints of magic and a young man named Philip living in the depths of the collection. Full of socialist and motherly love, Olive decides to bring Philip home to her bustling country estate, full of children and servants and luxuries the impoverished boy could never imagine.


I'd like to be off somewhere with this book right now.

As I read last night I felt the book build up – I knew I was just about to the really, really good part, where the author hooks you in and you cannot stop reading. The mysteries are starting to unfold, and it took a lot of effort to put the novel down. I’ve already succumbed to two other books so far this month. One was Juliet, Naked, the new novel from Nick Hornby. While not a Great Book, it is charismatic and light and fun (even while being serious) and as with all of Hornby’s books, you feel as if you’re hearing from a friend. That was Friday night. Saturday night I got sucked into The Kids are All Right, a four-part memoir reflecting on life after a family loses their father and their mother in a short timeframe. I could not pry myself away, desperate to find out how four upper-middle-class kids (their father owned an oil company, their mother was on The Edge of Night and Loving!) would deal with the loss of not just their parents, but of their entire lives.


Bob and Ann Welch on their wedding day in 1964. Their children's memoir is a raw look at an unimaginable tragedy.

But back to the world of A.S. Byatt. The Children’s Book was short-listed for a Booker Prize this year, and Byatt has won before, for Possession (which some may remember as a movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart). I read Possession and Byatt’s novellas Angels and Insects years ago and hadn’t felt the need to return to her as an author. That was until earlier this year, when I read an interview with her sister Margaret Drabble, an acclaimed author in England whom I’d never heard of. She also has a new book out, and in her interview she discussed her sister’s resentment of her, because growing up Byatt was the author and Drabble was supposed to be “the pretty one.” Then Drabble went and wrote her first book, which was very well received. It took nearly 30 years for Byatt to get out of her younger sister’s shadow. That’s certainly a frustration I can identify with, so from one beleaguered older sister to another, I decided to give Byatt another shot. And I’m so glad I did.

As for other recent reads, I’ve also enjoyed Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries (perfect bedtime reading) and Kathy Griffin‘s new memoir, Official Book Club Selection. Seriously.