The NYT top 10 for '09

The New York Times has released its top 10 books of 2009 ("The Ten Best Books of 2009") and we can excuse the larger publishing world for hanging on the results – millions of $$ are at stake – but here in our little nook, it's an annual opportunity to laugh. Spy used to bust the NYT every month for its trademark corruption and incompetence but alas, Spy is no more. Please accept this poor substitute.

The Times roster is divided into five fiction and five nonfiction selections. (Book Ninja says these restrictive categories are used because they are the most advertiser friendly.) No independently published titles made the list (none) and the ten titles fall out among these corporations: Simon & Schuster, three; Random House, three; Penguin (Pearson), two; HarperCollins (NewsCorp), one; and Farrar, Straus & Giroux (MacMillan), one.

Fiction is given pride of place topside and consists of one short-story collection and four novels.

The single short story collection is given top (number one) position and I don't have to tell you how crazy readers are for short story collections. Booksellers can't keep them in stock. This one is written by "a frequent contributor to the New York Times," Maile Meloy. She's just lucky that her colleagues at the paper appreciate her as much as they do. Last year we had to reach way down to the number two position on the list to find a book by a staffer or "frequent contributor."

In second place, we have Brooklyn's Jonathan Lethem. Like many a man of letters, he is a "cartoonish" painter who dabbles in animated movies and saw Star Wars 21 times during its original run. My unkind feeling is that he is the book editor's boyfriend. On the other hand, his novel is entirely about Manhattan, always a pleasing subject with this selection committee.

A certain Lorrie Moore occupies third place. She is a Manhattanite (Hooray for the home team!), now teaching English in exile as a professor in Wisconsin. She was educated in creative writing at Cornell shortly after my own time at Syracuse (please note that the two universities shared a "sister" relationship at that time, affecting credits, courses, and various exchanges; more on that in a moment).

In fourth place, we have Ms Jeanette Walls whose novel takes her out of her usual domain as guest on TV's Colbert Report and her career as MSNBC's gossip columnist (MSNBC = Time Warner). This is his first work of fiction, so it is not surprising it should make the NYT top 10 list. Many first novels do. You probably know her for her book, Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip.

In fifth place, we have Kate Walbert and her tale of an English suffragette. She teaches English at Yale. Another English professorI like my fiction heavily credentialed! "The theme is feminism," the reviewer says, which sounds less like fiction, more like polemic. Ms. Walbert lives in New York where she occasionally publishes pieces in the New York Times, so she is no stranger to this selection committee. With nice symmetry, the judges have bracketed the fiction list with two NYT contributors.

On to the nonfiction. Here we have a best-selling pop science tome, an Iraq documentary, a best-selling financial history, and two literary biographies. Two, because (I suppose) there really were not enough non-lit biographies issued in 2009.

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life is 10th on the NYT list and provides us with a little insight into the minds and mores of these compilers. Mr. Carver was a short story writer who ran the Syracuse University creative writing program when Lorrie Moore (third place, fiction) was learning writing nearby at Cornell. (I believe he started teaching after I graduated from SU.) His biographer is a lady professor of English in Michigan. BTW, eighth on the list is the memoir Lit: A Life, by Mary Karr, an English professor at Syracuse University. I suspect there are even more Syracuse/Cornell nodes but don't have time to find them all.

BTW, speaking of Karr, a professor's memoir - as you will readily agree - is always a sure-fire hit and likely to land on anybody's top 10 list, so no surprises here.

David Finkel has written a book about a unit in Iraq. He is a long-time Washington Post employee and prolific reporter. You can't just have just NY Times contributors as winners on a list like this. A broadening of the field is needed.

The last two items to discuss on the list are outliers. Liaquat Ahamed's well publicized profile of four interwar central bankers resonated with the times, the Times and with Ahamed's financial background. In terms of publishing incest, this New Yorker merely sits on Forbes' magazine's board. Author Richard Holmes, meanwhile, a self-styled "Romantic biographer," is also editor of Harper Perennial series Classic Biographies, a bit of incest that goes down well in New York. A publisher's editor makes the list? Well, look at previous years!

Let's compile one of those numerical lists Harpers used to delight in.

Zero – number of independent publishers on the list
Two – number of known NYT contributors making the list (update - six!)
Three – number of Syracuse/Cornell writing connections among winners
Four – number of selectees employed by publishers other than NYT
Four – number of female English professors on the list
Five – number of New Yorkers on the list

You can do your own further digging. I leave to you the NYT 100 Notable Books of 2009.

** UPDATE **
A reader of the above kindly corrected some errors of omission:
Mary Karr is also a NYT contributor.


(p.s. Apparently this is her third memoir. Who writes three memoirs? Overheard at Thanksgiving: "So, Mary dear, what's your new book about." "Me." "Again?")

As is Lorrie Moore;


And Jonathan Lethem:


And Liaquat Ahamed.

BTW, I was thinking about Mary Karr this afternoon. Asked myself, "When is the last time you read a good autobiography by an English professor?" Usually, English professors write novels about English professors. Well, she gives us three memoirs to choose from. One of them has got to be good. And as top ten listings go, for Mary (pardon the cliche) "third time's a charm."