It is the time of year for lists of the "best of" of 2009, a year that may go down in memory as not leaving all that much to recommend it. Nonetheless, some new and not-so-new reads during the year are truly worthy of mention. None of these made the New York Times list or won the Booker Prize, but did make The Johnson Post half dozen.
The best political biography I have read in a long time in John Milton Cooper's life of the endlessly fascinating, endlessly flawed 28th president of the United States Woodrow Wilson. Woodrow Wilson - A Biography will likely remain the definitive treatment of Wilson for years to come. Cooper, a University of Wisconsin historian, is the Wilson scholar and he writes with a lively, engaging style that leaves none of Wilson's many accomplishments - academic visionary, legislative maestro - or numerous shortcomings - stubborn, partisan - unconsidered. Still, Cooper likes his subject and we should, too. Reading this marvelous book made it clear once again that the modern world began in the Wilson Age. The world that emerged from "the war to end all wars" - not Wilson's phrase, by the way - is the world of today: a violent Middle East, the fractured Balkans, a phony country called Iraq, etc.
For sheer delight in reading about a major figure of the 20th Century, few tomes can compare with Paul Johnson's new, short biography of Winston Churchill. Johnson, a great writer and generally revisionist historian, captures Churchill in just 166 pages; no mean feat considering the great man's life spanned the 20th Century from The Boer War to the Cold War. Johnson is particularly good at illustrating Churchill's humanity. He was a damn tough taskmaster, but remarkably gentle with political foes once he had bested them. He taught himself to be a great speaker through - listen up would be politicos - endless practice and polish. He loved good Champagne and Johnson estimates that he may have consumed 20,000 bottles in his long lifetime. This is a great little book.
I approached Ted Kennedy's memoir, published after his death, with some trepidation. Would Teddy offer up the typical book by a politician - interesting perhaps, but not really revealing? Kennedy's book - True Compass - may, as his Senate career did, set a standard for such efforts. Kennedy candidly discusses his shortcomings and offers real insight into the "Kennedy Way". His portrait of his father, Joe Kennedy, is particularly good and will cause a rethinking of the old man and his influence on American politics.
A final non-fiction pick for 2009 would be Antony Beevor's D-Day, a superb re-telling of the Allied landings on the Normandy coast in June 1944 and the first major new book on the subject in 20 years. All the major players are here: Eisenhower, the brilliant organizer and politician, de Gaulle, Omar Bradley, Rommel, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., but also the common soldier, sailor and airmen who accomplished the single greatest invasion ever undertaken. The invasion was brutal, brilliant, chaotic, callous and history changing. Beevor captures all of the story and suggests, as others have, that the invasion could well have ended in disaster. He also makes the case that atrocities - Allied bombing of French civilians and summary execution of prisoners on both sides, for example - have long been ignored in the myth making surrounding what Rommel called "the longest day."
One of the best fiction reads this year was Jim Harrison's The English Major. Harrison takes readers on a cross country romp from Michigan to Montana with funny and telling stops along the way. His hero is a 60ish English major turned backwoods farmer who finds himself without a wife and without much purpose in life. If you know Harrison, you'll not be surprised that the book is full of quirky characters, massive amounts of food and drink and, of course, sex. The guy can write.
I have seen the movie with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet a dozen times and it is always enjoyable, but had never read The Maltese Falcon until recently. Dashiell Hammett's classic was published nearly 80 years ago and it remains a great read. The John Huston movie is very faithful to the book, even using word-for-word dialogue, but there is no substitute for Hammett's lean, clean prose coming off the page. This is the essential detective story.
Happy reading in 2010.