Best books in the first half of 2009

According to, below is a selection of the top 10 must-reads of the year so far:

Cheever: A Life by Blake Bailey. Blake Bailey pays a monumental tribute to Cheever's legacy as an American master in Cheever: A Life. Written with compassion and the full cooperation of Cheever's widow and their three children, it chronicles the mournful arc of a lifetime, covering the author's childhood, his time in the army, his life as a writer and his literary rivals, and his struggle to play the role of suburban family man.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Colum McCann has worked exquisite magic with this novel of electromagnetic force that defies gravity. It's August 1974, a summer when Watergate and the Vietnam War make the world feel precarious. A stunned hush pauses New York City as a man on a cable walks between the World Trade Center towers. This extraordinary feat becomes the touchstone for ten stories that briefly submerge you in a series of varied, intense lives.

Fordlandia by Greg Grandin. With sales booming in the 1930s, Henry Ford saw opportunity in a downtrodden Brazilian economy. Once a global leader in rubber production, the region was in dire need of an economic savior. If the Ford Motor Company began manufacturing rubber in the Amazon jungle, they could become that messiah while dramatically lowering their own overhead. With meticulous research, Fordlandia explores how this dream of a "jungle economy" ultimately proved no match for Ford's own hubris.

The City & The City by China Mieville. The city is Beszel, a rundown Eastern European metropolis. The other city is Ul Qoma, a modern boomtown. What the two cities share, and what they don't, is the deliciously evocative conundrum of China Mieville's The City & The City. Using a seen-it-all detective's voice that's perfect for this story of seen and unseen, Mieville creates a world both fantastic and unsettlingly familiar, whose mysteries don't end with the solution of a murder.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann. In The Lost City of Z, New Yorker writer David Grann retraces the steps of renowned British explorer Percy Fawcett in his 1925 quest to discover the legendary kingdom of El Dorado in the heart of the Amazon. Grann dives into the jungle on a quest to find details of his sudden disappearance, a mystery that has led many would-be explorers to death or madness.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. Like Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved classic, Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden takes root in your imagination and grows into something enchanting--from a little girl with no memory, alone on a ship to Australia, to a fog-soaked London where orphans comfort themselves with stories of Jack the Ripper, to a Cornish sea heaving against cliffs crowned by an airless manor house, where an overgrown hedge maze ends in the walled garden of a cottage left to rot.

Crazy for the Storm by Norman Ollestad. The facts of the story alone are breathtaking: an 11-year-old boy is the sole survivor of a small-plane crash in a blizzard in the California mountains. Writing 30 years later, Norman Ollestad cuts elegantly back and forth between the crash and his memories of his driven, charismatic father, who died on the mountain. More than a story of survival, Crazy for the Storm is a time-tempered reckoning with what it means to be a father and a son.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Committed to a quiet life in Ireland, Eilis Lacey reluctantly finds herself swept up in an adventure to America, engineered by the family priest and her spirited older sister, Rose. Eilis's determination to embrace the journey--especially on behalf of Rose, who has sacrificed her own chance of leaving--makes a bittersweet center for Brooklyn. Spare and lovely, with a haunted heroine who glows on the page, Colm Toibin's latest novel is a moving meditation on the immigrant experience.

The Gamble by Thomas Ricks. Fiasco, Thomas E. Ricks's first bestseller on the Iraq War, was superb and influential, but his follow-up, The Gamble, may be even better. Ricks tells a remarkable story of how a few people inside and outside the Pentagon pushed for the unpopular "surge," and then how soldiers put the difficult plan into action on the ground. But Ricks's conclusion is bracing: the war has not yet been won, and America is not done in Iraq.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. Sag Harbor--Colson Whitehead's "autobiographical fourth novel"--is a soulful coming-of-age chronicle of the lazy, sun-soaked days sandwiched between Memorial Day and Labor Day, filled with moments both celebratory and painfully funny and swimming with references to New Coke, The Cosby Show, and more memories of growing up in the 1980s.


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