2009: The year in books

True stories - fact and fiction
By JON GARELICK  |  December 22, 2009

THE DEATH OF BUNNY MUNRO: Nick Cave’s protagonist sells hand cream and fantasizes about Avril Lavigne.

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are 10 of the best books the Phoenix reviewed in 2009.

• Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday)
At the start of Atwood's latest novel, mankind is heaving its last gurgling sighs. A deadly pandemic has chewed through the human race, whose planet-stripping, gene-scrambling civilization of the not-too-distant future has finally unraveled into a useless heap. Of course, it's not realism that Atwood's after. The street gangs have names like the Tex-Mexes, the Lintheads, and the Asian Fusions, and the public lives in fear of a trigger-happy law-enforcement squad known as the CorpSeCorps. Writers have scrubbed plenty of grim post-apocalyptic wastelands across our eyeballs — far rarer is the story that keeps grinning all the way through Armageddon.

• Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk)
The ultimate high-concept-book idea was also the phenomenon of the year: a Mad-Libs smash-up of social satire and "ultraviolent zombie mayhem," designed from the title inward. Despite his decidedly lowbrow preoccupations (zombies, martial arts, and crude jokes about balls), Seth Grahame-Smith is a sly devil, a parodist with as strong a sense of Austen's prose stylings as of her sharp observations. And he's used his rapier wit to insert his own story of England under attack into Austen's classic in a way that, yes, enhances the original. Unfortunately, the concept quickly became a franchise, and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (by a different co-author) wasn't nearly as good.

• Peter Carlson, K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushchev, America's Most Unlikely Tourist (Public Affairs)
America's most famous diplomatic guest was anything but diplomatic. He contradicted and insulted his hosts, provoked a media riot in a California supermarket, manhandled a turkey, fondled a gatecrasher's pot belly, threw a tantrum over a canceled trip to Disneyland, and threatened global annihilation. Fast-paced and delightfully sardonic, former Washington Post reporter Carlson's chronicle goes well beyond being a farcical collection of outrageous stories. Even if he doesn't come right out and say so, Carlson's is a cynic's view of history — one that leaves no question that the rhetorical duel played out across America in 1959 was fueled more by mutual insincerity than by heartfelt ideology.

• Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro (Faber & Faber)
Cave's first novel, 1989's And the Ass Saw the Angel, was, Phoenix critic James Parker wrote, "impossible." But now we have this story of "a sexually incontinent hand-cream salesman" on the south coast of England tending to his lady clientele while fantasizing about Avril Lavigne. Scrape at the surface of the new book and you'll find a familiar landscape. Here, in raw-power, wreck-of-the-Deutschland prose, is a proper case of Biblical diabolic possession. (See also: Hubert Selby Jr.'s The Demon.) "To be carnally minded is the death of Bunny Munro," said St. Paul, more or less. Even Avril Lavigne might be able to get behind that.

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