Two of the best books from recent years that I got around to reading in 2009 were The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie and The Master by Colm Tóibín. Elie’s book, a group portrait of four Catholic American writers at mid-century (Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy) is old-fashioned in the best ways. It unfolds slowly, but its insights are deep, unshowy, and finally poignant. By the time its subjects reach the ends of their lives, you feel you know, as well as one can, their souls. Tóibín’s fictional account of the life of Henry James is similar in the cumulative power of its effects, and it also inspired me to read a few novels by the Master himself. Though I remain a bigger fan of his brother William (a maniacal fan, really), The Bostonians and The American were highlights of my year’s reading.
But my favorite read in 2009 happened to be published in 2009: Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, as confident and well crafted a collection as I’ve read in a long time. Starring semi-rural characters down on their luck in places from Illinois to the outskirts of Nashville, these eight stories contain both humor and compassion about people and an appreciation for nature that is never heavy-handed. In “Phantom Pain,” one of the best stories, residents panic at unconfirmed reports of a wild animal loose in their town — everyone except for Jack Wells, an older taxidermist who thinks he’s been around too long to believe it. Peelle’s prose is never less than assured, and it’s brilliant frequently enough to make this short book both a delight and a promise of things to come.