Sari’s 2009 favorite book list.

Another year has come to pass; in one way it felt as if 2009 sped by me like a bullet, leaving me breathless and an little confused (what the hell was that?), in another way it seemed as if it would always be 2009, an unending nightmare of job losses, home values dropping and a slow economic recovery. This was my son’s senior year of high school and I was warned the year would speed by leaving me wondering what happened to the small child I held in my arms not that long ago. The person who warned me was right; this last year with my son is going to be over too soon. Yet, I hope 2010 brings changes to our economy and to my personal life. I do look forward to ringing in a new year!

Like most readers, one of the things I reflect on this time of year is my list of past reads. I mull over the titles of my reads as I get ready to list my favorites. Most years I have one in particular that really stands out; one that has stayed with me all year long. This is when writing my list is easy, when I have one perfect book to write about. This year is wildly different. This year I realized I have read some really great books both fiction and nonfiction. This last year took me from the birth of India to Jewish vampires in modern day Brooklyn. I read about the lives of medieval children and a Roman doctor and his assistant. I finally read Outlander and four classics I have been putting off. I fell in love with a new author to me and reconnected to an old favorite. This certainly has been a year of a variety of genre’s and authors.

Remember I said this year seemed to drag on? Well imagine my surprise to find that some books I thought I read last year were actually read this year! As I looked at my spreadsheet it dawned on me that I had a long reading year. I could have sworn I read Midnight’s Children in 08, but no, I read it last January, same with Stephen Hawking a life of Science by Michael White. I thought I had read it long before I really did. This threw me off as I had a pretty good idea of which books would make my top 5 but after looking at my January reads, I had to rethink my list. With so many good reads I had a very hard time narrowing down my favorite or even favorites.

I had to come up with new criteria in order to keep my list short.

The books on my favorite 2009 list are books that:

Held my attention for long periods of time
; some I read in one sitting some, I read in just a couple of days. I picked up Lady Macbeth not knowing I would not put it down until I finished.

Had characters that stayed with me long after I finished the book
. I always feel a book is well done if I think about its characters after I have moved on. . Marisha Pessi wrote some very memorable characters in Special Topics in Calamity Physics.

Made me cry. I have been told I am to stoic and not easily moved, so any book that brings me to tears or hits me emotionally is an exceptional read. I would question anyone who said they read Glass Castles and did not feel something.

Taught me something and or made me eager to learn more. I had no idea medieval children led such normal lives and that evolution is taking place for us to see and seems to be accelerating in some species.

Nonfiction that read like a novel. I ended up with more than one nonfiction book on my list this year because a few of them read like entertaining fiction. Thomas Levenson’s Newton and the Counterfeiter comes to mind as I write this.

So this was my criteria, now here are my lists; again a new thing for me this year two lists.


The Greatest show on earth Richard Dawkins
Glass Castles Jennett Walls
Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation Mitch Horowitz
Stephen Hawking a life of Science Michael White
Medieval Children Norme Ome
Isaac Newton and the Counterfeiter Thomas Levenson


Midnight’s Children Salam Rushdie
Lady Macbeth Susan Fraser King
American Gods Neil Gaiman
Special Calamity Topics in Calamity Physics M Peese
Between a bridge and a river Craig Ferguson
Half the Blood in Brooklyn Charlie Huston (this is on my list not because it is great writing but because it was cheep fun and was like nothing else I have read in a long while)

Well dear reader, this is my list. I read many good books this year which made it hard to narrow down to just a few. I look forward to what next year brings and I look forward to sharing more with you.

If you have a list please include a link in the comment section. I am eager to see what others pick for their top 2009 reads.

Dante’s Comedy and Joseph Gallagher’s Modern Guide

I finally finished Dante’s Comedy the fourth and final book for the Really Old Classics Read challenge Thank you to rebeccareid of for hosting the event.

This was a great excuse to brush off some older books I have been meaning to read but never got around to.
As part of the challenge we were asked to not only pick books written before the 1400s but to find a retelling of a classic. I choose to read To Hell and Back, a Modern Reader’s Guide to the Divine Comedy along with my favorite translation by Robert Pinsky.

I fell in love with Dante back in college when I took an introduction course in humanities. The class should have been titled A journey with Dante as most of the course centered on his epic poem. My professor Mr. Hubart was one of those rare teachers who not only taught old text but also taught his students to love old works, especially Dante. We took field trips to old Catholic Churches in order to understand the symbolism in Dante’s words. We were lucky enough to see a Dante exhibit at the San Francisco De Young Museum. The exhibit included paintings and sculptures all based on the 9 circles of hell. Each piece of work hit me in different ways, ways I cannot fully articulate. As a young impressible girl I studied the pieces trying to understand the beauty and sadness in each. I had hoped that someday I would be able to own a few of the pieces but try as I might; I have never seen them again. 20 something years later I can still vision them in my head.
Over the years I have collected translations of Dante’s work as well as a very old biography on the poet. The poem and its deep meaning are always with me. Now that I am middle age and struggling with my identity the beginning passage “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost” hits me more than it did when I was 19. I am now at the midway point in my life and feel more connected to the poet and poem than at any other time in my life. I felt now would be a good time to not only re-read the poem but read a modern guide to help me better understand it.

Joseph Gallaher writes in the preface that he wrote To Hell and Back “to help modern readers master Dante’s masterpiece”. I had hoped this would be the case, but sadly I feel this guide is lacking in spark and well, guidance. Gallaher said he spent 17 years studying the poem yet the guide is a quick rundown of each Canto (like a chapter but shorter) much like Cliffnotes or Sparknotes would do. What I was hoping for was an analysis into the poem’s deeper meaning, much like Professor Hubart would give. I was disappointed with the lack of depth in the guide, because in order to fully appreciate the poem one has to look beyond the written words.

For those of you who do not know much about the poem let me explain. The poem is a fictional account of Dante’s journey into hell, purgatory and finally the lower part of heaven. Dante is middle age and seems to be “lost”. A woman named Beatrice (the love of this life) sees him from heaven and taking pity on him, asks the Greek poet Virgil to be Dante’s guide through the otherworlds. This journey is Beatrice’s way of saving Dante and allowing him to attain grace. Along the journey Dante meets people from his home town of Florence, long dead poets, famous sinners and a few biblical prophets. Almost every word in the poem has been carefully chosen and has more than one meaning. Dante quotes the bible in order to drive a point home. If one does not understand the biblical passage, the point is lost.

In order to fully understand the poem the reader must learn something about these people, otherwise their punishment or reward will make little sense. Understanding Catholic symbolism is a must, as well as old Christianity dogma. Gallagher does explain the basic premise of each Canto and introduces the modern reader to the characters in the poem, but never explains why Dante choose these people or why he chose certain biblical passages as part of his poem. Reading Gallagher’s guide did offer some help but honestly just made me miss my old professor even more.
I will recommend the book to those who have never read Dante’s work but would like to try. Just be warned, that though Gallagher tells us this is one of the greatest pieces of works ever written, he lacks the talent that would have the first time reader coming away fully understanding why this is so.

For a very poetic translation of Dante’s Inferno I would recommend Robert Pinksy. I had always hoped he would have done the whole poem as his talent for poetry and Dante is the best I have read to date. The American poet Longfellow has a translation out that I would recommend for first time readers. My son bought me a newly republished Longfellow version that he found at Barnes and Nobel. It is a very nice looking book and contains the famous Gustave Dore illustrations.

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