Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 Year in Review from the Dallas Morning News

By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

The year 2009 has been described as the Year of Anxiety, so it should come as no surprise that the books published in 2009 reflected scary stuff – from government conspiracy theories to zombies and, natch, vampires.

In Texas, writers both living and deceased made their mark on the national literary scene. Meanwhile, booksellers were battling it out for your discretionary dollar by making books cheap, cheap, cheap. All told, 2009 was a great year to be a book lover.

Herewith, our top 10 literary events of 2009:

AP Photo
AP Photo
Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol

1. The Lost Symbol: Dan Brown's follow-up to his global best-seller The Da Vinci Code was the one book everyone wanted to read. And Brown didn't disappoint. Trading the mysteries of Christianity for the mysteries of American history, Brown titillated his fans with conspiracy theories dating back to the Founding Fathers. Brown's publisher, Doubleday, printed 5 million copies to start, readers downloaded it faster than any other book in the retailer's history. It was just what most people needed in a tough year: a bit of frivolous distraction.

2. Going Rogue: Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin is hard to ignore. After failing to become the first female vice-president, the lady from Alaska moved home, quit her job, and (with help from writer Lynn Vincent) penned this book, which has taken her from Oprah to Plano – where her reading at Legacy Books drew more than 1,000 supporters, who snapped up all available tickets in less than two days.

3. The Last Olympian: Perhaps the most popular book to come out of Texas this year was the finale of Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Published in May, the novel entranced teens, who raced through its 400 pages to learn the fate of Percy (a son of Poseidon) and his friends as they fight an army of monsters to get to the portal to Mount Olympus (which is on the top of the Empire State Building). Look for Riordan's popularity to soar as the movie adaptation of the first in the series, The Lightning Thief, hits theaters in February.

4. Attention for Texas authors:Austinite John Pipkin, former executive director of the Writer's League of Texas, picked up the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize for his bookWoodsburner, which depicts the day Henry David Thoreau nearly burned down the forest surrounding Walden Pond. And the late Houston novelist and short-story writer Donald Barthelme finally got the biography he deserved in the form of Tracy Daugherty's Hiding Man –something that should firmly establish Barthelme's place high in the American literary canon.

5. Two top tens: A pair of books firmly rooted in the Lone Star State – Lit by Mary Karr and Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls – landed on the New York Times Book Review's list of the top ten books of 2009. In Lit, Karr, who hails from Groves, Texas, offers a chronicle of her descent into alcoholism and unexpected conversion to Catholicism. Walls' Half Broke Horses is a fictional account of the life of her West Texas grandmother.

In a year with so many A-list authors, from Barbara Kingsolver toMargaret Atwood, putting out "big books," it's nice affirmation to know that lives lived in this part of the country are as interesting to a national audience as are those lived in Manhattan or Brooklyn, where far too many books seem to be set.

AP Photo
AP Photo
Seth Grahame Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

6. Zombie-mania: Something must have eaten book buyers' brains, as avid readers put Pride and Prejudice and Zombies onto the best-seller list. The parody by Seth Grahame-Smith injected the undead into Jane Austen's classic Regency romance and proved astonishingly popular. It also established a new genre of "enhanced" classics which now includes Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, The Adventures of Huck Finn and Zombie Jim and others.

7. Christians vs. vampires: It wasn't long ago when the Left Behindbooks, a series of Christian novels depicting the "end of days," rivaledHarry Potter for the top of the best-sellers list. The times have changed, and there was no surer sign than the failure of the much-hyped Christian Book Expo held in March at the Dallas Convention Center. Organizers had expected 10,000 to 15,000 people, but only 1,500 attended.

In contrast, more than 3,000 fans of Stephenie Meyer's vampire-romance Twilight series paid $255 each to attend the inaugural TwiCon at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel in August. The event was so successful, organizers are moving it to Las Vegas and Toronto for 2010.

8. Mayborn conference: One book event in the area that was an undeniable success was the fifth annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, held in July in Grapevine. Hundreds gathered to hear talks from A-list literary figures including Paul Theroux, Ira Glass and Alma Guillermoprieto. Interesting, focused and efficiently run by the administrators from the journalism school at the University of North Texas, The Mayborn can be ranked among the best writers' conferences in the United States.

9. Book price war: In October, and Wal-Mart reduced the price of some hardcover bestsellers, including John Grisham's FordCountry, to $9 or less. The low-low prices didn't last, but it underscored how, in no point in history, have there never been more books available to so many people for so little.

10. E-books gain popularity: It took a decade, but e-books are finally catching on. The introduction of new, easier-to-use reading software for smart phones, such as the iPhone, and new devices, such as Barnes & Noble's recently-introduced Nook, have made them all the more appealing.'s Kindle still reigns supreme, with many of the books priced at $9.99. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos now says that the company sells e-books to print books at a ratio of nearly one to two; he is confidently predicting the day will soon be here when Amazon will sell more electronic books than physical books. Keep an eye on two Austin-based firms – LibreDigital, a company that converts books to digital formats, and BooksOnBoard, one of the biggest e-book retailers in the United States. Both are innovators in the field of digital publishing.

Ed Nawotka lives in Houston. He is editor-in-chief of Publishing