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From Updike to Agassi, our 10 favorite books of 2009

FICTION

ASTERIOS POLYP

by David Mazzucchelli

(Pantheon, $29.95)

Every few pages in David Mazzucchelli's graphic novel, there's another simple, beautiful metaphor for his central characters' troubled love affair. From its multi-page visual catalog of Hana's everyday quirks to insightful commentary from the ghost of Asterios' stillborn twin, "Asterios Polyp" is that rare graphic novel as inventively written as it is beautifully drawn.

- Sam Thielman

THE LITTLE STRANGER

by Sarah Waters

(Riverhead, $26.95)

Is it a ghost story? English country-house novel? Post-World War II social history? Waters' fifth book - about a noble family in decline, an insinuating local doctor and a haunted manor - is all of these and more: A mesmerizing fictional world you gladly lose yourself in.

- Tom Beer

MY FATHER'S TEARS, AND OTHER STORIES

by John Updike

(Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95)

Open the book at random and read a sentence: Is there any doubt that this is Updike, whose prose was so distinctively rich and tactile, so gently ironic yet also elegiac? The author died in January at 76, but this collection of 18 stories - about youth remembered and old age examined - is a consolatory last flourish.

- Tom Beer

NORMAL PEOPLE DON'T LIVE LIKE THIS

by Dylan Landis

(Persea, $15 paper)

This debut collection of linked stories, set in Manhattan in the 1970s, focuses on 13-year-old Leah Levinson and her single mom. Tense and intense, Leah is drawn to girls who walk on the wild side; Landis' prose is as taut and alluring as her characters.

- Marion Winik

WOLF HALL

by Hilary Mantel

(Henry Holt, $27)

The 2009 Booker Prize winner is an utterly absorbing historical novel that takes up the case of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's much-maligned adviser. History has portrayed him as ruthless and amoral, but Mantel's sympathetic protagonist sees the outlines of the modern world, and his career is an ongoing effort to yank Tudor England out of the Middle Ages.

- Erica Marcus

NONFICTION

THE AGE OF WONDER:HOW THE ROMANTIC GENERATION DISCOVERED THE BEAUTY AND TERROR OF SCIENCE

by Richard Holmes

(Pantheon, $40)

This sweeping history of scientific discovery and exploration brings to life an era when chemists and astronomers could capture the popular imagination. Holmes throws in vivacious tales of the first balloon rides, Mungo Park's ill-fated African trek and Capt. James Cook's South Seas voyage, for a wide-angle portrait of a thrilling, hopeful age.

- Peter Terzian

OPEN

by Andre Agassi

(Alfred A. Knopf, $28.95)

Even at the height of his success and during his brief marriage to Brooke Shields, tennis great Andre Agassi was self-destructive, depressive and lonely, as revealed in his insightful, exceedingly well-written autobiography, which has the cadence and plotting of a good novel. Although he collaborated with a ghostwriter, the raw energy and emotion throughout are pure Agassi.

- Carmela Ciuraru

POPS: A LIFE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG

by Terry Teachout

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30)

Listen to his great music. Visit his house-museum in Corona. And read this. What a wonderful book.

- Peter M. Gianotti

SOMEWHERE TOWARDS THE END

by Diana Athill

(Norton, $24.95)

Nobody likes growing old. If only everyone did it with Diana Athill's grace, good humor and insight - all on full display in this memoir written by the influential English book editor at age 91. It's an account of slow, creeping loss that is strangely buoyant - and completely free from self-pity.

- Tom Beer

ZEITOUN

by Dave Eggers

(McSweeney's, $24)

As in "What Is the What," literary magician Eggers cedes the stage to a real-life narrator who has lived through hell. There is probably no better way to understand what happened in New Orleans after Katrina, or what it is like to be a Muslim in America. Unmissable.

- Marion Winik

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