The best books of 2008
I didn't plan it this way, of course, but two of my favorite reads of the year have "The Story of" in their titles, and the third is a loosely linked novel of short stories. They are marvelous stories, all, and they can't be more different from one another or from my own life experience.
From our very favorite books, we desire, even require, not an exact mirror but some reflection of ourselves. I didn't see myself, per se, in any of these favorite books from 2008, but I was startled again and again by some commonality, some sense memory tapped, in these stories of a mute boy and his dog, an adolescent negotiating his mother's early-onset Alzheimer's, and a brittle, bullying woman from Maine.
The first two are debut novels. Fiftysomething David Wroblewski's The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: A Novel (Ecco Press) beautifully transposes Hamlet's Denmark to a dog-breeding farm in Wisconsin. And on the other end of the wunderkind spectrum is 24-year-old Stefan Merrill Block, a Plano native, who invented a whole new land in his lovely, ambitious The Story of Forgetting (Random House).
But it was Elizabeth Strout who stole my heart with her collection, Olive Kitteridge (Random House). Set in a coastal town in Maine, the stories believably (but never cutesily) engage many of the same characters, most especially the titular battering ram, whose hard shell conceals ... well, even more hardness, but also a surprising capacity for compassion. Most of Strout's stories have something to do with love (its beginning; its end; its endless, shifting middle) and its defining conundrums (Is infidelity inevitable? Is companionship enough?). Put together in Strout's tender, precise prose, they tell one story: the story of how humans muddle along, ever wronging one another but – through grace or good luck or hard work – occasionally doing right by them, too. – Kimberley Jones
Cringe-Worthy Reads on Politics and Teens
During the fall presidential debates, as Obama struggled to defend his "socialist" health-care plan, I wanted nothing more than to chat him up on George Lakoff's The Political Mind: Why You Can't Understand 21st-Century American Politics With an 18th-Century Brain (Viking). As Lakoff tells it, Americans have been conned into believing health care is not a citizen's right, on par with public education, but a privilege. When I wasn't thinking about thinking (or trying to score the future prez's digits), I was ruminating over life in a teen's world, a world that makes for some of the creepiest literature. There were the horny drug fiends living in the fantastical art kingdom of Zach Plague's Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring Boring (Featherproof Books), a fine modern satire. There were the brothers from Alabama trying to reconnect as they coped with discrete struggles – one's waiting for a college-acceptance letter and the other's trying to cope with being gay and post-suicidal in Alabama in Martin Wilson's What They Always Tell Us (Delacorte Books). What really brought me back, though, was Sarah Brown's Cringe: Teenage Diaries, Journals, Notes, Letters, Poems, and Abandoned Rock Operas (Crown), a compilation of embarrassing teen-diary entries, mainly from the Eighties and Nineties. The entries are high-larious, but Cringe is more than a mean older brother; it's an homage to the creative fun-lovers we used to be, before "real" life got in the way. – Sofia Resnick
Breaking Bread and 'Breaking Dawn'
Because I had my second baby and began work in earnest on my dissertation this year, my "to read" list is a damn sight longer than my "already read" list. That said, here are a few of my favorite tomes of 2008. For weeks, my husband would disappear with Neal Stephenson's Anathem (HarperCollins) for hours; that's how engrossing this tale of reclusive, deep-thinking monks called from their seclusion to rescue the secular world from disaster is. While Tim Stark's memoir, Heirloom: Notes From an Accidental Tomato Farmer (Broadway Books), is a touch overwritten (he was, after all, a failed fiction writer at the inception of his career as a cultivator of boutique nightshades), he composes a beautiful urban pastoral that might just make you consider turning some earth yourself come spring. If you're not quite ready to start planning your victory garden, you might want to consult with Michael Pollan in his short but incisive In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (Penguin), in which he advises us to "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." You may never look at your supplements the same way again. Finally, the book I loved to hate this year was Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn (Little, Brown), the fourth and final installment in her sparkly teenage vampire series; I just couldn't say no to the saga of Bella and Edward, even though it tewtally jumped the shark. – Melanie Haupt
Stuff This Person Liked
Lorraine López's hilarious and heartbreaking The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters: A Novel (Grand Central Publishing) hits the top of this year's favorite reads. While the novel starts when the titular Gabaldón siblings are young and full of life, as it moves through time, the ache of lost loved ones, burning family secrets, and the harshness of adult realities creep in like a storm. Yet López's book never loses its heart. And her ear for talk, particularly the convoluted conversations among family, simply delights. My second favorite read was the wickedly funny Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions (Random House) by Christian Lander. With entries such as "Being an Expert on Your Culture," "Knowing What's Best for Poor People," and (my personal favorite) "Public Transportation That Is Not the Bus," nonwhite readers will chortle with satisfaction until they hit entries such as "Coffee," "The Sunday New York Times," and "The Wire." At this point, you realize Lander's book is really an observation of a certain class of overeducated liberals/progressives of which you have matriculated, whether you like it or not. But if you're really worried, you can take the "How White Are You?" test in the back of the book. You'll have to translate to determine if you're still down with la raza or have brothah/sistah cred, but what else is new? – Belinda Acosta
Land of Plenty
Joseph O'Neill's Netherland: A Novel (Pantheon) is an absorbing tale of post-9/11 America seen through the eyes of two very different "foreigners" living within. A Dutch financier whose marriage is disintegrating finds solace in playing cricket in the city's outer boroughs among a vibrant subculture of immigrants. He is befriended by a charismatic and entrepreneurial Trinidadian with grand designs for fulfilling his perception of the American dream.
Not nearly as well-mannered is Richard Price's rumbling novel, Lush Life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), set in a far different section of New York, the ever-changing Lower East Side where chic, young hipsters share the neighborhood with the latest wave of immigrants and a multiracial underclass. Fueled by pitch-perfect dialogue and a genuine feel for the hood, Price's fast-moving story centers around an underachieving restaurant manager and the unexpected mugging and murder of a colleague.
From the other side of the world comes The Wasted Vigil: A Novel (Knopf) by London-based Pakistani novelist Nadeem Aslam, whose beautifully written narrative reveals the intertwined, multigenerational effects of relentless war in Afghanistan on a cast of international characters. Wonderfully descriptive passages of the nation's physical beauty underscore the ongoing tragedy of war.
Disappointing honorable mention: Philip Roth's Indignation (Houghton Mifflin), a slim novel of stifling, Midwestern college life in the early 1950s, is intense but hardly up to his usually unparalleled high standards.
Waste of time: Chuck Palahniuk's Snuff (Doubleday) can best be described in a word: dreck. – Jay Trachtenberg
And But So
In a year where the world has suffered the loss, by his own hand, of a man who was the Potentially Greatest Writer Of All Time – the poor, damned David Foster Wallace, yes – what's the use of mentioning even the worthiest texts of others? Instead, I'll recommend a single graphic compilation: Whatever (Alternative Comics), the collection of comics done by Karl Stevens for The Boston Phoenix. The book comprises vignettes of slackerly twentysomething life, rendered in galvanizing realism with an obsessive crosshatch pen, capturing the modern condition with much wit and a refreshing sense of silliness in the face of the abyss that would like to swallow us whole. Also: a suite of full-color paintings worthy of any fine gallery. If DFW could've drawn, this is what he would have done in a good year in college when his meds were working. Be kind to yourself and your friends when you can; gifting this book is one way to do that. – Wayne Alan Brenner