Books, more than music, TV or movies, are especially disserviced by Top Ten lists. Let’s compare them to movies. Your typical movie runs around two hours. Your typical book generally demands two to three times that time investment, longer if you’re attempting something like Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and shorter if you’re reading Dr. Seuss or just happen to read at a blistering pace. And there are so many books. Yes, there are so many movies too. But it seems to us that it’s much easier to narrow TV shows or movies down to a shortlist than it is to corral the Top Ten Books of the Year.
We suspect many would disagree with us on this. Think of all the new music that comes out every year. How on earth do we narrow that down to the ten best? Rolling Stone engages in a particularly ludicrous exercise of ranking the Top 100 songs of the year. There may be a case for the single catchiest, most emblematic song of any given year. But after the top two or three, what differentiates song #12 from, say, #63? Or #91? What makes “Spaceman” by The Killers sixteen spots more superior than “Aly, Walk With Me” by The Raveonettes? (And RS abides by the polite notion that no band should occupy more than one spot on that list, a democratic but critically limiting gesture.)
This is all standard nose-turning at the commodification of art into tidy boxes with grades or number values attached to them. But let’s face it, we love Top Ten Lists. They’re punchy! They’re controversial! They’re conversation starters! So here we go. (We promise not to do this throat-clearing for every post this week.)
We refuse to rank these books in any order, though we have grouped them thematically and singled one out as the best. Without further ado, here are the Ten Best Books released in 2008 that we found the time to read.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
DANGEROUS LAUGHTER, Steven Millhauser. The weakest of our four collections, Dangerous Laughter has been earning such praise mainly as a sort of literary Lifetime Achievement Award for Millhauser. All of his standard themes — adolescence, the extremes of obsession, the strange fantastical realms of imagination cozying up to reality — show up in thirteen stories that read like spooky, sometimes comic parables. (Millhauser wrote the short story that was the basis for The Illusionist, if that gives you a frame of reference.) The first story in this collection, “Cat ‘n’ Mouse,” is a literary treatment of a Tom & Jerry cartoon. The cat and mouse become heroic, tragic figures locked in an epic contest of wills. It sets the stage for all that follows, with “A Room in the Attic” and “The Wizard of West Orange” being the standouts. While we heartily recommend this collection, we especially recommend Millhauser’s very first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, a parody biography of an 11-year-old as written by his best friend that is one of the richest, funniest and most terrifying books about childhood we’ve ever read. If you’re in the mood for something shorter, this essay that Millhauser wrote for the New York Times Book Review in October is also an excellent introduction.
OLIVE KITTERIDGE, Elizabeth Strout. Strout is a master of the rituals and routines of small town lives, and these stories, set in Maine and revolving around the central figure of retired schoolteacher Olive Kitteridge, are rich with spiritual drama. These people love and hurt one another. Sometimes they forgive and reconcile, many times they do not. What Strout does so well is locate the humanity of her characters even as she strips them to the bone and lays them bare on the page, skeletons and all. Olive is among the orneriest and least likable figures in recent fiction, which is part of her charm. She’ll remind you of at least one of your relatives. Melancholy looms over each of these stories (the best of which is “Security”), but if you see Olive through to the end you’ll be rewarded with that rare quality only the best short stories deliver: a genuine epiphany that requires no sleight of hand.
OUR STORY BEGINS, Tobias Wolff. Most of the stories in Our Story Begins are collected from previous editions, but they remind you of Wolff’s mastery of the form. Reading them a second, third and fourth time, you’ll be startled by the hints and suggestions of all the other stories taking place on the margins of the page. “Flyboys” is ostensibly about three boys building an airplane, but underneath that there’s a shifting allegiance of friendship as well as a prickly portrayal of class tension. While the new stories here aren’t as dazzling as his earlier stuff, they are sturdy, well-crafted stories that showcase Wolff’s skill at pinpointing how the choices people make illuminate the depths of their character, leading to self-discoveries that usually happen a moment too late.
UNACCUSTOMED EARTH, Jhumpa Lahiri. We really hate the cover, and that’s the only thing going against the best short story collection of the year. Lahiri is firmly grounded in the mundane of everyday relationships, particularly between husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, or brothers and sisters. Her stories are simple and straightforward, and unlike Millhauser they pull no punches. Which is why it’s so startling to reach the end of them and feel genuinely transported by something revelatory that has just transpired on the page. The three linked stories that end the collection start slow but build to a harrowing crescendo, touching down in recent history by weaving one of the characters into a profound natural tragedy. Whether this collection is better than her first, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Interpreter of Maladies, is purely an academic argument. You should read them both.
We’ll recommend only one book here, as we dabble very little in non-fiction or generally stick to current events-related titles that typically age poorly. That said…
THE DARK SIDE, Jane Mayer …is an exception to the rule, a timely work of investigative journalism that translates well to book form and should remain relevant for years to come. It is also a thoroughly depressing read. Mayer traces the evolution of America’s policies on torture and detainment in the wake of 9/11 as our government sought to balance the need to prevent another such attack with the mission to uphold American ideals of civil rights and justice for all. Mayer’s account is even-handed but appropriately critical: she makes no straw men, but she also drives to the heart of who authorized and shaped policies which effectively endorsed torture. Not a light read, but a provocative, thoroughly researched one. It will take a toll on you.
To lighten things up before we get to the final five fiction picks, let’s have a brief interlude with …
THE FUNNIEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
ZOMBIE HAIKU, Ryan Mecum. Few books capture the existential angst of zombie existence better than Ryan Mecum’s Zombie Haiku. His meter is both Keatsian and bone-chilling. You will laugh. You will cry. You will lock your doors and take temporary solace in the fact zombies have difficulties with doorknobs. If you have not already introduced yourself to this zombie masterpiece (and even if you have), do yourself a favor and watch this:
GRANDMA’S DEAD: BREAKING BAD NEWS WITH BABY ANIMALS, Amanda McCall & Ben Schwartz. We’ve all had to share bad news before. But how do you tastefully convey the sentiment which says, “You’re my least favorite child?” Or, “Recycling won’t help?” It’s a tricky two-step. Thankfully we have baby animals to help us do it. This book is handily equipped with tear-away postcards that you can mail to your friends.
GET YOUR WAR ON, David Rees. The most profane and outrageous strip of the past six years, Get Your War On made the jump to an animated comic this year at 236.com. It was also collected in this single volume. It is extremely offensive. It is also hilarious.
STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE, Christian Lander. Adapted from the blog of the same name, SWPL skewers a certain type of liberal-minded, “Wire”-loving, NPR-listening, “Arrested Development”-watching, indie rock-enthusing white subculture. Or, the Vores.
Now, on with the Top Ten.
NETHERLAND, Joseph O’Neill. If you would have told us that we’d fall for a book about cricket this year, we would not have believed you. But we did. And Netherland was probably our most enjoyable read of the year. It is a book which makes you aware of the pleasure of just reading it (without doing so in a distracting or pleading way). Many books have tried to capture New York post-9/11. Netherland is not a perfect book, but it almost perfectly succeeds in just that task.
THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE, David Wroblewski. A big, sprawling yarn roughly based on Hamlet starring a mute boy and set on a dog-breeding farm in Wisconsin. Not your typical formula for a bestseller (aside from the dog part), but The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, some fifteen years in the making, is superior popular fiction. You may have heard that Oprah recommends it too. (We’re coming around on Oprah ever since she got Cormac McCarthy to go on TV.)
LUSH LIFE, Richard Price. Like a season of “The Wire” compressed into 464 pages. Set in the rapidly changing Lower East Side, Lush Life starts with a murder (an accident? premeditated?) and accelerates into a multi-layered, sociologically-complex thriller on class, race, justice and forgiveness. Everyone says Price writes the best dialogue out there, and we find no reason to disagree.
(While we’re at it, who is Walter Kirn sleeping with at the New York Times Book Review that he gets to review all the best books and do such a hack job on them? His hack job on Lush Life [summary: “I’m secretly incredibly jealous that I didn’t write this book myself but watch me write a tough, gritty, street-smart review that only glancingly addresses the book I’m supposed to be reviewing”] was surpassed only by his hack jobs on Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close [summary: “I’m secretly incredibly jealous that I didn’t write this book myself nor am a young prodigy like Mr. Foer but I can sure take the punk down a notch or two with a snarky review”] and especially How Fiction Works [summary: “I’m secretly incredibly jealous of the esteemed critic James Wood and I wish he would die. Therefore accept my gift of a steaming heap of sophomoric condescension”]. Stop. Giving. This. Man. Reviews. Or just assign him to James Patterson “books.” (We scare quote “books” because no one has invented the term for “paint-by-numbers-using-words” yet. Give us your suggestions!) This way Kirn would still collect a regular paycheck six or seven times a year but do no further harm.)
(Glad we got that off our chest.)
HOME, Marilynne Robinson. Home was not as rewarding as Gilead, but it’s Marilynne Robinson. She’s written three books in twenty-eight years. If she writes a book, it makes the Top Ten list.
Last but certainly not least,
2666, Roberto Bolaño. How do you separate Bolaño’s masterwork from all the hype surrounding it? How can a dense, sometimes confounding 898-page novel separated into five parts which may or may not add up to a greater whole really deserve all the superlatives being thrown its way? Being as prone to hype as we are (and given the fact no less than six of our friends are reading this and having giddy conversations about its potential even in part one), the only way to find out was to start reading it and plunge our way through the occasional four-page-long sentence or bizarre dream sequence or tangential, Borges-esque surrealism. We’ll admit right now that we haven’t quite finished yet (we’re still in part four), which may strike some as preposterous that we’d still include it on a Best Of list. We promise a full review in the new year. But like Netherland in a quite different fashion, 2666 (a reference to the apocalypse? To the time lapse between the Garden of Eden and Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt?) is about the journey, and it’s a reading experience unlike any we’ve had in a long time. For this reason, and for the book’s open defiance of categorization or closure (what Henry Hitchings calls Bolaño’s “enthusiasm for misdirection”), we jump on the hype bandwagon and endorse it as the Best Book of the Year.
(If you are still of the mindset that we sacrificed whatever credibility we may have had as literary critics by endorsing a book we haven’t even finished yet, we have only one question: Have you never written a paper on a book that you did not read in its entirety? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. That said, should we encounter something so awful in the last part of 2666 that would make us regret our endorsement, we will retract its Book of the Year status and retroactively award it to Netherland. You will know if this happens.)
THE BRIEF, WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, Junot Diaz. Why just an honorable mention for last year’s Pulitzer winner? Well, it technically came out in 2007, but we finally took the advice of friends who said the book demanded our attention. Talking about it just now, we can’t believe we both read this just seven months ago in the spring. It feels like four years ago and it feels like last week. You know what we mean?
THE YEAR’S WORST
We didn’t have to endure many stinkers this year, but one stood out:
WHAT WAS LOST, Catherine O’Flynn. There are few genres which make us cringe more than “literary mystery.” Why must genre fiction always aspire to “literary” standards? Michael Chabon has done much to tear down these silly categorizations, but still they persist. For us, the worst example of this recent fashionable trend was Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, an insufferable little book which succeeded neither as literary novel nor mystery yet garnered both critical acclaim and commercial success. (Stephen King was typically hyperbolic about it. In all fairness, Case Histories may have suffered from the Rebound Syndrome, since we read it immediately after the exceptional On Beauty by Zadie Smith.) In the vein of Case Histories, Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost tries to be a commentary on urban and societal change while telling the story of a missing girl who may or may not have resurfaced twenty years later. Yawn. We felt compelled to finish it to say we did. Now we feel compelled to tell you it was bad. Our work here is done.
Tomorrow: The Best & Worst of TV!