Monday, December 29, 2008

Open thread: what were the best books you read this year?

The New York Times Book Review has published its list of the ten best books of 2008, of which I have read exactly one: Jhumpa Lahiri's short-story collection Unaccustomed Earth, which I enjoyed very much. I think she's a better short-story writer than a novelist; I was blown away by her first collection, Interpreter of Maladies--the final story, "The Third and Final Continent," is one of my favorite short stories of all time.

There are a few others on the NYT list I'd like to read sometime, like the new Toni Morrison novel, but as with most "best of" lists, I don't feel especially culturally illiterate for failing to even recognize many of the titles that appear on it.

It did get me thinking, though, about which of the books I've read this year I've most enjoyed, regardless of whether they were published in 2008 or not.

Thanks to my librarian pal Don, I started keeping a log of my reading on Library Thing this year, so I have a handy reference to turn to. I used to keep this kind of a list in a notebook, but frankly, would go for months without putting stuff into it, and then would have to reconstruct what I'd read, and it was just a pain in the ass. With Library Thing, you just type in the title, click, and the book goes on your list.

So, here are a few of my favorites from this year:

Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Alexie's first young-adult novel is stylistically very much in the vein of his adult works, treading the fine line between humor and pathos, which makes his characters all the more affecting. The the protagonist here, Arnold Spirit, is a gifted geek who wants to be a cartoonist, and his drawings complicate and enrich the story in really interesting ways. A YA novel that transcends the tired formula of many YA novels.

Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader

Bennett's novella is a delightful piece of speculative fiction about what might happen if Queen Elizabeth stumbled into a bookmobile by accident, checked out a book just to be polite, and surprised everyone--most especially herself--by becoming a voracious reader.

This could easily have been a total farce, but Bennett really makes the Queen a complex character (Prince Phillip is left to bear the brunt of the "vacuous royalty" jokes). The more she reads, the more isolated she feels from the rest of the world and from human experience, generally. While it feels like a light read, this text raises some provocative questions about the profound ways in which books, and the very experience of reading, alter us.

Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

I'm a longtime detective-fiction fan, and found this book to be a fascinating analysis of the complementary Victorian obsessions with both the newly minted occupation of the real-life detective and the newly minted genre of detective fiction. (Since I blogged about this before I won't go into more detail here.)

Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

This is one of those books that you approach with dread: "A 500-page young-adult novel about the Holocaust, with Death itself as the narrator? No thanks!"

But truly, it is one of the most beautifully written and moving books I've read in a long time, and while it's terribly sad (including "the weeping hour, a.k.a. the last 50 pages," as a student who read it for my YA lit class this semester described it), it's also compulsively readable. Very different from most Holocaust novels, this one focuses on the plight of working-class neighbors in Munich, most of whom don't support the Reich but have no choice but to comply--at least publicly.

--So far, I've read 48 books this year (!--lots of young-adult novels in there; you can rack those up fast), and there are lots of others that I could mention here, but I want to leave it at the very few of those that I felt passionate about.

How about you? What did you read this year that made you want to pass the book on immediately to someone else, and then nag them to finish so you could talk to them about it?

Christmas books that I'm looking forward to reading next (lots of nonfiction, surprisingly):

The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink


historiann said...

The Times picked Julian Barnes' _Nothing to be Frightened Of_, seriously? That book was a completely disorganized snore that read like it was just lazily typed up from his journal and shipped off to the publishers without even a cursory glance from an editor. I also read the new Joyce Carol Oates book, _My Sister, My Love_, which was inspired by the life and death of JonBenet Ramsey. It was OK--standard Oates, not spectacular.

Right now, I'm enjoying _American Wife_ by Curtis Sittenfeld. It's no great work of literature, but it's a convincing and surprisingly moving imaginative fictional autobiography of an individual modeled on Laura Welch Bush.

Catherine Zoerb said...

I did not read anything stunningly brilliant this year, but I loved Forever and Ever, Amen by Karol Jackowski. Can't beat a hilarious nun's memoir!

Jane Kokernak said...

Loved: No belongs here more than you, Miranda July (characters who seems strange at first, but then seem real and known, after you enter July's world); Everyman, Philip (this surprised me, because I'm not a Roth fan); Burning Down the House, Charles Baxter (*really* interesting essays on fiction that also made me think about our moment); and A Good House, Bonnie Burnard (my daughter picked this up for me at a yard sale, and I loved it).

Jane Kokernak said...

And... !
I am currently reading New Grub Street, by George Gissing, a Victorian novel as you probably know, and I think it's great, but I don't know if I'll finish it by the end of today.
But, everyone who has anything to do with writing, publishing, or teaching should read this. It's a great story, and incisive commentary on people who, even today, try to make a living off literature. Myself included.

Rose said...

Thanks, everyone...I'm looking those up on the Morgantown Public Library website even as we speak (though I doubt they'll have any of them...someday I'll blog about the horror that is our public library).

I've been wanting to read _American Wife_, so I'm glad to hear you're enjoying it, Historiann. Maybe I'll be more inclined to pick it up *after* January 20th!

And hilarious nuns? I'm all over that, Catherine. Seriously, I'm always looking for humorous books, since it's hard to find ones that are genuinely funny.

Jane, you win the prize for most diverse reading (no surprise there!). Maybe I'll give Phillip Roth another you, I don't usually like his work, mostly because I can't get around his massive ego.

Right now I'm indulging in a semi-trashy mystery, _Lie Down with the Devil_ by Linda Barnes, the latest in her Carlotta Carlyle series. (Set in Boston, Jane, as are some of the mysteries by another of my faves, Barbara Neely.)

Michael said...

My reading this year consisted mostly of actor bios and books about the classic film era, the best by far being The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger about the studio "star-making machinery" (to steal a phrase from Joni Mitchell) from the 30s to the 50s.

I read very little fiction, liking only Zeroville by Steve Erickson (also about movies), and a YA novel called What I Saw and How I Lied. The recent bio Reagan: The Hollywood Years was interesting though not terribly well written.

The only mystery I got around to was The War Against Miss Winter by Kathryn Miller Haines, which had a WWII-Broadway milieu, and it was fun. I'm aiming for more diversity this year! ;-)

Rose said...

Mike, the Reagan bio reminds me: we recently watched _Dr. Strangelove_, and the DVD had a "making of" documentary with it, which ended with someone telling a story about how, before Reagan's inauguration, he was touring the White House and asked where the War Room was. The guide told him there wasn't one. Reagan insisted there was, saying, "I saw it in that movie--_Dr. Strangelove_!"