Top 10 Books of 2008

4 01 2009

This was a big year for me. I baked my first Shrinky Dink, had my first SnoBall, made my first vegan cashew cheese, AND graduated from college with a Bachelor’s in English. That last one makes me feel pretty smug. Really, though, having a fresh new Bachelor’s in English means just two things: 1. I like to read; and 2. I have spent four years reading exclusively “classics” and “literature” and books which come with eight or more Cambridge or Norton or Otherwise Companions.

So with my graduation came a veritable deluge of reading-for-fun, which was a little like a doughnut-pizza-Doritos binge after ten years of following a vegan diet (I actually know what that feels like, too, so maybe my next list should be “Top 10 Most Indulgent Foods To Eat If You Have Been a Vegan For A Decade And Are Taking A Day Off”). It’s been all guilty pleasure lit., too: graphic novels, short stories, poetry, McSweeney’s releases, etc. I usually picked up tips from The New York Review of Books or the round-up section of The Week, so all my reads were, for the first time in my life, brand-spanking-new publications. And so, also for the first time in my life, I feel qualified to write a Top 10 Books list.

A brief note: There are no non-fiction works on this list. That’s not for lack of good publications this year (Michael Pollan wrote another stunner, and Barton Gellman’s portrait of Dick Chaney in the form of Angler is impossible to put down), but for the simple fact that I tend to read non-fiction books with a decidedly liberal slant, and I have difficulty deciding whether I like them because they’re brilliant or because they brilliantly propagandize. So instead of really thinking that through, I omitted nonfiction from my list (almost) completely (see Number 6).

All the titles link to an page where you can buy the books. And you absolutely should. Reading for fun is the most wonderful getaway in the world. Even if it does make you appear slightly anti-social.

10. Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball: This book follows the popular scrapbook style of novel-writing that appeals to the twentysomething New York writing set. The idea in this emerging genre is that you’re supposed to figure out the “plot” of the book about three quarters of the way through, after navigating yourself through all kinds of literary flotsam and jetsam, like you’re reading some kind of modern epistolary-fiction-poetry-hybrid genre. But “Dear Everybody” succeeds because Kimball doesn’t take too long, and leaves enticing clues throughout his work that push you to read emphatically. This book is not a particularly rewarding read (the end is sad and doesn’t live up to the rest of the novel), but it’s the most addictive one I read all year. And yes, I did read “Twilight.”

9. The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich: This is a complicated, full, and imperfect book, and it is not Erdrich’s best work, but it’s one of the most stunning pieces to emerge from 2008. The story spans three generations, and unravels a century-old mystery, which plays itself out through rich and diverse characters on an Indian reservation in North Dakota in the late sixties. Eve, the main character, is believably introspective and tough; beautifully obsessed with stories. The novel plays out a gorgeous if unsurprising symmetry, and leaves you feeling like you’ve gone on a journey — a quality I search for while reading.

8. The Umbrella Academy: Volume I by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba: It wasn’t the best year for graphic novels. Although I read every “Scott Pilgrim” volume this year, 2008 lacked a new release. “Y: The Last Man” had a new volume, but I was unimpressed. So maybe it’s sad that the lead singer of My Chemical Romance is an author who actually made my year-end list. But this book was fun and refreshing — it reminded me of “Cassanova Quinn” and at times “Fables.” The premise — that 47 babies were spontaneously born with magical gifts that would help them to one day save the world — seems to be borrowed from Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children,” but the art and occasionally-breathtaking wit saves the book from being boring or redundant. Honestly, I think Way missed his calling by ever joining a band. He is obviously graphic novelist material, and I’m sold.

7. Free-Range Chickens by Simon Rich: This collection of short stories and vignettes by former Harvard Lampoon editor Simon Rich is simultaneously delightful and frustrating. They’re short but somehow perfect; honest and funny for their youthfulness and simplicity. I bought this book and read it on one sitting — on the bus, no less (yes, it’s that short). I then promptly mailed it to my improv actor and sometimes-playwright best friend with a note that said something like, “Can you believe this guy makes thousands of dollars writing shit like this? You could have easily written this!” But that’s what’s so intoxicating about Rich’s work (and his debut novel from last year, “Ant Farm,” is no exception): he makes you feel like you’re in on his jokes; like he’s your best friend and he wrote the book just for you and your unique sense of humor. I guess that’s how you get a job writing for The New Yorker and Saturday Night Live.

6. State by State, edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey: You have to give these guys credit: “State by State” was a really, really good idea. Weiland and Wilsey corralled a bunch of up-and-coming and full-fledged-famous writers and asked them to each write a piece on a United State. Indie Rennaissance man and Chicago native Dave Eggars penned a vignette for Illinois, the hilarious “Hey-Aren’t-You-The-PC-Guy-In-The-Mac-Commercials?” humor writer John Hodgmen crafted an unconventional piece for Massachussetts, and of course they got Jonathan Franzen to write for New York. But most exciting here are new writers who have fresh, understated voices and new things to say like Jacki Byden and Daphne Beal. And the portrait painted here is almost as diverse and interesting as the country which inspired it.

5. 2666 by Roberto Belano: Not putting this book on a year-end list of books would be like putting together a Best Albums of 2008 list without including TV on the Radio or Deerhunter. It’s an all-out masterpiece. It’s erratic and frustrating and makes you feel sometimes like you’re reading “Ulysses,” sometimes like you’re reading Proust, and always like you’re reading something so good and bound-to-be-classic that will be on college reading lists in a matter of semesters. Before you dive into this uncategorizable book (arguably centering around a horrific series of unsolved murders in Mexico), you should know this: It’s long. It’s almost 1000 pages. And some have argued that it’s not finished, as Belano died in 2003 before this book would ever see the light of the press room. But all of that brings out the brilliance of the diamonds in its rough, with breathtaking pictures of death which may defy anything that has come before them.

4. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: I want to be Sloane Crosley. She’s written a book that all post-collegiate female writers vainly wish they could write — a book of short memoirs which SHOULD be masturbatory and uninteresting by nature of the genre, but is instead completely funny, compelling and readable. Crosley tickles in a David Sedaris vein, but with her dry wit and unapologetic familial anecdotes comes a humanness and strength which really drives the series. She’s unflinching in ways we’ve all seen before, but her uniqueness comes from an honesty in her writing which is deeper than a mere desire to entertain.

3. Vacation by Deb Olin UnFerth: A triumph in the new-school hodgepodge genre of fiction described above, “Vacation” is a delightfully raw mystery which unravels quietly and neatly, and resolves itself with heartbreaking finality. The characters in this novel are quirkier than ought to be believable, and yet you sympathize with them and share their longings and impulses. The landscapes are sculpted from parts of the world we know must exist, but they still feel dreamlike and atmospheric. And there’s something comical in it too, although you can’t put your finger on it, as if the unending tragedy of life is inherently funny — if only because it is inevitable and humor makes it all less terrifying.

2. In Hovering Flight by Joyce Hinnefeld: I can’t recommend this book to everyone. It’s not a trendy book. It’s lovingly crafted around the field notebooks of eccentric birders, and builds familiar but distant relationships between husband and wife, mother and daughter, humans and nature. In the end, the triumph here is the intricate details woven between the field notebooks and the underlying implications about human relationships, understated with themes of family, love, and death. I recommend it to those who were disappointed by Mary Oliver’s latest book, or to anyone who finds herself happiest reading essays by Emerson.

1. Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly: When I picked this graphic novel up at Excalibur, I wasn’t really expecting all that much. I find many releases by Oni press hit-or-miss, but this looked beautiful and new, so I gave it a look. I was so pleasantly surprised by its understatedness; its return to the simplicity and artistic intricacy of the indie graphic novels I first fell in love with. It’s the story of a girl, Megan, who sets out from Portland to explore the country (and, presumably, find herself). She’s a good character for a graphic novel like this — a misfit, but decidedly likable and adaptable; adorably flawed and desperately searching. The series (because “Local” is, at its heart,  a series) is well-researched (I think the back of the book describes it as being “painstakingly” researched), with stories which gently rub up against their landscapes in American cities created with scientific accuracy. And I must say: the art is breathtaking. Really. It really is a must-read for the graphic novel connissuer, or anyone who is feeling a little lost in life.