I held off on writing this giant summation post for a couple of reasons. Others have done it better than I, and I had to see if I could finish 2666 by December 31 (I finished it on December 30, sucka). But now I feel the need to look back and remember the year in reading for me. I thought about going about this a bunch of different ways, from recounting everything I read (I can't, as I didn't write everything down, I'm ashamed to admit) to focusing on books published in 2008 exclusively, to listing the best books, etc. In the end, in keeping with the intimacy of the blog, I thought I'd just talk about what I was into this year, what books I loved, what interested me. Maybe that's useful to some people, and maybe it isn't. Either way, I'm taking the plunge.
For a little bit of structure, let's split the titles into fiction and non-fiction.
I think, if pressed, the book that most impressed me that I read this year was actually the first book that I read this year (or one of them), The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. Not a terribly original pick, I know, but I just loved this book. Funny and heartbreaking, with the most original voice I'd read in a long time, it's a book that I still think about a year later, and that says something. One of the best books of the last five years, and a great book to kick off a year with (A not-so-subtle hint to those of you looking for something to read right now).
Speaking of original voices, I found Joshua Ferris' Then We Came to the End to be so entertaining, so funny, and also so, so sad that I can't recommend it enough. I read it as I was just starting in my new job, and this paragraph about starting a new job jumped off the page at me:
"All those new faces and names to memorize, the strange coffee pots and unfamiliar toilet seats. We had new W-4s to fill out and never knew if it was zero or one that would give us more money back. HR was there to assist, but they were never as good as our old HR. We spent the first two or three weeks, and some of us more like a month or two, in isolation and anonymity. For an unbearable spell, lunch was a solitary affair. Only slowly did we get folded into the mix, only slowly did the new political realities start to dawn."Man, that takes me back.
Another incredible book I read this year was Tom Drury's The End of Vandalism. Drury might just be the most underrated author in America today, and this novel is a little miracle. Here's what I wrote about it on my Goodreads page:
"There's no good reason it should be as wonderful as it is. The plot meanders all over the place. It jumps from character to character with little reason, and it has what would be described as "tone problems" if we were all sitting around workshopping it. Yet it's perfect. I can't decide whether it's the funniest sad book I've ever read or the saddest funny book...Just read this guy already."And I still believe that. I've now read three of his novels (The Driftless Area would also be in my 2008 top 10), and loved every one of them. I haven't read The Black Brook yet, and I'm trying to hold off, the way you try to make the candy last all movie long. We'll see how long that lasts.
The Brothers K, by David James Duncan, was always one of those books that I saw in bookstores and wondered about, but never really heard anyone talking about. But then my friend Robert gave me a copy of it, and I read it on my trip to snowy Ohio, and I completely fell in love with it. It tells the story of the Chance brothers and their father, a onetime baseball prodigy turned mill worker in Washington. The term 'page-turner' gets thrown around a lot; here's one instance where it actually applies. I couldn't stop reading this book, and I highly recommend it.
I think I've said plenty about Kate Christensen on this blog, so I'll just remind everyone that they should read The Great Man, another of the best novels I read this year.
The same goes for City of Thieves, which I read in a heartbeat and haven't stopped thinking about since. For more on City of Thieves, listen to my interview with David Benioff.
Other great works of fiction I enjoyed in 2008:
The Coast of Chicago, by Stuart Dybek
Look at Me, by Jennifer Egan
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, by John Le Carre
Girl Factory, by Jim Krusoe
The Driftless Area, by Tom Drury
Black Sabbath's Master of Reality (33 1/3 series), by John Darnielle
The Baum Plan for Financial Independence, by John Kessel
Blood Kin, by Ceridwen Dovey
And of course, 2666 by Roberto Bolano. What to make of this enormous, mutli-generational, multi-continental tome? I think The Inside Flap had some good things to say about the strange readability and urgency of the book, especially the first 200 pages when it isn't obvious yet what the story will be about. I absolutely tore through the first half of this book.
Then I hit "The Part About the Crimes," and everything slowed down. The violence was too much for me to take (I've read some Cormac McCarthy, and I've never read anything like this), and at times, I wanted to stop reading. It's not that I don't see the point of this section of the book. On the contrary, I don't think the book could exist without this. It's the moral center of the book. A never-ending series of murders in the desert, so gruesome that it turns the stomach, and the people of the city are powerless to stop it. But the reader, numbed from rape after rape, murder after murder, starts to tune out...or at least I did. While narratives emerge, they lacked the urgency of the other sections of the book. While I remember the grizzly ends the women met with, I couldn't, if pressed, remember a single one of their names. That's the point of the book, I think, and it's well-made, although hardly pleasant.
But the brilliance of putting it into a larger narrative about literature, the role of the artist, and the role of the critic. That's what makes 2666 so memorable, and, in its own way, so confounding. I'm not done thinking or writing about this book, but for now, I've got to stop. I'm curious to hear what other people have thought of it. On to the non-fiction.
I've probably lost all credibility when discussing Julie Klam's memoir Please Excuse My Daughter, as I've been flogging it for months on this blog, but I will flog it once more, regardless. I don't think there was a book I enjoyed reading more than Klam's hilarious and poignant memoir about being smart and a little bit lost in the years between college and adulthood. Listen to our interview, read her very funny blog (now with even more cute dog photos), and read her book already.
Tim Wiener's Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA is well worth your time, and provides plenty of insight into the sorry present-day state of the agency. I'm kind of an intelligence junky, but I think it's a book that the casual reader can enjoy as well.
As something more than a casual fan of Sonic Youth, I'd been thrilled to get a copy of David Browne's Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth. There are so many interesting stories in this book, and a fine biography that manages to avoid seemingly like a tombstone to a band that continues to evolve and to challenge.
The award for the weirdest book I read this year was a hard fought battle between Jim Krusoe's Girl Factory (a man discovers that there are women floating in a bacteria solution underneath his frozen yogurt shop), The Driftless Area by Tom Drury (what starts off as a whimsical love story turns into something like No Country for Old Men like that) and The Mystery Guest, by Gregoire Bouillier. In the end, I think this one wins. The Mystery Guest begins with a phone call from an ex-lover, inviting the author to a party. What ensues is the strangest story I read this year. The book is only about 125 pages, so I don't want to give anything away, but suffice to say that it involves an expensive bottle of wine, a famous artist, some literature, and turtlenecks. Yes, turtlenecks.
Speaking of turtlenecks, Dan Kennedy's Rock On is the funniest book I've read in many years. I think I actually read it in late 2007, but it was so long ago and this post is rambling on so long that I'm just going to lump it in with 2008. Kennedy, author of Loser Goes First, gets a job as a big shot marketing guy at Atlantic Records, just in time for the demise of the record business. It's kind of like a good episode of The Office, one where there are cameos by Simon Le Bon, Jimmy Page, and Ice T, but, you know, they all fit and make perfect sense.
If I forgot anyone, I apologize. It was a long year. And an incredible year. I talked to David Sedaris and the Booker Prize winner on the phone, wrote 273 blog posts, hung out with James Frey and a bunch of crazy metal kids, had my chart read for the first time, discovered Twitter, and met so many great people at BEA. For 2009, I think I'm going to try to read more books in translation and a couple of books by dead authors. Don't worry, I'll keep you posted.