For years I’ve been putting together year-end top-ten lists of movies. One can do this as a film critic because one has presumably seen a prodigious number of current titles in order to make a qualified assessment of the cinematic offerings from the past twelve months. (Reading these rankings, however, can become eye-blurringly repetitive, with little variation aside from the occasional left-field acclamation, so I’ve put my own twist on this industry tradition, as you’ll see later in the week.)
I’ve never done a best-of list for books, however, because of the thirty-plus titles I read last year, few of them were published in 2008. Instead, here’s a list of not the best books of 2008, but the best books I read in 2008:
- A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren—These are my all-time favorite books and the reason I am a writer. I reread them back-to-back this summer, and I was reminded how A Thousand Acres was a revelation to me: you can write a novel about a farmer? Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book was not only an homage to King Lear but to the reserved, stalwart men and women around whom I grew up in the Midwest. After reading it for the first time, I became determined to bring more of their stories to the page. Meanwhile, Warren’s veiled account of Louisiana Governor Huey Long’s rise and fall is as humid as a Southern swamp with rich language, lyrical detours, and compelling themes about the corruptive influence of power.
- Judith Freeman‘s oeuvre: The Chinchilla Farm, Set for Life, A Desert of Pure Feeling, Red Water, and The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved—Freeman’s biography (of sorts) of Raymond Chandler, which was released in 2008, is a fascinating meld of geographic history, speculation, and writer’s notebook. In it, she visits each of the Los Angeles-area homes occupied by the Chandlers, an itinerant couple who rarely lived in one place for more than a few months. At each location, Freeman imagines the relationship between Chandler and his wife Cissy, about whom little is known and who was much older than her husband. Meanwhile, Freeman writes about the process of writing the book. The Long Embrace marks a departure from her previous books—all novels that at least originate in the rural West and, often, among Mormons. It was this milieu that we shared as thesis advisor and advisee.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan—In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, food activist Pollan follows four meals from the ground to the plate, from driving through McDonald’s for a burger and fries, to organic shopping at Whole Foods, to eating locally raised meat and vegetables, to hunting and gathering for an entire dinner party. In his follow-up, In Defense of Food, he prescribes a new approach to what and how we eat based on his findings.
- Consider the Lobster and Other Essays by David Foster Wallace—I have to confess I’d never read anything by Wallace before his unfortunate passing, although I have had Infinite Jest on my bookshelf since it first came out in paperback. His forte, however, may have been nonfiction. In this collection of journalism, which includes the oft-mentioned profile of John McCain from his 2000 presidential bid, he takes, say, a straightforward assignment from Gourmet magazine to profile the Maine Lobster Festival and turns it into a manifesto decrying the barbaric way in which the crustacean is prepared for our consumption. Or a simple book review assignment from Harper’s becomes a history of Standard Written English. The man dug and dug and dug until no corner of a story was left unilluminated.
- Blindness by Jose Saramago—Saramago’s portrayal of a community suddenly universally struck blind and the resulting disintegration of society is the most awful thing I have ever read.
Now it’s your turn: what are the best books you read in 2008?
Caught in the ’Net
Entertainment Weekly is already looking ahead to the best books of 2009.
Chicago’s Seminary Co-op gets a presidential endorsement.
Two new CD sets from the BBC feature British and American authors in their own words.
Now that we’ve celebrated the published word, here’s a sobering prediction: “The End of the Book?”
R.I.P. 2008: “Writers and Editors”
Glen Goldman, owner of Los Angeles’s Book Soup, dies.