Favorite Books of 2008

That is, favorite books that I read in 2008, not books that were published in 2008.  Sometimes I read a book the year it comes out, but not usually.  I’m behind the curve that way, either slow to hear about the book or waiting for my public library to acquire it.  That being said, there were a couple of titles published in ’08 that I managed to get to.  So here, in no particular order, are the books I most enjoyed this past year.

WatchmenWatchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

As a comic book fan, I really should have read this long ago, but only got to it this year.  I was largely spurred by the  fact that they are making a movie adaptation, and this was a book I wanted to read before I saw it on the big screen.  Moore has famously said that Watchmen is unfilmable, after all.  The thing I like most about this book is how it questions just about every assumption we make going into a superhero story.  We assume our heroes have no serious flaws.  They are flawed, to be sure, but only to the degree that makes it so we can identify with them, and never to the point where we question their status as heroes.  We assume our heroes have noble motivations and would never abuse the power we give them.  We assume our heroes will take an interest in the world we live in, and use their power to make it a better, safer place.  But why do we assume these things?  Why are they a given?  Moore treated the superhero genre with intelligence and sophistication, gathered up all these assumptions, and turned them right on their head.

The Graveyard BookThe Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

I love the dark humor, the magical unpredictability, and delightful storytelling in this book.  The life of Nobody Owens, raised in a cemetery by ghosts, plays out over eight chapters that are each a short story and also part of a whole.  The concept behind the book is one that makes other writers slap their foreheads in wonder, wishing they’d thought of it, all the while certain they would never have written it so well.  This is a Neil Gaiman book.  You know one when you read one.

The Yiddish Policemen's UnionThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

A Yiddish noir murder mystery set in an Alaska that might have been. Throw in a powerful rabbi/crime lord, a messianic crack addict, chess masters, and some genetically engineered cows, and you have yourself a Michael Chabon novel. As always, his facility with language renders his prose entertaining and dazzling, but not in the least transparent. I really came to like Meyer Landsman, the cop protagonist, but I actually enjoyed the peripheral characters more (like Berko Shemets, Landsman’s half-Indian, half-Jewish cousin and police partner). But one of the greatest things about the novel is the gritty realism with which Chabon builds his alternate Jewish enclave. By the end of the novel I could almost believe that way up in Alaska, a colony of Jewish refugees had turned Sitka into a Yiddish homeland.  The news that the Coen brothers are adapting the novel for the big screen makes me very happy.

The Astonishin Life of Octavian Nothing, Vol. 1The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume 1: The Pox Party, by M.T. Anderson

Reading this book, I felt as though I were learning about an America I never knew existed, and as a history major, I was thrilled by the discovery.  Anderson has taken the mythology of the United States and rendered its darker twin, its underbelly.  And the language in which he brings it to life is astounding, a distillation of 18th century prose through Anderson’s own inventive capacities.  I received the second volume as a Christmas present this year, and can’t wait to read it.

So those are my favorites from among the books I read in 2008.  What were your favorites?

13 responses to “Favorite Books of 2008”

  1. These are my four 2008 favorite reads, in descending order:

    First, The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

    McCarthy posits a loving and capable father and a dependent and obedient son, survivors and parasites on a seemingly decapitated earth, “among the last of the surviving good guys.” This is a bleak book with a glint of eternal light at the end. My words and thoughts can do it no justice. It may not be for everybody, but it is for me!

    Second, The Book Thief by Marcus Zuzak.

    Bravo Zusak! A standing ovation, a mighty opus. You stood Death on her head, removing her dark cloak and scythe, clothing her with feeling and letting us see she has eyes to see and a heart to feel, and the intellect to narrate a compelling story. I was so glad to find out she has a womb. Out of Death comes Life. (More at GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19063.The_Book_Thief)

    Third, What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a novel, by Dave Eggers.

    I read this book and Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture one month this summer. It was interesting to contrast their two lives and situations. The two “storytellers” had the help of “professional” writers to relate what had happened and was happening to them. The professionals did marvelous work, but the way these two men, Valentino and Randy, lived their lives made it all reverberate within the soul. I preferred this book and story to Pausch’s. It made me realize the continued inhumanity of humanity to the poor and downtrodden, despite the lessons of history. Oh, how much more we should do as a blessed people and a nation! How much do we waste on the hell of war when we could deliver so many innocent boys and girls unfairly consigned to hell? (More at GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4952.What_Is_the_What)

    Fourth, A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

    My religious heritage includes polygamy. I suppose most people’s does, whether they realize it or not. Any female progenitor of mine who shared a husband with other women has my utmost sympathy. It has never interested me the least to find out about it if it happened, even though in my culture that would be the natural thing to do. And then to brag about it, also, and to allude to it as some sort of badge of honor. I suppose I would just as soon surmise that the women in my ancestral line had better sense than submit to that. But sometimes they have no choice.

    In his book, Hosseini imagines Nana, a woman and a mother who cherished each blue-and-white porcelain piece of her deceased mother’s Chinese tea set, but not much else. Such was the sole relic of Nana’s mother, who had died when Nana was two. At the beginning of the book, five-year-old Mariam, Nana’s sole daughter, ends up dropping the blue-and-white porcelain sugar bowl, painted with a hand-painted dragon meant to ward off evil, from the set. It shatters. Mariam drops it while awaiting arrival of her father. (More at GoodReads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/128029.A_Thousand_Splendid_Suns)

  2. Walt,
    The Road was high on my list, as well. But I couldn’t get past the fact that McCarthy was only treading ground already covered, and covered better, by a number of science fiction writers. And he won the NBA for it. There’s an injustice there, if you ask me, a prejudice against genre fiction when a “literary” novelist can basically write what’s already been done and receive critical accolades for it.

  3. Matt,
    Watchmen and Octavian Nothing rocked, I’m dying to read The GraveYard Book, and I love Michael Chabon…you got great taste!
    But what I want to know is…why top 4 and not top 5?

  4. Matt,

    Care to share what SF titles you have in mind that supass The Road?

    I don’t generally read as much genre fiction as I do literary fiction. It is called niche for a reason, isn’t it? I know there are exceptions. But give me your best shot. I’ll read it, and then I’ll get back to you on whether or not I think it’s better. Some categorize McCarthy’s book as SF. I definitely think writers who show broad range (e.g. Barbara Kingsolver) should have preference over those who stay in their crevice. All I know is the critical acclaim for The Road was overwhelmingly positive across the board. Not that that matters to me. I liked the immediacy I felt in reading the book; like it was contemporary and not set out in some remote future.

    Of the four you mentioned only Gaiman’s is available on my Kindle. I just got done re-reading Coraline (I put in in my Kindle with the pictures–it looks pretty awesome) and I’ll probably buy the Graveyard Book. I want to compare it to my homemade conversion. (My wife wouldn’t let me de-spline her Newbery so I had to do it using a slower methodology.)

    • Walt,
      There are plenty of post apocalyptic SF novels of the nuclear variety (which is what seems to have taken place in The Road). First, I would highly recommend Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz. It’s a classic of the genre, and hasn’t been out of print since it was published nearly five decades ago. The other novel I would recommend would be David Brin’s The Postman (try not to think about Kevin Costner’s abysmal attempt to adapt it for film). While Brin may not be the prose stylist that McCarthy is, the novel is full of symbols and meaning. If you read them, be sure to let me know what you think.

      I love Shannon Hale. Book of a Thousand Days was a favorite from last year. As for YA, Octavian Nothing is highly recommended. Graveyard Book could be YA, but is more middle grade. Of course, most adults love it, so maybe it’s one of these books with cross-over appeal.

  5. Matt,
    Out of the four books you mentioned, what was on the top of your list? Or maybe I should ask, what would you first recomend to one who loves YA fiction?

    My favorites this year have to be the three following books (in order):

    1. The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. It had a slow start, but I had heard so many positive responses to the book that it kept me reading. I’m glad I did. The book was like a fairy tale for old people. I’m sure the younger crowd loved it too, but, unfortunately, I don’t fit in that catagory. It had the unknown princess, the handsome prince, adventure, triumph and happily ever after combined with wonderful story telling and amazing descriptions. It is a must for those readers who are forever young.

    2. Inkheart by Cornielia Funke. I read this book at your suggestion Matt, as you thought it might have some similarities to the book I am writing. Luckily, the only similarity is that both books deal with readers experiencing the written word in ways other than reading it with your eyes. The book started very slow, but once I got to the part where the characters of the book came to life, I was hooked. I constantly had to hold back my urge to critique the the myriad of writing “no, no’s”. The book was a translation from the original (written in German). The “no, no’s” were only minor things that only another writer would pick up, and luckily they didn’t distract from the story once I told myself to quit noticing them.

    3. The Thirteenth Reality; Journal of Curious Letters, by James Dashner. A great fantasy/sciencefiction story for the upper middle grade crowd. He is a great story teller as well as a fun-loving person. He is a local author who I believe has great potential to become known outside the Utah readership.

  6. Grrrrr, I was planning on this very post on my blog, if I can ever get to it again. For whatever reason, I have been severed from posting by whatever overlords manage the district websites. (I really need to begin a new space.) As I fully plan to do my top picks from 2008 in my own dynasty, here are my favorite non-2008s that I read this here year.

    Flipped by Wendelin Van Draanen – this is the year I discovered Sammy Keyes and proceeded to read through the author’s entire repertoire, and although I really can’t explain my attraction, this title jumped out and flattened me. An enjoyable back and forth between two neighbor kids, who manage to read the same events in completely divergent ways.
    Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver – Admittedly not the first time through for me with this title, but as I did re-read it this year I get to count it, and it is the only “adult” book in my list. Until the year I die, I will read this trifecta of perfection. Three stories, told from three POVs, sinuously weaving in and out of each other’s space and knotting themes of acceptance, tolerance, humanity, insects, chestnuts, and coyotes together in delicious personalities. I really should be bothered by the sex, but as it is not gratuitous I can’t seem to work up the indignation.
    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – Odes to masturbation aside, Junior is my hero when it comes to navigating the horrors of adolescence.
    The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer – The humanity and inhumanity of this futuristic story was staggering. The author uses one life to demonstrate the promise of intellect, compassion, determination and uniqueness. It is no wonder there is so much bling on its cover.
    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – Language should always be used so flexibly. Any time ink and paper can reach in and grab me, heart and soul and leave my sobbing, I feel contentedly abused.

  7. Matt,

    I just finished reading The Book Thief and loved it! You should read it right away. I also still love The Know-It-All…it makes me laugh just thinking of it.

  8. Nice list Matt. I read all four of those this year too, although I was re-reading watchmen for probably the fifth time. I read the Graveyard Book aloud to my kids and they loved it. They got pretty sad about (SPOILER) Ms. Lupescu.
    Too lazy to make an entire list, so I’ll just recommend the Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It just skirts the edge of alternative history and the writing is top-notch. I’m embarrassed to say that I was about a third of the way through before I realized where I’d heard the story before.

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