My Favorite Reads of 2008

I have a hard time whittling down my list of favorite books of the year to a mere ten, twenty, or even thirty. Nevertheless, I will attempt in this post to remember my ten favorite books I found this year (though only one was published this year). Here they are, presented in alphabetical order because if I tried to rank them there would be two problems: first, many of the books would tie for first, second, or third, and I’d probably never get to number four; second, I think I’d put The Ghost Writer on top, but then I’d feel very wrong because I couldn’t honestly say it is better than Revolutionary Road, just that today I’m in the mood to reread The Ghost Writer. So here they are with links to the original review in the title.

The Ghost WriterThe Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth: This is the book that got me addicted to Philip Roth, and I think it might still be my favorite, though it was difficult to choose between this one and American Pastoral (which was definitely one of the best books I read this year, as were many other Roth books, but I figured I could lump all of the Roth I read this year here with The Ghost Writer). “Roth’s writing alone is so precise and so simple that experiencing just the diction, let alone the pain and wry humor, of one sentence after another left me giddy.”

First LoveFirst Love, by Ivan Turgenev: I hadn’t read anything by Turgenev before this one (haven’t read anything since — yet) but I’m glad I finally got over my fear of this particular Russian. I remember that I read this one during one day’s commute. “Despite the train noises and the people coming and going, First Love really affected me with its powerful depiction of innocent love teamed up with overwhelming passion and a desire to be a martyr according to the whims of the one you love.”

housekeepingHousekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson was the only woman besides Toni Morrison to have a book considered the best book of the last 25 years by an American novelist by The New York Times. This was that book. “Robinson’s tone thoughout strikes the right note for me. Somehow she injects into her prose the atmosphere of Fingerbone, with its foggy lake, along with the transiency of the characters. Though the town remains in place, it always seems to be drifting away into the past. At the same time, the past does not disappear — the lake remains, and somewhere down there is a wrecked train and car.”

life-and-times-of-michael-kLife and Times of Michael K, by J.M. Coetzee: I’ve read only three books by Coetzee: Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and this one. Though the one I hear least about, Life and Times of Michael K is my favorite. And I think Coetzee’s writing absolutely spoiled my reading of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. “I’m not sure how it happens, but while reading this book – this book about war and about one man’s physical decline as he attempts to become invisible — during the day I looked around me and saw so many wonderful things.”

LiquidationLiquidation, by Imre Kertész: Of the three Kertész books about Auschwitz and the years since, this one about the suicide of a child born in the concentration camp is still my favorite. Favorite is such a strange word in this context; perhaps it’s better to say this one presented things in a way that, more than the others, made me reconsider what I thought I already knew and made me realize just how unknowable this whole thing is. “Despite the miracle of B.’s birth, years later he commits suicide. That is where the book begins. But for what reasons did B. commit suicide? That is where the book goes.”

The Loved OneThe Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh: Despite this book being most recent in my memory, I’m confident it will outlast many others I read this year — or in many years to come. The cover may be the best clue as to the darkly comic tone Waugh strikes in this hilarious book about two Englishmen who move to Southern California. Pets and Hollywood — this novel is endlessly entertaining! “To get right to it, this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and one of the best.”

NetherlandNetherland, by Joseph O’Neill:  I’m in good company including this as one of the year’s best — both the New York Times Book Review and James Woods of the New Yorker included it in their list too (James Woods called this year’s Booker committee middle-brow, which brought back bad memories and reminded me that this is my only pick from this year’s Booker longlist). I still stand by this: “An interesting and entertaining (and pleasantly detailed) rumination on cricket in the United States, a contemporary variation on The Great Gatsby, probably the most convincing and nuanced post-9/11 novel I’ve read, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) is the best new book I’ve read in the last few years.”

revolutionary-roadRevolutionary Road, by Richard Yates: My find of the year (I’d already found Roth). How did I make it this far in my life without having someone tell me to read this? This one will last this year’s top ten list to be on my all-time top ten list. “Yates’s writing is a reward in and of itself. His ability to make the reader and characters intimates is masterful. I felt their pain, not because I was recalling my own experience but because I felt like I was there, in their room. When they shouted, it hurt my ears and made my breathing shallow, my shoulders tense. I also felt hope at the sight of an unexpected smile.”

the-sea-the-sea-2The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch: My first venture into the beauty and terror of Iris Murdoch’s prose, this book was purchased on a whim. I also started it one night thinking, I’ll just see how the first pages are. I didn’t stop. “Even though I found the story implausible and the characters unlikeable, I found myself reading this book compulsively, often when I should have been doing something else. It says a lot for Murdoch that I’d gladly spend my time in this man’s head.”

The-Virgin-SuicidesThe Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides: My wife pointed me to this book, but since I didn’t like Eugenides’s Middlesex (my thoughts here) it sat on my shelf for about two years. Finally, I pulled it out this summer and was astounded by its quality in both form and substance. “Telling the story from the first person plural, a group of middle-aged men who, when adolescents, were neighbors of the Lisbons during the ‘year of the suicides’ and have never been able to get over the deaths. In fact, they’ve been obsessed, collecting ‘exhibits’ such as photos, shoes, retainers, anything they can get their hands on. Through the years they’ve interviewed everyone who can give them any details into the girls’ lives, including the poor parents. This book is their reflection, their report (though, don’t be frightened, it does not read at all like a report).”

This forced me to leave out Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, J.G. Farrell’s The Seige of Krishnapur, and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, all books that I found delightful and highly recommend. It always says something when I finish a book and want to read whatever else the author wrote — all of these books created that desire in me.

There were a few books that I revisited in 2008 and reviewed on the blog. They are as good as many of the books I found this year.

And here are somet titles of books I read but didn’t review because they were pre-July. Some of the reviews might come in 2009.

  • The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith. One of the funnest books I read. Exquisitely amoral.
  • All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. I thought this would be a painfully written, idealistic vision of American politics. Painfully written? Beautifully written, rather. Idealistic? Tragic.
  • The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck. This is my favorite Steinbeck, and it is probably the least like other Steinbeck books.
  • The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin. Here’s my shout out to the nonfiction genre. Though I read many nonfiction books during the year, my passion lies in fiction, so I haven’t even reviewed one piece I’ve read. That is not on purpose. Had I read this one while writing my blog, I would have reviewed it.

Happy holidays!

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By | 2017-09-27T17:00:26+00:00 December 17th, 2008|Categories: Book Lists|Tags: |34 Comments


  1. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 2:34 am

    An excellent and thoughtful list, Trevor. I do have copies of most (need to buy Housekeeping and The Virgin Suicides — and intend to get both) but it has been some years since I have read some (The Sea, The Sea for example) and this is a handy guide for the next time I start scanning the downstairs storage shelves. I also had missed Revolutionary Road (I’m quite a bit older than you are and cannot believe I didn’t know about the book). Frankly I would have missed Yates entirely (I’m afraid the renewed coverage sparked by the movie would have been a negative rather than positive for me) were it not for your review of this book. I would have to say he ranks as my #1 posthumous discovery (if you know what I mean) for 2008.

    I’ll also be buying the Toobin on the strength of your last paragraph. I am very impressed with both his magazine writing and television commentary and have kept wondering about this book, even though my passion too is fiction. Your comment is enough to convince me it is worth the investment.

    May 2009 be as rewarding (minus the Booker disappointment of course) as 2008 was.

    Happy holidays.

  2. Trevor Berrett December 17, 2008 at 4:10 am

    Thanks Kevin. I think you’ll find Toobin’s look at the Supreme Court as compelling as his articles and analysis. I saw him lecture once and he was explaining how the book came to be – he put a lot of work into it!

    I’m like you regarding movies. Have you read All the King’s Men? I’m glad I decided to read the book despite the hokie film (which, admittedly, I judged after watching the first three minutes, so I could be very wrong about the film).

    By the way, if you wouldn’t mind, what are your top reads of the past year? You read more than I do, and I’ve benefitted greatly from your recommendations already.

    And finally, I cannot place your new gravatar, though it looks familiar. That could be because to me it looks like a mix of a few different Pink Ffloyd album covers. I’m anxious for you to reveal the artist and the title.

  3. Lisa Hill December 17, 2008 at 7:50 am

    I am so pleased to see that you liked The Sea, The Sea…I discovered Iris Murdoch through the Booker Group and she is one of my favourite writers. I love her brilliant use of symbols and her *Englishness*.
    May I join in and share my Top Ten?
    Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
    Love without Hope by Rodney Hall
    Remembering the Bones by Frances Itani
    The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
    The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon
    The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
    I rated all of these 10 in my journal, followed by my 9s
    The Indian Clerk by Leavett, David
    Rites of Passage by William Golding
    The Children by Charlotte Wood
    On Chesil Breach by Ian McEwan
    Scenes from a Clerical Life by George Eliot
    Hmm, sorry, that’s 11, I know!

  4. John Self December 17, 2008 at 11:10 am

    I love a good list, Trevor! I have to agree with Roth in the number 1 slot (even though I know they’re not ranked), though for my own list, which will go up on my blog on 28 December, I’ve left Roth and other ‘big names’ off in an attempt to give a leg-up to the lesser-known. That doesn’t make it a true top ten, I know, but it’s not a true top ten anyway as I couldn’t get mine down below 13 books!

    You (and the imminent adaptation) have also inspired me to re-re-read Revolutionary Road. My thoughts on that will go up this weekend. Oddly, I found it diminished on second and third readings, but like you, would have placed in any top ten you care to name on my first visit. I’ll certainly be interested to know if this holds true if you reread it anytime soon, or whether I’ve just suffered a little Yates fatigue after reading all his novels in the space of a few years.

    (As to All the King’s Men, it came out in the UK this time last year in my favourite Penguin Modern Classics edition, so I bought it with a view to getting through its 600 pages in a leisurely manner over Christmas. But I got bored quite early on. I’m still unsure if my reaction was justified, so I look forward to your thoughts.)

  5. John Self December 17, 2008 at 11:14 am

    Oh and: Highsmith. I may have said this before, but if you haven’t read any of her non-Ripley books, then I recommend them unreservedly, as I think they’re even better than her Ripley titles. Special mention to This Sweet Sickness, The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water and Edith’s Diary. Of the Ripley books, my favourite is Ripley’s Game (the third), but I don’t really think the fourth and fifth (The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water) worth bothering with.

  6. Max Cairnduff December 17, 2008 at 11:31 am

    An interesting list Trevor, I’ve already bought The Ghost Writer on your recommendation though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet (I’ll let you know when I do), and the Turgenev is definitely on by to buy list (I’ve been wanting to check out Turgenev for a while).

    Like Kevin, I wasn’t really aware of the Yates, something I clearly need to rectify.

    The Ripley sequels by the way are fun, but not nearly as good in my view as the original – Ripley becomes less of an inadequate, and so less persuasive in my view as a character. I’m very interested to hear about All the King’s Men and looking forward to that one.

  7. Max Cairnduff December 17, 2008 at 11:38 am

    I posted before seeing John’s comments, my comments on Ripley were coincidence oddly enough, it seems we have a coterie of Highsmith enthusiasts posting today (albeit a very small coterie, I grant).

    John’s comment on All the King’s Men makes me even keener to read your views on it.

  8. Trevor Berrett December 17, 2008 at 1:41 pm

    Thanks for your list, Lisa. I’m glad to see Rites of Passage on it as I bought that earlier this year and have been just waiting for someone to say “Go!”

    I know what you mean about not creating a true top ten list, John. I also tried to get some of the books that weren’t “obvious” choices, forcing me to leave off several of Roth’s books, which otherwise would have covered quite a bit of my list (as you can see, I still managed to at least get a link to them all!).

    I’ll make sure I get the All the King’s Men post up soon for you and Max. I can’t say I remember getting too bogged down in it, though I read a different, apparently more “true” version. Maybe the editor really did fowl it up.

    And thanks for the Highsmith recommendations. I have been hoping to get through more of her Ripley books, but now I’m even more excited to try her other stuff.

    Oh, and one last thing, John: did you get a chance to read James Woods’s recent “Revisiting Revolutionary Road” in the New Yorker? The link is in the comments to the book on this site. If you haven’t, I definitely recommend it. Interestingly, he says that none of Yates’s other books are half as good, not necessary for his readers but necessary for him. I haven’t read any more of Yates other than his short stories, so I’d be interested in your take on that comment.

  9. John Self December 17, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    That’s interesting, Trevor – no, I haven’t seen Wood’s piece. I’ll hold off reading it until I’ve written up my own thoughts on revisiting RR, so I don’t get too bogged down thinking what he thinks is really what I think!

  10. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    I have an opinion on Woods’ comment, but I’ll wait until John posts his review and leave it there. And I’ll post some kind of list of my favorites later today.

  11. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    So here’s a list of my top twelve books read for the first time in 2008 (I didn’t track all my reading, so don’t have a record of books I reread — they’d take up at least half the list). It’s alphabetical by title (like you, my favorite would depend on which day you asked me) and I’ve only commented on ones that haven’t been referenced somewhere in the blogosphere:

    1. Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa — you know how keen I am on this one.
    2. The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Anorc. It won the Nobel in 1961. The central character is literally a bridge; it is a multi-century epic on conflict in the Balkans and an absolutely excellent novel. I bought it because my wife went on a trekking trip in Croatia and a former newspaper colleague (actually, ex-foreign correspondent and ex-boss) said this book told me everything I needed to know about this confused part of the world. It did.
    3. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. Overlooked in the prizes because of the controversy over the North American cover, it is still a wonderful book.
    4. The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant.
    5. Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow. I’d never read it but our Roth-Bellow debate caused me to pick it up. It isn’t as good as Augie March but I admit it helps tilt me to Bellow in that Roth-Bellow debate (although I seem to be in the minority on that one).
    6. The Impostor by Damon Galgut
    7. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
    8. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
    9. Through Black Spruce by David Bergen
    10. The Truth Commissioner by David Park
    11. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
    12. Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marias, Vol. 1 and 2. It is a trilogy that I only became aware of when the TLS reviewed Vol. 3 — apparently in the original Spanish since I haven’t been able to locate a translation. Marias is a very interesting writer (I suspect Stewart would like him) and this is a complex, weird and, for me, very successful work. If you haven’t tried him, start with All Souls, a fictional account of his year at Oxford.

    I too would like to add one non-fiction book to my list, Postwar by Tony Judt, an account of what has happened in Europe since the end of WWII. It is a daunting book when you pick it up, but he is a very good writer and creates a context that, as real history, explains much of the fiction being written in Europe today. More important for North Americans (since he is now in New York) he also sets up his explanation (although you have to read him in the NYRB to find this part) about why Europeans know there is no winner in any war and why some Americans have not learned that yet.

    Two other novels that would make my list but I haven’t included because I think I finished them in 2007 are Junot Diaz’s The Brief, Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao and Nancy Huston’s Fault Lines.

    Now that I have found literary blogs, I’ll keep better track of my reading next year.

  12. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 7:21 pm

    I’ve never read All the King’s Men — I have certainly heard about it but what from what I have read it seemed to introspectively American to interest me. I’d be willing to change that opinion but will wait for assorted reviews.

  13. Trevor Berrett December 17, 2008 at 7:36 pm

    Thanks for your list, Kevin! I hadn’t heard of Your Face Tomorrow and it sounds intriguing. Also, Through Black Spruce is in line, but it’ll be behind Three Day Road.

    I’m interested that you put The Brief, Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. I had been meaning to read it for a while, but Stewart’s review discouraged me. I did pick it up when I tested a Sony Reader a few months ago, but that thing was not for me so I didn’t get very far. What I read was interesting, so with your comment I will have to give it another go – this time in book form.

    I’ll keep your concern about All the King’s Men in mind when I review it. It’s definitely American, but I think the true subject of the book – Jack Burden, not Willy Stark (at least in my opinion) – is for everyone.

    *(edited to take out the incorrect reference to John Self’s blog)

  14. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    I think the Diaz has quite a bit more meaning for you and me than it does for Stewart and John — it is probably fair to say that the book has some geographic limitations (which may also explain why John likes Kelman and I find him opaque). I think you will find it particularly interesting from the New Jersey perspective. I also think it is fair to say that there are some books which may be “great” if you live somewhere and not so great if you don’t.

    I’ll be interested in your review of All the King’s Men. I have nothing against it — just never had a reason to want to read it.

  15. John Self December 17, 2008 at 9:36 pm

    Interesting to see you thought I felt Oscar Wao wasn’t worth my time, Trevor – because I thought that too, until I reread my review the other week (wondering what people are reading when they find it, because it’s become one of my most popular blog posts), and found that I was a lot warmer than I had remembered toward it! I wouldn’t even rule out a revisit in the future.

    Another very interesting list, Kevin. There is one overlap with my list of the year, and one book I would have liked to include in my own but didn’t have room for. I am particularly interested in your mention of The Bridge Over the Drina as this is a book I remember seeing years ago in the shops, published in the UK by Harvill Press, a high-end publisher mostly of literature in translation – generally regarded as a reliable source, as in, “If Harvill publishes it, I’ll give it a go.” I never did give Bridge a go, though, but I think I might now.

  16. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 9:44 pm

    I will await your list John. The Drina book takes time to read, but it is definitely worth your while.

    As for Oscar Wao, I do think it is a book that speaks more to North America than to the UK — perhaps not the Continent. I didn’t think your review was negative either, rather that for some of us what was not important to you was important to us. It is not a great work of literature, but it is still a very good book.

  17. Trevor Berrett December 17, 2008 at 9:52 pm

    Hmmm. I’m not sure how I felt your review was negative, John. I just quickly looked at Stewart’s review to see if my thoughts came from a comment you made there. But there is no comment there from you. Maybe I was remembering your feelings on the UK cover. Your review was certainly not a rave, but I just glanced at it again and don’t know what I was thinking. Sorry for the misleading comment!

    By the way, just before I checked this I got another offer to try a Sony Reader that contains Oscar Wao. Hmmmm.

  18. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    If there was a novel published in the last two years more unsuited to the Sony Reader than Oscar Wao, I don’t know what it is. Particularly in the first half, Diaz tells a lot of his story in very extended footnotes — and does that with great effect. Part of the strength of the book is to depart from the narrative and move to the footnote (that is not a spoiler). Invest in a hard copy.

  19. Trevor Berrett December 17, 2008 at 10:07 pm

    Very interesting. The idea of departing the narrative to the footnote has sold me. Strange how one little idea can do that.

  20. KevinfromCanada December 17, 2008 at 10:17 pm

    This might be a spoiler but I don’t think so. Diaz has four story lines:

    1. Traditional life in the DR.
    2. Trujillo and the DR.
    3. Escapism through technology.
    4. The dream — and compensation — of Patterson, N.J.

    He interweaves them in a physical way (you keep wanting to turn up, down or back) that shows why real books, and not the Sony Reader or Kindle, will always be with us. Once you have read this book, you can look at UK writers of books like Brick Lane or Kelman’s work and start to appreciate the difference between the two cultures — I can’t think of any other American work that serves as a better starting point.

  21. Stewart December 17, 2008 at 11:52 pm

    I bought the Harvill edition of Ivo Andric’s The Bridge On The Drina about a month or two back, after a local Q&A with Sasa Stanisic, a young Bosnian writer who recently published his first novel, How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone A Yugoslav (I’ll call her that, to avoid denominations) in the audience, recognising the influence of Andric in the book, asked about the level of influence. The bridge truly is at the heart of everything there.

    As for Diaz, my memory of the book is that I would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for the indulgence in Spanish. I notice that Drown was similar in this respect, but at least the copy of that I flicked through had a glossary of sorts. I truly couldn’t figure out the Spanish from the context.

    And All The King’s Men? I have it sitting to hand. Maybe one day, but not now.

    To Kevin, the third book in the Marias Your Face Tomorrow trilogy comes out in the UK next year. Amazon has it listed for 2nd July. It’s called Poison, Shadow and Farewell.

  22. KevinfromCanada December 18, 2008 at 1:39 am

    Stewart: Thanks for the data on Marias — I’d thought the review I read was about a translation but obviously I was wrong. Now I have a mid-summer book to look forward too. I will be interested if he ever hits your radar.

    Your point about the Diaz is well taken. It didn’t bother me, but was something that had to be overcome.

    I do hope you find time to read the Drina soon. From my point of view (sorry about that pun) it is a book that deserves far more attention than it has received.

  23. Isabel December 19, 2008 at 3:22 am

    I love your list!

    I’ve read Disgrace a long time ago. Try J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello novel. The most grumpy lady in literature.

    Wao – my book group nominated it for our book read and it might win.

    Paterson NJ is one of the ugliest places on Earth.

    If you know nothing about the revolution in the Dominican Republic, I was told that you need to read Julia Alvarez’ novel, In the time of Butterflies for some background info.

    Wao has stuff about the revolution.

  24. Trevor Berrett December 19, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    Thanks Isabel. I haven’t read the Alvarez novel though it’s possibly the book that’s been on my TBR list, well, other than War and Peace which has been on there since I was ten and I still haven’t worked up the nerve to read even though I’ve bought most new editions (Pevear and Volokhonsky have gotten me to read Anna Karenina and reread The Brothers Karamazov, both fantastic, so now it’s just those nerves).

    And I definitely have to disagree with you about Patterson! There are many places much uglier. It has the disadvantage of being placed so close to the Garden State Parkway and I-80, but it’s a bit past the spot where that’s a major problem.

  25. claire December 21, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    Thanks for your lists, Trevor and Kevin. I will be reading a number of titles from both your recommendations in the new year. Love reading your comments, too, by the way, besides the reviews.

    Kevin, I’m asking Barnacle Love from my husband for Christmas. :D (It’s me, the one who liked Cockroach hehe.)

  26. KevinfromCanada December 22, 2008 at 4:32 pm

    I hope your husband comes through for you, Claire. I think you will like the book a lot. Happy holidays.

  27. Jonathan Birch January 11, 2009 at 12:36 am

    This is a great list.

    Good to see Coetzee represented. I think you’ve read his three best books, but his oeuvre is so unbelievably strong it’s well worth further forays… I especially recommend The Master of Petersburg and my personal favourite, Elizabeth Costello.

  28. Trevor Berrett January 11, 2009 at 1:37 am

    Duly noted, Jonathan! I feel like I’ve read more Coetzee, but when you mention it I realize how much a Coetzee novitiate I still am.

  29. KevinfromCanada January 20, 2009 at 8:32 pm

    I’ve been meaning to ask this for some time. Your posts indicate that you do know something about U.S. law and when Roberts flubbed the inauguration oath today it reminded me again: Now that Obama is in office, do you think Toobin’s book is a) less relevant b) more relevant or c) about the same? I resisted buying Woodward’s Supreme Court book (I actually met Woodward a couple of times back in the Watergate days and will admit to not liking him much at all) but everything that Toobin writes or says impresses me — great Barney Frank profile in a recent New Yorker. I know this comment is off topic but you were the one that introduced the book originally, after all.

  30. Trevor Berrett January 20, 2009 at 9:09 pm

    Now that Obama is in office, do you think Toobin’s book is a) less relevant b) more relevant or c) about the same?

    That’s an interesting question, Kevin. I’ll try to frame my answer around my experience. It never fails to amaze me how many people, even apparently educated people, say that they don’t care who is the president because it’s all Congress anyway. It is incredibly naive, and the past eight years should be enough to convince anyone that the president (or at least his administration, for those of you who like to call it the Cheney Administration) does set the tone and hold an immense amount of power, especiallly when Congress is on his side. And Toobin expresses in this book one of the major ways the president affects the country for decades: whom he picks as Supreme Court justices. Just a few more conservative justices on the bench, and Roe v. Wade is gone, despite recent precedent reaffirming it. Whatever side of that argument you’re on, that is massive.

    In this book Toobin shows how much power these nine individuals hold, and that it very much matters what kind of president gets to choose the next ones. (Interestingly, he begins the book by discussing the major power play of the religious right at the beginning of the 80s and how much they influenced presidential choices, even if the justices didn’t do all the president expected).

    So I think the general premise of the book is still very important, even if I’m sure Toobin had this particular election in mind because it was even more important this time around when several of the “liberal” justices are undoubtedly going to get off the bench even if it is only by death.

    That said, Toobin’s book is also a fascinating look at the last 25 years of the Court. In a way, it picks up where Woodward’s left off. This book is better than Woodward’s. One reason: Toobin at least respects the intellectual capacity of the justices, even if he comments on Justice Thomas’s resignation from asking questions during oral arguments. While reading The Brethren I had a hard time believing that Chief Justice Berger was really as intellectually challenged as Woodward made him appear to be. I’ve read the man’s opinions, and even if you don’t agree with them you can’t argue that he was absolutely oblivious to what was going on.

    Well, I probably went off the topic there too, Kevin, but I hope that it helps a bit. In a sentence then, I still think Toobin’s overall thesis is important even if the target election is over, and the book is a great feature of the recent history of the Court. Toobin’s insightful as ever.

    I’m actually about to start Toobin’s pet project about the botched 2000 election, Too Close to Call. Not sure when I’ll get to it, but when I do, I’ll let you know how it is.

  31. Trevor Berrett January 20, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    By the way, Kevin, you can learn a bit more about me at the Book Depository’s What on a Wednesday feature for last week. It’s not much information, but some of it’s there.

  32. KevinfromCanada January 20, 2009 at 10:26 pm

    Thanks for the link (excellent interview) and I can’t wait until you finish reading Bech — for my money it is Updike’s best work (and I am one of those people who like Updike).

    I also appreciate the thoughts on Toobin’s book — as you note, the Court will be the centre of a lot of attention during the next four years and my impression is that he appreciates it more as an institution than Woodward did (Woodward’s problem to me is that he always seems more interested in personalities than institutions). I’ll never forget a session at the Washington Campus where it was explained to us Canadians who were there (the seminar was set up for a bunch of us who had just got transferred to the U.S.) that the U.S. Constitution and much of its government structure was designed to make sure that each of the three branches of government had enough power to make sure that the other two could not do anything. The two exceptions, the presenter said, were going to war and appointing judges. He may have overstated the case a bit, but the thoughts would appear to be at least directionally correct.

    So I am thinking I will make Toobin’s book one of the relatively few non-fiction books I’ll read this year.

    Thanks again for the response.

  33. Trevor Berrett January 20, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    the U.S. Constitution and much of its government structure was designed to make sure that each of the three branches of government had enough power to make sure that the other two could not do anything.

    I met with Justice Scalia back in November and he, adopting an Eastern European accent, said: “All of this [American] government is just gridlock. Gridlock.” Then he said, that’s exactly as it was meant to be! So Woodward and Scalia have one thing in common in their perception of the checks and balances of our three branch government!

    And by the way, Kevin, I did the interview before you had created your blog or you would have been explicitly included in the “favorite blogs” question rather than implicitly included in the “what I get most out of blogging” question.

  34. KevinfromCanada January 20, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    I guess that one way to make sure there is no abuse of power is to make sure there is no power (that was my understanding of the design). This may be the only time in history when Justice Scalia and I are in agreement.

    No worries about the interview — I’d pretty much figured that out. You can mention my blog in your next interview.

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