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 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 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.”
Housekeeping, 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 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.”
Liquidation, 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 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.”
Netherland, 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 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, 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 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.
- An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard
- Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
- The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
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.