Thursday, December 18, 2008

Top Books of the Year

I haven't seen enough new films to work up a best-of list, and I stopped keeping a list of all the films, from whatever year, I saw in 2008 awhile back. However, I do keep a running list of all the books I've read, so picking my favorite ten from that was relatively easy. Below, wouldn't you know it, I've posted the results. By the way, only two of these novels came out this year, but oh well. Live with it, suckers.

10. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Foster's devestating suicide earlier this year spurred me to finally take a serious stab at his fiction. Following my usual pattern, I chose a collection of his short fiction. None of you know this, but I tried to hack out a whole post about this book, but the complexities, brilliance and occasionally infuriating gimmicks defeated me. This book is unlike anything else I've ever read. In all honesty, it's also not the sort of thing that would usually be a natural draw for me. But it's also clearly the work of a man who was feircely talented, incredibly smart, and, more likely than not, bound up too tightly inside his own head.

9. The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd

This novel tells the highly fictionalized story, based on fact, of Charles and Mary Lamb, two devotees of Shakespeare in 19th century London who, in Ackroyd's version of events, became involved with William Henry Ireland (another historical figure) best known for writing, among other things, entire plays which he was able, for a while, to pass off as lost works by Shakespeare. This book is quietly and darkly observant, and, by the end, more than a little chilling.

8. The Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry

I put off reading this sequel to McMurtry's masterful Lonesome Dove for, well, a really long time. I mean, it couldn't be as good as that first book, could it? McMurtry's just trying to soak up more of that sweet Lonesome Dove cash, isn't he? The answer to the first question is, "No, it's not." The answer to the second question is, "How the hell should I know?" But The Streets of Laredo is pretty great, whether you think it measures up to its predecessor or not. McMurtry's prose can be lean to a fault at times, but at other times, for long stretches, you have to wonder how he's able to do so much with so few words.

7. The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake)

Finally -- finally! -- I was able to read the first book in the series upon which Donald Westlake's ultimate legacy will be based. The Hunter is his first novel (writing as Richard Stark) about Parker, a cold-blooded, amoral thief. Parker is a true anti-hero, in that nothing that he does can be considered morally good. If he lets someone live, it's only because killing them would cause him too much hassle. If he kills someone, he does so because letting them live would cause him more hassle. He's a stone cold bastard, but he's also smarter than everyone else. Westlake is a great writer, and The Hunter is a great place to start, if you want evidence of that fact. (Note: This year, I also read the second novel in this series, The Man with the Getaway Face. It wasn't as good as The Hunter, but it's still excellent.)

6. The Man in the Ceiling by Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem

The best book I read for my The Kind of Face You SLASH!! series.

5. The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith

I read this novel, my first Highsmith, around the beginning of the year, so it's hard now for me to summarize what I loved so much about it, both as a story and a piece of prose. But I did indeed love it very much. Like McMurtry, Highsmith tells her chilling story about everything going to hell for a small group of people in very spare language, completely free of pretense, which forces you to focus on what matters most: the people, and what's happening to them.

4. In the Garden of the North American Martyrs by Tobias Wolff

Another writer I read for the first time this year is Tobias Wolff. I'd been hearing about how great he supposedly is for a long time, and the sheer volume of it eventually wore me down to the point where I said, "Fine, goddammit, I'll read one of his stupid-ass books". The one I chose, one of his several collections of short stories, knocked me out. There are few writers, of the short story or any other kind of fiction, as precise as Wolff. There are even fewer for whom the word "perfect" would seem like anything other than sheer hyperbole. But Wolff acheives perfection m0re than once, in this collection alone. Here, read the brilliant Hunters in the Snow for yourself. Tell me I'm wrong.

3. Lush Life by Richard Price

Richard Price is one of America's greatest living writers. His mastery of dialogue is the equal of David Mamet's, and his observation of human behavior is as keen as any I've ever encountered. His last four novels can be roughly categorized as crime novels, but, while I bristle at the idea of calling them "more" than that, I would have to say that they are crime novels while also being several other things. Lush Life tells the story of a random, senseless murder and its investigation and consequences. If that sounds like old-hat to you, than you're going to miss out. Price is a genius, simple as that.

2. Old School by Tobias Wolff

Wolff is primarily a writer of short fiction, but a few years ago he did publish Old School, his "first" novel ("first" in the sense that it's actually his second, but it's the only one he's willing to acknowledge), about the narrator's experiences in a private school in the 1950s and 60s. Each year at this school, a distinguished writer is invited to speak to the students. Each year also brings with it a writing contest, the winner of which will be able to have a one-on-one meeting with the visiting author. Roughly speaking, the novel follows the narrator as he tries to win each contest, and an opportunity to meet, respectively, Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. Wolff proves with this that he should write more novels. It's really exquisite -- beautiful and funny, and it has one of the most moving final paragraphs I've read in a long time.

1. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy

See below. How's that for an anti-climax?


Ed Howard said...

I haven't read Cry of the Owl, but Claude Chabrol made it into a quietly chilly, dispassionate little thriller back in 1987; it's quite a good movie. And it looks like it's being made into a movie again next year, this time in the UK by some music video director. Huh.

bill r. said...

Yeah, I saw that, with Paddy Considine in the lead. I'm more interested in the Chabrol version (it's in the queue!), but I do like Considine.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could read.

Fox said...

Interesting list. I haven't read any of them, but I like having book lists to refer to.

Have you ever been to McMurtry's bookstore in Archer City? My wife went once and describe it to me as like a Mecca for bookworms. I would love to go just to experience it.

From what I here, that bookstore IS the town. How cool is that? Just this empty area in northern Texas and then BOOM, a giant bookstore with thousands of books comes out at you. I love it.

bill r. said...

Rick - Do you want me to teach you?

Fox - I've never been to that store, but I've read about it. And McMurtry has said that he only writes to pay the bills, and that reading is his real joy in life, so I get the feeling that he cares about that store more than any book he's ever written.