For this reader, the year 2008 – already gone past! – was filled with great nonfiction reading.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale concerns the murder, in 1860, of three-year-old Saville Kent. This horrific crime was discovered on what seemed like an ordinary morning at Road Hill House, home of the Kent family. The constabulary of the village of Road, in Wiltshire, was ill equipped to deal with this baffling situation. In rides Mr. Jonathan “Jack” Whicher of Scotland Yard. He forms a theory almost at once about this prototypical English country house murder. There’s just one problem: no one believes him. It seems that everyone, from the local police to reporters to fascinated onlookers, has his or her own idea of the who the real perpetrator is. They have all, in the words of Wilkie Collins, contracted “detective-fever.”
The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower. In 1838, eighteen-year-old Mary Rogers was hired by John Anderson to work behind the counter at his cigar store at 319 Broadway. With her widowed mother, Mary had come to New York from Connecticut several years earlier. By the time she was sixteen, her beauty had been noted by many. John Anderson’s bid to increase the custom at his store by hiring her was eminently successful. Perhaps, too much so. By the ago of 20, she was dead, the victim of a horrendous murder. In telling this story, Stashower brings 1840′s New York City to vivid, fascinating life. We encounter the notorious “Gangs of New York,” with scary names like the Plug Uglies, the Slaughter Houses, and the Dead Rabbits. We read about “The Great Moon Hoax,” subject of a new book:
Finally, there is the haunted -and haunting – presence of Edgar Allan Poe. During the time period covered in this book, Poe was living variously in New York and Philadelphia. He was close enough to the scene of the crime to develop his own theory concerning what really happened to Mary Rogers, and why. He set forth his ideas in “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” one of the three tales featuring his seminal sleuth C. Auguste Dupin. Although the setting was transposed to Paris and the victim’s name correspondingly changed, everyone knew what the story’s real subject was.
Daniel Stashower took part in my favorite panel at Bouchercon, “‘Tales of Mystery and Imagination’ – The Enduring Legacy of Edgar Allan Poe.” I knew after hearing him speak that I wanted to read this book. That said, for me at least, it was rather slow going. Still – it’s a vibrant, rich stew of a volume, and I really do recommend it. (Next Monday the 12th, Daniel Stashower will be taking part in a commemoration of Poe’s birthday, courtesy of the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program. And on the 19th, the mysterious Poe Toaster will lay his tribute on the poet’s grave in Westminster Burying Ground in Baltimore.)
This past year, I also had great reading in memoir and biography:
A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana, by Haven Kimmel. When she heard that I was co-presenting a program called “Blue Ribbon Biographies,” a friend of mine at the library recommended this alternately hilarious and poignant little book. I listened to it, as read by the author, but I also recommended getting the book; the snapshots of Zippy, her family, friends, and various animals should not be missed.
In Thrumpton Hall: A Memoir of Life in My Father’s House, by Miranda Seymour, the reader is taken behind the facade of a stately home to learn the true cost of maintaining that facade.
Rick Bass came close to complete exhaustion in his effort to protect his beloved Yaak Valley, Montana. In Why I Came West, he delivers an honest and eloquent account of this emotionally draining struggle.
Nothing To Be Frightened Of, by Julian Barnes is a combination memoir and meditation on death. A pull-no-punches tour de force that soars into the stratosphere of poetic longing. Also very funny – in some places.
Peter Ackroyd’s engaging biography of Newton is part of a series called Ackroyd’s Brief Lives. The prolific Ackroyd, author of both fiction (The Fall of Troy) and nonfiction, is one of my favorite writers.
The Pearl: A True Story of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia, by Douglas Smith.For me, reading Russian history is akin to entering some kind of hallucinating state or alternate universe. The Pearl is a slow read, but worth the effort – you’ll be rewarded with an intensely moving love story.
Lucia: A Venetian Life in the Age of Napoleon, by Andrea di Robilant. I learned lots of European history while reading this book, but the main attraction is Lucia herself. The author’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Lucia Mocenigo begins as a naive adolescent bride; in short order and out of necessity, she grows into a self-possessed, even formidable woman. This book is a sort of sequel to A Venetian Affair, which I also loved and which, like Lucia, grew out of the discovery of a large cache of letters written by the dramatis personae. May Andrea di Robilant – who looks the part of the Italian aristocracy from which he is descendant (though rather more approachable) – never run out of ancestors with an epistolary bent!
Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach, by Meryl Gordon. Well, of course, they were not beyond reproach, any more than most of us are. Still, their wealth and status set them apart, and ultimately set them on a disastrous collision course with one another.
Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. My “blog stats” indicate an enormous continuing interest in the all-too-brief life of Chris McCandless. A reader recently wrote an exceptionally blunt, emotionally honest response to my post on this book. His words helped me to understand why the story of this young man’s unorthodox life and premature death means so much to so many readers (and viewers of the film).
American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, by Susan Cheever. I never tire of reading about this extraordinary group of people. I’ve been to Concord, Massachusetts three times in order to exploring their various homes and haunts. And the place does have a kind of haunted quality.
Finally, there are some wild card, harder-to-categorize books that grabbed me this year, like:
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, by Michael Pollan. I knew I wanted to read this because I had been so impressed – and hugely entertained – by The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In Defense of Food is a much shorter, tighter, book with a more specific focus, summed up rather succinctly by the author: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Once again, I came away with a greater understanding of what has happened to change so drastically the way we perform the basic human function of eating.
I also want to mention The Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku. I didn’t read this all the way through, and I haven’t looked at it in a while, but I want to acknowledge this author’s wonderful ability to make the arcana of physics accessible to nonscientists. Like Michael Pollan, Kaku is a natural raconteur with a great sense of humor.
When I began listening to Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World (read by the author), I was expecting a lighthearted travelogue interspersed with observations on human nature drawn primarily from pop psychology. What I got was something rather more ambitious, thoughtful, and provocative than I had expected. The book also manages to be laugh-out-loud funny, and Weiner never takes himself too seriously. I’ll have more to say about The Geography of Bliss in a subsequent post. (This book has been reviewed by two of my favorite librarians on the library’s blog, Highly Recommended.)
The Discovery of France: A Historical Georgaphy from the Revolution to the First World War, by Graham Robb. This book, a sort of anthropology of post-Revolutionary France, had me flabbergasted. Farmers, men and women, walking around in their fields ON STILTS? This is too weird. And that’s just one of the singularities uncovered by this amazing dogged and resourceful reporter. Strange customs, odd landforms, archaic traditions…all there, all observed and described with grace and perspicacity. How I long to make the journey into “La France Profonde” – with Graham Robb as my guide!
There are two collections of short pieces that I’d like to recommend: The Best American Crime Reporting 2007 and The Best American Magazine Writing 2007. The latter volume in particular contained some amazingly powerful articles; far from detracting, their brevity actually enhanced their impact. (The 2008 editions of both these collections are already out, a fact which pleased and enticed me so greatly that I’ve already purchased both of them.)
Finally, there is Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces, by Robert Clark. Perhaps because of my recollections of visiting Florence before and after the flood of 1966, or because of my newly awakened interest in the art of Italy, or because of an intense, if diffuse, spiritual yearning – this book hit me like a revelation. The writing in Dark Water is gorgeous, the stories it contains are haunting. It is probably the single best book I read in 2008, and one of the best in any year.
I like the Times Literary Supplement’s list, in which authors and other personalities of note name there favorites. Often their comments make me want to get the book in question at once – tricky at times, since some of the titles won’t have been published here yet. I’ve been known to order directly from Amazon.co.uk. Also, there’s a great British vendor, The Book Depository, that will ship gratis to anywhere in the world.
This year, NPR has an interesting take on Best Books. Finally, January Magazine provides wonderful annotations for their sometimes quirky selections. Be sure to look at their crime fiction choices (presented in two parts – here’s the second). There was a bit of dust-up on The Rap Sheet over this list because of the paucity of women authors on it.
I’m currently working on my own list of favorite nonfiction for this past year. Then, I promise…I’ll stop!
Kerrie, one of my favorite mystery-loving bloggers, has invited fellow crime fiction fans to post their top ten mysteries of the year on her blog, Mysteries in Paradise. She’s got some great lists there already. (Okay, there’s a link to mine – but it’s just one of many!)
I hasten to add – the standouts for Your Faithful Blogger, at least. With “Best of” lists still pouring in, it’s obvious that there’s lots of room for differing opinions here!
Anyway – here goes:
Cold in Hand by John Harvey. Harvey is an author that Marge (my Bouchercon boon companion) and I have long admired and championed. Cold in Hand is a novel that shocks and stuns and is beautifully written. John Harvey seemed to be enjoying himself hugely at Bouchercon this past October. And we enjoyed his enjoyment!
The Demon of Dakar by Kjell Eriksson. I’ve fallen behind on my reading of the stellar Scandinavians. As for this particular novel, the humanity of the characters shone throughout and the plot was utterly compelling.
Not in the Flesh by Ruth Rendell. One of my retirement projects is to go back and read the Rendell/Barbara Vine novels I missed, and the ones I wish to revisit because they were so terrific the first time. At any rate, this Wexford novel shows Rendell writing at the height of her formidable powers. (The next Rendell, a non-Wexford entitled Portobello, is due out here in April; the next Vine, The Birthday Present, in March.)
The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon. Yet another author who, with each new novel, goes from strength to strength. Guido Brunetti is one of my all time favorite fictional policemen. and Venice, of course, is the setting from Heaven. Leon brings this complex, magical city vividly to life in every novel in this superlative series. (The next entry, About Face, is due out in April of next year.)
Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon. Originally published in 1945 as La Fuite de Monsieur Monde (literally “The Flight of Monsieur Monde”), this was my first venture into the non-Maigret canon of this incredibly prolific author. What I found was a powerful tale of one man’s escape from that favorite target of French intellectuals, the stifling conventions and expectations of the bourgeoisie.
The Chameleon’s Shadow by Minette Walters. I’ve followed this author’s career with interest ever since she burst onto the crime writing scene in 1992 with her remarkably polished and atmospheric first novel, The Ice House. Her next book, The Sculptress, won the coveted Edgar Allan Poe Award for best novel in 1993; the following year, The Scold’s Bridle won the equally prestigious CWA Gold Dagger. I very much liked all three of these novels, but in the years following, I found that her books did not always work for me. Walters has frequently been likened to Ruth Rendell. I do think she shares with Rendell an unusually degree of insight into the disturbed mind. Is she “another Rendell,” or “on a par with Rendell,” as reviewers love to exclaim? Well, in the opinion of this ardent fan of the oeuvre of Baroness Rendell of Baberg (and isn’t that a fine title, right up there with the Baroness James of Holland Park!) – not quite. But for me, in all fairness, probably no one could be. All the same, when Walters is good, she is very good indeed. And the story she tells of a damaged Iraq War veteran in The Chameleon’s Shadow is without a doubt one of the most compelling works of fiction I read all year.
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris. IMHO, this book would have worked better as a straightforward narrative minus the “detective interruptions.” Still, the writing was so superior, the setting so vividly rendered, and the characters’ pain so palpable that I’m including it here anyway.
The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill. This is the second entry in Hilll’s Simon Serrailler series. The first is The Various Haunts of Men; I now wish I had read that novel first. Simon Serailler is part Thomas Lynley, part Adam Dalgliesh, an artist from a distinguished, conflict-ridden family. This is the British police procedural writ large, a regular candy box of a novel. I anxiously await the third entry in the series, The Risk of Darkness, due out here in March.
The Graving Dock by Gabriel Cohen. Does St. Martins Monotaur know what a gem it has in Gabriel Cohen? As I was asking myself this question, I went on their site – and wow! This publisher’s roster includes some of the best in the business: Ken Bruen, Archer Mayor, Ian Rankin, Kjell Eriksson, Caroline Graham, Barry Maitland, Qiu Xiaolong, Clare Curzon, and many more of that caliber. So…do they have much of an advertising budget, I wonder? I ask because I hate to see a writer of Cohen’s tremendous talent go undiscovered by discerning readers of crime fiction. In Red Hook, the first novel in this series, we get to know Jack Leightner, a cop who’s struggling with the usual personal and professional demons. Why then are these novels a cut above? Because Leightner is an enormously appealing protagonist, a guy with a good heart that you can’t help but root for. And he’s doing all this struggling in Brooklyn, a locale that Cohen obviously knows well. The venerable borough springs to life in his assured hands. Do yourself a favor and read these novels. Start with The Graving Dock, the sequel to Red Hook, if you prefer. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
And finally, it’s back to the Scandinavians with Black Seconds by Karin Fossum. I’ve already praised this powerful novel to the skies, but I’m happy to praise it again. Tautly constructed, beautifully written, filled with subtle understanding of and compassion for the pathos of the human condition, it represents crime writing – writing period, for that matter – at its very best.
An excellent Best Books list by one of my favorite fellow bloggers, Margaret of Booksplease. I really like the way Margaret used a book-of-the-month organizing principle for presenting her selections.
Stranger in Paradise by Robert B. Parker. I have a lingering affection for this author, though I usually stick to his (incredibly long-running) Spenser series. In the past,I haven’t cared for the Jesse Stone novels, finding them too touchy-feely. As it happened, though, my husband and I were very much liking the made for TV films, which feature Tom Selleck as Stone, a role he seems born to play. Hence, my decision to read Stranger in Paradise, which I quite enjoyed. This enjoyment was somewhat enhanced by having Tom Selleck in my mind’s eye for much of the time I was reading!
Chat by Archer Mayor. I love Mayor’s straight-ahead, unadorned prose style and his exceptionally appealing protagonist, Joe Gunther. This series also features a vividly rendered ensemble cast of law enforcement officers.
Blue Heaven by C.J. Box. The author manages to keep you on the edge of your seat throughout the narrative; you’ll be chewing your fingernails as you agonize over the fate of a seriously imperiled but amazingly courageous and resourceful 13-year-old girl. Definitely a candidate for my “thriller with brains” designation!
Friend of the Devil by Peter Robinson. I’ve read every one of the Alan Banks novels, and what a pleasure it has been watching this author go from strength to strength in this outstanding series. The latest, All the Colors of Darkness, can now be reserved at our local library.
City of Fire by Robert Ellis. Setting: southern California. Where else, with a title like that? Homicide Detective Lena Gamble is one of the lead investigators in this fast-moving tale of multiple murder and its far-reaching consequences. Ellis is an author new to me, but I’d certainly read more of his work. A commenter on my review said that City of Fire was the best book he read in 2007. ( I read it in January of this year.)
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin. I forgot to include this title in my discussion of historical mysteries I enjoyed this year. I had some initial reservations about the premise of this novel, but I got swept up in the story and fell utterly in love with Franklin’s feisty protagonist, the splendidly named Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar.
And now, two classics and three pleasant surprises.
This year I went back to two of my favorite crime fiction greats of the past, Georges Simenon and Ross MacDonald. Both are masters at creating atmospheric thrillers shot through with crisp, no-nonsense dialogue; both follow the rules of the conventional forms in which they write while at the same time subtly pushing against the boundaries of those same forms. How can formulaic writing be so compelling? I can’t explain it, and it’s just as well that I don’t even try:
As for the pleasant surprises:
The Skeleton in the Closet by M.C. Beaton. I grabbed this book on tape – yes, tape, that finicky old technology! -off the shelf at the Central Library with no idea what it was about. Set in a village in the Cotswolds, a place almost too dreamily English to be real, Skeleton is not an especially compelling mystery. It is, however, an utterly enchanting love story, read by the eminently listenable Donada Peters. I commend it to you warmly!
I also listened to Lawrence Block’s Hit Parade. Block is one of the reigning masters of American crime fiction. At one time, I was a huge fan of this author’s Matt Scudder series. Those books, a chronicle of one man’s struggle to be a good person, are utterly gripping and tend to be quite somber in tone. I knew we’d be seeing Block at Bouchercon, where he was to be honored for distinguished contribution to the mystery genre. I was intrigued by this prolific author’s new series featuring John Keller. Keller flies all over the country carrying out various commissions while Dot, his business partner, stays home in White Plains. It’s a business much like any other – except that Keller is a professional hit man! Hit Parade was read by the author, with appropriate sardonic inflection. I haven’t come across fiction this deliciously subversive in years.
Here’s Block being interviewed by Charles Ardai at Bouchercon. (You can’t tell from this video snippet but the room was packed.)
And here’s the author discussing his latest creation at a book signing.
Ash Wednesday by Ralph McInerny. This author’s Father Dowling novels now number twenty-six; there’s also one story collection and another on the way. I hadn’t read one of these in a while and had forgotten how much I enjoy McInerny’s delicious low-key wit. Under the guise of a cozy set in a gossipy small town in Indiana, Ash Wednesday manages to examine some genuinely provocative moral and spiritual issues. And what the heck, it’s just plain fun to hang out with the wise, witty, self-effacing Father Dowling and his prickly housekeeper Marie Murkin.
Next – when I can get to it, what with wrapping presents, sending cards, etc. – Group Two: the creme de la creme of my mystery reading year!
As with fiction, I’m going to divide these titles onto two groups: first, those that I thoroughly enjoyed and would readily recommend, and second, those that were, in a word, superb.
I feel that there was a great deal to cheer about this year where mysteries are concerned. As I delved into the archives for 2008, I couldn’t help but marvel at all the terrific reads I’ve encountered this year. Almost all the authors I’m getting ready to praise are those whose work I’ve read before. Am I conservative about trying new (to me) writers in this genre? Oh yes. I have to be, you see, in order to keep from being completely overwhelmed!
So – without further ado – Group One, Part One:
Thunder Bay by William Krueger. Krueger was one of several people that I missed seeing at Bouchercon (so many authors/ reviewers/editors, so little time). This book was nominated for an Anthony but lost to Laura Lippman’s What the Dead Know. Lippman’s novel was outstanding, to be sure, but in this contest, I was rooting for Thunder Bay. More readers need to become familiar with Krueger’s fine work. His books are set in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota, and his sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans (in this case, the Ojibwe) calls to mind the work of the late, greatly lamented Tony Hillerman.
Last Post by Robert Barnard. I read this a while ago and don’t have a very specific memory of it, but I’ve been a fan of Barnard’s for many years now. I know few other authors whose novels delight me so reliably and consistently. In addition to Last Post, I’d like to recommend an earlier work by Barnard, Death by Sheer Torture. It’s a hugely entertaining riff on the beloved (by me, anyway) English Country House Murder subgenre.
The Accomplice by Elizabeth Ironside. I was pleasantly surprised by this intense, gracefully written novel. I say that because I wasn’t a great fan of this author’s Death in the Garden.
When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson. True, I wasn’t as wild about it as some reviewers were, and I don’t think it’s in the same league with the stellar Case Histories. But Atkinson is an inventive, witty, empathetic writer, so there was much in this novel to enjoy and appreciate.
The Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith. This author is astonishingly prolific. Might he be, possibly, too prolific? I’ve been worried lately that McCall Smith is suffering from media overexposure. Still, that possibility does not detract one iota from his stellar accomplishments in the field of crime fiction. I’m a huge fan, both of Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie
Once a Biker by Peter Turnbull. I know that I can depend on Peter Turnbull for a good, solid police procedural in the durable British style. (And I’m currently behind in this series by two books – yay!) It’s a wonderful bonus that his Hennessey-Yellich series is set in York, surely one of the world’s most magical cities. I love reading about ancient walls, bars, snickelways, and the shambles – I’ve been there!!
Headhunters by Peter Lovesey. Lovesey is yet another favorite author of procedurals. Lately, he’s been de-emphasizing long time series protagonist Peter Diamond while bringing Henrietta “Hen” Mallin of the West Sussex Constabulary to the fore. These books are exceptionally well written and cunningly plotted; they also have a great sense of place. Diamond was with the Force in Bath; Headhunters takes place on England’s South Coast. It’s a great setting, and a great story.
The Price of Butcher’s Meat by Reginald Hill. Please don’t be put off by the atrocious title. On the other hand, I would not advise tackling this book if you are not already familiar with the Dalziel and Pascoe novels. I’m currently working up a post reviewing this latest series entry; I’ll also be talking about the series as a whole. Meanwhile, if you want to get started, I suggest Ruling Passion (1973), Bones and Silence, which won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1990, The Wood Beyond (1995), or On Beulah Height (1998). I’ll’ say it right out, right here: Reginald Hill is one of my all time favorite writers in any genre.
Waterloo Sunset by Martin Edwards. I entitled my post on this highly entertaining novel ” ‘Another Place:’ or, Liverpool Revealed.” It was revealed to me, at any rate, as a city well worth getting to know. Martin Edwards’s latest, Dancing for the Hangman, has been recently published in the UK, to excellent reviews. In Hangman, an historical novel, the author tackles the notorious case of Hawley Harvey Crippen. (Meanwhile, we fans of the Lake District novels featuring Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett eagerly – anxiously? - await the fourth entry in that fine series.) Martin Edwards also has a blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name, that’s well worth checking out.
I read and enjoyed three historical mysteries this year: The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard, The Triumph of Caesar by Steven Saylor, and The Lost Luggage Porter by Andrew Martin. I’ve read every entry in Steven Saylor’s Roma sub Rosa series. I find his re-creation of ancient Rome fascinating and convincing. Saylor’s knowledge of that period of history is encyclopedic, but his research never obtrudes; his narratives are lively and thoroughly engrossing.
As for The Lost Luggage Porter – well, this slim little volume was a real find. Return with Andrew Martin to the north of England as it was a century ago. Get deep inside the railway culture of the times with detective Jim Stringer as he goes undercover in order to catch a thief – or rather, a ring of thieves. Clutching his Railway Police Manual, the appealing, all-too-human Stringer is alternately bold and terrified – sometimes both at the same time! I loved this author’s writing; he makes use of the slightly antiquated diction that I find so effective and convincing in historical fiction. (The Lost Luggage Porter is the third in a series that’s appearing in the U.S. in a somewhat erratic order. The trade paperbacks feature an exceptionally appealing design – to be appreciated if and when you can get hold of them!)
While we’re on the subject, Peter Lovesey has penned some excellent historical mysteries. He’s the author of the Sergeant Cribb series, set in mid-Victorian Britain and every bit as evocative of the period as the novels of Anne Perry. And I especially recommend Rough Cider, whose setting alternates between 1964 and in wartime England (1943).
That’s it for Group One, Part One. Stay tuned for Group One Part Two, to be followed – and I’m not saying how swiftly! – by Group Two.
Okay, I should have looked a bit more carefully at last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. Marilyn Stasio’s piece on the year’s best mysteries appears on page 62 of that august publication. On the other hand, maybe I can be forgiven – since the three-page-long list of “100 Notable Books of 2008″ begins on page 9!
Anyhow – here’s “Returning to the Scene,” aka “Notable Crime Fiction of 2008.” I’m particularly glad that Ms. Stasio has included these worthy titles:
My own humble contribution to this merry spate of list making will appear shortly.
I’ll begin with a confession. There are times when working on this blog seems like just that: work. Drudgery. A slog. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve derived great pleasure from many aspects of this experience. And I really amaze myself, in one respect: Did I ever think writing well (or at least, reasonably well) would be easy? If I did…shame on me!
The reason I’ve begun this post in this manner is that I am finding, as I go back through the past year of Books to the Ceiling, that I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Does this sound outrageously narcissistic? I hope not. I’ve been perusing the archives in search of my “personal best” for 2008. That’s the part that’s been just plain fun. In addition, there’s been a revelatory component: as I got closer to January and February, I was seeing items that I’d almost completely forgotten about.
And I really had to laugh at myself when I got to June. At first I was perplexed by the paucity of posts for that month; then I thought, Oh, yes, there was a reason..a very good reason.. the best in the world, in fact!
Okay, right; any excuse to place yet another picture of Erica and Ben in Books to the Ceiling! I’m sure you’ll indulge me just once more, Faithful Readers…
But where was I? Oh yes -back to the books! To begin with, my definition of “personal best” includes anything noteworthy that I read in year 2008 – regardless of when it was originally published.
I’m starting with fiction (excluding crime and suspense) and I’m presenting my picks in two groups.
In the first group: five novels that I very much enjoyed and would warmly recommend to interested readers:
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. This title was recently named by The New York Times as one of the ten best books of this year.
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. Oh dear – Whatever happened to my resolution to read more of Irving’s works? Sleepy Hollow was so thoroughly entertaining!
Trauma by Patrick McGrath. McGrath is a master of the psychological novel; I also recommend an earlier work in this vein, Asylum.
Cleaver by Tim Parks. I really liked the throw-caution-to-the-winds writing that made Cleaver such a wild ride. I haven’t liked everything Parks has done, but I do admire his willingness to go slightly crazy in his fiction from time to time. (Parks has also written several nonfiction works about living in Italy.) Of his earlier works, I very much enjoyed Tongues of Flame and Goodness. For readers like myself who are always alert for a novel that features a provocative moral dilemma, Goodness is a real gift.
The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller. I have enormous respect for this thoughtful, intelligent writer. Although I enjoyed reading this novel, I did have some reservations about it, and I think I liked Lost in the Forest a bit more.
In Group Two: four novels that were quite simply stellar. They are not only the best novels I read in 2008 – they’re among the best I’ve ever read:
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri rode to prominence on the recent wave of astonishingly gifted writers with ethnic ties to the Indian subcontinent: Manil Suri, Amitav Ghosh, Monica Ali, and Rohinton Mistry, to name a few. Her first published work, the marvelous story collection Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000. Next came The Namesake, which I liked, but not quite as much as Interpreter. Then this year: Unaccustomed Earth, another short story collection, which may be her best work to date.
The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate. Thank you, thank you to Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley for urging this small, unassuming masterpiece on area readers. The perfect read for Anglophiles in particular and lovers of terrific writing in general.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Numerous passionate readers had been pressing me to read this book since it came out, to great acclaim, two years ago. I was avoiding it for a number of reasons: it was long – in excess of 500 pages; I perceived it as a book for children or young teens, an area I don’t normally read in; I had heard that it was narrated by Death, and this fact put my “gimmick-ometer” on high alert. Finally, I knew that The Book Thief was about my least favorite subject, World War Two.
Nevertheless, I decided to listen to it. Let me say right off: this is probably the most riveting recorded book I have ever encountered. The reader is Allan Corduner, a British actor whose vocal range and powers of empathy are astonishing. As for the novel itself…well, others have already said it, but I’ll say it anyway: Zusak has told a tremendously powerful story with great skill. And as for the characters: I came to care about them as though they were my own family. These are dangerous ties of affection to develop in wartime Germany. Zusak records the fate of his fictional creations with the kind of unblinking eye that I have rarely encountered in contemporary fiction, tempered though it is with restraint and compassion. I shall never forget young Liesel Meminger and her brave and difficult passage through the Hell of Hitler’s Reich.
[ Writing about The Book Thief has reminded me of an extraordinarily powerful novel of the Holocaust that I read shortly after it came out in 1974: Anya by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer. This book was out of print for many years; I am delighted to see that it is once again available.]
And last, but most certainly not least, a beautiful novel of love, loss, and all that can befall us poor mortals in between: The House on Fortune Street by Margot Livesey.
Watch this space for my nonfiction and crime/mystery fiction picks – coming soon!
Here’s the list I’ve been anticipating, with both joy and dread. I haven’t even looked at it yet! You go ahead, though.
I’ll come back to this selection, when I’m sufficiently nerved to take it in (and take it on?). Meanwhile, I must return to Christ Lutheran Church for Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, once again courtesy of The Bach Concert Series.