The New York Times just announced their Ten Best Books of 2008, which is as good a reason as any to survey my own reading for the year. While I did read one book on the list, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, my reading tends not to be quite as current, although Roberto Bolano’s 2666 is on my Christmas list.
My reading this year was not quite as novel-heavy as in recent years. For some reason I began the year by reading about half of The Reformation by Will Durant and ended it by getting heavily into short stories, occasioned in part by the death of David Foster Wallace, which inspired me to return to some of his short story collections I hadn’t finished and also explore some of the short fiction he’d included on the syllabus of a course he had been teaching, which was posted online by one of his students in one of the many tributes to DFW that either appeared or were overloaded with contributions after his death.
In the middle of the year, there were a number of false starts that confounded me: The Innocent, by Ian McEwan; Author, Author, by David Lodge; The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk; American Studies (OK, not a novel), by Louis Menand; and The Dean’s December, by Saul Bellow, all of which were written by authors I admire, but whose work didn’t stick this time, although I imagine I will return to some of them at some point in the future.
I got out of my novelistic doldrums with The Confidential Agent, by Graham Greene, my first venture into his “oh so British” world and definitely not my last. Was it a coincidence that I received The Complete Monty Python on DVD for my birthday, soon after finishing it? Perhaps. At any rate, in August I was rewarded with the two best books I read this year, which were actually both published in 2008. So, in addition to short stories and essays by Roberto Bolano, Orhan Pamuk, Donald Barthelme, John Updike, TC Boyle, Edward P. Jones, and others whose names escape me at the moment, here are the Best (somewhat recently published) Books (I read in) 2008, with just a couple annotations:
Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen
An exasperating and claustrophobic book that doesn’t resolve in any conventionally satisfying way, but the writing is brilliant and the meditations on identity, existence, and the perplexing nature of relationships that don’t evolve even as the individuals in those relationships mutate, grow, and shrivel, are unique and thought-provoking. Some of the technical minutiae and digressions evoke a “guy book” author like Richard Powers, say, but Galchen gives it her own decidedly female twist, although it is hard to imagine any woman having this much patience and fondness for the irascible, annoying, and mule-headed main (male) character.
Netherland, Joseph O’Neill
Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
Oblivion, David Foster Wallace
DFW’s death this fall hit me hard, and I’ve been going back and reading the stories in his various short story/essay collections that I didn’t read when they first came out. As with most short story collections, it’s best to read them one at a time. When this collection, his last fiction publication, came out, I considered it nearly unreadable. I was wrong. The “missive beyond the grave” of the suicide in “Good Old Neon” has been given new significance after DFW’s own suicide. And stories like “Another Pioneer” and “Oblivion” are beautiful, profound, revolutionary, and riveting to the word-wise. I also read or re-read “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” his best non-fiction collection, and I’ve gone back to “Girl With Curious Hair” and “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men,” discovering, as I’d thought, that BIwHM is really the only unreadable DFW opus, although the shortness of many of the pieces makes them less daunting.
The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai
The Ministry of Special Cases, Nathan Englander
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan