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booklit’s best of 2008

As the year ends with an unexpected reading slump, I know that I’m not going to get any new books written up before the end of the year, so feel that I can list my top ten reads for 2008.

Here are my picks from 2008’s reading, by year of inital publication. There’s no fixed criteria, other than that I enjoyed them or can’t get them out of my head – usually both.

  • Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Söderberg (1905)
  • A Swedish classic that lets us into the unreliable mind of the eponymous doctor revealing, through the entries in his diary, a love triangle that leads to murder and deals with a number of issues that today, over a hundred years on, are still remarkably relevant.

  • The Invention Of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940)
  • A small slice of science fiction from Argentina, by a friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges. Slight in page count, the book creates an intriguing mystery surrounding the strange inhabitants of an island the narrator, a fugitive from the law, has found himself on. For fans of the TV show Lost, this novel is a must-read, given the parallels in plot and its appearance in one episode.

  • The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
  • The most famous novel from one of America’s most famous recluses. While I thought I may be late in discovering this novel, given that there was the underlying suspicion it’s best read at a more impressionable age, I was impressed by the strength of its narrator. Yes, he’s a whiny, spoilt brat, but it’s no reason not to enjoy the book.

  • Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo (1955)
  • A fascinating and concise story from one of the Spanish language’s greatest writers. Even though he published next to nothing, Rulfo dared to play with structure and, in doing so, ushered in magical realism. The novel is told in a series of fleeting whispers that are, with a first read, disorientating and bewildering; and, on rereading, amazingly coherent, despite a seemingly scattered approasch to tense, perspective, and chronology.

  • Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth (1959)
  • Having resolved to read the works of Philip Roth in order of publication, this first novel, more a novella, proved an enjoyable experience. An apprentice piece, to be sure, unhampered by Roth’s later alter-egos, but tightly structured and not without a fair share of emotion. It also comes with five short stories, a singular occurence in his fifty years of writing.

  • Terra Amata, J.M.G. Le Clézio (1968)
  • This year’s Nobel laureate, having been rushed back into print, had me fascinated from start to finish in this novel about a man looking back at his life and realising all that he missed within it. It can be a touch overpowering at times but the sensory overload it provides is certainly memorable and the experimental style makes me keen to read more.

  • Metropole, Ferenc Karinthy (1970)
  • A haunting novel, translated to English this year, that follows a linguist’s futile efforts to communicate with the people of a sprawling metropolis. Little reviewed at the time, it may yet take its place among the classics (Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are suggested on the cover), and has recently been longlisted as one of Three Percent‘s Best Translated Books of 2008.

  • 1933 Was A Bad Year, John Fante (1985)
  • There is a punchy humour to Fante’s prose that makes him a joy to read and in 1933 Was A Bad Year, he shows it off to great effect. Set in Depression-era America, it follows one boy’s coming of age, having to choose between the harsh realities of life and chasing a dream.

  • The Mirror In The Well, Micheline Aharonian Marcom (2008)
  • On the surface, it may seem like a stream of consciousness where every second word is designed to shock and offend, but dig underneath its sordid surface and there emerges a story that has Biblical echoes as well as the birth of the United States through immigration.

There are some notable mentions, mostly those I read but didn’t get around to posting about. I’m sad to say that, of those books, two would easily slot into my top ten, ousting both Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Terra Amata. These are Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, the latter even making a notional top three, alongside Adair’s The Death Of The Author and Söderberg’s Doctor Glas.

Now, with 2008 wrapped up, see you in 2009. Have a happy new year.

December 30, 2008

21 responses to booklit’s best of 2008

  1. KevinfromCanada said:

    A very thoughtful — and thought-provoking — list, Stewart. Given how much I enjoyed Fante (and the four Bandini books are on the way — thank you very much for that), I can find no excuse whatsoever for not reading Soderberg and Adair (who somehow has never crossed my radar). May 2009 bring you another fine crop of books.

  2. I knew I remembered you saying somewhere that you were enjoying Netherland, and I’ve been wondering since if you liked it. I’m glad to see here that you did!

    Thanks for the list and the year. I came to your site in late June when I first started looking at book blogs. It has remained one of the few I check almost every day. See you next year!

  3. Stewart said:

    I knew I remembered you saying somewhere that you were enjoying Netherland, and I’ve been wondering since if you liked it. I’m glad to see here that you did!

    I may even read it again, Trevor, as it was recently announced as one of the books in this year’s R&J Book Club, the UK’s sub-Oprah sales guarantee.

    I can find no excuse whatsoever for not reading Soderberg and Adair (who somehow has never crossed my radar)

    I can think of no excuse for you either. The Death Of The Author is definitely one to boost up any to-be-read pile. The Söderberg, incidentally, has also inspired two – as far as I’m aware – other novels: Gregorius by Bengt Ohlsson and The Strange Case Of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas by Dannie Abse, both of which are sitting near to hand.

  4. John Self said:

    An excellent list, Stewart. I’m an Adair fan too, and hope to (re)read The Death of the Author soon. Kevin may be interested to know that a review of Adair’s latest book, And Then There Was No One, will go up on my blog on New Year’s Day.

    I have the Marcom in my pile somewhere, and a le Clézio (The Book of Flights) so must bump them up the list. Also I found myself dreaming about Salinger last night! Not the man, but one of his books – Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters! / Seymour: An Introduction – which I read 15 or more years ago as a borrowed copy from the library, so don’t have to hand. I took this as a sign that I must go and purchase a copy today.

  5. Stewart said:

    Kevin may be interested to know that a review of Adair’s latest book, And Then There Was No One, will go up on my blog on New Year’s Day.

    Provided I can get around to writing my review up, we may have a bit of blog synchronicity then.

  6. KevinfromCanada said:

    Thanks for the early warning on And Then There Was No One. It looks from a quick scan like it is book three in a trilogy — do I need to read the other two first?

    Carpenter/Seymour definitely is worth the read — in many ways, it holds up better than Catcher in the Rye. I do advocate reading all three of the short story volumes, however. Since all the stories are about the Glass family, the three books hang together almost like a novel in progress. They are all quite short — last time I revisited them all three were completed in a weekend. As we discussed earlier on this blog, I’m hoping there are a few manuscripts tucked away up in New England which will eventually be published and take the Glass family further. Salinger’s own cover notes for Carpenter/Seymour said he intended to keep writing about them and all indications are he just stopped publishing, not writing.

  7. Jay Kay said:

    thanks for the mix of reviews, both contemp and classic, and especially the more obscure minor classics

  8. KevinfromCanada said:

    The Dec. 30 edition of the NY Times has an excellent, longish article on J. D. Salinger by James McGrath (sorry, I don’t know how to post links here) in recognition of his 90th birthday, which is today. It is not a spoiler and does pay quite a bit of attention to Hapworth, the 25,000-word short story which the article correctly notes is the longest letter ever written by a seven-year-old (Seymour) at camp. No shocking new data in the story, but a summary of existing speculation that is well worth reading.

  9. KevinfromCanada said:

    Sorry, that should by Charles, not James, McGrath in the previous post.

  10. Stewart said:

    Thanks for the early warning on And Then There Was No One. It looks from a quick scan like it is book three in a trilogy — do I need to read the other two first?

    Well, it’s coming. I’ve had server issues the last few days and been unable to get to my own sites. Shocking! But all fixed now. As to whether to read the two previous books, it wouldn’t hurt, but you only really need The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd because A Mysterious Affair Of Style is just a further playing with the rules of the mystery genre, adds little, and isn’t all that good. One for the Adair completists, I suppose. Also, And Then There Was No One holds your hand in referencing the previous books, so you’ll never be caught out by a reference to them – it’s just all the other stuff you have to watch out for.

    thanks for the mix of reviews, both contemp and classic, and especially the more obscure minor classics

    Thanks, Jay Kay. It’s not Rowling, is it? 😀 I’ll certainly hope to dig up some more obscure stuff in 2009.

  11. KevinfromCanada said:

    I tend to be a completist, so I’ll start with The Death of The Author, move on to Murgatroyd and then probably order the other two. I am quite anal-retentive when it comes to good authors — read all or read none.

  12. Stewart said:

    I tend to be a completist…when it comes to good authors — read all or read none.

    Precisely what I’m like, as this snippet of my shelves shows:

    A snippet of Stewart's Shelves

    All the Ishiguros, Yates, McCarthys, and Roths you can shake a stick at. Well, all the Roths except Indignation, which will take its place at the end of the pile when it comes out in paperback. (After Exit Ghost it’s the start of all of Jim Crace’s works.)

  13. KevinfromCanada said:

    Thanks for the picture, Stewart — I know I am anal-retentive when it comes to books and am happy to find a fellow traveller. It doesn’t look like you arrange them in chronological order, so things could be worse.

    All of which means that I fully expect to eventually order all three Adair mysteries. If you are going to read one, you might as well read them all. One of the reasons that I don’t read Dickens is that I would have to build a whole new room to house them — I did buy a complete collection at a charity auction once and have found a friend who is more than willing to house them.

  14. KevinfromCanada said:

    Not to be too picky, but why is Roth shelved underneath Yates? Don’t you arrange them in alphabetical order? Or maybe it is chronological? But then McCarthy (nice arrangement there) would have to be further along. I’m sure there is some system; I just can’t figure it out.

  15. Stewart said:

    It doesn’t look like you arrange them in chronological order, so things could be worse.

    Oh, but they are in chronological order. I am told, however, that my Wikipedia dating system for the Roths is slightly off, but it’s still Goodbye, Columbus (1959) through Exit Ghost (2007). The only other ‘wrong’ thing creeping in is Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates prefacing the novels.

    why is Roth shelved underneath Yates? Don’t you arrange them in alphabetical order? Or maybe it is chronological?

    There’s no logic to it, only that when given shelf space, all the books fill it almost entirely. Below the Roths, it starts to get messy, with no organisation. I sometimes get in a mood to rearrange everything by alphabet, and then one book or other, because of its size, doesn’t fit this arrangement, and all goes to hell.

    That all said, one of my other bookcases, the classics case, is arranged both alphabetically, chronologically, and by classics range. The photo below shows the silver Penguin Modern Classics, moving into the new white Penguin Modern Classics, then into the black Penguin Classics, and then there’s the start of the NYRB Classics. (After that its Marion Boyars Modern Classics and Oneworld Classics. There’s some Peter Owen Modern Classics, but they are in a different case again.)

    The Classics Case

  16. KevinfromCanada said:

    I am very impressed. True, it is not the Dewey decimal system but in many ways it is far more sophisticated. Sorry that I misinterpreted the original picture. I only separate my collection into Canadian and international, then alphabetically by author. I make no attempt to arrange them chronologically.

  17. Pingback: bookblog.ro

  18. steffee said:

    Wow, those shelves!

    Lovely list, Stewart. As always a few to add to my TBR. I’ve only read the Salinger out of those.

  19. Laura said:

    Hello, a friend introduced me to your site. It’s easy to navigate and read, and I admire anyone who has a positive contribution to make to the internet.

    I’m a final year literature student at Glasgow Uni and am very much looking forward to being able to pick up some new releases this summer after my exams (and the demands of sticking to courselists) are over.

    Keep it up!

  20. Stewart said:

    Hello, Laura. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you find something interesting when the time comes.

  21. Pingback: Revista blogurilor, 29 decembrie-3 ianuarie

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21 responses to booklit’s best of 2008

  1. KevinfromCanada said:

    A very thoughtful — and thought-provoking — list, Stewart. Given how much I enjoyed Fante (and the four Bandini books are on the way — thank you very much for that), I can find no excuse whatsoever for not reading Soderberg and Adair (who somehow has never crossed my radar). May 2009 bring you another fine crop of books.

  2. I knew I remembered you saying somewhere that you were enjoying Netherland, and I’ve been wondering since if you liked it. I’m glad to see here that you did!

    Thanks for the list and the year. I came to your site in late June when I first started looking at book blogs. It has remained one of the few I check almost every day. See you next year!

  3. Stewart said:

    I knew I remembered you saying somewhere that you were enjoying Netherland, and I’ve been wondering since if you liked it. I’m glad to see here that you did!

    I may even read it again, Trevor, as it was recently announced as one of the books in this year’s R&J Book Club, the UK’s sub-Oprah sales guarantee.

    I can find no excuse whatsoever for not reading Soderberg and Adair (who somehow has never crossed my radar)

    I can think of no excuse for you either. The Death Of The Author is definitely one to boost up any to-be-read pile. The Söderberg, incidentally, has also inspired two – as far as I’m aware – other novels: Gregorius by Bengt Ohlsson and The Strange Case Of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas by Dannie Abse, both of which are sitting near to hand.

  4. John Self said:

    An excellent list, Stewart. I’m an Adair fan too, and hope to (re)read The Death of the Author soon. Kevin may be interested to know that a review of Adair’s latest book, And Then There Was No One, will go up on my blog on New Year’s Day.

    I have the Marcom in my pile somewhere, and a le Clézio (The Book of Flights) so must bump them up the list. Also I found myself dreaming about Salinger last night! Not the man, but one of his books – Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters! / Seymour: An Introduction – which I read 15 or more years ago as a borrowed copy from the library, so don’t have to hand. I took this as a sign that I must go and purchase a copy today.

  5. Stewart said:

    Kevin may be interested to know that a review of Adair’s latest book, And Then There Was No One, will go up on my blog on New Year’s Day.

    Provided I can get around to writing my review up, we may have a bit of blog synchronicity then.

  6. KevinfromCanada said:

    Thanks for the early warning on And Then There Was No One. It looks from a quick scan like it is book three in a trilogy — do I need to read the other two first?

    Carpenter/Seymour definitely is worth the read — in many ways, it holds up better than Catcher in the Rye. I do advocate reading all three of the short story volumes, however. Since all the stories are about the Glass family, the three books hang together almost like a novel in progress. They are all quite short — last time I revisited them all three were completed in a weekend. As we discussed earlier on this blog, I’m hoping there are a few manuscripts tucked away up in New England which will eventually be published and take the Glass family further. Salinger’s own cover notes for Carpenter/Seymour said he intended to keep writing about them and all indications are he just stopped publishing, not writing.

  7. Jay Kay said:

    thanks for the mix of reviews, both contemp and classic, and especially the more obscure minor classics

  8. KevinfromCanada said:

    The Dec. 30 edition of the NY Times has an excellent, longish article on J. D. Salinger by James McGrath (sorry, I don’t know how to post links here) in recognition of his 90th birthday, which is today. It is not a spoiler and does pay quite a bit of attention to Hapworth, the 25,000-word short story which the article correctly notes is the longest letter ever written by a seven-year-old (Seymour) at camp. No shocking new data in the story, but a summary of existing speculation that is well worth reading.

  9. KevinfromCanada said:

    Sorry, that should by Charles, not James, McGrath in the previous post.

  10. Stewart said:

    Thanks for the early warning on And Then There Was No One. It looks from a quick scan like it is book three in a trilogy — do I need to read the other two first?

    Well, it’s coming. I’ve had server issues the last few days and been unable to get to my own sites. Shocking! But all fixed now. As to whether to read the two previous books, it wouldn’t hurt, but you only really need The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd because A Mysterious Affair Of Style is just a further playing with the rules of the mystery genre, adds little, and isn’t all that good. One for the Adair completists, I suppose. Also, And Then There Was No One holds your hand in referencing the previous books, so you’ll never be caught out by a reference to them – it’s just all the other stuff you have to watch out for.

    thanks for the mix of reviews, both contemp and classic, and especially the more obscure minor classics

    Thanks, Jay Kay. It’s not Rowling, is it? 😀 I’ll certainly hope to dig up some more obscure stuff in 2009.

  11. KevinfromCanada said:

    I tend to be a completist, so I’ll start with The Death of The Author, move on to Murgatroyd and then probably order the other two. I am quite anal-retentive when it comes to good authors — read all or read none.

  12. Stewart said:

    I tend to be a completist…when it comes to good authors — read all or read none.

    Precisely what I’m like, as this snippet of my shelves shows:

    A snippet of Stewart's Shelves

    All the Ishiguros, Yates, McCarthys, and Roths you can shake a stick at. Well, all the Roths except Indignation, which will take its place at the end of the pile when it comes out in paperback. (After Exit Ghost it’s the start of all of Jim Crace’s works.)

  13. KevinfromCanada said:

    Thanks for the picture, Stewart — I know I am anal-retentive when it comes to books and am happy to find a fellow traveller. It doesn’t look like you arrange them in chronological order, so things could be worse.

    All of which means that I fully expect to eventually order all three Adair mysteries. If you are going to read one, you might as well read them all. One of the reasons that I don’t read Dickens is that I would have to build a whole new room to house them — I did buy a complete collection at a charity auction once and have found a friend who is more than willing to house them.

  14. KevinfromCanada said:

    Not to be too picky, but why is Roth shelved underneath Yates? Don’t you arrange them in alphabetical order? Or maybe it is chronological? But then McCarthy (nice arrangement there) would have to be further along. I’m sure there is some system; I just can’t figure it out.

  15. Stewart said:

    It doesn’t look like you arrange them in chronological order, so things could be worse.

    Oh, but they are in chronological order. I am told, however, that my Wikipedia dating system for the Roths is slightly off, but it’s still Goodbye, Columbus (1959) through Exit Ghost (2007). The only other ‘wrong’ thing creeping in is Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates prefacing the novels.

    why is Roth shelved underneath Yates? Don’t you arrange them in alphabetical order? Or maybe it is chronological?

    There’s no logic to it, only that when given shelf space, all the books fill it almost entirely. Below the Roths, it starts to get messy, with no organisation. I sometimes get in a mood to rearrange everything by alphabet, and then one book or other, because of its size, doesn’t fit this arrangement, and all goes to hell.

    That all said, one of my other bookcases, the classics case, is arranged both alphabetically, chronologically, and by classics range. The photo below shows the silver Penguin Modern Classics, moving into the new white Penguin Modern Classics, then into the black Penguin Classics, and then there’s the start of the NYRB Classics. (After that its Marion Boyars Modern Classics and Oneworld Classics. There’s some Peter Owen Modern Classics, but they are in a different case again.)

    The Classics Case

  16. KevinfromCanada said:

    I am very impressed. True, it is not the Dewey decimal system but in many ways it is far more sophisticated. Sorry that I misinterpreted the original picture. I only separate my collection into Canadian and international, then alphabetically by author. I make no attempt to arrange them chronologically.

  17. Pingback: bookblog.ro

  18. steffee said:

    Wow, those shelves!

    Lovely list, Stewart. As always a few to add to my TBR. I’ve only read the Salinger out of those.

  19. Laura said:

    Hello, a friend introduced me to your site. It’s easy to navigate and read, and I admire anyone who has a positive contribution to make to the internet.

    I’m a final year literature student at Glasgow Uni and am very much looking forward to being able to pick up some new releases this summer after my exams (and the demands of sticking to courselists) are over.

    Keep it up!

  20. Stewart said:

    Hello, Laura. Thanks for stopping by. Hope you find something interesting when the time comes.

  21. Pingback: Revista blogurilor, 29 decembrie-3 ianuarie

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