Best of 2008: Books

It’s a little late for lists, but I never got around to my favorite books before New Year’s. 2008 was a mediocre year for me, lit-wise, so I’ve only got four books to recommend that 

were published in the last twelve months, plus three more that I read (but were published earlier).

Published in 2008:

The Drowned Life (Jeffery Ford)
Wow. Hands down the best short story collection I’ve ever owned or read. A small town celebrates the annual harvest of the deathberry, which grants passage to the afterlife for one night. A medieval apprentice of the occult investigates the mythical manticore. A cavalier astronaut crosses the universe to find love in the form of a blue-skinned warrior in a forest of red, hundred-foot grass. Patients in a distant-future sanitorium fight to escape woods and meadows encapsulated at the bottom of a dark lake.

Ford’s limitless imagination bursts off the page in speculative fireworks and narratives nested like Russian dolls. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, contemporary, literary, these stories run the gamut, each an awe-inspiring world of its own. The titular story didn’t work for me (or maybe I “just don’t get” surrealism), and a few of the more pedestrian yarns didn’t grab me, but this is still the most inspiring, beautiful thing I read all year.

The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)
My favorite author returns to the fertile ground of Young-Adult Fiction with this modern, gothic riff on Kipling’s Jungle Book stories. Not as good as Coraline, but still a blast. And the novel-in-stories technique works surprisingly well. Here’s my full, archived review on the defunct Eden 2.0.

Maps and Legends (Michael Chabon)
What? An essay collection? Yes. I didn’t like many novels this year. But Chabon’s take on the limits of genre, Michael Eisner, and Norse mythology was a breath of fresh air. Full review over here.

Demons in the Spring (Joe Meno)
Joe’s a fellow Chicagoan who just popped into the Book Cellar (2nd photo) a couple months back, so after all the hype I checked out his latest short story collection. It’s really good. The red-cloth cover is beautiful, and each story features funky illustrations by up-and-coming artists. I’m not sure how I’d categorize Meno’s fiction. It’s funny, but also tinged with despair. A black hole slowly devours a small town. A woman occasionally turns into a cloud, much to the dismay of her spouse. It sounds like genre fare, but Meno’s straightforward prose feels more mainstream. He’s got a novel coming out in May, and a pretty cool website.

Books I Read in 2008:

Bambi vs Godzilla (David Mamet)
You probably know David Mamet for his dialogue, his biting screenplays like The Untouchables, The Verdict, and Wag the Dog, but he’s also a great author. This inside look at the ugly ins-and-outs of Hollywood should be required reading for anyone looking to break into the film business. Writers, producers, directors, everyone. Mamet’s latest directoral effort, Redbelt, also made my top ten movies of 2008. Rent it. Now.

When Elephants Weep (Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy)
Another creative nonfiction piece, this time on the emotional lives of animals. Me love animals. From elephants, dogs, dolphins, and chimps to grey parrots, this book will open your eyes to the spectrum of emotion that animals experience. And it isn’t just a bunch of New Age philosophy; Elephants is written by researchers with lab results to back up their claims. Pet-owners will eat this up. Deer hunters will laugh it off, or have a sudden identity crisis.

Ilium (Dan Simmons)
Three distant-future stories in one novel: Post-humans on Mars have assumed the identities of Greek gods and re-inact the Trojan War. Old-style humans on Earth break out of a cushioned, infantile, illiterate existence to discover their legacy and rebuild civilization. Sapient machines from Jupiter’s moons, probes leftover from our days of exploration, travel sunward to save the solar system, and maybe the universe. I couldn’t put this down.

Disclaimer: I still haven’t read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, so that may retroactively qualify.

Biggest Letdown of 2008: The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon

I’ll have a full review up soon, when I get through the last fifty pages or so. It isn’t bad, by any means, but the thing has been hyped more than The Dark Knight, so my socks were in Knock-Off Mode. Too bad. The biggest problem is the utterly pathetic narrator/protagonist. If this is what it takes to be a National Book Award Finalist, I’m in trouble.

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