This is by no means a complete list of books I read that impressed me in 2008. It’s more of a selection of a few that I particularly dug, or that got under my skin, or did something that caught my eye. You’ll notice a strange dearth of proper 2008 releases on here. Part of this is the fact that, as a regular user of public transit, I tend to prefer the trade paperback over the hardcover; there are also a few highly-regarded books from 2008 (Home, 2666) that I plan to read but haven’t as of yet. 2008 was, in many ways, about discovery — either being introduced to authors whose work I hadn’t read before or seeing a different side of others.
The Dead Fish Museum, 2006
So I’m in Seattle in April, 2007, and I make the trek to the Elliott Bay Book Company. On their staff recommendations shelf is a collection with the eye-catching title The Dead Fish Museum and a fine cover design to boot. So, of course, I procrastinate on picking it up. Back in Seattle the following April, I decide to remedy this, and ended up reading said collection a month or so later. Orphans, a collection of essays, was picked up and read a few weeks ago, while I was in the midst of holiday shopping. In both, there’s a sense of place that’s hard to shake; D’Ambrosio has a skill at rendering characters deftly and intimately while still making us aware of elemental forces around them. The news that he’s working on a novel damn well warms my heart.
True Grit, 1968
Two authors whose work I put off reading for far too long. I read Airships and The Dead Fish Museum back-to-back in June and got a fine sense of what the short story could do. True Grit was just flat-out good: the kind of novel where the style was ever-present but never interfered with the plot, instead having a deepening effect on it.
Blow-Up and Other Stories, 1967
I read Cortazar’s The Winners last year and had tremendously mixed feelings on it: it was beautifully written and some of the more lyrical sections were among the most propulsive prose I’ve ever taken in. At the same time, though, the pacing felt at odds with the events of the book: stately even as the book’s characters descended into an ominous, anarchic paranoia. The stories in Blow-Up… (hat tip: Todd Dills) range from realistic narratives on art to more surreal occasions that foreshadow, well, a lot of the more offbeat work I enjoy these days.
Maybe my favorite of the books I read in 2008. It’s got any number of things I like present — film theory, mysterious conspiracies, punk rock, and bizarre obsessions — and it’s both constantly unsettling and compulsively readable.
Gob’s Grief, 2001
A Better Angel, 2008
I read Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital in 2007 after being impressed with his short fiction. It’s a huge, at times ungainly book, and over a year later I haven’t been able to get certain parts of it — particularly the ending, and its implications and cosmology — out of my head. Gob’s Grief, his first novel, brings together similar elements but with a setting in the years following the Civil War. Part of what I like and admire about Adrian’s fiction is his thematic reach, and Gob’s Grief doesn’t disappoint there. A Better Angel — which I reviewed here — collects many of the stories that first impressed me. While not a perfect collection — in part because some of the stories feel too close, thematically — it’s hard to say just how good Adrian is when he’s at his peak.
Midnight Picnic, 2009
Midnight Picnic doesn’t waste any words. Technically, it’s a ghost story, but not a familiar one. The first time I read Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat,” I felt as though its supernatural elements worked according to a logic that was, at its core, entirely unknowable. Midnight Picnic‘s like that: its protagonist ends up being caught up in the plans of a child, murdered decades before, to revenge himself on his killer; the landscape that they travel, constantly shifting, reflects an America reeling from the war in Iraq and the neglect of New Orleans. It’s not a book you can shake.
boring boring boring boring boring boring, 2008
Anything but, Zach Plague’s first novel felt at times like Paul Auster’s Oracle Night on a three-day bender, an irreverent yet carefully structured metafictional satire of art-world pretensions and music-scene excess. Between it and Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, this was the year I got to see just how typography itself can be made to work in service to a story.
Matt Fraction and Fabio Moon
Casanova: Gula, 2008
Pedro Almodovar’s recent films have done something neat with structure: essentially, after you hit a certain point in the narrative, you realize that what’s seemed like a series of loosely connected instances and events has turned out to be, in fact, a meticulously plotted work. Gula, the second volume of Matt Fraction’s collaboration with brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, is kind of like that, but with spies, giant robots, and things blowing up.
Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight, 2008
I originally typed in “surreal and amazing,” and then deleted it, figuring I could come up with a better description. Turns out I can’t. Surreal and amazing.