I read a crapload of fantastic books this year, which made compiling a year-end best-of list quite a challenge. I wanted to limit it to the top ten, but I just couldn’t; I had to settle for the top twelve.
Please bear in mind that not all of these books were written this year; 2008 was just the year that, for whatever reason (and there’s always a reason, I’ve learned) they come across my path.
If you’re curious about how I came up with these twelve in this particular order (and I know you’re dying to know my highly confidential and diplomatic process - har, har, har), this is what I did. First, I made a list of all the books I gave an A+, A, or A- grade that I read in this calendar year. (Incidentally, not all of these grade-A reviews appeared on this site.) Then I broke it down, ranking each book in the A+, A, and A- categories. Next I put these titles in a rough list, placing the A+ books in the top slots, A in the middle, etc.; this listing contained about twenty books. From there I had to remove the lowest ranking titles, aiming to get to the top ten, but that didn’t happen (damn all this quality literature!).
So here are my Top Twelve Books of 2008, counting down from twelve to one….
12. A New Path to the Waterfall by Raymond Carver (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994) A New Path is arguably Carver’s most famous collection of poetry, and with good reason. This book - his last - is a searching, searing autobiography in verse. Carver’s wife and fellow poet Tess Gallagher arranged the poems in such a logically progressive way that the order of the pieces alone is worthy of the name “poetry”. It’s all here: life, love, death, marriage, divorce, family, children, writing, art — even fishing. Carver knew he was dying and fast approaching the precipice when he wrote these poems, and the result is a fearless examination of a life well-lived and well-loved.
11. Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 by Doris Lessing (Harper Perennial, 1995) While most autobiographies place the focus on the external events that shape the subject, it is, not surprisingly, the internal landscape that most intrigues the great Nobel laureate Doris Lessing in Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949. Throughout her life, Lessing has been “involved in a small way with big events”, and it is these events (as well as, it could be said, her involvement in big ways with small events) she presents and analyzes in her imploring, inimitable style. She weaves the various strands of the tapestry with both honesty and grace: her relationships with an alienating, overbearing mother, a world-weary, loving father (disfigured in World War I), a little brother with whom she could never quite connect, a series of friends, husbands, lovers, acquaintances, and associates who, in their own small ways, contributed to her evolution as a woman and an artist. And the words! Each page so vibrantly painted and brought to lush, lovely life. Lessing’s experience is a revelation; it’s not always easy and pat, but it is consistently mesmerizing.
10. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Anchor, 1994) Anne Lamott has a fierce, moving, and often screamingly — wickedly — funny voice that turns a meticulous eagle-eye on whatever it is she decides to investigate. In Bird by Bird, she takes on the craft of writing. But it’s not just the processes and semantics and rules of the trade that she thoroughly dissects here. Instead, Lamott focuses her lens on the writing life: what it means to live, work, and breathe your passion for words. As the book’s subtitle suggests, this isn’t a mere manual for writing. It’s a manual for life.
9. Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World by Vicki Myron (Grand Central Publishing, 2008) As a book-crazy, animal-loving native Iowan, how could I not fall madly in love with Dewey? In 1988, Myron, the librarian of tiny Spencer, Iowa, found a nearly-frozen orange kitten shoved in the book return slot of her library. This is dear Dewey’s autobiography, peppered with Myron’s own inspiring story (she overcame a series of illnesses, a bad marriage, an alcoholic husband, welfare, and devastating family tragedies), told with the grace and wit of a true Iowan. But it’s also the story of community: a hard-pressed farm town in a forgotten part of the country that comes together in good times and bad — even if just to take a big boast of civic pride in the town’s most famous feline resident. An absolutely enchanting book.
8. Nightrose by Dorothy Garlock (Warner Books, 1990) Montana Territory, 1874. Twenty-one-year-old Katy, her older sister Mary, and Mary’s young daughter Theresa have been abandoned; they are the only residents of the desolate ghost town of Trinity. Enter Garrick Rowe. Tall, muscled, Greek, and imposing. Their paths soon cross, sparks fly, all manner of people come and go throughout the town, shots are fired and blood is shed, and all the while Katy and Garrick are drawn closer together. Sound like your typical run-of-the-mill romance novel? Trust me, it’s not. Garlock is a master storyteller who creates enthralling plotlines, unforgettable characters, and vibrant dialogue. There’s no tawdry paperback drivel here. Nightrose will move you.
7. Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder by Melanie Thernstrom (Doubleday, 1997) The grisly murder of a Vietnamese student by her Ethiopian roommate is the subject of Melanie Thernstrom’s Halfway Heaven: Diary of a Harvard Murder, a book that is, quite simply, the best true-crime reportage I’ve ever had the honor of reading. Think of it as a modern-day In Cold Blood — had Truman Capote actually lived in (and had a deep affinity for) Kansas and had the story taken place in the hallowed halls of academia instead of the bleak Midwestern landscape. You see, Halfway Heaven is more than just a collection of facts and speculation. It is investigative journalism at its best — with a very unique twist: the personal story of the author coming to grips with the major faults of the institution, her beloved alma mater, she loves so well.
6. Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins, 1998) The only thing truly depressing about Paulo Coelho’sVeronika Decides to Die is the title. The story it encompasses is actually one of the most — if not the most — positive, inspiring, and life-affirming books I’ve ever read. So, please, before you’re put off by the novel’s rather bleak title, hear me out. This book just might change your life. Unlike Coelho’s seminal work, The Alchemist, which I found troubling in its overly simplistic view of life, Veronika tackles its themes with shattering insight and gentle elegance. This is a story for all of us driven by our creativity, our passion, and our art, a story for we who are not only unwilling — but are unable — to fit into the boxes society erects. It is a great, majestic book of ideas: ideas that, if we allow them into our hearts, can not only be a terrific reading experience, but a transformative life experience as well.
5. Magical Thinking: True Stories by Augusten Burroughs (Picador, 2005) In the most hilarious and surprisingly moving book I’ve read all year, Augusten Burroughs proves why he is the Patron Saint of the Rest of Us. Burroughs plunges in and examines his life — as a gay man, a writer, a former alcoholic, a product of a dysfunctional family, and a genuinely charming misfit — in this series of essays. Covering events as diverse as struggling with fame, dealing with the Housekeeper From Hell, and performing fellatio on priests, each piece is filled with raucous humor, consistent sincerity, and, yes, even a hefty dose of insight into the vagaries of the human condition. Oh, and you’ll never look at Dr. Pepper the same way again.
4. Undiscovered by Debra Winger (Simon & Schuster, 2008) This is not your typical celebrity autobiography. There’s no juicy gossip here and very little name-dropping. There is no conventional chronology of a life and career, no routine storytelling detailing the rise and fall of a celebrated performer. What there is is a collection of reflections: random thoughts, brilliant flashes of insight, recorded dreams, recalled memories, and poetry. Winger gives us less of “the performer’s facade” (you know the drill: “I rose to fame due to my grit and determination, I was the biggest star in the world, no one understood me, yada yada yada”) and more of the brave, complex motivations behind it. In doing this, she has created an entirely new form of memoir, one that is at once raw, witty, intelligent, and altogether inspiring. The result is a powerful and unique glimpse into the mind of a true artist.
3. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness by William Styron (Random House, 1990) In Darkness Visible, William Styron, the acclaimed author of Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner, shines a brilliant, poetic, and courageous light on his battle with mental illness. The slim volume — an expansion of an essay he wrote for The New Yorker — is perhaps the finest piece of literature ever written on clinical depression. For those who know someone with this disease, Darkness Visible will give you a unmatched glimpse into the mind of a depressive; for those who suffer from depression, you will find a kindred spirit and a place of solace in Styron’s phenomenal insights. A harrowing book.
2. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (Faber and Faber, 1936) T.S. Eliot wrote the introduction to Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood, and in it he gives what is perhaps the best piece of advice one can take before starting the book. Eliot urges us not to take in the story as a reader, but rather as a poet. I daresay that only those who can appreciate poetry will appreciate what Barnes does with her seminal novel. It is tremendously — oftentimes frustratingly — complex. The book chronicles five starkly different people caught up in the orbit of an enigmatic, mesmerizing woman named Robin Vote. Barnes’s dedication to detail can be quite maddening: there are so many intricate ideas laid out that wrapping your mind around all of them is downright impossible. Though it weighs in at a scant 170 pages, this book took me nearly a week to read. I found myself having to go back and read sentences, paragraphs, even whole chapters over again. Even 70+ years later, Nightwood spills over with new, exciting, dangerous, and fascinating ideas.
1. Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems by Mark Doty (Harper, 2008) Last month, Doty won the National Book Award for this collection of poetry, which is a sort of best-of of his previous books with a hearty helping of some astonishing new work. To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of Mark Doty before picking up this book, but after just a few pages, I knew his words would be a part of my life forever. Much like A New Path to the Waterfall, Fire to Fire is a memoir in verse: the story of a man navigating his way through the fires of life and putting beautiful, wrenching words to every moment. Whether inspecting the subtler points of nature, or the agonizing death of a lover, or the pulsing thrill of sex, Doty can hook you with just a few flawless lines. And once he has you, he doesn’t let go. His poems often do a 360, landing in a completely different place than you would ever expect, but once you arrive there, you suddenly realize it is exactly where you need to be. This is a fierce, blazing inferno of a book.