I started this blog to slow down my reading, and it seems to have worked. Work on this blog and my other one, combined with a week from hell at the office (getting home at 7 is not the norm for me), have kept me from reading much of everything. I’m taking in about a chapter of Peter the Great every night and then it’s lights out.
So in the interest of keeping this place lively, here are a few of the books I loved in 2008. Best short story collection: The Boat by Nam Le. This collection of short stories by an Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad doesn’t read like one. In fact, the first story in the collection skewers this type of story so accurately you have to smile — and then leaves you haunted by an ambiguous (to me at least), heart-rending conclusion. Single-author short story collections frequently bore me because they repeat similar themes and settings, but not Le’s.
Favorite cultural critique: The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi. This study of how 9/11 affected the American psyche, especially with regard to the role of women, is fascinating and thought-provoking.
First book to make me cry: City of Thieves by David Benioff. One of the best reviewers I work with says this book belongs among the ranks of such great wartime literature as Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch-22. Not having read either of those novels I can’t say for sure if he’s right (How many guilty confessions can one blog take? Looks like we’re going to find out.), but if they are anything like this amazing book, I need to pick them up right now. Set during the siege of Leningrad, this novel is perfectly plotted and paced (Benioff is also a screenwriter), but also beautifully written. It is a quest story, and a coming-of-age story, but most of all it’s the story of a friendship that develops under extraordinary circumstances. The best novel you’ve never heard of.
Favorite character study: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. Despite a somewhat weak ending, I loved all 400-odd pages of Sittenfeld’s third novel. She shines at characterization — the first half alone (especially the section where Alice/Laura goes with Charlie/George to his family’s Maine compound) is worth the cost of the book. Though I have a sneaking suspicion that her Bushes are much more interesting than the real-life family, after reading this novel even the most diehard Bush-hater will have a little bit of sympathy for the man and his wife.
Favorite Southern novel: The Help by Kathryn Stockett. This isn’t a 2008 book, but I read it in 2008 so I think it counts. There have been many books written about the relationship between blacks and whites during the 60s, but Stockett’s debut novel stands head and shoulders above most of them. Set in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962, it is narrated by three different women — one white, two black — who end up working together to change their town for the better.
Favorite literary criticism: The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller. If you loved The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, you must read this book. Part bio of Lewis, part musing on the joy of reading, part literary criticism, it’s 100% compelling.
Favorite YA: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Maybe it’s from reading books like Narnia when I was a kid, but YA novels set in alternate worlds hold a certain fascination for me. Every year, two children from each district are chosen by lottery to fight in a tournament that has only one survivor. When Kat’s younger sister is selected, Kat takes her place.
And finally…Best worst book of 2008: Breaking Dawn by Stephenie Meyer. I had something of a love/hate relationship with this entire series — the feminist in me didn’t like Bella’s total dependence on Edward and the submergence of her identity in his, not to mention the fact that he was basically a controlling stalker (sneaking in her window to watch her sleep? Yikes!). Yet at the same time, the angsty teenager in me swooned over the romance! sparkles! and, well, angst that enveloped the series. Meyer writes for — and from — the id. That said, the last installment was totally awesome in a crazy way. There was no huge confrontation between the Volturi and the Cullens. Bella got everything she wanted even when it meant breaking all the rules of the Meyer-verse, and she ended up being the best vamp ever. Readers were outraged — but did they really expect anything else, given the rest of the series?