11. Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos, Europa Editions.
This is my favorite of the books I’ve read in 2008 so far. It’s the first of three books in a crime/mystery series set in Marseilles. The genre is not one I usually go in for, but the writing propels one forward through the text. It also contains some of the best writing about food I’ve encountered in a work that wasn’t dedicated to food writing.
12. Etgar Keret, The Nimrod Flipout, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
One blurb writer, Gary Shteyngart, writes of this short story collection that it is “The best work of literature to come out of Israel in the last five thousand years – better than Leviticus and nearly as funny.” Probably a bit much, but this is an entertaining collection of surreal stories featuring memorable characters such as the beautiful woman who transforms into a fat, hard-drinking, male soccer fan at night.
13. Curzio Malaparte, Kaputt, New York Review Books.
One of the finest and most memorable pieces of surrealist writing I’ve encountered, made the more surreal because of the fact that it’s a work of non-fiction, by the Italian journalist Malaparte writing during World War II. Two mental images from the work will always stay with me: one of German tank drivers in Ukraine swerving in panic to attempt to avoid a pack of dogs running toward them across an open plain, dogs apparently trained to run underneath armored vehicles and strapped with magnetic bombs dooming dogs and tank crews alike; the other of horses driven by forest fire into a Finnish lake in winter, frozen solid by the onset of a winter storm, and their frozen, contorted heads remaining above the frozen lake and serving occasionally as benches for occupying soldiers throughout the winter. His account of occupied Poland is heartrending, the superficial gentility of Polish nobles and occupying Germans alongside the horrors of the Jewish ghettoes.
14. Cormac McCarthy, The Road, Knopf.
This novel was highly hyped, with reviews of the novel in practically every publication that regularly reviews fiction, and with almost universally glowing reviews at that. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read that was so universally acclaimed that I felt lived up to its promise.
This was actually the first McCarthy novel I had read, and at the time I read it, it was probably the bleakest work of fiction I had ever read.
While it’s good enough to transcend genre, it can be placed into a genre of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Most post-apocalyptic fiction, whether in literature or movies, is set either just after a cataclysmic event (think The Day After Tomorrow or Alas, Babylon), with initial survivors coping with the immediate, and sometimes horrific aftermath, but without a sense of the long term consequences of cataclysm, or set long after the apocalypse in question (think about the Mad Max films, particulary The Road Warrior), with human societies having had some time to adapt to the changed circumstances (I wouldn’t want to live in the world of The Road Warrior, but it’s a world in which people could live).
The Road is different in this respect. Some major catastrophe has occurred, with nuclear winter like effects (possibly nuclear attack or major meteor impact, the latter not explicitly indicated in the text but indicated by McCarthy in a recent article in Rolling Stone). The catastrophe has occurred long enough ago that there is a sort of winding down of initially surviving society – no food will grow, there’s essentially nothing wild to forage, and all the easy pickings of grocery store canned goods are long gone – but not long enough ago for anything to have seriously begun any process of natural recovery. It’s a novel set in the lowest point for life following an earth-changing catastrophe.
The novel is also bleak in McCarthy’s pessimism about human nature. Most people in the book are vicious survivors, as ready to kill and eat other survivors (as just about the only food source left) as anything else. Still, there is a tender and redemptive quality (even without anything resembling a clearly happy ending) to the relationship between the two main characters, a man and his son on the road traveling, hoping to find a better place.
15. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, Vintage.
The Road had been the bleakest piece of fiction I had read until, after reading it, I picked up this older McCarthy novel. It’s set in the American West of the 19th Century, and is a novel with little intimacy and much casual brutality and violence that still manages to be poignant and even beautiful. McCarthy’s pessimistic view of human nature is clearly on display here. Part of me wants to reject this pessimism, but I know enough of the history of human interactions of the past few centuries (for just a few highlights, think about the 19th Century Indian Wars of the American West, American slavery and the Civil War, the Armenian genocide, the trench warfare of WWI, the Holocaust, the various gulags, great leaps and cultural revolutions, and killing fields of the Soviet Union, China, or Cambodia, the Nanjing massacres, the fire bombings of WWII, Rwanda, Darfur) to realize that McCarthy’s pessimism is at least as valid a perspective as any other.
16. Ben Ratliff, Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
I previously wrote about this book (see “Comments on Ben Ratliff’s Coltrane”). This is the best book about music I read last year. Not a Coltrane biography so much as a “biography” of his sound, I found this to be a “delicious” read. It was one of those books I found hard to set down, but that I forced myself to ration because I knew that I’d be sad when I finished it.
17. Joe Sacco, Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia, 1992 – 95, Fantagraphics Books.
Sacco is a journalist who works in an unconventional medium – graphic art, or more prosaically: comics. Sacco’s presentation of a community under siege in desperate circumstances is, of course, heart-rending for its content alone. His work has some of the same type of impact that good photo-journalism can have, perhaps even more so in that he is able to design and construct his imagery with even freer reign than a photographer in order to have maximum effect upon the reader.
18. Albert Sánchez Piñol, Cold Skin, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
The protagonist is dropped off on a small, lonely island in the southern ocean around Antarctica, well off normal shipping lanes, to serve as a weather observer for a year, only to be continuously besieged by sea monsters. If that sort of thing interests you, this is a great novel. Even if that sort of thing doesn’t interest you, this is a great novel, but you probably wouldn’t like it.
19. José Saramago, Blindness, Harcourt.
One of those “what if” novels I mentioned liking in the introduction to the first part of this list, in this case the premise being “What if everyone went blind at once?” The novel can, of course, be read as allegory – what screams out more for allegorical interpretation than everyone being blind (other than perhaps a plague of zombies) – but I found the novel more interesting and engaging simply as a logical exploration of its starting premise – what would likely happen if everyone (or at least nearly everyone) went blind at once, if everyone lost what is for us humans a primary sense for experiencing the world.
20. Reginald Shepherd, Fata Morgana, University of Pittsburgh Press.
I have to like this book. It’s written by my partner. It’s dedicated to me, as are many of the poems contained therein. Still, even if I weren’t required to love it, I’m confident I would have found this poetry collection to be one of my favorite books of the year. I’m always struck by and fond of the vivid imagery of Shepherd’s poetry. His poetry is lyrical and fearlessly explores feeling and sentiment, something missing from much contemporary poetry that revels in irony, while never devolving into “sentimentality.”
20 1/2. By the way, Shepherd’s most recent book, a collection of essays, Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry, has just been published by the University of Michigan Press. I’ve read all of the powerful essays in this essay collection, and considered adding it also to this favorite books of 2007 list. However, I realize that I’ve not yet sat down and read the essays as a collective work yet, so instead I look forward to including it a year from now on my favorite books of 2008 list.