Best of the Bookshelf 2008


None of these titles were published in 2008, because I’m too cheap to buy hardcovers and I’m not special enough to get review copies. But I read these in ’08, and I liked them, and I thought maybe you might like them too. So here’s my year-end highlight reel from the action-packed world of Stuart’s bookshelf.


oscarThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

This book won so many awards, including a Pulitzer, that I figured it had to suck. I figured wrong. The narrative voice is amazing – unlike anything you’ve ever read before – and that’s what makes it fun from Page One. But it’s also a terrific story, at once a coming-of-age story and an epic family tragedy spanning three generations in and out of the Dominican Republic. Smart, funny, and heartbreaking – a modern classic. The only caveat I can add is that you might want to keep a Spanish dictionary handy, or a slang dictionary, or better yet a Spanish slang dictionary. Even then, some of the Dominicanisms are going to slip past you, and probably some of the pop-culture references as well. But still, everything is pretty clear from the context, and that wild language-shifting is an essential part of the narrative flavor. Asombroso!


savageThe Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
Worth all the hype it’s been receiving, this is a great book. Pynchonian in scope, with an incredible cast of characters and a wild range of voices, all trying to piece together the cryptic story of two Mexico City hustlers and their self-styled poetry movement of the 70’s, “visceral realism.” Were they really poets, or just drug dealers? And what exactly happened out in the Sonora desert when they took off on the lam with a borrowed car and a teenaged hooker, hotly pursued by her pimp? It’s a tale that can only be told as an epic oral history, a kaleidoscopic narrative that spans three decades and at least 100 points of view. A truly outstanding work of fiction. 


The Road by Cormac McCarthy

roadRelentlessly bleak but beautifully drawn, a dystopian masterpiece of post-apocalyptic brutality. I couldn’t put it down, and now I can’t get it out of my head. As with McCarthy’s other great novel, Blood Meridian, certain scenes have a laser-etched hyper-realism that makes them unforgettable. And while the setting is unspeakably horrid – a completely broken ex-America, depopulated and deforested, with cannibal bands scavenging the ash-blown wreckage – it is at the same time a story of a father’s abiding love for his son, and the power of humanity to survive against impossible odds.


517n47mktvl__sl160_aa115_Burnt Water by Carlos Fuentes

If you’re not acquainted with Mexico’s most celebrated author, this collection of short stories is a great place to begin. They’re all set in Mexico City, and they all consider the city’s tortured history across shifting boundaries of race, class, and politics. An old man clings to a decrepit family mansion that is literally sinking into the ground. A pre-Columbian artifact exerts strange powers over its owners. A hero of the Revolution goes for one last wild drinking spree with his grandson. A street urchin rises to power as a right-wing thug, and comes face-to-face with his left-wing roots. And in every instance the City plays a brooding role – ancient, immense, beautiful, rotten, and dangerous.  


smokeTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

From one of the best novelists working today, this is quite possibly the best book ever about the Vietnam War. Johnson takes the ambitious step of tackling the conflict from multiple angles, interweaving the stories of a Viet Cong guerilla, a white-trash Army grunt and his sailor brother, two generations of CIA agents, and an American aid worker. This quiltmaker’s approach gives the book a depth and richness that’s lacking in more conventional “Platoon” style storytelling, without sacrificing the acid-trip weirdness of books like Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato.” If you’ve read any of Johnson’s other works, like “Jesus’ Son” or the equally brilliant “Already Dead,” you know he’s got a generally bleak outlook on life, and you can guess that things are going to end badly for his characters. But how they meet their fates is never predictable, and fraught with mystery from start to finish.


beowulf1Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney

Every once in a long while, the translator’s art makes a new classic out of an old one. Irish Poet Heaney does the trick on this old chestnut, spinning gold from the coarse thread of Middle English. Not since Yeats took his run at the Upanishads has a translator made this kind of an impact.


qQ by Luther Blissett

Who would have thought that a 768-page novel about the Anabaptist heresy would be any good? Especially one written by a trio of anonymous Italian authors sharing a pseudonym. I mean come on, doesn’t that sound like complete crap? And yet Q delivers the goods: a rip-snorting, action-packed, blood-and-guts tale of the Reformation and all its attendant gore. There’s no shortage of thrills or chills as the title character, a shady Vatican secret agent, plays a bloody cat-and-mouse game with Gert of the Well, his opposite number on the Protestant side. Along with your history lesson you get proto-communism, free love, bank fraud, crypto-jewry, backstabbing, book-binding, Venetian whoring, and vivid ultra-vi in various medieval European locales. If they ever make a movie of this one I will be first in line to buy a bucket of popcorn.


oryxOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

I think this is Atwood’s best novel, a worst-case scenario of genetic engineering gone horribly amok. At the intersection of scientific opportunity, profit motive, and God complex, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, with very bad consequences for our species. Scary, compelling, thoughtful, and weird – with Atwood’s classy prose style making it all the more epic and haunting. A truly great sci-fi story, brilliantly executed.


outOut by Natsuo Kirino

Talk about hard-boiled. This is one bleak and scary thriller, about a group of four women in a grim Tokyo suburb who work the night shift in a box-lunch factory and get involved with murder, body disposal, loan sharks, and the Yakuza. A real page-turner, and full of bloody surprises. Natsuo Kirino is hereby elected to my short list of great women fiction writers. 


rantRant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

I used to be a huge Pahlaniuk fan. Fight Club, Survivor, Scary Monsters – all awesome. Then: other books that were less awesome, followed by some that lacked all trace of awesomeness. Now I’m happy to say that Chuck is back. Rant is terrific. As for what exactly it’s all about, that’s a little harder to pin down. The title character, patient zero in a future pandemic, may also be a time traveler, and possibly his own father, and, um – just read it. You won’t be sorry.





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