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David Ebershoff’s most recent novel is The 19th Wife (www.19thwife.com). He is an editor at large at Random House.It’s not easy to boil down my reading life of 2008 to a few favorite books, so I’ll do what I tell my writing students to do: find a narrative structure to accommodate your story. In this case, I’ll name one new novel, one new non-fiction book, one favorite classic, and then hook several big fat asterisks to the whole thing.****Favorite New Novel of 2008That’s easy: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. Not only is it an engrossing narrative, not only does the novel show remarkably deft plotting, not only does Sittenfeld write with uncommon wisdom and compassion, not only does she create a voice for a figure – Laura Bush – who has been, in many ways, voiceless to the American public – these aren’t the only reasons I love love love American Wife. On top of all this, I endlessly admire this novel because it asserts an important role for fiction in the national dialogue. While many people have wasted time groaning over the novel’s impotence in 21st century culture, Sittenfeld has slyly insisted that the novel can have a vital, in fact unparalleled, place in public debate. This wonderful novel does something rare: it matters.Favorite New Non-Fiction Book of 2008This is harder, because I read non-fiction pretty whorishly. But the book that has stayed with me the longest is White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Through the lens of this unusual literary friendship, Brenda Wineapple, who is a friend of mine, reveals Dickinson in an aptly artful and original way. Wineapple brilliantly glosses dozens of Dickinson’s poems, opening them up to me, one by one, in ways I’ve never known. By the end of the book, Wineapple has taken us to the core of Dickinson’s creative process – right into the glow of her famous white heat.Favorite Classic of 2008I started the New Year with James Cain’s triple crown of Depression-era noir and cruelty, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. If you’ve ever said to yourself, I haven’t read a good book in a long time, well, here you go. It’s pretty much impossible to start one of these books and not finish it. The first two are crime novels, with writing as strong and clear as Hemingway’s. Mildred Pierce isn’t really a crime novel, although it’s often thought of one because the film adaptation (Joan Crawford took home her only Oscar playing MP) was recast as a crime story. Cain’s Mildred Pierce is the story of woman who bets everything on chickens and pies in order to save her crumbling family. His portrait of economic depression is vivid, moving, and regrettably relevant to our day. If you’re in a book group, put it on your list right now.****Now for the asterisksBecause I spend a good deal of my time working as an editor-at-large at Random House, it’s hard for me to talk about the books of 2008 without talking about the books I edited, so you need to understand my endorsements below in that context, yet I try to edit books I love and these books all sit tightly in my reader’s heart. I’d feel weird naming any one of these as my favorite, but each is a favorite in its own way.The Story of Forgetting: A Novel by Stefan Merrill BlockBeautiful Children: A Novel by Charles BockThe Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in a new unabridged translation by Burton RaffelBallistics: Poems by Billy CollinsThe Christian World: A Global History by Martin MartyFair Shares for All: A Memoir of Family and Food by John HaneyMore from A Year in Reading 2008
Martha Southgate is the author of three novels, most recently, Third Girl From The Left. Her previous novel, The Fall of Rome, was named one of the best books of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children and is at work on a new novel. You can find out more about her work at her website www.marthasouthgate.com.I’m not calling these books the “best” of anything – good literature ain’t a horse race. But the following books are the ones that leapt to mind as the most exciting and pleasurable I read in 2007 – the ones I wanted to grab people and tell them about.The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz: I wrestled a bit with putting this one on because he’s getting much respect from all over the place. But it’s well-deserved. This book sprawls, it brawls, it doesn’t apologize, it enlightens and delights. A welcome return from a major talent.Halfway House by Katharine Noel: Remember not wanting to put a book down? Sometimes I forget the simple pleasure of a book that is so beautifully crafted, so alive, that I simply can’t do anything else until I’m done reading it. This first novel reminded me of what a great feeling that is. I loved it so much that I emailed the author – that’s when I know it’s love.Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman: A really, really, really sexy book that is also an impressive work of literature. If you’ve ever been young and desperate to get your hands on the object of your desire (and lucky enough to find that he or she can’t keep his or her hands off of you either), you’ll vibe to this love story.The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter. Full disclosure: I am lucky enough to count Charlie Baxter as a friend, which is how I came by an ARC of this novel, to be published by Pantheon in February 2008. But just ’cause he’s my bud doesn’t mean I don’t know a hell of a book when I read one. Both a meditation on identity and on the nature of love, The Soul Thief is sexy, funny, romantic (without being sentimental) and strange (in the best of ways). It’s both a return to Baxter’s deepest preoccupations as a writer and an exhilarating departure from them. We already know he’s one of our best fiction writers. Don’t miss this one when it comes out.More from A Year in Reading 2007
Francois Monti runs a litblog in French – mainly about American literature – called Tabula Rasa. If I could read French, I would probably read the blog, but I can’t, so I’m happily making due with Francois’ contribution – in English – to our Year in Reading series:I should first point to the fairly obvious: among the books I most liked in 2006, you will find Richard Powers’ The Echo Maker, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. I won’t elaborate further on these books; they are already all over the literary blogs.There has been much less discussion of Roberto Bolano Los Detectives Salvajes (The Savage Dectives), which is pretty understandable: the book was published in Spanish in 1998 and is yet to be translated into English [Max: it’s coming in April 2007]. However, this year saw the publication of the French translation, my mother tongue. Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can’t help thinking about what else might have been coming from him. He was undoubtedly a unique South-American writer; dare I say the best of his generation?If we’re talking older books, I’ve read and liked many in 2006, but none as much as The Tunnel. The contrast between the odious main character and the beauty of the prose, the music of William H. Gass’ writing, make for a deeply disturbing, fascinating, and ultimately rewarding experience.Thanks Francois!
My favorite book this year was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This is one of those books I carried around with me all the time in hopes I’d have a few minutes to keep reading. I don’t usually read historical novels, but this one was so luscious and unsentimental that I could not put it down. It’s the story of the Anne Boleyn crisis from a fresh point of view: that of Thomas Cromwell, lawyer and fixer for Henry VIII. I love Mantel’s intimate point of view, and her unsparing portrait of Cromwell, who is a pragmatist, to say the least. He’s a ruthless politico and yet you feel for him as well. Mantel couldn’t fit everything into this book, so she’s writing a sequel. I can’t wait!
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