The Year in Books
Publishers recently announced staff cuts. The book itself remains in the digital age's cross hairs as a relic. Publications in general are slashing page counts, staffs, and their own future. September saw the depressing suicide of one of American letters brightest contemporary voices. Literature took some big hits over the past year, and yet that printed word continues to provide us with compelling, vital reasons to reach for books. Here are 10 from 2008 to consider, as determined by weighted ballots from CP critics Raymond Cummings, Jess Harvell, Eric Allen Hatch, Joab Jackson, Adrienne Martini, Bret McCabe, and Wendy Ward.
A posthumous translation of Chilean poet/novelist Roberto Bolaño's last narrative work, 2666 is actually five novellas, all loosely centered around a series of grisly female murders in a fictional U.S./Mexico border town, Santa Teresa. The book possesses a highly intoxicating richness, a gritty but radiant kaleidoscope of the quirky ways humans get on with their lives. Every character's chance encounter, sideways observation, and off-hand conversation cracks open hidden wisdom and beauty. And while Bolaño has been compared to Gabriel García Márquez, 2666's magical realism vibe itself is an illusion: People really do think as fitfully as Bolaño characters, it's just that other fiction writers haven't captured this essence with as much fidelity, or elegance. Each of the book's 912 pages demands close attention, but the collective payoff is immense: Not only is 2666 a helluva read, but it's the kind of novel that artfully tricks you into seeing your own world anew. (Joab Jackson)
Following a staggering run of 1960s masterworks, Jean-Luc Godard abandoned film for video exploration, burning many bridges before returning to the cinema as much a curmudgeonly classicist as a spontaneous innovator. Brody's engaging tome details a relentless, combative artist who frequently encodes his work with personal messages for his romantic partners and New Wave peers, and whose finished movies rarely resemble their original kernels. Brody slips at times--for instance, in simplifying Godard's complex obsessions with the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as anti-Semitism--but offers essential services in patiently identifying the many personal and political threads that run though Godard's fascinating career, and in demystifying the director's later, lesser-known work. Bonus points for a brief local angle describing Godard's associations with Maryland-based filmmaker/distributor Rob Tregenza. (Eric Allen Hatch)
In lesser hands, this ripped-from-the-headlines story about the aftermath of a tidal wave would be a schmaltz fest. But Terry Pratchett's hands are skilled at molding any situation into a quirky work with a non-treacly heart. Pratchett may be best known for his Discworld books; Nation may be the work that propels him onto the same lists that Kurt Vonnegut's oeuvre occupies. Marketed as a book for young adults, Nation's clear prose is a rich meditation on faith and fate that rewards any reader who picks it up, no matter what their age. (Adrienne Martini)
In the midst of a wallet-busting pan-comics renaissance, the best "graphic novel" of 2008 was a snazzy reprint of material that originally ran two years ago in an online comic strip. Chris Onstad's Achewood is a deranged ensemble clusterfuck starring grouchy, drunk, and/or depressed seals and robots and cats in thongs, all drawn like surprisingly expressive Post-It doodles dashed off by a Tandy computer. The Great Outdoor Fight presents the sorta-epic saga of the titular battle, a yearly holiday-esque ritual in Achewood's surreal alternate universe America. And so of course this literal boxing day involves 3,000 roustabouts with names like "The Latino Health Crisis," all of them trying to maim each other for 72 hours while fueled on little but off-brand brandy, store-bought turkey, and the primal fear of being run over by a Jeep. It will make your chest hurt quite a lot. (Jess Harvell)
This latest work from novelist Jhumpa Lahiri tackles her favored theme: the complications that arise as fictional fellow Bengali Indian-Americans attempt to make sense of their place in a culture vastly different and considerably more permissive than the ones their parents and grandparents knew. The various narratives unfold at a glacial, almost excruciating pace, accumulated silences, half-truths, avoidances, and meticulous play-by-play conspiring to erupt into inter-generational conflagrations--only to slink backward at assumed points of conflict. You come away from Unaccustomed Earth with a fear that isn't endemic to any particular race, country, or class: that none of us can ever really, truly know anyone else, be they sisters, brothers, husbands, wives, children, parents, or friends. Lahiri's careful prose is that of a master craftswoman: she draws you slowly into her webs, dazzling you with characterization that feels all too familiar, and sends you home with more to chew on than you'd care to take. (Raymond Cummings)
American crime literature's king of street-level hustles and institutional troubles turns his all-seeing eye and pitch-perfect ear to the cultural demolition derby caused by contemporary urban renewal in this steely yet poetic, panoramic portrait of Lower Manhattan. Young college kids, emerging yuppies, aging hipsters, detectives with blurring professional and personal lives, African-American and Hispanic teens in the projects, and Asian workers live cheek-by-jowl in the old tenements and streets of the Lower East Side, and in this city microcosm a bartender is murdered, his not really friend stands accused, and the lower strata of the economic class finds itself being pushed out of a neighborhood suddenly infused with gentrifying money. A future American classic. (Bret McCabe)
Irrepressibly bubbly and rich in subdued contemplation, this novel concerns itself with Nikola Tesla, the unrewarded and somewhat unhinged discoverer of the alternating current electricity and radio waves. He befriends Louisa, a shy but curious young chambermaid whose father's friend has insisted he's built a time machine. Hunt plays Tesla and Louisa as polar opposites--the visionary and the unassuming. We see that even as the world can crush foolhardy ambitions, it can offer richer rewards in their place. (Joab Jackson)
After Stephenson's brilliant three-volume Baroque Cycle, which illuminated the rise of currency with frequent digressions about piracy, the French aristocracy, and smallpox, it was hard to guess where he'd go next. A 900-plus-page novel about monks, love, and quantum physics (that includes a 20-page glossary and footnotes full of mathematical proofs) wouldn't have been anyone's first hunch. Still, Anathem is an inventive and engrossing read because of Stephenson's dry wit, astounding imagination, and knack for well-developed characters who make you care about their journeys, even if you didn't make it past high school math. (Adrienne Martini)
The concept alone had us sold: A mid-1980s (fictional) troubled teen, Roger Painter, committed to a psychiatric hospital under dubious circumstances, maintains a journal monitored by one of the ward's counselors, Gary; after venom-spitting initial pages, the journal morphs into an extended plea by Roger for the return of his heavy-metal tapes, especially his beloved Master of Reality. Great concept indeed, but credit the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle (an occasional City Paper contributor) with spectacular execution: His darkly beautiful take on teen angst and the paramount personal significance we place on our musical tastes suggests a less NC-17 (but still unnerving and resonant) Dennis Cooper. The thin, pocket-sized 33 1/3 series has made some meaningful contributions to music appreciation, especially when they eschew subjective lyrical analysis for inside dirt on the writing and recording process of the albums at hand. Chalk this one up as a triumphant exception that proves the rule. (Eric Allen Hatch)
Unjustly forgotten, Wendell Scott was the first black NASCAR driver, and, as the sport that is big in the south, he had more than his fair share of difficulties making his name in the field. Donovan, a Pulitizer prize-winning Newsday journalist, does an amazing job at bringing to life the struggle the determined but ailing Scott faced with hostile track owners and fans, sub-par machinery, and grueling schedules. Not being able to score big-name sponsorship, Scott had to be his own lead mechanic. While any musclehead would find this story riveting, this book is as much about the south, blind racism, and the endurance of human spirit as it is about racing. Scott's boundless energy illustrates that old race-track truism that the driver who wins the race is often not the one with the fastest car, but the one with the most guts. A powerful sleeper. (JJ)
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