January 6, 2009 | Comments ()

By Phillip Stephens | Guides | January 6, 2009 |


Another literary year on the books: we had a typical spectrum of experiences in 2008 - reliable outings from strong mainstays (Roth, Morrison, Barth, Saramago, Erdritch), an Oprah hit (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle), a slew of impressive debuts, and a truly repellant bestselling frenzy (Twilight). All in all, 2008 was too sprawling to describe in any kind of précis, but, as always, that doesn’t stop us from trying. Here are the ten examples of literary fiction from 2008 that hit the hardest, that made me proudest to be a bibliophile. Let’s hope 2009 proves as strong.


2666, by Roberto Bolaño

Another posthumous masterpiece from Chilean literary titan Bolaño — 2666 is going to be the book you see the most on these best-of lists, and with good cause. It’s no small task taking on this epochal 900-plus page tome that feels like a cross between The Stand and Gravity’s Rainbow, but size shouldn’t be a hindrance. This is an unassailable masterwork, and almost certainly one of the first “important” books of the young century.

Breath, by Tim Winton

Popular Aussie novelist Winton knocked me on my ass with this gorgeous coming-of-age novel set in the sticks of Western Australia. Breath, stretching one boy’s summer into the defining experience we know it will become. This is a book about the thrills we seek (here represented by sex and surfing) to stave off the banality of our everyday lives.

Day, by A.L. Kennedy

Kennedy is as biting, hilarious, and sad as ever in this forlorn tale of a WWII tailgunner and his harrowing experience as a prisoner-of-war, recalling the best bits of Catch-22 with stylized relish.

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

I won’t belabor what John has already said about Robinson’s follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning Gilead: “Home is essentially flat in its progression, much like the midwest in which it’s set, but Robinson still ably defends her status as one of the most graceful writers we have. There is a simplicity to her prose that serves her concerns well — both the prose and the concerns may be out of style, but when you read Robinson you wonder why that should be the case.”

Kieran Smith, boy, by James Kelman

Scottish master Kelman gives us a despairing look at the elegiac years of pre-adolescence in a working-class boy’s life.

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon

The familiar conceits of the search for identity in the immigrant experience continue to provide strong literature, as demonstrated by Bosnian writer Hemon’s dual-layered, exploratory novel about Eastern Europeans in 20th-century America.

Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill

This controlled and elegant effort from O’Neill does a lot for the post-9/11 experience in America and New York City especially. A Dutch national, abandoned by his wife and left in the grips of ennui, finds solace in cricket, a game whose idiosyncrasies and reliance on chance still confound most Americans, and in which there’s metaphorical potential aplenty.

A Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

An epic family drama from the always-strong Erdritch rooted in the tragic history of Native Americans in North Dakota, in which the victims and perpetrators of a race crime (and their many descendants) intermingle over the generations.

Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya

Both satire and horror, Moya’s novel of a boorish writer’s attempt to edit statements on an Indian massacre somewhere in Latin America is a hilarious take on paranoia and the terrifying political-historical realities that make such paranoia possible.

Shadow Country, by Peter Mathiesson

This year’s National Book Award winner is a revised version of a trilogy Mathiesson had already written. The revisions and condensation benefit an already-rich story concerning the sprawling life and times of an early 20th-century Florida outlaw.

Honorable Mention:

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
The Boat, by Nam Le
The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin
My Revolutions, by Hari Kunzru
A Sea of Poppies, by Amitav Ghosh
The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga
The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane
Beginner’s Greek, by James Collins
Dead Star Twilight, by Chez Pazienza

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Guides | January 6, 2009 | Comments ()




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