Thursday, January 01, 2009

Reviewing 2008

If you're thinking that I'm going to tell you how crappy 2008 was for Martha and me, forget it. That would be whining, pissing, moaning, and complaining, and I'm not very fond of whining, pissing, moaning and complaining. There were some bright spots, of course. We're both still alive and married to each other, we adopted our little maniac dog "Irish", and I got a whole lotta reading done.

The reason for the latter is because I spent more of 2008 in a prone position than I did erect (no wisecracks, please). I finished 58 books this year, only 4 of which were non-fiction. I love stories, I need stories, and I found several storytellers I hadn't read before.

THE BEST OF 2008, in no particular order:

Interpreter of Maladies, a book of short stories that won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Namesake, a novel, both by Jhumpa Lahiri. Born and raised in London and now living in Rhode Island, Lahiri writes about Indian immigrants to America, Calcutta, Bengali and Hindu customs and culture—but mostly she writes about . . . people. Like Khalad Hosseini, she makes writing seem effortless: Her wonderful prose made me care about all of her characters, like I was a family relative instead of just a reader.

Garnethill, Exile, Resolution, by Denise Mina. Hop an imaginary plane to Glasgow, Scotland, where Mina resides and the locale of her Garnethill trilogy. Maureen O'Donnell, Mina's protagonist, is one of the most unique amateur crime solvers I have ever run across. But crime solving is just a slice of O'Donnell—her incredibly dysfunctional family and Maureen's own psychological problems make up the bulk of these stories. Glasgow is a tough city, and so is Mina's writing: She is gritty, extremely profane, and totally in tune with the seamy side of life. Unlike Mina's book Deception, Back Bay Books did not Americanize these three: Glaswegian slang, euphemisms, and names for "stuff" make the books all the more authentic. A caveat: Read the trilogy in order or it ain't gonna make no sense to ye.

Jar City, Silence of the Grave, Voices, by Arnaldur Indridason. Board our imaginary airplane again to Reykjavik, Iceland and three thrillers starring D.I. Erlendur Sveinsson. Indridason's writing is spare and tightly-woven, probably a good definition of Iceland itself. The stories are absorbing, and there is none of the police station/problems with superiors that are a trademark of police procedurals. An interesting fact about Reykjavik: The telephone book lists only given names because no one uses a surname; imagine opening the Chicago phone book and looking for "Bob." Of the three novels I liked the second one best—Silence of the Grave—because it revolves around a bastard of a wife- and child-beater . . .

The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion, by William Faulkner. We need a time machine to take us to rural Mississippi in the first half of the 20th century for these three novels, known as The Snopes Trilogy. The Snopes, a large clan of misfits and thieves, are headed by Flem Snopes, quite possibly the most evil character in American fiction. Reading and understanding Faulkner isn't always easy but his stories, often missing details or left open-ended, purposely challenged me to make conclusions and bounce them off other readers on LibraryThing. In short, reading Faulkner is a participatory exercise.

Finally, there is Scheisshaus Luck: Surviving the Unspeakable in Auschwitz and Dora, by Pierre Berg. This is a place we want neither a plane nor a time machine to take us, but we also cannot forget what the Germans wrought. I reviewed the book here.

TWO STINKERS FOR 2008, in no particular order:

And wouldn't you know it, both of them are still on the bestseller list.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski. This is Wroblewski's first book and it took him nine years to write it. I thought it was going to take me that long to get through its 576 pages, and I nearly quit it a dozen times. But I'm a cheap bastard when it comes to expensive hardcovers, so I kept plowing on. Finally, the action picked up around page 330 and the rest of the book was okay. Briefly, a "Sawtelle" was a new breed of dog, bred by a family named . . . Sawtelle . . . on a farm in Wisconsin. The problem I had with the book was threefold: There was a lot of correspondence relating to dog DNA and the breeding of a perfect one; pages and pages of dog training (sit, stay, roll over) without any descriptions of exactly how the training is done; and worst of all, the characters were as flat as the paper they were written on. Oprah liked it, though, so I guess I must be wrong.

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch. This is the college prof who died at 47 of cancer, leaving three children under the age of five. As a legacy to the kids who will never know him, he gave a last lecture about himself at Carnegie Mellon University. His early death was of course unfortunate, and his legacy idea was a good one. The problem I had with Pausch was his gigantic ego (a name-dropper extraordinaire) and his profound advice that readers are eating up. Profundities like "We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." And "Time is all you have . . ." And my favorite advice from the anal area, "Stay organized." I'm sure that Pausch's children will cherish their Dad's video and writing, but I sure didn't.

MY FAVORITE BOOK OF 2008, in no particular order:

We have a tie, ladies and gentlemen: Faulkner's The Hamletand Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies.

Not a bad year at all. Stephen King's book of short stories, Just After Sunsetwas quite good. There were some disappointments (Ken Follett, James Lee Burke, John Connolly, Dennis Lehane, and Wally Lamb), but that's because I expect excellence from my favorite contemporary authors every time out. I enjoyed Bernard Cornwell a great deal: I read nine of his historical novels during the year and, thanks to some nice person at HarperCollins, I'm presently reading an advance reader's copy of Agincourt, the most famous battle of the One Hundred Years War, to be released to the public on January 20th.

So to all my bloggerly friends who read, I wish all of you a readerly 2009.

[All books link to their detail page on so you can read more about them. IF you happen to buy one, I receive about 4 cents commission.]


Mary Witzl said...

Charlie, these are great reviews. I need stories too, and you make me want to read all these books. I'm particularly interested in the one that takes place in Iceland.

I love your writing -- you crack me up! My kids came over to look at this because they wanted to know why I was laughing so hard.

(Gosh, did you dislike something Oprah liked? I'm not sure that's legal!)

Attila The Mom said...

So Nora "rosy nipples" Roberts and James "I'm a big greedy ho who will put my name on anything" Patterson didn't make the cut?

Color me shocked!

Just finished Stephen King's short story collection. Still not sure how I feel about it.

Love love, Denise Mina. Will have to check out the others.

Thanks for the recommendations!

And be nice to the boss in 2009! ;-)


Koolio said...

"...and I'm not very fond of whining, pissing, moaning and complaining." And here I thought you liked me! ;)

My kids gave me Just After Sunset for the holidays but I haven't started it yet. I always have mixed reviews about his writings. I can't stand the fact that he always gives some kind of psychic ability to one of his characters. Just irritates me how he lets that rule his stories! In any case, if you liked that book, you should read Duma Key if you haven't already. It was the first Stephen King book I've read in years and I found it mostly enjoyable.

Mary Witzl said...

You make me feel so guilty, not wanting to whine, moan or complain. Do you really not like complaining? Sheesh. What's not to like?

Charlie said...

MARY: Your compliment made me *blush* because you're the storyteller; I just give my opinions of other peoples' work.

Oprah. Hah. She's burned herself a couple times, hasn't she. I predict her next pick will be Wally Lamb's The Hour I First Believed, which is a safe pick.

MOM: Mina is indeed fantastic; she puts Ian Rankin, the snob of Edinburgh, to shame.

I'm surprised you didn't mention King's gross-out story, the one that grossed even him.

No, come to think of it, I'm not surprised at all—you kinda like gross.

KOOL: When I say I don't like whining and moaning I'm talking about my own; yours, however, is so colorfully put that I can't pass it up.

And note the note to Mom about King's book.

MARY: Please note the note to Kool about whining and moaning.

I think I'm making myself dizzy with these cross-referenced comments.

Attila The Mom said...

Hey, I spent 8 straight years changing diapers. Poo I can do.

If Stephen King wrote a story about eye boogers, I'd run screaming from the room. ;-)

stevent said...

I see you read several of Cornwell's novels in 2008. Love Cornwell. He's my favorite author at the moment. I'm currently working my way through the Saxon Chronicles as time permits. I'm starting Lords of the North.