Against all odds, a tenacious little thread of hope worked its way through 2008. A great deal of that hope was grafted to the American presidential race and its singularly restorative outcome, but even in the realm of books, all was not bleak. True, tidal waves of crap still crash onto bookstore display tables every single week, and true, a dispiriting amount of this crap isn’t recognized as crap – some of it is even praised in public, by review organs that ought to know better.
But even so, the best stuff has a way of shining through – and here it gets the spotlight it so richly deserves! Here are the best books of 2008, starting with two sequels that will recall Stevereads lists from previous years:
10. Bats at the Library by Brian Lies – in this raucous follow-up to Bats at the Beach, Lies gives us a premise every bit as winning: some careless (or compassionate?) small-town librarian has left a window open overnight, and when the local bats find out, they hurry to take advantage, flitting all around the deserted library, reading the books, frolicking in the water fountain, and just generally rejoicing in all things reading. I don’t know of a sweeter love-letter to all the wonders even a modest library offers its patrons.
9. The Serpent’s Tale by Ariana Franklin – Our blessed, brainy lady Adelia returns in this sequel to Mistress of the Art of Death, and now she’s investigating the death of Henry II’s storied mistress, Rosamund Clifford. Franklin’s writing is as hypnotically strong as ever, almost embarrassingly better than the huge majority of the ‘historical mystery’ sub-genre, and watching the cerebral Adelia deal with love in all its messy incarnations is more fun even than the gripping multiple whodunits at the book’s core.
8. Lavinia by Ursula Le Guin – The legendary science fiction author here tries her hand at speculative historical fiction, telling the story of the native Italian woman wandering Aeneas eventually marries for state reasons. Lavinia utters not a peep in Virgil’s epic poem, but here she’s given a beguiling voice, and her world is masterfully fleshed out. I know a little about the rarefied world of classical pastiche, and I doff my cap to Le Guin for doing it so well.
7. American Made by Nick Taylor – I would never have expected to read – much less love – a history of Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, but Nick Taylor’s vast, engrossing book just proves what I’ve maintained all along: the right author can make anything interesting. This is social and ‘theme’ history being done about as well as it can be done … perfectly-chosen anecdotes bring all the actors to life, and suddenly this long-shuttered federal program becomes something you want to read about. Don’t be put off by any preconceptions you might have (I almost was): buy a copy of this book when it comes out in paperback.
6. Death, a Life by George Pendle – Death narrates his own story in this very witty – and surprisingly erudite (though its author would kill me for using that word) – little fantasy, and the Author Bio gives you an excellent taste of the goodies in store: “Death was born in Hell, the only son of Satan and Sin. He was educated in the Palace of Pandemonium and the Garden of Eden. Since before the Dawn of Time, he has ushered souls into the darkness of eternity. This is his first book.” In a year crammed full of bungled attempts at sustained comic conceits, the easy accomplishment of Pendle’s book is cause for joy.
5. The Learned Banqueters by Athenaeus, translated by S. Douglas Olson – Harvard University Press’s Loeb Classical Series can often be a dreary, text-mired business, seemingly more concerned with the correct placement of commas than with the eternal worth of the texts they deal with. But Olson’s new translation of Athenaeus’ sprawling second century catch-all (songs, poems, digressions, crackpot theories, home remedies, you name it) is a startling, delightful exception. Here is a multi-volume Athenaeus that instantly restores the author to his rightful place as a first-rate classic; here is the first real version of Athenaeus in English, the version generations of future scholars will happily use as their starting-point. Olson’s Introduction might be a trifle on the slipshod side, but his translation of Athenaeus is one long, sustained marvel to behold.
4. Little Brother by Cory Doctorow – Equal parts boys adventure story and passably profound meditation on what it means to grow up (at whatever age you choose to do so), Doctorow’s story of a near-future in which power-drunk government agencies mess with the wrong kid is like nothing else published this year, or this last handful of years. The sui generis nature of the work is reflected in much more than the fact that you don’t have to pay to read it (it’s available online for free, with the author’s enthusiastic encouragement); even the usual sugary teen-fiction bromides about individuality and the value of knowledge are given some much-deserved tweaking, and the book’s main character is vividly, sneeringly unforgettable (and, for those of you who care about such things, it sports the damn coolest cover of any book, good or bad, in 2008).
3. Shenandoah 1862 by Peter Cozzens – For a 150 years, Stonewall Jackson has been an unimpeachable avatar of the romantic South many Southerners badly want to believe really once existed: a courtly man, a God-fearing man, and a military genius of stunning capacity, able to inspire and maneuver his compact army in the hills and hollows of the Shenandoah Valley to such a degree that it could hold at bay not one but three much larger Union armies. In a meticulously researched and miraculously suspenseful narrative, Cozzens hammers away at that romance, giving us instead a pigheaded, weirdly unfocused Jackson who did everything he possibly could to thwart his own great good luck. In addition to being great debunking fun, this is the best volume on any aspect of Civil War history in quite a few years.
2. A Mercy by Toni Morrison – Another big surprise for me, that any novel by Morrison would ever make it onto a list such as this from me, but Morrison’s latest, a slim, poetic novella set in a pre-Revolutionary America populated by all races of people in all kinds of slavery, struck me as almost infinitely more successful than all of her other novels combined. In the past, I’ve found her heavy-handed and tiresomely operatic; here, she’s whittled her prose into blade-edges of perfect precision and beauty.
1. Animal Life by the American Museum of Natural History, edited by Charlotte Uhlenbroek – This gorgeously-produced (DK, naturally) compendium of the entirety of animal life on Earth is so much more than the ‘coffee table book’ it at first appears. Here are not only eye-poppingly incredible photos but also gorgeous graphics and layouts, engaging and transparent prose, and most of all the bewildering variety of the natural world, offered in all its profusion and detail. Uhlenbroek and the team at the American Museum have wrought a marvel, nothing less than the perfect, all-encompassing guidebook to life on Earth. It’s the best DK production in that company’s distinguished history, the best Natural History production in 150 years (if we don’t count Theodore Roosevelt), and, certainly, the best book of 2008.