The Books of 2008

January 8, 2009

The other night, one of the members of my book club asked me what my favorite books of 2008 were. I stopped chewing on my lovingly-prepared salad roll and gaped across the table. I realized I did not know. I had not taken the time to sort them out yet. So frantic I’d been to finish my 75th book and so many hobbies and family things and cleanings up and customers I’d been buried in that I hadn’t done a real taxonomy yet.

* = Glad I read it. Maybe you’d like it, too.

The List

  1. Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett
  2. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell*
  3. Thunderstruck, Erik Larson
  4. Andrew Jackson, H.W. Brands*
  5. Lamb, Christopher Moore
  6. Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier*
  7. The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig*
  8. The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan*
  9. The Iliad, Homer*
  10. People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
  11. Homer’s The Iliad: A Biography, Alberto Manguel*
  12. Sister Carrie: Theodore Dreiser
  13. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See
  14. Franklin and Lucy, Joseph Persico*
  15. The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Joyce Carol Oates*
  16. Julius Caesar, Shakespeare*
  17. In the Woods, Tana French*
  18. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
  19. So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger*
  20. Sarah’s Key, Tatiana de Rosnay
  21. Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt*
  22. The Gathering, Ann Enright
  23. The Making of a Poem (Norton Anthology), Mark Strand and Eavan Boland*
  24. The Year of Living Biblically, A.J. Jacobs
  25. [My Friend's as-yet unpublished YA novel]
  26. Algebra, W. Michael Kelley*
  27. The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
  28. Cannery Row, John Steinbeck*
  29. Early Portland: Stump Town Triumphant, Eugene Synder*
  30. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz*
  31. The Three Theban Plays, Sophocles (Robert Fagles, trans.)*
  32. The 19th Wife, David Ebershoff*
  33. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  34. The Great Mortality, John Kelly
  35. Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain*
  36. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley*
  37. The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman*
  38. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl*
  39. The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman*
  40. The Meaning of Everything, Simon Winchester
  41. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
  42. The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman*
  43. Richard III, Shakespeare*
  44. The Monsters of Templeton, Laura Groff*
  45. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather*
  46. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami*
  47. Sweetsmoke, David Fuller
  48. Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon*
  49. What we Believe but Cannot Prove, John Brockman, ed.
  50. Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt
  51. Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst*
  52. The Likeness, Tana French*
  53. His Dark Materials, The Rough Guide, Paul Simpson
  54. Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris*
  55. The Aeneid, Virgil (Robert Fagles, trans.)*
  56. Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje*
  57. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe
  58. The Children’s Blizzard, David Laskin*
  59. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga*
  60. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery*
  61. Medea and Other Plays, Euripides*
  62. Thirteen Things that Don’t Make Sense, Michael Brooks*
  63. Middlemarch, George Eliot*
  64. Enduring Love, Ian McEwan*
  65. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll*
  66. Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson*
  67. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008, various
  68. On Beauty, Zadie Smith*
  69. Crack in the Edge of the World, Simon Winchester*
  70. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon S. Wood
  71. Peripheral Vision, Patricia Ferguson
  72. Firmin, Sam Savage
  73. Anathem, Neal Stephenson*
  74. Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Carson McCullers*
  75. Howard’s End, E.M. Forster*

The Best

First: a note. Most of the books I read this year were not published this year. Thus, my favorites of 2008 are not anything but a rating of the books that I read myself this year.

The Best: Fiction

Out Stealing Horses: A Novel by Per PettersonThirteen Moons: A Novel by Charles FrazierDeath Comes for the Archbishop by Willa CatherA Thousand Acres (Ballantine Reader's Circle) by Jane Smiley

  1. Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson – If I recommend one book to you this year, this is likely it. Its critical acclaim has been fairly universal. My review.
  2. Thirteen Moons, Charles Frazier — Historical fiction with a beautiful sense of landscape. My review.
  3. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather — Maybe not for everyone, but a calming, sensitive paean to the virgin landscape of the American Southwest in the mid-19th century.
  4. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley — Smiley’s reworking of King Lear has emotional power and modern nuance. It is still affecting me. My review.
  5. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl — You’ll love it for its allusions or hate it for its pretensions. I happened to be of the former. My review.
  6. Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris — When I first finished it, I thought it might be my novel of the year. Blistering office hilarity that crosses the line many times, written in the 2nd person. Great book, but fades a bit in memory. My review.

The Best: Non-Fiction

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy EganThe Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst13 Things That Don't Make Sense: The Most Baffling Scientific Mysteries of Our Time by Michael BrooksThe Complete Idiot's Guide to Algebra (The Complete Idiot's Guide) by W. Michael Kelley

  1. The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan — Award-winning for a reason. Gripping and sympathetic narrative of the Dust Bowl. My review.
  2. The Elements of Typographic Style, Robert Bringhurst — One of my favorite books of all time: poetic, impassioned and detailed. Second here only because I’ve read it before. My review.
  3. Thirteen Things that Don’t Make Sense, Michael Brooks — Eerie and compelling: 13 current impasses in science that we cannot currently explain.
  4. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Algebra, W. Michael Kelley — An odd thing to show up on a list like this, but my most potent tool in my quest for math. Read more here.
  5. A Crack in the Edge of the World, Simon Winchester — Entertaining if sometimes a bit elementary (yes, I know how plate tectonics work already!).
  6. The Children’s Blizzard, David Laskin –Part Erik Larkin (Thunderstruck, Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm), part Timothy Egan (above), the haunting tales of individuals on the Great Plains during the Blizzard of 1888 is worth reading.

The Best: Enjoyable

In the Woods by Tana FrenchAnathem by Neal StephensonThe Gravedigger's Daughter by Joyce Carol OatesThe Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff

  1. In the Woods, Tana French — Simultaneously a page-turning whodunnit, a well-written piece of debut literature, and a window into contemporary Irish culture. Highly recommended. My review.
  2. Anathem, Neal Stephenson — A fun and very, very longwinded romp for Stephenson fans. My review.
  3. The Gravedigger’s Daughter, Joyce Carol Oates — I really enjoy reading Ms. Oates. Her books have a cadence and a solemnity that works for me. My review.
  4. The Monsters of Templeton, Laura Groff — A laudable literary debut that’s a comfortable read. My review.
  5. So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger — It’s no Peace Like a River, but Enger’s new novel is character-rich Americana. My review.
  6. His Dark Materials (Trilogy), Philip Pullman — Would not have read these if not for my book club, but enjoyed more than I expected, especially the final installment.

The Most Educational and Broadening

The Three Theban Plays (Penguin Classics) by SophoclesThe Iliad (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) by HomerThe Aeneid (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition) by VirgilJulius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library) by William Shakespeare

  1. The Three Theban Plays, Sophocles — Of the Athenian tragedians, Sophocles is my favorite. Antigone, especially, is a timeless work of art. My review.
  2. The Iliad, Homer — Robert Fagles is my favorite translation. My review.
  3. The Aenied, Virgil — Ditto. My review.
  4. Julius Caesar and Richard III, Shakespeare — “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!”  Julius Caeser review.
  5. The Making of a Poem (Norton Anthology) — Chock full of information about how poems work: forms, meters and terminology. I’ll need to read it a few more times before it all sinks in. My review.
  6. Middlemarch, George Eliot — The quintessential Victorian novel. My review.

The Best: First Sentence

“We were fractious and overpaid.” — Joshua Ferris in Then We Came to the End

I Didn’t Enjoy…

These books were not poorly-written or otherwise “bad”, but I didn’t enjoy them.

  1. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See — Grim and without redemption. Not a winner overall.
  2. The Gathering, Ann Enright — Last year’s icy winner of the Booker. Not a book for the general public; very unapproachable.
  3. Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser — I guess Naturalism isn’t for me; this classic was a real chore to read.
  4. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie — One of the best books of the 20th century, but took a heavy toll. Important to read, but I felt tired afterward.  My review.
  5. Traffic, Tom Vanderbilt — I built it up too much. Nearly beside myself when the book came out, I was let down. This was a New York Times Notable book for 2008–it was very well-received. Maybe it is because I actively seek out data and studies about driving and traffic dynamics, but I didn’t get much new information out of this book.
  6. The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, Gordon S. Wood — I think I’ve read too much about Franklin. Most of this book covered biographical detail I already knew. Not badly-written, though.

  1. Bill Burcham says:

    You missed: Twilight.

  2. doug says:

    The only one of these I read this year was Cloud Atlas, which I absolutely loved. I’ve read all the Mitchell now and that one’s almost definitely my favorite.

    Not sure how many books I read this year but it wasn’t that many, and the only one I’ve read before that you read was Middlemarch. Sublime. Gotta get back on the reading train, because reading is awesome.

  3. Lyza Gardner says:

    I know. I worship David Mitchell. I think I like “Black Swan Green” the best.

  4. doug says:

    The last couple sentences of Black Swan Green almost singlehandedly got me through a really, really tough time in November. The epic sweep of Cloud Atlas is closer to my personal sweet spot overall, though.