Best of 2008 – Books

For the second year in a row, I regret my tradition of limiting my list of books of the year to those actually published during the year. As a result, I’ve modified a once or twice used category to lead off this year’s list. Otherwise, my list wouldn’t include the best book I read this year.

Books I Wish I’d Read The Year They Were Released

One of the unusual things this year is that two of the best books I read all year were read within a week of each other — in January. Perhaps not as unusual given my world literature fascination is that both were translated works.

Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was as unhurried as its central character. Originally published in Norway in 2003 and released in the U.S. in 2007, it is a quiet and unpretentious masterpiece. Despite it’s excellence, my favorite book of the year is Dorothea Dieckmann’s Guantanamo.

More painful emotionally and psychologically than Petteson’s work, I am still amazed that a work of fiction first published in Germany so skillfully takes us inside the mind of a prisoner at the U.S. military’s detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. How much did I like it? It is now a desert island book.

Best 2008 Novel

While not a translated work, my favorite novel published this year is also by a foreign author. The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry was a finalist for the Mann Booker prize. My opinion, shared by others, is it should have won the award. It is probably a testament to Barry’s skill that the secret was, in hindsight, so obvious. Its almost Rashômon-like points of view simply heighten the enjoyment.

Deserving of honorable mention are Marilynne Robinson’s Home, which continues her exquisite examination of life, faith and family, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslamin, which contains the unforgettable image of nailing books to a ceiling to preserve them from destruction by the Taliban.

Finally, since world lit is prevalent in my look back at the year, I should mention Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. It received tons of praise and made a significant majority of the year’s “best of” lists. Bolaño undoubtedly was pondering great thoughts and ideas and the book is an intriguing read. But the extensive amount of gratuitous information and tangents he throws in left me feeling I’d been led on far too many side roads.

Favorite nonfiction

While I read a lot of very good nonfiction, none really grabbed me. I would have to say Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss topped the list. The concept of visiting places in the world that are the happiest and unhappiest was a unique exploration of the world and our views toward happiness.

Other strong contenders were Kafka Comes to America, a federal public defender’s look at the Kafkaesque world of terrorism investigations and Guantanamo Bay detainees; The Foresaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, a look at what happened to Americans who emigrated to the Soviet Union following World War I and were caught up — and essentially abandoned — during Stalin’s terror; and, Leningrad: State of Siege, a look at life, death and survival in Leningrad during World War II through the eyes of its residents. The latter two also reflect my fixation this year on Russia and Russian history.

Biggest disappointment

Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark starts with an interesting premise: the main character in an alternative America imagined by a literary critic must kill the critic who is imagining him and his America. But that premise is abruptly abandoned and the focus and conclusion deals with the critic’s mundane and ordinary thoughts of his life.

[Heavy sighing is] just my way of relieving the grumpy pressure that has built up inside of me. A good sigh, like a good moan, is a self-correcting mechanism.

Eric Weiner, The Geography of Bliss

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