In no particular order, my favorite novels of 2008:
What Is the What (Dave Eggers)
This book came to my attention long before I picked it up, and when I finally read it, I breathed a sigh of relief, for the payoff was worth the anticipation. I will also admit that I bought this book for the jacket. McSweeney’s is doing some really neat things with cover design, using unconventional trim sizes, eye-catching graphics, and awesome fonts. And the paper over boards—I love the paper over boards. What Is the What read like a memoir, following the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, now in the U.S. As Valentino endeavors to make the most of the opportunities afforded him here, he experiences a number of situations that raise the question: is he better off here in the U.S. than in his civil-war-torn country, where his village was burned and his family killed? Heavy, I know, but leavened by humor and just impeccably written. I never read Eggers’ staggering genius memoir but I think What Is the What might be Eggers’ staggering genius.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (Winifred Watson)
First published in 1938, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is currently in print from Persephone Books, the super-cool British publisher that specializes in reviving lost twentieth-century classics, mostly written by women. Guinevere Pettigrew is sent by an employment agency to the wrong house. Instead of the governess job she was expecting, Miss Pettigrew finds herself thrust into a new role as social secretary to a nightclub singer, Miss LaFosse. And hijinks ensue. I loved Watson’s wit, humor, and carefree storytelling. Lighthearted line drawings make a charming package, immediately drawing the reader into the period (1930s) and spirit of the novel. I also saw—and loved—the movie for its' own merits, such as the pitch-perfect performances of Amy Adams and Frances McDormand.
Then We Came to the End (Joshua Ferris)
I was thrilled when Suzanne chose Then We Came to the End as a book group selection because it was on My List. This first novel had come to my attention before it hit store shelves: Reagan Arthur, a friend from SMP days, is the editor, and I’d read anything she publishes. Early reviews were strong, word of mouth helped build my interest, and then the book was nominated for a National Book Award—all signs pointed to Yes. But this darkly funny novel set during the dot-com bust—about the last days of an ad agency and the attendant layoffs—hit too close to home. At that very moment in time, the magazine group where I worked as an editor was for sale, my future uncertain. Before long, we had a new owner, who let everyone go. However, had I started the book immediately instead of letting it feed into the big dread-pit that had taken the place of my stomach, I might have had a few more hearty chuckles during that dark period. Also, I might have played more office pranks. Okay, I probably wouldn’t have played pranks. After all, I stayed on the sinking ship because the odds were somewhat in my favor. Back on topic, Ferris is a comedic genius, and I loved Then We Came to the End. If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ll recognize the characters. The situations, however, are appropriately outlandish. I can’t wait to see how Ferris follows up.
Casino Royale (Ian Fleming)
Casino Royale is the first book in Ian Fleming’s spy series starring James Bond. Sure, the novel has all the elements we’ve come to expect in a Bond movie—action, girls, bad guys with evil henchmen, exotic locales. But, if you’ve only seen the movies, you might not know that Bond has a rich interior life and is a little dark, which I found pleasantly surprising. While in the hospital, healing from torture at the hands of bad guy Le Chiffre (in the same brutal fashion as the 2006 movie w/Daniel Craig), Bond has a crisis of conscience and doubts whether he can continue as a “00,” licensed to kill. Bond recovers and recommits himself to fighting evil. Ian Fleming has a casual and suave literary style. I can only imagine what it was like for a reader in 1953—with no predisposition to any movie-screen Bond—to have met this character.
Atmospheric Disturbances (Rivka Galchen)
A glowing New York Times book review piqued my attention for Atmospheric Disturbances, a first novel by the remarkably talented and young Rivka Galchen, and then I got a thumbs-up from a friend who was enjoying it. Like Ethan Canin, Galchen has an MFA and an MD and is utterly gorgeous, though the comparisons to Canin end there. Galchen has churned out a complex novel that hinges on a 51-year-old psychiatrist, Leo, who believes that his much-younger Argentinean wife has been replaced by a doppelganger. Leo’s search for his original wife comprises much of the ambitious plot. (You really need to read the Times review where Liesl Schillinger does a better job summarizing the plot and making comparisons than I could ever hope to.) If it hasn't become abundantly clear yet, I'll come right out and say it: I’m a huge sucker for first novels. Atmospheric Disturbances had very few disappointing moments.
~ The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
As my friend Caryl said about The Invention of Hugo Cabret, “It’s a must read.” The novel's intricate story of an orphaned boy—who lives in a Paris train station, surviving on his wits and building a mechanical man—is illustrated with Selznick’s amazing pencil sketches. Paris is truly seen in a new light. Intended for middle readers; recommended for all ages.
~ discovery: Donna Leon
I kicked off 2008 by reading Donna Leon's Suffer the Little Children, the sixteenth book in the Commissario Brunetti series. Leon writes a compelling police procedural, with an outstanding protagonist and a supporting cast of characters. Brunetti adores his wife and family, eats fine food, reads history tomes, and endures tourists. The setting is Venice, and Leon's descriptions will encourage you to bump Italy to the top of your travel list. I followed up Suffer the Little Children (in January, it was the series' most recent title, as well as a Conversation with Books selection) with the first two books in the series, Death at La Fenice and Death in a Strange Country, and I recently finished Dressed for Death.
~ discovery: Alexander McCall Smith
Often I dream about reading an entire series, "in one sitting," figuratively speaking. Imagine my luck, then, when Caryl offered me her Isabel Dalhousie books by Alexander McCall Smith. Seeing as I have a weakness for character-driven fiction, as well as stories with a strong sense of place, I found Isabel and her Edinburgh utterly irresistible. This series is categorized as mystery, though there's not much mystery—certainly no murders—rather situations to which Isabel is drawn so that she may "help." Other recurring characters include Isabel's niece, Cat, as well as Jamie, a young musician who becomes a love interest (I don't think that's a spoiler as you can see this coming from the first book). Isabel is the editor of the Journal of Applied Ethics, spending her days thinking about philosophical dilemmas and deciding which papers to publish in the magazine. A charmed life, I know. By the time I finished reading the fifth consecutive book, I had grown a little weary of Isabel and some of her choices. But given some distance, I will certainly be back for number six, whenever it is published.