Books: The best (and worst) of 2008

Photograph: Beth Levendis


Michael Miller, Books editor

1. The Drop Edge of Yonder, by Rudolph Wurlitzer (Two Dollar Radio).
This brutal, comic novel follows a 19th-century “mountain lunatic” and con artist trying to outrun the law, a spooky hex and his own death, which he may or may not have already experienced. In the process, Wurlitzer develops a dreamy, carnivalesque portrait of the American West, exploring the territory’s mythology even as he wildly entertains. (Buy now)

2. Reborn, by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff (FSG). Those trolling for the sturdy intellectual’s messier private moments won’t come up empty-handed, but what’s truly bracing about this book is its portrait of a young woman who is serious about becoming a thinker and having a full life in the process. (Buy now)

3. 2666, by Roberto Bolao, translated by Natasha Wimmer (FSG). Five novels in one, this massive book is the apotheosis of the late author’s obsessions—with violence, wanderlust, madness, erotic fixation, obscure writers and their uncompromising adherents, all of which are evoked in prose that reads like a fast dance set to mournful music. (Buy now)

4. Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein (Scribner). Even if you’re well acquainted with the 37th President’s career, paranoia and disgrace, this left-leaning historian recaptures the bizarro political manipulator and his era with such prickly animation and smarts that it all seems new again. (Buy now)

5. Sway, by Zachary Lazar (Little, Brown). Reimagining the lives of real people such as Mick Jagger, underground-cinema legend Kenneth Anger and evil brainwasher Charles Manson, Lazar cooks up a novel full of murky tension, malefic characters and meditations on how private obsessions can violently manifest themselves in the real world. (Buy now)

6. The School on Heart’s Content Road, by Carolyn Chute (Atlantic Monthly Press). This novel—which follows a 15-year-old dropout and his six-year-old cohort—captures the complexities of a contemporary rural militia with eccentricity and raconteurish pluck, proving in the process that a story about gun-toting Mainers can actually be charming. (Buy now)

7. The Ghost Soldiers, by James Tate (Ecco). Ideal for subway riders or seekers of a quick fix, these dialogue-driven poems find friends, neighbors and random strangers bickering about God, struck by paranoia and wondering why their houses have been torn down. The odd discussions start simply but weave their way to moments of surprising power, as Tate squeezes a droll essence out of his characters’ crankiness. (Buy now)

8. The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi (Grand Central). Thriller scribe Preston and reporter Spezi join forces to write about a series of unsolved murders in Italy, and wind up with an exquisite nonfiction page-turner—one that finds the authors sucked into an increasingly complicated vortex of horror. (Buy now)

9. We Disappear, by Scott Heim (HarperPerennial). Truth and fiction bleed into one another in the Mysterious Skin author’s latest novel, an expertly modulated psychodrama in which a young meth addict named Scott travels to Kansas to care for his ailing mother, who is investigating her own childhood kidnapping—and quite possibly losing her mind. (Buy now)

10. How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet (Counterpoint). A money-worshipping guy with no soul falls in love, loses his composure, becomes a friend of rare animals: It’s a belief-challenging setup, but the premise is a fit for this beautiful writer’s most ambitious novel yet, a captivating balancing act between full-bodied satire and bighearted insight. (Buy now)

Drew Toal, Books assistant editor

1. To Siberia, by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born (Graywolf). This story of a young girl in Nazi-occupied Denmark is quiet on the surface, but never loses that hint of imminent menace that Petterson’s breakthrough, Out Stealing Horses, sometimes lacked. (Buy now)

2. Home, by Marilynne Robinson (FSG). The companion piece to Robinson’s award-winning epistolary novel, Gilead, pulls off the neat trick of making that already excellent book even better. Characters only alluded to in Gilead are here fully fleshed out in Robinson’s masterful prose. (Buy now)

3. Reappraisals, by Tony Judt (Penguin Press). In this collection of previously published essays and reviews concerning all things European, fearless political historian Tony Judt seeks to “reappraise” 20th-century Europe through the lens of a disillusioned socialist, and includes a reconsideration of Arthur Koestler and thoughts on a decaying British infrastructure. (Buy now)

4. Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser (Knopf). Millhauser’s story collection grabs you from the get-go with an existential struggle—acted out by cartoon characters Tom and Jerry—and doesn’t let up until your head explodes. (Buy now)

5. Everything They Had, by David Halberstam (Hyperion). Though best known as a war reporter, the late Halberstam also liked to don his sportsman’s hat, and this collection of writing combines intellect with boyish enthusiasm for baseball, basketball and more. (Buy now)

6. Unforgiving Years, by Victor Serge, translated by Richard Greeman (New York Review Books Classics). Written in the ’40s, while the author was hiding from Stalin in Mexico, this hallucinatory novel, only recently translated into English, captures WWII-era Europe with an undeniable urgency. (Buy now)

7. My Revolutions, by Hari Kunzru (Dutton). Kunzru’s seething novel about a former Communist revolutionary in Britain whose past catches up with him is a beautiful coupling of realist fiction and political philosophy. (Buy now)

8. The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich (Harper). Erdrich has written a stunning fictional account of a family’s brutal murder, and the unexpected repercussions it has on generations to come. (Buy now)

9. The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins (Knopf). Complete with whizzing bullets and rigorous analysis, this is easily the best account yet to come out of life in occupied Iraq and rapidly deteriorating Afghanistan. (Buy now)

10. Last Last Chance, by Fiona Maazel (FSG). Maazel’s story of addiction and recovery set amid a global virus outbreak is at once hilariously original and painfully honest. (Buy now)


Michael Miller

Worst loss: David Foster Wallace.
Worst trend in marketing: Boosting books in terms of other books, as in “It’s Eat, Pray, Love for cat lovers.”
Worst book by an author who’s been on TONY’s top-10 list in the past: Riding Towards Everywhere, by William T. Vollmann, in which a talented writer turns laughably starry-eyed about train-hopping. (Buy now)

Drew Toal

The Hour I First Believed, by Wally Lamb (Harper): This novel about school shootings, marital discord, prison and more is not only overstuffed, but unmoving. (Buy now)

Report card

We hate to kick an industry while it’s down, but the publishing world seems to be sliding into the broader economic slump quietly, with few books that inspire irrational exuberance—and even fewer that push writing into new artistic territory. Still, there were enough good books to keep any reader busy—those listed above, as well as titles by David Carr, Richard Price, Jane Mayer and Ben Ratliff. These might be islands in a sea of nonstandouts, but publishers are still releasing solid work. Here’s hoping that 2009 sees a higher percentage of it—and a few more books that look to where literature might go next. (Buy now)