Thursday, December 11, 2008

2008's 10

Birds do it, bees do it; even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it: let’s talk of the best books of 2008.

First, a moment to fight once more the temptation to include novels published in 2007 that I read only this year. (Top of the list being Junot Diaz’s not-so-brief but oh-so-wondrous Great American-Dominican Novel, and also including those by J.M. Coetzee, Michael Chabon, Hari Kunzru, Nathan Englander – as well the uncommonly charming Alan Bennett.)

In the interests of full disclosure one ought to also point out that Roberto Bolano’s 2666 does not feature here – not because of any anti-Latin American sentiment or the feeling that Bolanomania has got out of hand, but because of the prosaic reason that I haven’t read it as yet.

So. Now vee may perhaps to begin, as Alexander Portnoy was advised.

In fiction, Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole, a manic and charged tale of an eccentric father’s relationship with his no-less eccentric son was marvellously subversive and comic. At the opposite pole in terms of effect, but as irresistible, was Joseph O’Neill’s elegant Netherland, which tells, in wonderfully-etched sentences, a post 9/11 story of, among other things, immigrants playing cricket in New York.

At least two collections of short stories stood out: Jhumpa Lahiri’s melancholic tales in Unaccustomed Earth, which explored once again the lives of Bengalis in America with uncommon grace and feeling; and Nalini Jones’ debut collection, What You Call Winter, nuanced yet precise stories dealing with the residents of a Mumbai suburb coming to terms with time’s passage.

It was, yet again, a strong year for non-fiction. (When isn’t it?) Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus, part-history and part-travel, was a heartfelt and enlightening journey to the source of the river from which India takes its name. Patrick French’s The World is What It Is showed us a warts-and-all V.S. Naipaul with an admirable evenness of tone. Julian Barnes told us of how he, as a sometime atheist and current agnostic, deals with death in the graceful and aphoristic Nothing to be Frightened Of. And British Asian journalist Sathnam Sanghera’s touching If You Don’t Know Me By Know delved into a family history of schizophrenia with self-deprecating humour and compassion without ever being overwrought.

Rounding off this selection is the short How Fiction Works, another informed broadside by critic James Wood on the ways in which the realistic mode continues to be pre-eminent among novelists: even those who disagree can’t deny the closeness of Wood's reading, the connections he teases out or the ardour of his prose.

Bringing up the rear is a book published in 1961, but back in the limelight because of the just-released film version. Focus your attention once again on Richard Yates’ carefully-crafted Revolutionary Road, that affecting and troubling novel of marital discord symbolising the souring of the American Dream.

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