BEST OF 2008: Geoff's picks
Nine books — six nonfiction and three fiction — published in 2008 earned my strong recommendation.
“Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands” by Michael Chabon. Chabon is the best writer of English on the planet, and his nonfiction is nearly as good as his fiction. “Maps and Legends” is a great read for anyone remotely interested in the craft of writing, the business of books and the secrets of living.
“The Library at Night” by Alberto Manguel. Manguel writes books about books and reading and writing and writers. His latest is, more or less, a history of libraries. But it’s not a dry recitation of names and dates, it’s a lyrical appreciation of libraries through the ages. Manguel is one of a handful of writers in the world who can convince a publisher to print a book like this.
“The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop” by Lewis Buzbee. Buzbee spent many years working in good independent bookstores, and this book is a memoir of his career in the trade. This may not sound like much, but Buzbee manages to pull it off as a celebration of bookstores, the people who work in them and the books on the shelves. Anyone who is drawn to bookstores and loses track of the time once inside will appreciate this memoir.
“A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World” by Tony Horwitz. What a great way to learn history. Horwitz explores the history of America before the Pilgrims showed up by traveling to the historic sites and interviewing people. It’s part travel narrative, part history. With Horwitz’s sense of humor evident throughout, this book in no way resembles the musty textbooks you endured in school.
“The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life: His Own” by David Carr. Carr, a respected New York Times reporter, once was a hard-core drug addict, drug dealer and all-around screwed-up dude. He uses his reportorial skills to dig up records and interview friends, family and colleagues to discover just how messed up his life was. It’s a fascinating read on several levels.
“The Forever War” by Dexter Filkins. Based in Afghanistan and Iraq for years as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, Filkins insisted on being front and center for all the action. This book, a seamless blending of his newspaper reporting and personal recollections, is one of the most engrossing and illuminating yet about the Iraq war and occupation.
“Northline” by Willy Vlautin. Vlautin, who grew up in Reno, is the lead singer and songwriter for the respected indie rock band Richmond Fontaine. But he’s an even better novelist, as his first book, “The Motel Life,” and this one attest. Vlautin’s stripped-down style and sympathetic narratives about ordinary folks meandering through life strongly suggest the “dirty realism” of Raymond Carver. Half of “Northline” is set in Las Vegas.
“The English Major” by Jim Harrison. Harrison is a literary legend, perhaps best known for his novella collection “Legends of the Fall,” which resulted in the Brad Pitt movie of the same name. His latest novel adopts his late-period style, which is casual first-person storytelling from a perspective greatly resembling the author’s. Regardless of what I am reading at the time, when a new Jim Harrison novel comes out, I dive right into it.
“Beautiful Children” by Charles Bock. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Bock was one of the year’s big literary stories with this doorstop of a novel set in his hometown. The New York Times hailed Bock as the next young literary star, but some local critics were less than enthused, calling his uber-dark novel unwieldy and unconvincing. I’d split the difference. “Beautiful Children” has multiple sections of breathtaking prose that shouldn’t be missed, but they are diamonds to be sifted from a mountain of rubble.
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