I'm one of those who tends to believe "best of" lists deal with books published during that particular year. For the second year in a row, I regret that approach. Therefore, I'm modifying my standard "best of" list so I can include the best book I read this year.
Books I Wish I'd Read The Year They Were Released
One of the unusual things about my 2008 reading is that perhaps the two best books I read during the year were read within a week of each other – in January. Given that I've developed a fascination with world literature over the last two years, it doesn't surprise me that both were translated works.
Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, originally published in Norway in 2003 and reaching the U.S. in 2007, was as unhurried as its central character. As he contemplates his life in retirement, Petterson's approach and story kept bringing to mind both Philip Roth's Everyman and Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, two of my favorite books of the last several years. (If you're not familiar with either of those works, do yourself a favor and read them.) True, throwing an author in with Robinson and Roth is high praise. Petterson deserves it. Out Stealing Horses is a quiet and unpretentious masterpiece.
More painful emotionally and psychologically was Dorothea Dieckmann's Guantanamo, released in the U.S. in the fall of 2007. It does what excellent fiction should do — transport us to places we can’t go. Here, that place is inside the mind of a prisoner at the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Rashid is a 20-year old nonpracticing Muslim born and raised in Germany who is half Indian and half German. The physical effects of his arrest, treatment, imprisonment and interrogations are certainly central to Rashid's thoughts, memories, and emotions and they are described in haunting detail. But this is an equally haunting investigation of the psyche. Dieckmann's concise yet eloquent prose takes us on a harrowing journey that at times borders on a fever dream. I remain amazed that a book first published in Germany in 2004 so skillfully gives us a view of the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. How much did I like it? I now consider it one of my "desert island books."
Best Novel Published In 2008
While not a translated work, my favorite novel published in 2008 is also by a foreign author. The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry was a finalist for the Mann Booker prize. In my opinion, held by many others, it should have won the award.
The book consists of two written accounts set against the backdrop of the sectarian and religious politics of 20th century Ireland. One is from Roseanne McNulty, a woman believed to be about 100 years old who has been in mental institutions for more than 60 years. The other is Dr. Grene, the senior psychiatrist at Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital, where he has worked for 30 years and Roseanne has lived for 50. As both versions unfold, we are taken inside Roseanne's devastated life, one seemingly battered by persons and forces beyond her control. Although the ultimate truth is probably somewhere between the two versions, there is no question she was a victim of the struggles between Unionists and Nationalists, Catholics and Protestants, and the combination of them. Roseanne tells her story beautifully through Barry's enticing, nearly flawless prose. She draws us in so that we begin to feel just how heart-rendering her downfall is, brought about by events both significant and innocuous. Grene's voice is more analytical. Still, the problems in his personal life tend to soften it when necessary and, at times, Roseanne seems to do more for Grene than he has for her. The various counterpoints make for an exceptional whole.
Deserving of honorable mention are Marilynne Robinson's Home, which continues the exquisite examination of life, faith and family begun in Gilead, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslamin, which, among other things, contains the unforgettable image of nailing books to a ceiling to preserve them from destruction by the Taliban.
Finally, as long as I'm talking about novels and world lit, I should at least mention Roberto Bolaño's 2666. I know it received tons of praise and made a significant majority of 2008's "best of" lists. The book is intriguing and Bolaño undoubtedly was pondering great thoughts and ideas. But Bolaño's frequent extensive diversions into gratuitous information and tangents left me feeling I'd been led on far too many side roads.
Favorite Nonfiction Work Published In 2008
While I read a lot of good nonfiction that was published in 2008, I can't say any of them really bowled me over. Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss probably topped the list. Part philosophical discourse (with a taste of the curmudgeon) and part travelogue, Weiner uses the World Database of Happiness (yes, there is such a thing) as the starting point for his search. He visits Amsterdam (home of the World Database) and countries where the level of happiness or contentedness is viewed as being greater than other countries. As these include Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, and Iceland, it becomes clear that happiness is not determined by climate, per capita income, or religion. All in all, it is 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 who 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.
Biggest Disappointment in 2008 Books
Probably Paul Auster's Man in the Dark. Auster 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 ultimately and almost abruptly abandoned and the focus becomes the critic's rather mundane and ordinary thoughts.