Signs of Life 2008: The Best Books We Read This Year
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For the second consecutive year, Paste asked a constellation of authors to share with us the books they admired most in the past year. We offer their thoughts, musings and endorsements with no further prologue—after all, you’ve got some reading to do.
Past Caring by Robert Goddard
[St. Martin’s Press, 1987]
The best books—yes, books—I’ve read this year are the mystery/thriller/suspense novels of a British writer named Robert Goddard. I happened on him by accident; a handful of his books have now been issued in America, but I had to get most of them direct from Britain, where he’s a bestseller. Goddard has written at an amazing pace—17 or 18 novels in as many years—but his writing is sharp and sometimes poetic. The stories, which usually center on well-kept secrets from the early part of the 20th century (in Closed Circle, the secret is a group of well-heeled British manufacturers who caused World War I) are amazing tricks of conjury. Here are surprises that really surprise. The protagonists (the books are stand-alones) are decent fellows out of their league who mostly—but not always—find a way to muddle through. These are authentic stay-up-late-to-finish stories, and there doesn’t seem to be a bad one in the bunch. The place to start is with Goddard’s first: Past Caring.
Stephen King’s latest book is Just After Sunset, a short-story collection. He spends his time in Maine and Florida.
Like Us: Primate Portraits by Robin Schwartz
[W.W. Norton & Company, 1993]
When I was younger, I remember my brother David giving me the Diane Arbus book with the twins on the cover. That book changed my life. Ray’s a laugh, by Richard Billingham was also life-changing. I think of the couple in that book a lot—they are scary and adorable at the same time. Look at those pictures and you’ll think twice before drinking your second 12-pack of beer. Like Us: Primate Portraits, by Robin Schwartz, is my new favorite book. The pictures are provocative and sensitive. Monkeys just make me laugh.
Amy Sedaris is co-creator, with Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello, of Comedy Central’s hit show Strangers with Candy and half of the Obie-winning “Talent Family” playwright team (with her brother, David). her book I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence is out in paperback.
American Farmer: The Heart of Our Country by Katrina Fried and Paul Mobley
[Welcome Books, 2008]
In 2004, Paul Mobley—a commercial photographer who’d spent 15 years working for industry giants—took a simple photograph of a farmer. He immediately thought, This is the most pure, honest photograph I’ve ever done. Then he went out and did a masterpiece of a book, American Farmer. It looks like a coffee table book, but it’s far more than that. Four years on the road, and out of 32,000 photographs, Mobley picked about 150 to share with us. The pictures are uncannily good, as is the narrative of spoken words from the farmers photographed. This book will get you thinking about what’s left that’s good about America, and what is precious about human beings.
Clyde Edgerton’s most recent novel, The Bible Salesman, was published by Little, Brown and Company in August.
The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
[The Dial Press, 2008]
When a writer gets a book contract, the first thing the publisher usually asks is if he or she knows any other writers who can ‘blurb’ the book. A blurb is an encomium—usually it’s from a friend, and usually it can be taken with a grain of salt. Blurbs are not particularly meaningful. However—a friend of mine, Hannah Tinti, recently published a book called The Good Thief. The words I wrote about it came straight from my heart: I wish I’d written this book. And I do. It’s a dark adventure about love and family and lots of other things as well, and it’s the best book I’ve read in a very long time.
Daniel Wallace wrote Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, which Tim Burton directed as the movie Big Fish. Wallace’s latest novel is Mr. Sebastian and the Negro Magician, (Doubleday, 2007).
The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman
[Penguin Press, 2007]
I can’t imagine a more richly marvelous book than The Principles of Uncertainty, by Maira Kalman. It’s not an easy book to describe, though. How does one explain a lushly illustrated, picaresque, tangential and rambling sort-of memoir that’s written mostly in captions and drawn like a children’s book, and is about coping with the devastations of mortality, but also about celebrating funny hats and strange chairs and fruit plates? And this description doesn’t even begin to cover it. So I don’t bother explaining this book anymore. I just buy it—by the crate-load—for everyone I love.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the bestselling memoir Eat, Pray, Love.