The Best Books of 2008

Books Features

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.

Stephen King
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.

Amy Sedaris
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.

Clyde Edgerton
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.

Daniel Wallace
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).

Elizabeth Gilbert
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.

Hillary Jordan
Song Yet Sung by James McBride
[Riverhead, 2008]
I gobbled down Song Yet Sung in two sittings, and if I hadn’t had dinner plans, it would have been one. This engrossing tale follows the desperate flight of a beautiful, prescient runaway slave in 1850s Maryland. McBride has created a cast of indelible characters, led by heroine Liz Spocott, who is wracked by visions of a terrifying (and to the modern reader, all too familiar) future; and Patty Cannon, the slave trader who is hunting her, and who makes Nurse Ratched look kindly by comparison. Love and hatred, compassion and betrayal, terror and redemption: All the good stuff is here.

Hillary Jordan is the author of Mudbound, the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association Fiction Book of the Year and winner of the 2006 Bellwether Prize for Fiction.

Laura Tohe
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
[Little, Brown Young Readers, 2007]
I always thought Sherman Alexie was a better poet than fiction writer, but with his latest book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, he proves he can also write young-adult fiction. The protagonist, a Spokane Indian born with “grease on the brain” (cerebral spinal fluid), lives with so many minuses against him you wonder how he keeps from taking an overdose of glass cleaner. Alexie is like a conductor waving his wand between the utterly tragic despair of rez (reservation) life and the elusive hope that may be found off the rez. Every time he made me want to cry, he brought me back with humor and his poetic eye that expresses what it means to be a human being at any age.

Laura Tohe is a poet. She wrote the English-and-Navajo libretto for Enemy Slayer: A Navajo Oratorio, which premiered in 2008. It’s the first major symphonic work with text by a Native American writer.

Roy Blount Jr.
Lamentations of the Father by Ian Frazier
[Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008]
As an American I cannot fail to recommend a book in which an essay on the American essence begins:

George Washington dabbed a few drops of fragrance behind his ears and turned from his dressing table to face the handsome Marquis. The question remained unspoken between them, hanging in the candlelight.

“More brandy, General?” The Marquis broke the silence.

“No thank you. I don’t like what it does to my face.”

Also collected here is the author’s confession that he was married “for a time to the actress Elizabeth Taylor.” So don’t get any ideas.

Roy Blount Jr. is a humorist, sportswriter, poet, performer, lecturer, dramatist and the author of many books. His latest, Alphabet Juice (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), was reviewed in the November issue of Paste.

Tom Bissell
Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein
[Scribner, 2008]
How do Republicans sell themselves, election after election, as vanguards of a middle class for which they do nothing? Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland answers this question and many, many more. I cannot recall reading a book that better explained my own country to me, or that made me more sympathetic to people whose views and politics are quite different from my own. Above all else, it made me realize that the 1960s—with its burning ghettos, endless riots, numerous assassinations and disintegrating commonwealth—makes our cultural contretemps rather mild by comparison.

Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea; God Lives in St. Petersburg: and Other Stories; and The Father of All Things. In 2006, he was awarded the Rome Fellowship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He currently lives in Tallinn, Estonia.

Thomas Cahill
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
[Viking Adult, 2008]
The Secret Scripture is a great novel about a 99-year-old woman, an inmate at an Irish mental hospital. Most of the story is told in her words as she writes a secret memoir, trying to understand the truth of her life. The other voice is that of her therapist, almost as keen to resolve the mystery. In her youth, the woman was wrongly committed, but only toward the end do we discover how such an injustice was perpetrated. The resolution is shocking, but the ending is exalting. Along the way are some of the most beautifully formed prose passages I have ever read.

Thomas Cahill is the author of How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe and other best-sellers, most recently Mysteries of the Middle Ages: the Rise of Feminism, Science, and Art from the Cults of Catholic Europe.

Charles McNair
How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic
[Grove Press, 2008]
Editors selected a stock photo for the cover of this remarkable debut novel. It shows a man in a suit playing an accordion, ocean behind him, sand under his feet. By freakish chance, the man in the photo turned out to be Daniel Handler, who—as Lemony Snicket—penned a hugely popular children’s series. This same sense of unbelievable, wonderful chance infuses Stanisic’s novel, a piercing and intelligent account of a young Bosnian watching his country fall into chaos. It’s the best novel I’ve read from continental Europe in 10 years—Márquez meets Grass, with a talented writer still in his 20s playing the chords.

Charles McNair is Paste’s books editor and the author of Land O’ Goshen, a novel.

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