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Beth Reads: Best and Worst Reads of 2008


2008 was a decent year for books for me. I make an effort to read at least two books per month (preferably more). I fell a bit short this year, but given how busy I’ve been, and given that I KNOW I’ve forgotten at least a title or two, I feel fairly content. Also, most of what I read wasn’t crap, and for that I am thankful. Amen. So, on with the list!

Beth’s Best Books of 2008 (and Worst Books of 2008).

(Please note: these are just books I read in 2008, not necessarily books published in 2008).

Vernon God Little – DBC Pierre. – Oh Lord, I love this book. The voice took some adjusting to, and then I couldn’t put it down. The story of a young student suspected in connection with a high school shooting of sixteen other kids, and his struggle to clear his name and find the truth. Given the subject matter, this book had a lot more humour than I expected, even while it was heartbreaking. 8.5/10

Midnight Choir - Gene Kerrigan. – Mysterious, dark and bleak, this novel tells the story of Harry Synnott, a police detective in Galway, Ireland, and some of the crimes – both typical and baffling – that he comes up against. There’s also a lot of focus on distrust and interactions within the system. Despite its suspense and realistic, flawed characters, I found the book difficult to get into. This is one of the books that just didn’t grab me. That said, if you’re a big crime buff, this might be right up your alley. 6.5/10

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin -Louis de Bernieres. - I admit, I avoided this book foolishly, based on the fact that I’d seen the film with Nicolas Cage and Penelope Cruz advertised, and thought it looked like tripe. Illogical, I know – many an excellent book has been transformed into on-screen crap. And I’ve not even seen the movie. Perverse. Anyway, when I relented on the advice of a friend and read the book, I was delighted. I fell in love with the characters, the vivid scenic descriptions, and the subtle intertwining of plotlines. Set at the beginning of WWII, the novel follows several Greek main characters on their individual journeys through a time when their worlds are all beginning to change significantly. I highly recommend this one. 9/10

Kitchen -Banana Yoshimoto. (again) This is a bit of a cheat. I’ve read this book before, no fewer than five times. I love it. When the world seems too full of suicide bombings and global warming and people kicking puppies, I pull the covers over my head and read this book. Mikage is a young Japanese woman, who has jus
t lost her grandmother, and with her, the last of her blood relations. Adrift, shell-shocked and lonely, she finds warmth and refuge in an unlikely place – the apartment of Yuichi, the boy who worked at her grandmother’s favourite florist, and his mother Eriko. Strange and unusual people in strange and unusual circumstances, their arrangement nevertheless works, and comforts all of them, and redefines family. A beautiful book. 9/10

When You Are Engulfed in Flames – David Sedaris. I can’t lie. I love David Sedaris. I’ve bought everything by him on which I can put my grubby little paws, and when I ran out of him, I started buying up his sister’s stuff, too. I love David Sedaris, and if I could mainline his neurotic little self, I probably would. That said – this one? Not so much. Not his best. The parts about his stay in Japan were interesting, and among my favourite parts of the book, but they didn’t belong in this book. I think they should have been a novella on their own, or published as “Japan Journal” or something. They weren’t in keeping with the rest. I liked that he goes more into his personal life here – his relationship with Hugh, their love for and irritation with each other – and doesn’t just rely on surface humour, but overall, something is missing from the book. I liked it, sure, but I didn’t love it, and it’ll be a while before I read it again. Points, however, for the best cover. I loved this cover. 6.5/10

Watchmen – Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. Yes, yes, I read it because the Watchmenmovie is coming out. But it’s funny – I wonder whether the film’s release has anything to do with the recent turn toward real darkness and despair in comic/graphic novel culture? Anyone who has seen Batman: The Dark Knight has to admit – that was no kid’s movie. And same with Watchmen. I was surprised, reading it, at how twisted and demented it was, particularly the character of Rorschach. And not in the old way comics were twisted, the over-the-top antics of the villains who then laughed maniacally and trapped Batman and Robin in a giant spiderweb – this is bitter, misanthropic hatred. The villains seem more ill, more dangerous, more world-weary, like men who have snapped. Like Michael Douglas from Falling Down took it one step further, put on a costume, and decided to mete out his own brand of vigilante justice as a way of life. I was surprised at how text-heavy Watchmen was, too, and am ashamed at how long it took me to read it. But it was worth the time – it was a pretty excellent graphic novel, and one you shouldn’t miss if you’re a fan of the genre. 8/10

Black Hole – Charles Burns. oh MAN I loved this book. How entirely creepy and surreal and hug-yourself-warm-again freaky. There’s a new sexually transmitted disease in town, only rather than your garden-variety itching/burning/critters, this one manifests itself differently in everybody who contracts it – from mild to macabre, everybody gets their own special mutation. Some get gills, some get tentacles, some get a second little talking mouth, whispering its own sick musings, square on their neck. Driven out by society, some of these mutants go to live in the woods. The warped, spine-chilling twists and turns of events in their struggle to survive is enough to make anyone want to leave the lights on. I’m a big fan of this book, and of Charles Burns in general. Burns also recently had a vignette in the monochromatic, animated anthology film Fears of the Dark (Peurs du Noir), which if you haven’t seen it, is definitely worth a watch. 9/10

The Pilot’s Wife – Anita Shreve. If you like long walks on the beach, a warm cup of International House coffee, the feeling of a cool summer breeze in your hair, and crap writing that can’t decide whether it’s a bad mystery novel, a bad romance novel or a bad thriller, this book is for you. It was not, however, for me. What a cloyingly predictable, steaming pile of written manure. I shan’t waste anymore time on it. Poo. Only points are for the fact that I did keep reading to the end. I’m such a masochist.3/10

Perfume - Patrick Suskind. This book was so horrible. Not in that it’s a bad book by any means – quite the opposite, in fact. No, this book is horrible because its main character is loathsome, vile and grotesque. Grenouille (French for ‘frog’) is off-putting from the very first; as a baby, he is abandoned by his mother to a kindly monk, then rejected by the revolted monk to a convent, where he falls under the detached care of an emotionless woman with no sense of smell. Grenouille himself has such a keen, heightened sense of smell that it virutally consumes him. Every minute of every day, hsi nostrils quiver, seeking, finding, tasting, inhaling new scents. In his adult life he becomes an unparalleled perfumer, learning to distill things (roses, lavender, vanilla beans) in alcohol to capture their aromatic essence. It isn’t long, however, before Grenouille’s voracious nose scents out a unique, inimitable odour – that of a beautiful young woman. What a hateful man. What a skin-crawling narrative. What an excellent book. 8.5/10

Black Swan Green – David Mitchell. Life is hard as a 13 year old boy. Jason has a stutter that plagues him, and he has to go to a speech therapist for it, which makes him feel like even more like a sore thumb than usual. He lives in a small English town, and horror of horrors, writes poetry. He is sure he’s a freak, and spends an inordinate amount of time ensuring his interactions with others come off with a practiced coolness. By turns funny and sympathetic, Black Swan Green is a simple book that despite its simplicity evokes a lot of emotion and is difficult to get out of your head when you’re finished it. I liked it a lot. 7.5/10

Elle – Douglas Glover. Canadian author Douglas Glover published Elle in 2007. It’s a strange tale that changes startlingly at two different points in the narrative. A young French woman in the 16th century, in punishment for repeated offenses (carnal and other) is kicked off the exploration ship on which she travels, and marooned on a desolate island with her nurse/maid and a would-be hero, both of whom die off fairly quickly, leaving her to fend for herself with little to no survival skills. The book, simply put, is weird. The writing is strong, descriptive and at times graphic, pulling no punches and very honest. The tale itself is what’s weird; fever dreams, hallucinations, mythical sagas and reality all tend to blur together in the second half of the novel. The protagonist changes drastically, both inside and out, as a result of her journey. I liked it, didn’t love it, but I think it’s mostly personal preference – the writing was very strong, but the story didn’t fascinate me all that much. 6.5/10

Choke – Chuck Palahniuk One would think a book about a sex addict might be, well, sexy. Please note: not so. Never have I felt less aroused than while reading this book, which often describes sex as if it were a chore, an unfortunate yet desperate need, something more necessity than pleasure, and regrettable, yet entirely without choice. In all his usual gritty, visceral glory, Palahniuk made my stomach churn a little bit on a couple of occasions. It isn’t exactly a stretch for Palahniuk, and it’s a bit formulaic – the main character has unresolved issues with his mother (surprise). However, the main character’s struggles – as a poor excuse for an actor, as a sex addict, as a man, as a son – are written sincerely, and he feels genuine. The text is also somewhat redemptive toward the end, which felt satisfying to read. 7/10

Vox - Nicholson Baker. There’s no plot to this novel, no reason for it, other than I think Baker had the conversation in his head and wanted to write it down. Fortunately, it’s pretty good. It’s erotic fiction, and the entire thing is a marathon telephone conversation between a man and a woman, both of whom called one of those 1-900 “party” lines you find in the back of certain magazines. Each of them were bored, with low expectations, and end up finding they have a lot to talk about. It’s by no means an important book, but it’s funny in bits, and very sexy in bits, and does go a fair ways to some creative fantasizine, and it’s a really engaging read. For the genre, it’s one of the better I’ve read. It’s no Anais Nin, but I’ll take it. 7.5/10

Vacation – Deb Olin Unferth. One of the books-of-the-month from McSweeney’s, whose tastes I trust almost without exception, I expected to love this book. And I wasn’t disappointed. Frankly, Vacation is crushing. In some cases, literally – one of the main characters falls/jumps out a window as a child, and spends the rest of his life with a misshapen, crushed skull – unbeknownst to him. It’s easy, in the context of the novel, to suspend one’s disbelief and accept that, somehow. The novel, told flat-out, could be the banal goings-on of some fairly unhappy people: couples that no longer love each other and wonder where the love went; angry people who can’t forgive or forget the past; unsatisfied people wondering what became of their youth, and seeking to blame others for the miserable passage of time. But it carries with it a sense of mystery, and the unknown. The behaviour of the players is fascinating, unpredictable, yet makes sense when explained. It’s a wistful book, and I felt quite unhappy when finishing it – both because of the power of the words, and because I was sad to see it end. 8.5/10

Portnoy’s Complaint -Philip Roth. I didn’t love it, but I ended up liking it better than I initially thought I would. 6.5/10

The Haunting - Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery is on my top five short stories of all time list, so I thought I’d give this a go when I had some time to kill in a little used bookstore in Port Angeles, WA. I feel my review will be unfair, because I unfortunately saw the film adaptation of this a few years back, and when I bought the book I didn’t realize it was the book from which that movie – that terrible, craptastic, ridicule-wortht movie – came. Still, even after I realized, I tried to read it separately (this is why I never, knowingly, see the movie before I read the book). One thing I will say – Shirley Jackson does spine-tingling suspense expertly. There’s a passage in the book that’s particularly terrifying, and I had difficulty going to sleep that night. It was very effective. One of the main characters, the character whose head the reader lives in, goes mad, and this is where the real genius of the book lies – the characters thought processes slowly and almost impercetibly become less logical, more paranoid, more sludgy with demented nonsense, to the point where the reader is questioning everything right along with her. I wish I had read this book before seeing the movie (or not seeing it at all), but the book was still very good. 7.5/10

Blue Ribbon WinnerUnless – Carol Shields. I loved it. So much. It was perfect. There really isn’t enough good I can say about this book. It broke my heart and made me laugh and made me want to read it again, immediately, upon putting it down. I’m only getting to know Carol Shields the last couple of years, and I’m so sad she’s passed away, as she won’t be writing any more, and that is a huge loss. I’m excited that I have so many books of hers left to read, but I’m going to read them slowly. Read my whole review. 10/10

The Gargoyle – Andrew Davidson. I liked this a lot, too. What an engaging read. It’s casually written without sounding slangy or annoying, and fantastical enough that while one has to suspend their disbelief, one does – at least in my case – with an immediate shrug of surrender. The main character is a pornstar and drug addict, who, while drunk one night, has a hallucination of arrows from the forest, and as a result crashes his car and sets fire to his own crotch. He’s burned to within an inch of his life. He starts off self-pitying, boring and kind of gross, but becomes fascinating as his character heals along with his body, with the help of a woman, with whom he of course falls in love, who claims to have known him for over 700 years. Damn fine, entertaining read. 8/10

Memoirs of a Survivor – Doris Lessing. This is my first Doris Lessing. I’m embarrassed to admit I found her writing very inaccessible. To begin with, it’s written in the first person, but also is so entirely internal that we never manage to feel any understanding for the other characters outside of those feelings of the woman we embody as the reader. She’s a private, quiet, very introspective character, and her dialogue is extremely minimal, so the entire book is within her head. I felt this more strongly than with any other book I’ve read. The novel, almost more of a novella in its length, is dystopian. It details the breakdown of society, and a return to more rudimentary struggles, for water, for food, for safety, for energy. The savagery of some of the wanderers brought Cormac McCarthy’s The Road very strongly to mind, though this is a far cry from the horrors of that book. Part magical realism, part cautionary tale and part moral narrative, I finished Memoirs of a Survivor and had the immediately unsatisfying feeling of “That was a good book. But I don’t think I ‘get it’.” Unscored, because I don’t think I should rate something I didn’t particularly grasp.

Women – Charles Bukowski. What a filthy, unapologetic old miscreant. I want to hate “Henry Chinaski” (the alcoholic, German-American poem-writing anti-hero who consumes women like cheetos and throws up almost every morning. But the thing is, it’s hard to. You actually end up laughing a lot, and feeling kind of sorry for the guy. I don’t usually find self-loathing appealing, but when it’s tinged with this much humour, it works. Chinaski sees humour in everything, takes almost nothing personally, and lives one day to the next as best he can, taking pleasure where he can find it, and trying not to do too much damage. He’s impossible to admire at best, revolting and despicable at worst, but he makes for a really great read. 8/10

What about you? Leave a comment – what was your favourite, and your least favourite, book you read this year?

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Beth Carswell

About Beth Carswell

I've been reading, selling, researching, loving and writing about books with AbeBooks since 2000.

4 Responses to “Beth Reads: Best and Worst Reads of 2008”

  1. I read Watchmen for the first time this year as well, to and from Las Vegas, with news reports of vanishing polar ice caps in the newspaper. It all gave me a tremendous sense of dread about this world we live in. I did love it though. It lived up to its hype.

    I see you mentioned Choke. I read Palahniuk’s Rant this year, and enjoyed it quite a bit. In fact I might revisit it again shortly.

  2. I’m sure many would deem this book merely a bit of fluff but Sophie Kinsella’s “Undomestic Goddess” turned out to be the perfect vacation book for me.

    A light, cute tale of a jLondon lawyer who unexpectedly finds herself employed as domestic help in the country, it reminds you that you need to take time to stop and enjoy the people and things around you.

    The book’s merit is pure entertainment but if you’re looking for something to simply relax with, it’s a great book.

  3. I really enjoyed Perfume, and found Grenouille fascinating – he experiences the world through smell, much as an animal does, rather than primarily through vision, as most humans do. Had the protagonist been so struck by the appearance of a woman that it drove him mad, rather than by her scent, I think we would respond to him with less distaste.

    Humanity may underestimate the importance of the olfactory sense, or at least not recognize consciously how much it affects and influences us. Smell acts as a warning, an enticement, a stimulus to appetite, and is one of the primary triggers of memory.

    Interesting that merely making a sense other than vision the primary one in a human created a creature quite alien. While I also found Grenouille loathsome, I must admit I also found him an object of pity.

  4. Vacation was my favorite 2008 book that I read in 2008.
    Malcolm X was my favorite non 2008 book that I read in 2008.
    That book made it so that I mostly forgot the rest of the books I read.

    Anyway, I recommend restarting Midnight Choir. It’s slower and more procedural than any one episode of Law and Order (proper) but I felt that it was entirely worth it. My favorite book from last year.