(This is part one of the four-part "Year In Books 2008" report I am publishing at CCLaP this week. Don't forget, if you've never done so, you might want to check out both the CCLaP Manifesto and the Ridiculously Long Guide to CCLaP's 10-Point Scoring System before reading these reports; also don't forget that books up to eighteen months old are eligible for this year-end list, meaning that some of the titles were actually published in 2007.)
So just like last year, of the 83 contemporary books I ended up reviewing in 2008, exactly ten of them received a score of 9.5 or above, all of them listed below in alphabetical order. These are not necessarily the absolutely best books I read this year, depending on what kind of specific literary fan you are; they are, however, the ones I most recommend for a large general audience, the ones I think every single reader at CCLaP should most check out.
American Transcendentalism: A History, by Philip Gura
As the US prepares to enter a brand-new era of its history, there has of course been increased interest in all the other past moments of major change as well; and that includes the now mostly forgotten "nation-building years" (the ones between the War of 1812 and the Civil War of 1860), a prosperous time of peace and optimism, when the country was far from being a world power and therefore could concentrate much more on simple domestic issues, on creating the nation's first pervasive public-education system and transportation infrastructure and more. And to understand those years, argues historian Philip Gura, one needs look no farther than the complex web of artists, social reformers and liberal theologians that made up what's now known as the Transcendentalist movement, a group that has fallen in stature during these modern times into esoteric obscurity, known now if at all mostly because of "that hippie Thoreau dude who lived in the woods for two years or some crap like that." These people deserve better, he argues; they were not only America's very first group of public intellectuals, not only established many of the best things about our modern cities (like parks, libraries, zoning laws and more), but also paved the way for such developments as women getting the vote, and just in general advocated a kind of anti-war, anti-consumerist, progressive vision for the country that we have never seen since. Or, well, not since Obama at least, which is the final reason to check out this remarkably tight and erudite volume -- so that it can teach us lessons about the coming Green New Deal, Rebuild America project and more.
All Shall Be Well..., by Tod Wodicka
If pressed, I would have to confess that this was personally one of my all-time favorite books of 2008, one of my favorites in fact since CCLaP opened in general -- a nearly perfect combination of character study and plot-based tragicomedy, which much like Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys takes the tired tropes of the well-worn literary subject of cranky academes and infuses them with new power and relevance. The story of Burt Hecker, a barely tolerable failed history teacher and current obsessive Medieval re-enactor, the entire point of this novel is to closely examine this deeply flawed egghead's life and bizarre behavior motivations; but far from being a stuffy go-nowhere "literary" tale, the whimsical and unique storyline actually takes us to all kinds of interesting places around the world, from the tony Victorian mansions of yuppie New England to the crumbling Roman ruins of western Germany, to a basement hipster music club in Prague and more. And more importantly, as the book progresses we learn that Burt isn't what he seems at first to be, changing the story from a comedy about the intelligentsia to a drama about parenting as it progresses. A delightful discovery, and one of those books for which I opened CCLaP in the first place, specifically so I would have the chance to promote -- ultra-smart, ultra-entertaining, something that will stick in your head long after finishing.
The Boy Detective Fails, by Joe Meno
Many people had already been obsessive fans of Chicago "indie-rock author" Joe Meno even before this book, although I admit I was not one of them; all that changed, though, with his latest full-length novel, a breakthrough that finally vaults this mid-career artist out of the ghetto of trendy pop-culture chroniclers and into the legitimate international contemporary canon. Less of a straight-ahead story and more like a Murakamiesque fever-dream, the book takes as its premise an interesting concept if not one ripe for jokey hacky excess; it follows the adult fates of various barely-disguised famous child detectives throughout literary history (the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, etc), showing how as grown-ups they are all to a T neurotic messes. Ah, but the secret is that Meno uses this gimmicky concept only as a starting-off point; by the time he's done, The Boy Detective Fails becomes a much more profound, unsettling, deeply strange meditation on loss and redemption, taking us in directions most wouldn't expect from the author of the Hornby-like Hairstyles of the Damned. An important book in Meno's career, the one people will point back to in the future and say, "Here's where everything changed for him."
by George, by Wesley Stace
Sometimes a book will come along that will reportedly concern itself with one specific subject, but then by the time it's done has ended up addressing an entire period of history through its particular filter; think for example of Alan Moore's Watchmen, which effectively was able to examine the entirety of American society from the 1930s through '80s through the specific trope of superheroes. And so it is with the astoundingly complex and surprising by George, which in its case examines an entire century of British culture (from the Victorian 1870s to the countercultural 1970s), through the fascinating prism of ventriloquism and other gimmicky live-stage acts. Advertised as a quirky, creepy thriller in which a stage dummy serves as the actual narrator, this was unfortunately the wrong way to market this surprisingly expansive story; it is instead a highly interwoven family saga, criss-crossing four generations and dozens of characters in a whole series of unique and interesting ways, providing us with a tight mesh of an uber-plot by the end, one full of tricky little meta-clues and in-jokes scattered along the way for the extra-astute reader. And most astounding of all, this isn't even the author's main job; turns out that Wesley Stace is none other than famed indie-rocker John Wesley Harding when he's not sitting in front of his typewriter.
Brasyl, by Ian McDonald
Is Ian McDonald the legitimate heir of the science-fiction "cyberpunk" movement of the 1980s? After all, he's made an entire career now out of the same kinds of stories, of imagining the ways that cutting-edge technology might be used illegally and on the fly in the future, bundled together with packing tape by amateurs in the noirish back alleys of the world's major slums. And so it is with his latest as well, the Hugo-nominated Brasyl, with a main storyline which relies heavily on the fantastical not-too-distant-future touches of a post-millennial Rio de Janeiro, using such actual phenomenon as million-person squatter communities to tell an utterly exciting and surprisingly mainstream-friendly genre actioner. But this is more than just a cyberpunk copycat; McDonald also manages to weave together far-future and steampunk storylines into the the whole thing, using such current hot topics as quantum mechanics to tie together a far-reaching hard-SF conceit over a sprawling 300 years of actual timeline. The kind of book that gives us William Gibson and Neal Stephenson fans a boner, and it was a crime that McDonald didn't win the Hugo this year for it.
The Gathering, by Anne Enright
Out of 83 contemporary books reviewed this year, this was the only single one to receive a perfect score of 10; and it also happens to be the winner of last year's Booker Prize, a surprise underdog choice that had literally sold only 1,500 copies in the entire UK beforehand, and hadn't even been published in America. And it's easy to see why people go so nuts for it, too, after you've read it yourself -- Enright turns out to be no less than the spiritual granddaughter of the early Modernist movement, a master of the tricky stream-of-consciousness voice, someone able to out-Woolf Virginia herself yet ultimately turn in a very readable and daresay even mainstream-friendly manuscript. The record of a frazzled middle-aged Irish woman over the course of a week, as she first travels to the British seaside resort town of Brighton to collect the body of her loser black-sheep brother, and then travels back to Dublin with it for the funeral and "gathering" ("wake" for you Americans), the novel in reality is much more an inner-brain meditation/monologue on the large, dysfunctional family the two were both shaped by, including the delicate question of whether they were or were not abused as children and have now repressed the memories. But make no mistake -- despite the plot itself hinging on this and other miserable depressing stereotypes (they drink! they fight! they're terrible spouses! they're guilty Catholics!), The Gathering is actually a hilarious and fast-moving book throughout most of its reasonable length, becoming by the end a much more worthwhile read than the usual "Irish downer." One of the strongest, most assured novels I read all year, and an example of why we fans of smart literature become ones to begin with.
Liverpool 800, edited by John Belchem
Believe it or not, one of the top-rated books of the year here turned out to be one of those giant oversized coffeetable tomes; oh, but what a tome! Commissioned to coincide not only with the city's 800th anniversary, but also its recent pick as an EU "Capital of Culture," the academically-compiled Liverpool 800 is not only one of the most exhaustive non-London UK city histories ever assembled, but a fine example of what exact kind of special, once-in-a-lifetime project can be put together under such circumstances when done the right way, a simply overwhelming thing that will take any lucky owner literally months or maybe even years to completely make their way through. Informative, fascinating, surprisingly readable, every city on this planet should be lucky enough to one day have such a survey compiled.
Petropolis, by Anya Ulinich
Is it just me, or does it seem like we are finally turning a corner on the subject of fiction concerning the immigrant experience? Once the exclusive domain of pithy little academic NPR-friendly delicacies, the genre seems to have matured recently to allow for more challenging and unique projects, ones that more question what we conventionally think of as the "coming to America experience;" take Anya Ulinich's Petropolis, for example, which turns out to be as much of a complex character study as anything else, as critical about America as it is loving, as well as an utterly fascinating look at a dying rural Russia in the face of the Soviet collapse. Raised in the infamous centrally-planned industrial town of "Asbestos II," our black Jewish overweight obnoxious antihero Sasha Goldberg is faced in her late teens with the same dilemma as every other young person there; to either make their way to Moscow through some scam or another (prostitution, college scholarship, whatever will get you there), or sit around their crumbling abandoned town in the middle of nowhere waiting to die (which will happen quickly, given the unsafe water supply and lack of doctors). It's this impetus that leads Sasha through the funny, sad, frustrating, sometimes heartbreaking saga we follow, first landing with a thud in the American Southwest as a mail-order bride, then traveling across the country through an informal network of fellow Russian Jewish immigrants, making things worse for herself at every turn through her often arrogant, difficult personality. This is the travel book for people who read too many travel books, who are sick of the usual touchstones of the genre and are looking for something jarringly original.
Sheep and Wolves, by Jeremy Shipp
I admit it -- although I'm not the biggest fan of story collections, I simply haven't been able to get the supremely disturbing Sheep and Wolves out of my head, the latest by alt-horror cult hero (and friend of CCLaP) Jeremy Shipp. Part of the "New Weird" movement you usually hear more about from the science-fiction side of things, this is for sure no Stephen King, and readers should be prepared for that; this is instead a look at what would happen if you combined the government-approved horrors of fascism with the crazed logic and utter barbarism of psychopaths (or in other words, imagine handing a serial killer a gun and a Homeland Security badge), all in an alternative reality where malignant supernatural creatures really do exist, and where a post-democracy society has transformed the human population into two groups of "hunters" and "the hunted." It's extremely rare anymore that a simple book can give me literal nightmares; but this one did, pretty much the highest compliment I can pay it.
World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks
Who would've guessed that one of the most politically astute books of the year would get its start in the decidedly gimmicky world of point-of-purchase one-offs? Yet here it is, a book that was originally advertised as a funny and lightweight fake oral history of a supposed future global zombie epidemic, penned by a former "Saturday Night Live" staffer who just happens to be the son of comedy legend Mel Brooks. But it turns out that World War Z is much more than that; turns out that Brooks merely uses zombies as a metaphor for any number of current political issues that have global impacts (economic meltdown, disease, natural disasters), showing through history and politics and logic how it is actually the Cold-War mentality of the Bush regime that is the least equipped to handle such contemporary crises, and ironically the ad-hoc nature of the emergent BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) who are best ready to handle such emergencies. Chilling, funny, eye-opening, with a central disastrous Army-zombie confrontation in Yonkers that was the scariest thing I read all year, this book is all set to be an explosively popular movie as well in 2009 (adapted by no less than the creator of cult favorite Babylon 5, on top of everything else); do yourself a favor and read this book now, and get yourself caught up on all the deserved hype.
So that's it for the ten highest-rated contemporary books at CCLaP for 2008; and make sure to stop by tomorrow for a look at ten books worth a second look, a list of highly accomplished projects that will nonetheless appeal to only a small specific crowd.