December 30, 2008

The Year In Books 2008: Worth a second look

The CCLaP Year In Books 2008

(This is part two 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.)

Yesterday I had the chance to profile the ten highest-scoring books at CCLaP this year, although warned people that they might not find them technically the ten absolutely best books reviewed here in 2008, depending on what kind of reader they are; and that's because many of the books featured here will turn out to be brilliant but will still only appeal to a limited audience, a situation which will often earn a title a score in the 8s despite the quality of the book itself. Here then are ten of the best of such titles from this year, listed as always in alphabetical order.

All About Lulu
All About Lulu, by Jonathan Evison
Of all the bad things I'm guilty of as a book critic (and I'm often guilty of some pretty bad things), perhaps my most regular crime is that of giving short shrift to quirky coming-of-age novels, because of reading one zillion freaking one of them now myself and getting awfully sick of their usual tropes. And so did I probably give too low a score to Jonathan Evison's All About Lulu when first reviewing it; this sleeper hit from Soft Skull is actually better than my original essay maybe made it seem. It's essentially the tale of an introspective nerd in the midst of a family of meathead weightlifters, one who finds solace and flirtatious companionship with his wiseass same-age step-sister (or would-be step-sister, in that their parents are merely shacking up instead of getting remarried); this budding love story, though, is put to an end about a third of the way through, by a family secret that unfortunately won't be very secret to veterans of this genre, about my only major complaint. The rest of the book, then, shows how the twosome's mutual journeys into adulthood are shaped by these pubescent events; and much like Forrest Gump, Evison uses this as an excuse as well to examine all the various youth-culture trends of the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s (including grunge music, slam poetry, feminist stripping, the straightedge lifestyle and more). Destined by its nature to appeal more to the young, it's a book that all of you in your twenties should definitely check out in detail, if not necessarily my fellow middle-agers.

Bridge of Sighs
Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo
And now on the opposite spectrum, let's talk about the growing challenge among aging beatniks and hippies to still find compelling literature that speaks directly to them; and that leads us to former Pulitzer winner Richard Russo and his quietly impressive latest, Bridge of Sighs. One of those infamous character-heavy, plot-light academic tomes I'm always fretting about here, this book manages the rare feat of elevating itself above the usual trappings of "literary fiction," although admittedly the main point of reading it is nonetheless for the attention to detail and language Russo pays. But the tale is something else as well, a look back on the shiny Modernist dream that Kennedy promised an entire generation of young baby boomers -- that if you simply toil anonymously at a thankless job for forty years, and defer all your personal dreams, the system will afford you a fabled old age of leisure and luxury and creativity -- then examining where this promise went wrong, all through the eyes of a genial New England convenience-store owner and the small town that transforms itself for the worse over the decades right in front of us. Smart yet languidly paced, this is not necessarily for the hipsters, but rather a highly appropriate gift for their parents on their next impossible-to-shop-for birthday.

Castle Waiting
Castle Waiting, by Linda Medley
What a delightful public service Fantagraphics provided us all last year, picking up the obscure, shuttered, self-published '90s comic Castle Waiting by Linda Medley and saving it from desolation; the book being recommended today is a lush hardbound collection of the original run, with the company also putting out brand-new issues as we speak. It's essentially a witty postmodern fairytale told expressly in a way to appeal the most to all you smart genre-loving nerd girls; imagine Buffy but if Joss Whedon had been a woman, The X-Files if Scully and Mulder had been lesbians. Set in the abandoned former kingdom of Sleeping Beauty, crumbling and forgotten ever since she ran off with that blowhard Prince Charming, the castle in question has become a funky alternative community of sorts for all of loredom's most lovable losers, all of them gathering Canterbury-Tales style and telling each other the stories of their former lives. A great book to read a little at a time while you're falling asleep each night.

The Faith Between Us
The Faith Between Us, by Peter Bebergal and Scott Korb
Along with the collapse of Bushism this year has been the collapse of something even more important -- and that's of the radical right having exclusive ethical domain over Christianity, of this automatic assumption that to have a spiritual faith also means to be for censorship and abortion-clinic bombing and fag-bashing. And thus are you starting to see more and more progressive intellectuals "come out of the spiritual closet" these days, including hipster writers Peter Bebergal (a Jew) and Scott Korb (a Christian); the two of them it turns out have been having a whole series of private conversations throughout the 2000s concerning all kinds of religious and ethical issues, which inspired them to put together this formal collection of point/counterpoint-style essays. They essentially ask out loud the kinds of questions many CCLaP readers are bound to be asking themselves quietly these days too -- how to save face among artists when you don't like being a coke-snorting moral relativist, how to explore personal spirituality when you may despise organized religion, and all kinds of other tricky questions that religious Americans unfortunately simply haven't been asking much over the last thirty years, not since the rise and virtual takeover of the religious conversation in this country by the Evangelical movement. Definitely not for you atheists and agnostics, but an essential volume for any young creative grappling these days with their faith in a modern and changing world.

Gradisil
Gradisil, by Adam Roberts
Let's make no mistake about this science-fiction thriller, that it will not appeal to fans of traditional space operas despite that splashy cover; very little from an action standpoint actually "happens" in this fake oral history of the 21st century, with it instead showing us the chaotic, heavily political, lawsuit-infused story of how humans first colonized space (in an anarchic, libertarian way), then eventually fought a very real war of independence against all the various earth-bound nations who wanted a stake of them (through the leadership of the "Gradisil" of the book's title, a Gandhi-like figure with an ultra-complicated background and personality). Those who like speculative histories, however, are sure to pee their pants in pure delight at the highly believable, highly innovative timeline on display here; turns out that in Roberts' world, the Bushists essentially maintain control over the US government for decades, turning our country by the 2050s into a legitimate semi-fascist state and igniting a second Cold War, this time against the liberal peace-loving EU. The two are all set to use this "Offworlder" collection of eccentric trillionaires as pawns over a mighty futuristic global battle of legal might and military superiority; so how Gradisil and a couple of hundred unarmed settlers manage to beat both superpowers anyway is an astounding tale indeed, one that relies as much on tricky loopholes in international courts as it does laserguns and dead space soldiers. A brilliant piece of genre work, but only for those who like their stories heady and talky.

The Heart of a Cult
The Heart of a Cult, by Lena Phoenix
Every so often a book will come along that, although maybe not the best thing ever written, very perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its times, or in other words becomes the very definition of a pick in Oprah's Book Club; take for example Lena Phoenix's The Heart of a Cult, a novel with its flaws but that I've found has still profoundly stuck around in my head even months after finishing. A semi-autobiographical tale from a self-admitted "New Age burnout," the book takes a look at one of those passive-aggressively nefarious "It Takes A Village" style encounter groups, so prevalent in such crystal-sporting enclaves as Taos and Boulder and San Jose, showing how the combination of lessons learned about cults in the '70s with the breezy consumerism of McMansions and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition can prove an irresistible pull sometimes to millions of otherwise sane, rational, college-educated middle-class women who just happen to be going through life crises, with these groups able to quite handedly suck tens of thousands of dollars out of such victims through the easily impressive trappings of Scientologic psychobabble and combed Egyptian cotton linen. It's an eye-opening look at the modern cult phenomenon, a truly different and scarier monster than the goofy countercultural Satanic excesses of the Manson-Family '60s, the dark side of Martha Stewart and Hillary Clinton that rarely gets discussed on the Lifetime channel.

The Night Climbers
The Night Climbers, by Ivo Stourton
This is not necessarily the best book I read in 2008, but certainly one of the best literary debuts I read this year, a much better than average first novel from a high-profile British journalist, that deliberately echoes the retro stylings of the Jazz Age to examine the excesses of the Blair-and-Bush 2000s. Essentially the tale of an everyman within the fabled "Oxbridge" academic system, peeking in at the filthy rich dysfunctional families of the old UK aristocracy, Stourton uses the real phenomenon of "extreme urban climbing" as a nice framing device for the noirish plot, which in a nutshell is the story of a bunch of spoiled trust-fund kids whose revenue streams are cut off, and the ill-fated criminal scheme they hatch to keep them all rolling in drug and bling-bling money. But like many such books, the potboilerish plot is actually an excuse to look at an entire society of entitled little monsters, the point less to see what happens with the disastrous actual crime and more to examine what makes all these people tick in the first place, and especially the charming yet sociopathic cross-race politician's son in the center of our group of codependent friends. Not necessarily worth picking up unless you're already a fan of pulp fiction and Brideshead Revisited; if you are, though, you will for sure not want to let this one pass you by.

Passenger
Passenger, by Ronald Malfi
This is the second novel in two years I've reviewed by this alt-horror veteran, and in both cases I felt afterwards like maybe I didn't do these books justice; and that's easy to do in these cases, frankly, in that Malfi turns out to be a much quieter and more atmospheric writer than the usual hacky scary-tale authors who make up the majority of this genre. The fact is that Malfi owes as much to Southern Gothic as he does regular Gothic as far as major influences, and is as indebted to William Faulkner as he is Clive Barker; the main reason to enjoy Malfi's slowly-paced stories, in fact, is to wallow in the deep and sultry mood he establishes in them, with actual storylines that often go nowhere but that make us glad we followed along anyway. In this case it's the Mementoesque tale of a confused amnesiac in Baltimore, stumbling his way in and out of a whole series of bizarre, quietly creepy David-Lynchian style environments in the inner city, getting involved with violent jazz musicians and becoming obsessed with the city bus line where he first regains consciousness; there's not a lot that actually "happens" over the course of the manuscript, frankly, which is why my original review maybe came across as less than stellar, although I have to admit that it's a real treat to merely plod around in Malfi's fully-realized world for a couple of days once every year or so. He's one of those genre writers I really love and respect, toiling away in relative obscurity so that he can maintain a consistent unique vision; such projects deserve bigger audiences than they usually have, and Passenger is no exception.

Snuff
Snuff, by Chuck Palahniuk
And speaking of reasons to revisit an author on an annual basis, it wouldn't be a year in books without yet another new creepy title from Master Of The Uncomfortable Chuck Palahniuk, in this case an extremely unsettling look at the modern online phenomenon of hateful "gonzo porn," as always filtered through a semi-fantastical plotline that very slyly highlights such vice-based pop-culture references as an aging Peter North, a nihilistic Jenna Jameson, and the disgusting Max Hardcore. If you don't know who any of these people are, or have never heard of such alarming adult video series as "Bang Bus" or "German Goo Girls," then you may want to skip this book altogether; then again, this might be the very reason you'll want to pick it up, to look at an extremely disturbing part of modern Western culture that rarely if ever gets discussed out loud among polite company, and of the utter psychopathia that fuels and inspires this latest wave of soul-killing extreme pornography that has plagued the edges of the internet for the last half-decade now. Destined to be conventionally known as a trendy minor work, I think Snuff is a lot better than that, a book that can definitely hold its own against such previous masterpieces by the same author as Fight Club and Rant; but for sure be aware that this was the most disturbing mainstream book published in 2008, one capable of inspiring legitimate nightmares if a person is not already familiar with the subject at hand.

The Words of Every Song
The Words of Every Song, by Liz Moore
What? A novel about the music industry, written by a popular working musician, that doesn't completely suck? That can't be! And yet here it is, a complex and inventive story cycle in the style of Tama Janowitz's '80s art-industry classic The Slaves of New York, which has as its saving grace something that at first sounds even more ludicrous; that instead of being a look at a precious little indie-rock outfit, Moore's novel is actually a sprawling epic about a major label, which gives the book the advantage of not only referencing self-absorbed cock-rockers but also overweight teenage pop idols, twee and dysfunctional classical musicians, burned-out '70s icons entrenched in corporate money, even the bitter failed musicians making up the label's secretarial staff. And even better, the whole thing is held together through an inventive and impressive Robert-Altman "vertical storytelling" style (think Nashville for the MySpace Generation), a difficult framework for a novel that takes an exceptional talent to pull off, even more remarkable in this case because of Moore's main creative job actually being a musician instead of a writer. An astounding literary debut, one of only a handful of books that had the power to make me cry in public earlier this year when originally reading it, a real treat that I feel lucky to have stumbled across.

Okay, so that should be enough for all of you to chew on today, and to get your accounts at Amazon all fired up; and do make sure to stop by tomorrow as well, when I'll be featuring nine great cutting-edge or experimental books from 2008 that you may have originally missed.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:41 PM, December 30, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |