It’s not easy to boil down my reading life of 2008 to a few favorite books, so I’ll do what I tell my writing students to do: find a narrative structure to accommodate your story. In this case, I’ll name one new novel, one new non-fiction book, one favorite classic, and then hook several big fat asterisks to the whole thing.****
Favorite New Novel of 2008
That’s easy: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. Not only is it an engrossing narrative, not only does the novel show remarkably deft plotting, not only does Sittenfeld write with uncommon wisdom and compassion, not only does she create a voice for a figure – Laura Bush – who has been, in many ways, voiceless to the American public – these aren’t the only reasons I love love love American Wife. On top of all this, I endlessly admire this novel because it asserts an important role for fiction in the national dialogue. While many people have wasted time groaning over the novel’s impotence in 21st century culture, Sittenfeld has slyly insisted that the novel can have a vital, in fact unparalleled, place in public debate. This wonderful novel does something rare: it matters.
Favorite New Non-Fiction Book of 2008
This is harder, because I read non-fiction pretty whorishly. But the book that has stayed with me the longest is White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Through the lens of this unusual literary friendship, Brenda Wineapple, who is a friend of mine, reveals Dickinson in an aptly artful and original way. Wineapple brilliantly glosses dozens of Dickinson’s poems, opening them up to me, one by one, in ways I’ve never known. By the end of the book, Wineapple has taken us to the core of Dickinson’s creative process – right into the glow of her famous white heat.
Favorite Classic of 2008
I started the New Year with James Cain’s triple crown of Depression-era noir and cruelty, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce. If you’ve ever said to yourself, I haven’t read a good book in a long time, well, here you go. It’s pretty much impossible to start one of these books and not finish it. The first two are crime novels, with writing as strong and clear as Hemingway’s. Mildred Pierce isn’t really a crime novel, although it’s often thought of one because the film adaptation (Joan Crawford took home her only Oscar playing MP) was recast as a crime story. Cain’s Mildred Pierce is the story of woman who bets everything on chickens and pies in order to save her crumbling family. His portrait of economic depression is vivid, moving, and regrettably relevant to our day. If you’re in a book group, put it on your list right now.
****Now for the asterisks
Because I spend a good deal of my time working as an editor-at-large at Random House, it’s hard for me to talk about the books of 2008 without talking about the books I edited, so you need to understand my endorsements below in that context, yet I try to edit books I love and these books all sit tightly in my reader’s heart. I’d feel weird naming any one of these as my favorite, but each is a favorite in its own way.
- The Story of Forgetting: A Novel by Stefan Merrill Block
- Beautiful Children: A Novel by Charles Bock
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer in a new unabridged translation by Burton Raffel
- Ballistics: Poems by Billy Collins
- The Christian World: A Global History by Martin Marty
- Fair Shares for All: A Memoir of Family and Food by John Haney