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|January 8-14, 2009
Between the lines
The best fiction and poetry of 2008
by John Freeman
Not long ago, publishing’s wise old heads bet we would be so preoccupied with defibrillating the American dream at the polls in 2008 we wouldn’t have time to dream in fiction. And they were right. Thanks to the election and the financial crisis, which came to a head this autumn, 2008 saw some of the worst book sales since 9/11.
But still, it was a great year for new voices: A long-awaited translation of a great Chilean masterpiece; selected poems from a poet who deserves a cult following; a melancholic New York novel told by a Dutchman which revolves around cricket; and the latest installment of a mystery series set in Venice. These are just a few of the high points in 2008.
1) Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, by Nicholson Baker (Simon & Schuster, $30). In this fascinating collage of newspaper stories, diaries and memoirs of the time, Baker re-creates the march from peace to war in America from 1939-41, making a bold case that World War II is an example of how violence only begets more violence.
2) Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill (Pantheon, $24). This wholly unexpected novel turns the city once known as New Amsterdam inside out with the tale of a Dutch banker clinging to his crumbling marriage and family in the aftermath of 9/11. It is a fabulous, deeply enjoyable New York story about the fantasies that prop up daily reality — in other words, a deeply New York novel about that deeply American penchant: new beginnings.
3) Sleeping It Off in Rapid City, by August Kleinzahler (FSG, $26). Yes, this sizable selection of Kleinzahler’s verse will tempt you into thinking hangovers can be pretty, the Midwest is glamorous, and dive bars in Vancouver have a certain je ne sais quoi. More surprisingly, though, Kleinzahler can channel grief and pastoral beauty as well as any poet alive.
4) Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape, by Rajah Shehadeh (Scribner, $15). For the past quarter-century, Shehadeh, a lawyer and writer, has walked in the hills around his hometown of Ramallah. This meditative book, winner of the 2008 Orwell Prize, takes readers along these travels, bringing to life the craggy, wonderful landscape and the political forces that have threatened its very existence.
5) 2666, by Roberto Bolano (FSG, $30). Divided into five sections, which the author originally imagined would be published as separate novels, this massive book by the late Chilean great is a hugely ambitious crime story with more diversions than late Miles Davis. At the heart of it all: the murder and mutilation of female factory workers in an imaginary border town.
6) The Waitress Was New, by Dominique Fabre (Archipelago Books, $15). In a rain-splattered Parisian diner, customers come and go, and Pierre, a 54-year-old veteran bartender, wonders if life hasn’t passed him by. This little book is the literary equivalent of Barry Levinson’s film Diner: an elegant meditation on the murky undertow of routine and the odd bedfellows it creates for us.
7) Blood Dazzler, by Patricia Smith (Coffee House, $16). Smith brings an incantatory brilliance to the horror of Hurricane Katrina and our government’s shameful response to it in this powerful book of poems. Like in Jacob Lawrence’s magnificent Great Migration series of paintings, there is a gouged poignancy to the progression of these poems. Weather becomes warnings received too late, leads to harrowing rooftop vigils. Smith conjures the voices silenced by rising water — the agonizing choices made by those who barely survived.
8) Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri (Knopf, $25). Ranging in setting from Seattle to suburban Boston, Rome to the clattering streets of Calcutta, Lahiri’s novels finds its cast of mostly Bengali characters struggling to grow accustomed to their new homes, their new families created by loss sustained in faraway places.
9) The Girl of His Dreams, by Donna Leon (Grove, $24). Book by book, expatriate American Leon has spun a secret history of Venice. Her 17th Commissario Guido Brunetti book, not surprisingly, is bookended by funerals. In between, she delves into crimes against the Romany, political correctness and the comforts of family in times of loss in a story so perfectly balanced it feels like it glides on a dark, still-silent waterway.
10) Senselessness, by Horacio Castellanos Moya (New Directions, $16). The feverish poet who narrates Moya’s devastating novel has one task: to edit the oral histories of torture victims in an unnamed Latin American country. Only he can’t do it. The more he looks at the report, the less sense victims’ testimonies make. All around him, the disregard of his friends feels like insanity.
John Freeman is the American editor of Granta magazine.
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