Monday, December 22, 2008


2008 is hurtling rapidly towards the finish line, and so it's time once again to look back on the year of reading that was and select ten books that had the most impact on me over that time.

As the subtle variation in the names of our posts implies ("10 best" vs. "notable books"), my list is a little bit different than Mutt's, in that I don't attempt to put them in any kind of order... although if I did, I will say right now that there would be a tie for the top slot: between Denis Johnson's short story collection Jesus' Son, and Flann O'Brien's speculative mind-bender novel The Third Policeman. See below for more on both.

It's a strange coincidence that both Mutt and I would single out a book from the same author - a first as far as I know, in about 5 years of trading lists like this - but it certainly seems appropriate in both of our cases.

Anyway, no more preamble... here's my list for the year. And stay tuned to this channel for my bonus list, Noteworthy Films I Saw in 2008, coming soon...


Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson – This is not only the best story collection I read in 2008, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. These interconnected stories featuring a drug-addled lost soul wandering from calamity to calamity across America’s bleak, modern landscape reminded me of the great Flannery O’Connor in the way they evoke a profound spiritual yearning within a context of violence, confusion and mystery. The great alchemy of Johnson’s prose is that he is able to create a unique, lyrical language out of material that is as painful as it is profane.

The Glass Key, Dashiell Hammett – My first exposure to this pioneer writer of so-called noir fiction was one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year. The tight plotting, double-crossing and mysterious women are all there, but it’s Hammett’s lightning-fast, darkly humorous, intelligent dialogue that makes him required reading. An undeniable influence on the Coen Brothers!

The Reason for God, Timothy Keller – Keller’s attempt at a modern-day Mere Christianity succeeds for the most part, and is a valuable resource in terms of presenting clear-headed, insightful arguments for the existence of God. A solid answer to the recent spate of bestselling rants against religion and an engaging read as well, The Reason for God ought to be read widely by Christians as well as skeptics who are open to considering a sensible argument for belief.

A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O’TooleClick here to read my thoughts on this great comic novel, posted earlier this year on The Secret Thread.

A New Selected Poems, Galway Kinnell – I like to try and include at least one poet on my list each year, and no other collection I’ve read in 2008 (excluding those I read from perennially, such as those from R. S. Thomas, Charles Simic and Walt Whitman) gave me as much pleasure and insight as Kinnell’s. His poems tend to focus on those places where the miraculous, mysterious and mundane intersect: the family, the natural world and the treasure vault of memory. For samples of the great stuff included in this collection, check out this earlier “Poem of the Week” post.

The Family of Pascual Duarte, Camilo Jose Cela – Like Camus’ The Stranger and Hugo’s novella The Last Day of a Condemned Man, this neglected classic by the Nobel Prize winning Spanish novelist features a man on death row looking back on the events of his life that brought him to the brink of execution. This novel is a gripping examination of evil, and whether a man can be saved (or not) from his own darkest impulses. It is also noteworthy (in my mind anyway) for how seriously it deals with questions of faith, God, sin and free will.

The Known World, Edward P. Jones – This novel took a long time to grow on me, but the farther along I read in it the more I appreciated its originality and imagination – and it’s lingered in my mind for a long time after I finished it. Jones’ extraordinary examination of a reality more or less obscured by history – the keeping of slaves by black landowners in 19th century Virginia – is in fact a profound and moving meditation on the promise, and problems, of African-American community life.

The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien – Whoo boy... where to begin? This was by far the strangest, and most memorable, novel I read this year. In fact, I’ve never read anything quite like it. A brilliant hybrid of speculative science fiction and nightmarish vision of the afterlife, all set in rural Ireland (where else?!?)… Who is the mysterious “third policeman”? Why are most of the characters obsessed with bicycles? What exactly is happening within that underground chamber, and what the hell is this magical material called omnium? And why does the whole story seem to be set on an infinite loop? Naturally I can’t shed light on ANY of these questions, even after having read it – but trust me, this book is one weird and wild ride.

The Histories, Herodotus – Who says ancient history is boring?? If you’ve ever had any interest in travel narratives, Herodotus’ Histories is both the Granddaddy and the Holy Grail of the genre. I fully admit that I only read half of this weighty tome this year (which makes it a bit of a cheat, but I include it anyway because it was so unlike anything else I read), but that half was crammed with so many fascinating details about the cultures, religions, wars, politics and technologies of the ancient world that I felt it was well worth the careful attention it required.

Night Flight, Antoine de Saint Exupery – For sheer originality in subject matter, nothing (other than The Third Policeman) I read this year beat this beautifully written novella from the world-famous author of the classic children’s fable The Little Prince. This fictional chronicle of the pilots and mechanics who delivered air mail to and from South America in the early days of aviation (around 1920!) is both a gripping adventure yarn, and a fascinating philosophical/spiritual meditation on the human spirit. Saint Exupery’s descriptions of flying in the middle of snowstorms over the Andes were some of the most stunning passages I read in 2008.

Honorable mentions: The Collected Plays of Karol Wojtyla; If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem, William Faulkner; My Confession: The Recollections of a Rogue, Samuel Chamberlain; Blood Meridian (re-read), Cormac McCarthy; The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders.

1 comment:

Mutt Ploughman said...

I would like to just mention that this amazing list, incredibly diverse, has inspired me to put at least three of the titles on my own "absolutely MUST read" list - Jesus' Son, The Third Policeman, and The Glass Key - and this is FOR OPENERS. The differences between my list and Duke's each year is really fascinating, but I am always hyper-intrigued to see what titles Duke will select.....