Friday, December 19, 2008

Mutt Ploughman's Best Books of 2008

'Tis the season for annual Top Ten lists of the best books of the year, and here at The Secret Thread this is also our tradition. (Duke's list will follow later, stay tuned.) I read a ton of great books this year, but these were the ones that impacted me the most. Without much more introduction, I present them here, in order of merit, and with a one-sentence commentary for the second year running. (Be glad, my lists before then ran much longer!!)

Note: I'd like to give a shout out to my big sister, Maria Therese Hey, who gave me not one but TWO books featured on this list as gifts. Does she know her brother or what?? These books, should anyone care, are marked with an asterisk*.

10. Night Shift, Stephen King. This collection of early Stephen King stories contains some real howlers, but it is still a rollicking entertainment and a bravura creative display that demonstrates the power of a fearless imagination.

9. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, V.S. Pritchett. An elegant, efficient biography of the master of the modern short story by the great Pritchett, himself a towering figure in 20th century English letters, who possessed the skills and experience to do this great subject justice.

8. The Keep, Jennifer Egan. A fresh voice for me, Egan’s absorbing and intelligently structured novel is part homage to the great Gothic tradition, part compelling commentary on the alienation of modern man by technology, and part post-modernist exhibition of stories-within-stories – an elaborate creation, skillfully executed.

7. Exiles, Ron Hansen. The spiritual struggles of the under-lauded but influential poet Gerard Manley Hopkins and the harrowing sea tragedy that inspired his masterpiece are here dramatized in a graceful, moving novel that only Ron Hansen could have written.

6. Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI.* This mature, illuminating study by the current Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is filled with the insights and wisdom of a serious religious thinker’s lifelong pursuit of the meaning of the Incarnation, without a trace of condescension or scholarly bluster.

5. On Beauty, Zadie Smith.* The only novelist to make my list two years running, Smith’s fascinating and funny third novel, widely praised by critics, dares to re-imagine Forster’s Howard’s End through two modern families and their inter-connecting stories in a New England college community.

4. Man in the Dark, Paul Auster. With trademark precision and grace, this dark, stirring fable concerning a damaged old man and the youthful assassin he conjures up in his troubled imagination is a striking performance even by Paul Auster’s lofty standards, and is one of the best novels in his long and satisfying career.

3. Say You’re One of Them, Uwem Akpan, S.J. Not for the faint of heart, this collection of stories about modern Africa by Akpan, a Nigerian and a Jesuit priest, is filled with startling violence and tragedy, almost unbearably depicted with efficient prose and vivid dialogue – and made all the more harrowing by the fact that the stories’ narrators are young children.

2. An Imaginary Life, David Malouf. One of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read in years, this utterly original tale is based on the few known facts about the ancient Roman poet Ovid, exiled to a small island by the emperor, where he befriends a child raised by animals and attempts to take him on as his own.

1. Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson. Here is a novel I am not even sure I fully understood, yet cannot forget – a massive, fascinating, heartbreaking epic set primarily in Vietnam between 1963 and 1983; a story that attempts to contain and illuminate the great tragedy of that war within the context of an unsettling portrayal of United States intelligence operatives; a brave, unbearably sad discourse on American power and the consequences of its flagrant abuse; and a moving, passionate commentary on modern man’s search for meaning and truth.

2007 List:
10. The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan.
9. Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, Meg Meeker, M.D.
8. Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar.
7. The Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Andric.
6. White Teeth, Zadie Smith.
5. Freddy’s Book, John Gardner.
4. Forty Stories, Anton Chekhov.
3. Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard.
2. What is the Point of Being a Christian?, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P.
1. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert.

1 comment:

Duke Altum said...

This is a fascinating list!! There's hardly a title on here I wouldn't want to read myself... especially interested in "The Keep," "Say You're One of Them," "On Beauty" and "Tree of Smoke." Those all feel like ones I NEED to get to soon. It's especially interesting to me that both of our lists are going to feature Denis Johnson prominently - totally by chance, but it says something about the power of his writing once you're exposed to it.

2 nonfiction titles on your list this year as well, which is pretty good representation for a man so interested in fiction. Both seem outstanding choices though...