I have come to the hardest category in my personal best reads of 2008 - full-length fiction. I have read nearly 50 novels, not counting my other fiction categories. Considering that I am in a PhD program in a non-book-related field, I'll call that pretty decent. I guess it's one of the advantages of not having television. I'll only list the contenders. For a complete list of my 2008 reads, see my side bar:
The Go-Between - Hartley
Electricity - Robinson
We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Jackson
Fools of Fortune - Trevor
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone - Stanisic
Netherland - O'Neill
The Changeling - Jenkins
White Noise - DeLillo
Breath - Winton
Eclipse - Banville
Cal - MacLaverty
Old School - Wolff
That's a fair proportion of books I thought were really strong in one way or another. As I mentioned, I will divide the full-length fiction category into two smaller ones. Books from the past year (or two) and fiction older than that.
As for fiction not written in the past year, I would have a hard time chosing between Bernard MacLaverty's Cal, Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Don DeLillo's White Noise. Cal falls into the category of a great novel. It is a deep love story, set amidst passionate political blood letting in Ireland. Beautiful and important writing. DeLillo's White Noise is a different kind of animal - of a more show-offy brilliance, heavy on irony.Amazing for its prescience and its thoughts on a culture oversaturated by information that, no matter how plentiful, still does not fill the ultimate void of death. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a perfect little book. A contemporary fairy tale, a macabre tale of horror, a parable about intolerance, judging others. All three of these books share a theme of the lengths people will go to in the name of love, particularly when they are afraid. As I started out saying, I would have a hard time choosing. The nice thing is I don't have to. No envelope, no televised ceremony, no check here. I laud them all, and I'll even throw in a special mention for the elegant and lean loveliness of Fools of Fortune.
In the new fiction category, although Netherland and Breath were both terrific, my favorite was How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic. It is prolifically imaginative meta-fiction that skirts being merely gimmicky. The subject matter is serious but its is warmly tender and richly fantasmagorical. A wonderful novel. I'm looking forward to his next.
Of course, this could all be overturned by some great read I have in the next week. I just finished The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant. I plan to post on it later today While it was very good, so far I'm not expecting any upsets.