As literature goes (what I read of it, anyway), it was a year of soaring highs and crushing lows. I tend not to harp on the bad ones here, as I feel a trifle guilty, but I read a couple of absolute tripeloads that gave new meaning to the terms 'balderdash' and 'numbscullery.' Not to mention 'boring,' 'eugh,' and 'are you freakin' kidding me? Really?'
But why dwell on the poor, when there was so much of the rich? And as no one pays me, I can read whatever I want, from whatever genre and year I choose, so the ratio of wonderful to dreck can be quite high.
So, without further blabble, I present my favourite reads of 2008, in alphabetical order so that I don't have to actually commit to any one as being better than another. But I did have an all-round favourite, as you'll see below (hint: it's the one with the teddy bear). These are all novels I'd read again in a heartbeat, which, for me, is the highest form of praise.
American Gods - Neil Gaiman (2001)
- I'll admit to being late to the party with this one, primarily because of the novel's overall hugeness. But man, Gaiman is a master, and American Gods is the closest thing I've read to the classic fantasies of Clive Barker (such as The Great and Secret Show). Big, sprawling, dense, and enthralling.
- Another late-comer to this one. I enjoyed Garland's follow-up novel The Tesseract, although The Coma was a bit of a snooze. But Beach is a ripping good yarn, equal parts adventure story and Lord of the Flies-like social commentary.
The Cat's Pajamas and Other Stories - James Morrow (2004)
- Morrow is one of the great heroes of modern satire. Towing Jehovah (and the rest of the Godhead Trilogy) should be required reading alongside Swift and Vonnegut. I absolutely cannot wait for his newest, Shambling Toward Hiroshima. This collection is a peerless representation of his favourite themes; religious fundamentalism, the apocalypse, and all-round plain weirdness.
- No Canadian novel of 2008 moved me more deeply than Bennett's ode to the misunderstood rich. Bennett effectively mines the teritory of F. Scott Fitzgerald, presenting the world of the wealthy from the eyes of those who cannot have.
- Lethem is god, there I said it. His short stories are spectacular, and his novels are incredible forays into the imagination. Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, As She Climbed Across the Table; not a misstep in the bunch. Occasional Music, one of his first, mixes Raymond Chandler with Philip K. Dick, and throws in a talking kangaroo to boot, yet never comes across as jokey or silly. A classic detective novel, even with the musical pistol.
- Carey can be a little hit-or-miss with me. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is amazing, whereas My Life as a Fake worked better as an exercise than a novel. His Illegal Self is Carey at the top of his game, buttressing his story of alienation and loneliness in the outback with two of the most memorable characters of the year.
How the Dead Dream - Lydia Millet (2008)
- Like Morrow, Millet is a pre-eminent satirist, but Millet is arguably more gentle (although George Bush, Dark Prince of Love is pretty out there). After the breath-taking majesty of Oh Pure and Radiant Heart, Millet shifts gears to a character study of a man (named T.) driven to despair after tragedy, only to find himself through the study of animals. It's more of a fable than a story, but Millet's portrayal of T's withdrawl from society is as heart-breaking as they come.
- Some once referred to Kenneth J. Harvey as the Canadian king of GritLit, and that's as good a summation as any of his talents. Harvey's early work's were more overtly disturbing, but his last few forays have a revealed a stunning talent that will (if there is any justice) be studied and lauded with the same intensity and fervor as Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley. Inside, which follows a man released from prison after fifteen years of being wrongly incarcerated, has all the trappings of a mundane TV movie. But Harvey is made of sterner stuff. Inside is unflinching, spare, and rivetting. Superlatives fail me, Inside is that good.
- C'mon, it's Bradbury at his height. I've revisited Chronicles every few years, ever since I discovered it in grade school. It's boldness and originality still floor me.
Valley of Day-Glo - Nick DiChario (2008)
- A modern sci-fi absurdist classic. After enthralling me with A Small and Remarkable Life, DiChario threw me with a completely different story, a post-apocalyptic epic about warring factions of native Americans. It sounds severe and bleak, but when the lead character is a eunuch named Broadway Danny Rose, you get a sense of DiChario's unique sensibilities.
- One of the finest novels I've read about, well, writers. Meek takes a journalist with aspirations of writing a best seller, and throws everything he can at him. At once a treatise on the futility of war and a character study of self-loathing, Meek's novel snuck up on me, and it was only when I realized that I kept repeating certain scenes in my head for weeks afterward did I appreciate his accomplishment.
Winkie - Clifford Chase (2006)
- Last alphabetically, but first in my heart. Winkie is a teddy bear charged with terrorist activities and subjected to the strangest kangaroo court imaginable. How could I not but love it? A strong satire of our world, anchored by a beguiling protagonist. Winkie is absolute magic.
And because I cannot bear to leave these others aside, a few more novels to consider while the bleak Canadian mid-winter assaults us.
The Order of Good Cheer - Bill Gaston
The Pilo Family Circus - Will Elliott
Last Days - Brian Evenson
Spaceman Blues: A Love Song - Brian Francis Slattery
The Monsters of Templeton - Lauren Groff
Soon I Will be Invincible - Austin Grossman
City of Saints and Madmen - Jeff Vandermeer
All My Friends are Superheroes - Andrew Kaufman
Cabal - Clive Barker
Sharp Teeth - Toby Barlow
Everyone in Silico - Jim Munroe
Iterations and Other Stories - Robert J. Sawyer
The Killing Circle - Andrew Pyper
The Flying Troutmans - Miriam Toews
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere - John McFetridge
Brother Dumb - Sky Gilbert
Last Night at the Lobster - Stewart O'Nan