The Last Word : Top 10 picks of 2008
This is the time of year when it seems like every industry stops to take stock of its very best. We have the car of the year, the run up to the Grammys, the Oscars, and the final episodes of the final year of "ER" (who, really, is going to miss it?). On the radio, various stations are asking for listeners' top 25 favorite albums. The Boston Globe recently offered its opinion on the best CDs for 2008. We sit on pins and needles awaiting the best of this that or the other. Who will make the cut? There is something about the end of a year that requires this backward-looking view of annual accomplishments. How did we do?
There is a magic moment when the year turns over and everything that is left behind wears an aura of nostalgia, bittersweet recollection. Then it's the new year and we forge on, Christmas decorations instantly out-of-date and new achievements ready to be tackled. That wistful, momentary nostalgia is blasted out of our hearts by the lusty singing of "Auld Lang Syne," and the New Year's Day task of tree dismantling. It's transitory, this sweet wish to hold onto the past. So making a categorical assessment seems like a worthy method of encapsulating the year's productivity. Or, shows you what you've missed.
Back to the top 10. The New York Times Review of Books likes to do the top 100 books of the year. I ran through the list, shockingly thin on fiction, and realized that I hadn't read any of those books. Not one. Should I be embarrassed? I looked back at my reading history as provided by the Oak Bluffs Library website and see an eclectic list of books from the very good to the very silly and ones I know that I returned before finishing because life is too short to stick to a book you're not enjoying. Reading, unless you're in economics class, should be a pleasure.
I have read (or at least borrowed) almost 90 books from the library. What's that? Roughly an average of two books a week? Allowing that some books take more than a week to read, such as "Between Two Rivers" by Nicholas Rinaldi that took me over two weeks (I was very busy) and many take less than two days, like that cupcake of a book, "Pontoon," by the inimitable Garrison Keillor, that seems like a reasonable number of books for a bibliophile to claim to have read in a year. The task now is to choose 10 as the "best" I read over the last 12 months.
For me, what it takes for a book to be Top 10-worthy is that it was a pleasure to read. Of the books out there billed as meta-fiction, or a dystopian examination of the incendiary nature of rivalry between twins, there may be a Pen/Faulkner winner, but did I enjoy reading them? I truly believe that a good story is the most important factor in a good book. Lots of intense young writers perform the equivalent of literary Cirque de Soleil to tell a simple story. Having said that, I have to observe that it really is good, quality, literary works that stick out from my reading list.
Secondly, is the language beautiful? I don't mean is the author lavish with words, using 10-dollar words when 10-cent words work better, but has the author chosen his or her words well? Barbara Kingsolver is an example of a writer who tells a story exquisitely: "We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle." Opening sentence, "The Poisonwood Bible." Simple, crafted with care, and sums up the whole story. Bam!
To make my top 10-list, a book has to, at the last page, last word, make me sit back, study the author picture, open the book and read the first page again. I am reluctant to say goodbye. I wish that the book would go on forever, that I hadn't read it so fast. I wish that I had written it.
Those are the books that I recommend to my book-o-file pals.
In the best imitation of late-night television, I list my faves from 2008 in reverse order, which is entirely arbitrary because, after all, like ice cream flavors, it depends on what I'm in the mood for. For full descriptions on these books, visit the Cape Libraries Automated Materials Sharing website (library.clamsnet.org/search) and search by title or author.
Enjoy a wonderful holiday season and a new year filled with good books.
10. "Peace," Richard Bausch
9. "Crossing to Safety," Wallace Stegner
8. "Winter Birds," Jamie Langston
7. "Breakfast with Buddha," Roland Merullo
6. "Spirits in the Grass," Bill Meissner
5. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," Lisa See
4. "The Ten Year Nap," Meg Wolitzer
3. "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrow
2. "Consumption," Kevin Patterson
1. "The Poisonwood Bible," Barbara Kingsolver