The Best Books of 2008



By Roberto Bolaño

FSG, 898 pp., $30

Apocrypha, secret history, and murder salt Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous titan of a novel. United by the gravitational pull of Santa Teresa (a stand-in for Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez), Bolaño’s characters confront madness and a host of mysteries that are all, ultimately, the same mystery: lost writers, lost women, lost faith. ZACH BARON

A Mercy

By Toni Morrison

Knopf, 167 pp., $23.95

You think America was founded on the principle of freedom? Toni Morrison thinks otherwise. A Mercy is set, circa 1690, in a turbulent colonial society where people of any color, from indentured servants to wives and children, can be bought and sold. Classic Morrison themes—the broken mother-daughter bond, the way servitude corrupts both slaves and masters—return in a dreamlike, powerful tale. JULIE PHILLIPS

Exit Music

By Ian Rankin

Little Brown, 421 pp., $24.99

With the publication of his 17th novel, Ian Rankin announced the retirement of Detective Inspector John Rebus, one of the great sleuths of contemporary crime fiction. In a largely unsentimental farewell, Rebus goes rather gently into that good night. He investigates the murder of a dissident Russian poet while pursuing his few remaining hobbies—beer, whisky, and a fascination with a local crime lord that verges on obsessional neurosis. Sláinte, John. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

The Forever War

By Dexter Filkins

Knopf, 353 pp., $25

Filkins, a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, tears through the curtain of daily news censorship to describe the face of death in Iraq. But he does so tenderly, with the understanding that he’s been somehow spared. Filkins is foremost a storyteller, forgoing explanation in favor of the defining detail: the glowing intestine at Ground Zero, the Iraqi child running barefoot beside him, desperately asking his name. JED LIPINSKI

Jackie Ormes: The First African American Female Cartoonist

By Nancy Goldstein

University of Michigan, 240 pp., $35

Jackie (née Zelda) Ormes created four different newspaper-cartoon series that were nationally syndicated in Black American newspapers from 1937 to 1956. Her politically astute, elegantly drawn, and predominantly female characters were a bracing corrective to the “coon and mammy” caricatures promulgated by many white cartoonists during those years. Ormes’s hitherto underexposed work is celebrated in this lavishly illustrated career biography. CAROL COOPER

Lush Life

By Richard Price

FSG, 455 pp., $26

“Who the fuck puts a Howard Johnson’s down here?” asks one cop early in Lush Life, clocking the current, three-quarters-gentrified state of the Lower East Side with the same bewilderment that will, over the course of the book, confront everyone, from the neighborhood’s trust-fund bohemians to the kids who prey on them. Price’s achievement is to render each voice with the same, startling degree of accuracy—and empathy. ZACH BARON

My Vocabulary Did This to Me: The Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer

Edited by Peter Gizzi and Kevin Killian
Wesleyan, 508 pp., $35

Impeccably edited, this collection gathers the remarkable output of a poet whose writing and person were too counter even for the counterculture of the late ’50s and ’60s. Spicer’s work manages to combine heartbreak, hermeticism, and postwar disquiet in a way both completely of its time and still ahead of ours. ALAN GILBERT

Nazi Literature in the Americas

By Roberto Bolaño

New Directions, 227 pp., $23.95

This compendium of hatred, intolerance, and military valor is just as much fun as it sounds. Bolaño’s grim, high-spirited capsule biographies of right-wing litterateurs include soccer-hooligans-cum-poets; a sci-fi novelist who envisages Hitler’s Reich triumphing in the U.S.; and many other colorful zealots. Almost everyone in this book is a moral toad; almost everyone dies a violent and miserable death. It is all in very bad taste indeed. GILES HARVEY


By Joseph O’Neill

Pantheon, 256 pp., $23.95

As one says at a cricket match, “Well batted!” Joseph O’Neill’s angry, elegant, elegiac novel is narrated by Hans van den Broek, a Dutch equities analyst, at sea in post-9/11 New York. Abandoned by wife and child, Hans develops a passionate interest in cricket and the Caribbean and West African New Yorkers who play it, including Chuck Ramkissoon, a Gatsby-esque Trinidadian immigrant, both devious and affable. ALEXIS SOLOSKI

The Other Side of the Island

By Allegra Goodman

Razorbill, 280 pp., $16.99

This acclaimed author’s first YA novel is a near-future thriller set in a world devastated by global warming. After her nonconformist parents disappear, the young protagonist joins a resistance movement to defeat the totalitarian government ruled by the Palinesque Earth Mother: “a simple schoolteacher, a cookie baker. She loved flowers and children and sunshine and song. She believed in Safety First.” Gripping and creepily prescient. ELIZABETH HAND

Personal Days

By Ed Park

Random House, 241 pp., $13

In a prelapsarian New York populated by surging, infinity-sign-shaped real estate developments, an office is undergoing endless layoffs. Bosses stalk the halls, using Latinates like “i.e.” and “e.g.” “vigorously but interchangeably.” Park’s unsettling, uproarious debut delights as much in sending up various crimes against language as it does in satirizing workplace culture; the author could well have borrowed the title of one of the many self-help books that stud his novel’s pages: Yes, I Drank the Kool-Aid—And I Went Back for Seconds. ZACH BARON

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America

Edited by Sean Wilsey and Matt Weiland

Ecco, 608 pp., $29.95

Unlike the electoral college, these editors hold all states in equal regard. They’ve assembled a stellar cast of writers penning essays on every state, from Susan Orlean on Ohio to Jonathan Franzen on New York. Accompanying the superb pieces are oddball charts that reveal Rhode Island to have the highest concentration of drive-throughs, with West Virginia winning for toothlessness. Plan your travels accordingly. ALEXANDER NAZARYAN

Unaccustomed Earth

By Jhumpa Lahiri

Knopf, 333 pp., $25

Jhumpa Lahiri is an artist of the family portrait, drawing upon the shades of love that color us as we crawl from childhood to old age. The eight stories in Unaccustomed Earth have in them an emotional wisdom anchored in character. Lahiri uses the intimate whispers of the first person to tell of thwarted love, illness, mixed signals, and death—capturing these moments with clarity and grace, a tangible knowledge of how souls twist in the wind. LENORA TODARO

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation

By Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell
Hill and Wang, 160 pp., $35

If the Constitution is a living document, the last eight years have left it badly battered. But this intelligently written, lushly illustrated tome offers an antidote to the grievous misreadings that have spawned the likes of Guantánamo. Hennessey interweaves the Framers’ intent with contemporary battles over constitutional law, while McConnell colors history with masterful strokes. A civics lesson no one should miss. ALEXANDER NAZARYAN

What Can I Do When Everything’s on Fire?

By António Lobo Antunes, translated by Gregory Rabassa

Norton, 585 pp., $19.95

If you liked Almodóvar’s All About My Mother, you’ll appreciate this trippy Portuguese exercise in fragmented subjectivity. Antunes’s novel explores an urban milieu of marginalized drag queens, junkies, gypsies, and underground discos as viewed through the emotionally unstable mind of young Paulo—son of Lisbon’s most famous (and profligate) transvestite. Almost does for Lisbon what Ulysses did for Dublin. CAROL COOPER