The 10 Best Books I Read in 2008

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1. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken:This was the best book I read all year. No hemming, no hawing, no second guessing — the best. McCracken’s memoir about giving birth to a stillborn child and all that follows is heartbreaking, darkly funny, and something everyone on the planet should read. Bold claims, I know. But really, everyone who ever has to deal with the grief-stricken should read this book. It’s virtually a how-to guide. In the hands of a less-skilled writer this book would have come off as maudlin and self-pitying, but McCracken writes about her sorrow so beautiful you are willing to forgive her anything. This book is stunning and I always feel like a bit of freak trying to push a book about a dead baby on people, but it’s so much more than that. I feel bad for you if you don’t read this book because you are missing out on the kind of tragic, uplifting experience that literature can bring into your life. [review]

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2. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson: I put this book at #2 because I think it’s such a crowd-pleaser. I can’t imagine anyone reading The Gargoyle and not enjoying it. Like The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s a big gushy romance wrapped in a really clever concept. When you get down to it, who doesn’t love a romance? A pornstar in a car accident burned over much of his body + a might be schizophrenic sculptress who carves gargoyles out of marble and thinks she’s been alive since the 1300s = a story so captivating that I didn’t even notice if the book is well-written. This is a high compliment coming from me, the person who has been known to copy-edit books as she reads them. [review]

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3. America America by Ethan Canin: This one is hard to write about without letting out a dreamy sigh. In my defense I really loved this book way, way before I met him and he blew my mind. Simply put, America America is a novel about politics and class in America. But this is a book by Ethan Canin and there’s nothing simple with the way he weaves this tale bringing to life some of the most memorable minor-characters I’ve ever read ever read about in a novel. Plus, because he is such a master he concocts scenes that are so beautiful and so perfect they will take your breath away. Though there were a few flaws, I do have to warn you if you read this book you will want to eschew all other activities including eating, sleeping, and bathing. [review]

4. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi: For someone who claims to not enjoy memoirs, this is the third one to make the list (I wrote that Night of the Gun stuff below, first). Satrapi’s is a graphic memoir about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution and then being sent away because her parents couldn’t bear to have her raised in a country that treated women so poorly. What makes Persepolis so brilliant is that it perfectly blends this coming of age story with the rich history of Iran and the political upheaval it has suffered. I learned more about the political and religious history of this part of the world than from anything else I’ve ever read (and I was a political science major).

5. The Night of the Gun by David Carr: It’s a little weird to talk about how much you enjoyed a junkie newspaper reporters memoir. Especially when you remember that part where he left his twin infant daughters in a car on a cold Minnesota winter’s night so he could go get high. But you know what, I loved The Night of the Gun. Since he was writing in a post James Frey, Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair sort of environment, Carr hired a reporter to help him fact-check his own story. Pretty clever. However, that constant reminder throughout the story got a bit tedious. That bit of tedium didn’t take anything away from the crazy, crazy story of Carr’s life. Newspapers, cocaine, rock and roll, and Minnesota — all the ingredients for a kickass book. [review]

6. The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: This debut novel was my summer crush. A mysterious monster is found floating, dead in Lake Glimmerglass on the day that Willie Upton returns home to Templeton in disgrace. She then spends the summer trying to find out who her biological father is all while dealing with her former-hippie turned born again christian mom and all the other things that one has to deal with when returning home to the place they grew up. The story is charming and and entertaining, and Groff flexes her writing muscle by telling much of her story through the voices of the founders of Templeton. [review]

7. Bang Crunch by Neil Smith: It surprises me that this is one of only two short story collection to make the list this year. I have a soft spot for short stories and usually spend a majority of my time reading them. Maybe it’s because I spent so much of my time picking through various anthologies. I don’t know. What I do know is that Smith’s collection was so good and so many of the stories so perfect that I pondered for a minute hanging up my pen and calling it quits. But then, he gave me hope by offering a single dud in the collection. Which, for a collection is really amazing. The first story of this collection, “Isolettes” is so beautiful and pitch perfect that it should be immediately anthologized alongside Lorrie Moore, Charles D’Ambrosio, Stuart Dybek, and George Saunders. [review]

8. Rock On: An Office Power Ballad by Dan Kennedy: Like an episode of The Office, Dan Kennedy’s memoir about working in the corporate headquarters of a Atlantic records are so uncomfortable and true that it makes you cringe. This memoir is the book that Ed Park’s Personal Days and Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End should have aspired to be: funny, true, a tale of corporate America and how asinine and dehumanizing it can be. [review]

9. The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings: This was the most delightful discovery of the year. Years ago I had read Hemmings’ short story “Minor Wars” and remembered loving it to death. This prompted me, on a lazy Sunday to go in search of her other work and discovered that she had expanded that story into a novel. Hot Damn! This story of Matt King, his dying wife, and their two daughters is beautiful, compassionate, and so well-written it will bring tears to your eyes. [review]

10. Self-Help by Lorrie Moore: I bumped Philip Roth’s Indignation out of this spot in favor of an older Moore collection. And, to be honest, this isn’t even that strong of a collection. Many of the stories are written in the annoying second person and that can get kind of grating (and in a delicious bit of irony I turned to the book quite a few times while writing by own annoying second person story). However, this book makes the list because I sleep with it next to my pillow. My bed is often loaded with books in various states of read-ed-ness, but this one stays there because sometimes I when I can’t sleep or I’m feeling a bit of the mean reds, I pick it up and read “How to Be a Writer” and everything is okay in the world for a little bit. [review]

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