Satisfying Book Experiences of 2008 (Part I)

I was thinking of doing a post on my favorite books to come out in 2008, but the truth is I’ve only read maybe three or four books newly published this year, so I thought I’d steal a page from the clever Matthew Cheney and just post about some of my more satisfying book experiences in 2008, regardless of publication date. 

Best American Science Writing 2007Best American Science Writing 2007 . Last year for Christmas my parents gave me this book, and at first I was annoyed because what I’d actually wanted was Best American Short Stories 2007.  But as per usual, my parents’ wisdom–whether intentional or haphazard–led to good things.  I read every article in the book in just a few days.  The one that sticks out most in my mind was a piece by Atul Gawande about why Cesarian operations have become so common.  Before surgery and anesthesia came along, forceps were the usual way to handle an obstructed birth – and some double-blind studies still show that forceps may be safer for the mother.  The trouble is, these studies only showed how forceps performed in the hands of a highly-skilled doctor who’s very experienced in using them.  So Cesarians have become the norm, basically because it’s easier to maintain quality control on a mass-scale – and many lives have been saved as a result.  The book is chock-full of articles like this, which appeal to my science-fiction-ey nerd brain and my public-policy nerd brain at the same time.

st-lucys-home-for-girls1St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. At some point in the past year or so I saw Karen Russell read at KGB, and she totally blew me away.  This is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, period.  The stories include a minotaur traveling west on the wagon trail with a group of pioneers, an “Out-to-Sea” retirement community, and the eponymous school for girls raised by wolves.  My favorite was “Haunting Olivia,” a touching and understated story about two brothers using a special pair of goggles to search for their sister’s ghost. Russell’s stuff is usually marketed as literary – probably because she’s so damn good with the words – but her surrealist motifs, strong characters, and quirky humor will appeal to anyone who loves slipstream-ish writers like Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler.

More satisfying experiences from Ann Patchett and Etgar Keret below the fold.

bel-cantoBel Canto by Ann Patchett.  In a fictional Latin American country, the vice president is throwing an over-the-top, pan-national birthday party for a Japanese business man, featuring a private performance by the world’s most renowned opera singer. Then a group of terrorists crash the party and hold everyone hostage at gunpoint.  There’s no way to accurately convey the experience of reading this book, so let me just give you a little taste of Patchett’s prose. This is right after the terrorists have told all the hostages to lie down on the floor:

One would think that being on the floor would make one feel more vulnerable, more afraid. They could be stepped on or kicked. They could be shot without even the chance to run. Yet to a person everyone on the floor felt better. … Not a few of the guests closed their eyes.  It was late.  There had been wine and turbot and a very nice small chop, and as much as they were terrified, they were tired.

My favorite part of reading Bel Canto was dissecting the many ways that Patchett manages to successfully break all the Sacred Laws of Writing.  She not only switches person constantly, she often narrates things from the point of view of “everyone,” as in the passage above.  Who gets away with an “everyone” POV?  Ann Patchett, that’s who.

bus-driver-who-wanted-to-be-godThe Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God & Other Stories by Etgar Keret.  The inimitable Peter Ball gifted me this book (thank you, Peter!).  Keret is an amazing, weird, surrealist Israeli writer with a mastery of darkly profound humor that is almost Vonnegut-like.  Highlights include the eponymous story and “Hole in the Wall,” about a young man’s friendship with an unreliable angel.  Then there’s the final novella, “Kneller’s Happy Campers,” the story of a man searching for love in all the wrong parts of Purgatory.

Hmm… It seems I was on a bit of a surrealist kick in the first half of 2008.  Part II coming soon….

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