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Friday, December 26, 2008

Best of 2008: Books

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow is a terrific read, a 300-page epic poem about werewolves living in Los Angeles. Against all odds, it's emotionally engaging as well as viscerally thrilling, and deserved much of the hype it received. Every so often, a book comes along that is genuinely daring in regards to form, and this is one such; when the dare pays off, as it does here, something unique can be created. The jarring, staccato lines of verse are a perfect fit for the story of wolf-people who might, after all, be expected to have somewhat limited attention spans.

I also loved Absent by Betool Khadairi, an Iraqi woman writing (in French, I believe) about life in Baghdad in the 1990s, in between the two American invasions. The story is obviously "political" in the sense that you can't write about life in an invaded/sanctioned country without incorporating elements of this into the milieu; but the book isn't out to make political statements in the conventional sense. It's more concerned with the narrator, a teenage girl who is growing up in these difficult situations and is concerned with relationships, with boys and her parents and how she looks and what she's going to do with her life. With the same concerns as the rest of us, in other words, but in an especially poignant setting.

I also loved Delirium by Laura Restropo, a Colombian writer whose ornate, long-winded sentences perfectly matched the subject matter of her book: a young man finds his fiancee in a state of near-catatonia following her return from a visit to her home town. He spends much of the book trying to figure out what has happened to her, and so do we, as Restropo doles out the story, and the history of several key characters, a little at a time. This was the first book I had read by this author, who apparently is much repected throughout Latin America, and I'll be looking for more.

The Egyptologist by Arthur Phillips came out a few years ago and it's a shame I didn't get to it sooner. It's a big, funny, sinister, mysterious, multilayered book about archaeologists digging in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century, and it's fantastic. Phillips pulls off the trick of having several different narrators involved, either speaking directly or through their journals and letters, and it gradually dawns on you that not all of these people are entirely trustworthy. Or maybe none of them are... By the time you figure out what's going really going on, you're in so deep there's no turning back. Did I mention it's funny as hell? Besides, it's about Egypt, which for me--as I think for many people--holds an enormous appeal. Tombs and sarcophogi and heiroglyphics and all that. Great stuff, great book.

Finally, Watch Me Disappear by Jill Dawson was a very powerful evocation of childhood, of the unreliability of memory, and of the difficulty we have facing up to unsavory events in the past. A British scientist living in the US returns to England for a family gathering, only to be confronted by something that happened to her as a child, when one of her friends was apparently abducted and killed. The body was never found. Dawson avoids all the easy expectations in this book as she writes about something that, sadly, has become so common that we barely even spare a thought for the missing children when they show up on milk cartons or wherever. It's a heavy book, and an emotionally intense one; not a lot of laughs here. But she's a great writer, and like her earlier book Wild Boy, this is deserves a far wider readership than it has gotten.

1 comment:

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