Rumpus Original – The Best of NOT 2008

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We asked for the best books people read this year NOT published in 2008. We did this because even writers rarely read more than a handful of books actually published that year. Usually the best books are recommended from people we trust, and that can take a while. Here at Rumpus, we don’t worry about being timely. We want to know what’s good. We got some interesting picks from Steve Earle, General Petraeus, Bill Ayers, Daniel Handler, and Ben Peterson, among others.

I’m going to cheat and say the best book I read this year was The Ticking Is The Bomb, by Nick Flynn. It’s not coming out until 2010 (distinctly not 2008) but we share the same agent so I got an early manuscript. It’s basically a memoir themed around the idea of what it’s like to wake up in a country that sanctions torture. As far as books I read this year published before 2008… It was actually a very good reading year for me. I read Ray by Barry Hannah and Brief Encounters with Che Guevera by Ben Fountain along with Human Smoke by Nicholson BakerOut Stealing Horses by Per PerrsonSway by Zachary LazarGrand Central Winter by Lee Stringer, and Lush Life by Richard Price. But I’m going to give my personal best  NOT of 2008 to Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick. I would describe what Fierce Attachments, a memoir, is about. But there’s no point, because it’s about the writing. It’s a perfect memoir, perhaps the best pure memoir I’ve ever read. – Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby

Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov (translated by Michael Glenny).  He wrote The Master and Margarita.  This is his thinly disguised account of his relationship with Stanislavsky and the Moscow art theatre. – Steve Earle, recording artist

Grant Takes Command because there’s lots of relevance to it. – General David Howell Petraeus, current Commander, U.S. Central Command (it wasn’t easy but we got it out of him)

I recently read City of Glass, Paul Auster’s smart and provocative 1985 novel of  identity and consciousness, in conjunction with the 1994 graphic adaptation with Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, introduction by Art Spiegelman.  Each is brilliant in its own right, and reading them side by side is an entire education in the complex and multidimensional challenge, as well as the unique, sweet rewards of comic books. The graphic is no more an illustrated version of the original than Coppala’s “Godfather” is a linear set of moving pictures aside Puzo’s text. Comic books—a medium not a genre, a third thing with its own history and idiosyncratic opportunities and demands— have come into their own, and this double-dip shows how and why. – William Ayers, co-founder of The Weather Underground, author of Teaching For Social Justice

Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, let’s give that book a plug. I loved, loved that book. I’m not much of a fiction reader and I just thought it was so superb. It deserves to live forever that book. – Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers

I loved Twilight of the Superheroes, by Deborah Eisenberg. A complicated, subtle, relentlessly intelligent push against the limits of the standard short story—bigger, more complicated, more multi-scenic; the stories as a result are almost novelistic in their power. – Ethan Canin, author of America America

Moo, Baa, La La La! by Sandra Boynton has been the most read book of my 2008. Written in 1982, this gem, with its cast of rhinos, cows, cats, and dogs improves with every reading, inspiring children and their adults to smile, snort, oink, and quack with glee. Despite its brevity, it is complex enough to be enjoyed by many ages, proving our child’s favorite at 3 months, 6 months, and even now at 9 months. – Ben Peterson, founder Ace Rankings

The best book I read this year (not counting books I re-read to teach) was Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (2004). Gardam, an old British lady I had never heard of before, is apparently quite (and, judging by this book, justly) celebrated on her native isle. The novel is a terrific portrait of Sir Edward Feathers, a.k.a. Old Filth, and it does so many things so well that I knew almost from the first page that I was in the hands of a master. It’s a wrenching psychological novel that flits nimbly back and forth through Filth’s long life; it’s an exotic historical novel whose jaw-dropping sweep illuminates a century of Englishness; it’s even a cannily constructed whodunnit. By the end of it, you feel a man’s entire life has flashed before your eyes, a life that, while clearly shaped by public and private histories, is never neatly reduced or completely explained. Filth, like us, is messier and more mysterious than that. If there is a canon of the literature of senescence, this ought to be in it. – Geoff Brock, author of Weighing Light

The best book I read this year was We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families,  by Philip Gourevitch. Not only did Gourevitch sketch the snowballing tragedy in Rwanda in brilliant shorthand, but he also also fearlessly endorsed Kagame’s (then) new government, an unusual act in a time when American spectators have gladly extended their cynicism to all African leaders, refusing credit even when credit is due. To hear, then, that Kagame’s Director of State was arrested last month in Germany on flimsy charges of alleged involvement in the shooting-down of the France-backed President Habyarimana’s plane, was to know that the sympathies of the world continue to be terribly misplaced–despite Gourevitch’s terrific efforts. – Karan Mahajan, author of Family Planning

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco (translated by Geoffrey Brock). Published in 2004; 2005 in the US. An illustrated novel where the images float like memories of dreams. The story rests in that world between sleep and wakefulness, as the main character, Yambo, searches for lost memory after a stroke. – Paul Madonna, author of All Over Coffee

Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda which I re-read with delight. – Danny Goldberg, Kurt Cobain’s former manager and author of Bumping Into Geniuses

Wrecking Crew, by John Albert (published in 2005), was my favorite “book of the year.” WC stirred me up inside. John Albert is able to make you laugh out loud at the most disturbing situations, make you cheer internally for a pack of misfits, and make you see up close what it’s like to need one thing to believe in. Even if that thing is as unexpected as a hardcore, ragtag baseball team. I think I’ve read Wrecking Crew four times. I adore this book. – Alison Tyler, author of Melt With You


It’s been a super busy year and I haven’t had enough time to read (to say the least), but in the fall I began to re-read Gandhi‘s Autobiography. It’s in my collection and I hadn’t looked at it in years. Now that we’re approaching the New Year life has calmed down, but just a few months ago the air had a distinctly turbulent quality. We were all on pins and needles about the election and the political climate had turned very nasty. I definitely got swept up in the excitement, but when things seemed most discouraging I sought guidance on living calmly in the eye of the storm. For that the writing of the Mahatma is kind of like Colt 45, “it works every time.” – DJ Felina

I’d like to make a plug for Hangover Square, by Patrick Hamilton, which was published in 1941. It’s a dark story about obsession and murder set in London at the onset of the second world war. Hamilton is one of those writers people are rediscovering after years of neglect. He also wrote the plays “Rope” and “Gas Light,” which were made into Hitchcock films. – Tom Perrotta, author of The Abstinence Teacher

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. That was the best fiction. The best nonfiction was Janet Malcolm’s Two Lives, which I loved. The books overlap in that they’re both, at least in part, about Gertrude Stein. – Ariel Levy, New Yorker staff writer, author of Female Chauvinist Pig

If you share my worries about looming apocalypse and/or the global economy, you must read the two best books I read in 2008 (not published in 2008): The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, is the most beautiful post-apocalyptic novel of all time, and not entirely without hope. The Shock Doctrine, by Naomi Klein, is the best explanation of Chicago School free-market ideology and its tragic consequences that I have ever come across. She’s Canadian; he may or may not be Republican. They are both brilliant writers with gripping stories to tell. – Sarah Fran Wisby, author of Viva Loss

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich, by Danilo Kiš (translated by Duška Mikić-Mitchell). Dark, lyrical tales of betrayal, deception, and death. One of life’s mysteries is how little known this writer in on this side of the Atlantic. – Rabih Alameddine, author of The Hakawati

I Will Bear Witness, Volumes 1 and 2, Victor Klemperer‘s diaries from 1933-1945 (translated by Martin Chalmers). He was a German Jew, an Enlightenment scholar, and he survived the whole of the Nazi years in Dresden. His diaries record the monstrosity of the Nazis in minute, personal detail, and they are ruthless on the compromises and cowardice of Klemperer’s Aryan friends. But he never stops thinking of himself as German; the diaries record his great struggle not to lose his faith in human reason and goodness. This is one of the great literary works of the twentieth century. – George Packer, New Yorker staff writer, author of The Assassin’s Gate

The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry, by Legs McNeil and Jennifer Osborne with Peter Pavia. Topping his amazing oral history of punk rock as told by the scene’s players,   McNeil delivers an oral history that reads like a novel, showing the faces of greed, desire, triumph, and disaster. If porn peels the clothes off us, McNeil peels the skin off the industry to show us the whos and whats inside. – Daphne Gottlieb, author of Kissing Dead Girls

“When a man is small, he loves and hates food with a ferocity which soon dims.  At six years old his very bowels will heave when such a dish as creamed carrots or cold tapioca appears before him.  His throat will close, and spots of nausea and rage swim in his vision…By the time a man is ten or twelve he has forgotten most of his young passions.  He is hungry and he wants to be full.  It is very simple.” – From The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher. Both Fisher’s taste and prose are exacting, though charming; she has no tolerance for pretension or airs.  In what other cookbook would you find chapters like, “How to Cook a Wolf,” “How to be Cheerful Though Starving,” or “How to Make a Pigeon Cry”?  Her essays are perfect, passionate and simple feasts. – Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of The Descendants

Hard to say while I’m away from said books. Probably Bridge Of Sighs, by Richard Russo. Made me break during the day to finish it. I also really liked 13 Ways To Look At A Black Man, an old compilaton by Henry Louis Gates. I never read brand new books. Too much backlog, plus I’m often reading older stuff for work. – Matt Bai, Political Correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, author of The Argument

Apart from Don Quixote, which people have talked about every year in which it has not been originally published, the most memorable non-2008 book of my reading year was probably Karen Connelly‘s The Lizard Cage. It is mostly about Teza, a Burmese revolutionary, though it begins and ends on a child living, for different reasons, within the prison where Teza is being kept in solitary confinement. It also enters the lives and minds of their captors and tormentors. The book is necessarily sober, but Connelly vividly conjures Teza’s experience in solitary and his relationships: the “intimacy of violence” he experiences at the hands of his torturers, for example, “…when he thinks about the beatings, later he always thinks about making love… It’s the only other touching he’s ever experienced that was as unbounded and total.” Eventually, we track Teza’s memories, those that bring him solace, those that bring him regret, and his story turns out to be that of his conversion from a cultural Buddhist to a believing one: a rare, surprisingly convincing story of the necessity and truth of faith and faith practices. – Padma Viswanathan, author of The Toss of a Lemon

Edmon and Jules de Goncourt, Pages from the Goncourt Journals (written 1851-1896, translated by Robert Baldick in 1962, rereleased by NYRB in 2007). This is a collection of diary entries written collectively by two brothers who bummed around Paris in the second half of the nineteenth century until one of them (Jules) died of syphilis, leaving the other to continue alone. It is a story of the dream of the great hilarious and passionate camaraderie of art in the face of personal disaster and great national upheaval.  Who could find this irrelevant or unappealing?  I recommend reading it in small doses, when you come home at night  too tired or otherwise incapacitated for the other book you’re reading. – Daniel Handler, author of Adverbs

The Gift by Vladimir Nabokov (translated by Dimitri Nabokov, Michael Scammell, and Vladimir Nabokov), the last of the novels that he wrote in Russian, published in 1963. A (real) novel written by Vladimir Nabokov, the (real) author who is writing about Fyodor the (fictional) author who is writing a (fictional) novel within the pages of a (real) novel called The Gift that is being read by Susan Taylor Chehak, who is a (real) author who is writing a (real) novel about a (fictional) author who is writing a (fictional) novel about a (real) author who has written a (real) novel that is being read by a (fictional) reader who is a (fictional) writer who is writing a (fictional) novel that nobody has read.  Really. – Susan Taylor Chehak, author of Rampage

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  It’s embarrassing to even list this (and to admit it took me so long to read it), but no book has ever challenged my optimism like this one.  I wanted, and badly, for there to be some sunlight, some hope, and finally I gave up on it, slogged through that awful (and now seemingly possible) world, starving for a glimmer that McCarthy boldly and smartly kept deep in his pocket until the final sentences. Todd Zuniga, editor Opium Magazine

A Month in the Country by JL Carr.    Because I can hardly clear my throat in 5000 words, I am hypnotized by books shorter than 200 pages.   This brilliant book is the equivalent of spending 3 or 4 hours with a newly-made, intelligent, perceptive, funny, humane, melancholy friend whom you will never see again. And both of you know it.   The plot?  After World War I, a restorer spends a few months working on a mural in a church in a small village, and in the process gets deeply involved in the townspeople’s lives.  But it’s really about mortality, failure, being human, prejudice, missed opportunity, and sharing a sandwich with a stranger. – Glen David Gold, author of Carter Beats The Devil

CHESS STORY by Stefan Zweig, New York Review Books, 2006. Brilliant, unconventional plot, so that you don’t know you’re actually in a plotted novel until near the end.  A sickening harbinger of the last eight years, rendition, Rumsfeld, Guantanamo, stress positions.  But mostly, a keen and uncompromised rendering of a human falling apart under the power of the state. – Anthony Swofford, author of Jarhead and Exit A

Dont miss The Rumpus interview with Malcolm Gladwell

Don’t miss The Rumpus interview with Malcolm Gladwell

At the same time as I was reading Legacy of Ashes, Tim Weiner‘s comprehensive history of the CIA, I also dove into Richard Dolan‘s equally exhaustive history lesson on government secrecy and operations, UFO’s and the National Security State. (2002) Am I the only one of your writer friends to confess having read a book on UFO’s? Before anyone who has never seen a UFO has the right to have any opinion on the issue, they should be required to read this book. It’s about thirty-seven thousand pages long, yes, but the sheer weight of government documents expressing how seriously people are taking the issue is almost overwhelming. The book has melted my brain. I am now obsessed with UFOs. – Brent Hoff, founder of Wolphin

About two years ago I was hustling through the basement of the Reed College library, probably hiding from someone and late to some meeting.  A blue and red book—the sea, on fire—caught my eye.  It had been left behind, haphazardly, shelved in the Asian language section.  I picked it up.  I’d read Tim Winton, and always admired his novels (The Riders, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music, etc); I recalled reading a story of his, but I’d never seen a whole collection.  This was it, published in 2004:  The Turning.  I sat down, opened it up, and sank down into this coastal town in Western Australia—the surfers and sharks, the cruelty of childhood, the unattainable older girls, the bad decisions, the salt, the beer, the wry laughter.  Sentence by sentence, this is the best and most solid, least self-conscious writing I know.  Emotionally the most powerful and also the most subtle.  I cannot even begin to suggest the amazement of reading this collection the first time, my slow realization of the connections, my astonishment at Winton’s vision, the breadth of his understanding.  So many things are in motion, nothing is contrived.  I sat there and read.  Five hours later I reached the end.  My legs were asleep; it took a little while to be able to walk again.  I’m a person who spends a great fraction of my waking hours reading the work of students who require my response, or reading published work that I have to talk about in front of people.  This can wear on me, can sully what drew me into all this excitement, can take me further from writing and from the pleasure of the story than I care to confess or think about, most of the time.  Those hours with The Turning reminded and refreshed me.  I can recommend no book more highly. Peter Rock, author of My Abandonment

See Also: The Rumpus Interview With James Frey

See Also: Robin Romm on Teaching Poetry to Women in Prison


Stephen Elliott is the author of eight books, including The Adderall Diaries. Visit stephenelliott.com for more information. More from this author →