Seven Best Books of 2008

Here's a list of books that we read (or heard)
during 2008 we think are worth your trouble.

Amy Bloom
Barbara Rosenblatt,

(HighBridge Audio)
We first found Away in a HighBridge audio edition narrated by Barbara Rosenblatt. I can't tell you how much fun it was, day after day --- I only get to hear it on the commute --- listening to Lillian's exuberant high adventure in a nearly perfect rendering. The men sound like men, the women like women, and, meanwhile, there are the perfect intonations of 1920s Brooklyn Yiddish life, including Yaakov Shimmelman ("Tailor, Actor, Playwright ... Pants pressed and altered").

When she laughs at his calling-card, he admonishes her, then says, "I was just teasing you, ketzele. Of course it's funny. It's true, it's absolutely tragic --- and, he adds, in English, 'abso-tive-ly, pos-a-lootly' --- but that does not make it any less funny. For people, like us,"

    and he looks at her closely, to see if she is people like him, and he seems satisfied, "that makes it even a little bit funnier."

One critic called Away a "Moll Flanders on-the-road novel," but it's more interesting than Defoe (or even Kerouac). Bloom is a first-rate story-teller, so good that you don't want her to get on with it, even when, at last, Lillian finds (and almost loses) the love of her (and our) life.

Go to the complete

Of Kids &

Emil Hakl
Marek Tomin, Translator

(Twisted Spoon Press)
Father and son, different, perhaps, but revealed here to be cronies, old cronies, who get pissed at each other, open up, shut down, confound us (and each other) with their memories, their tall tales. Listen to Honza's whopper about Johan/Lazarus Batista Kollendero, "who were born in London and they were formed in such a way that Johan was growing out of the chest of his normally developed brother, so throughout their lives they were looking at each other's faces. Lazarus was the one with the legs so Johan had to go from one party to another against his will."

    Apparently they always argued about it, and Johan would end up offended, staring at the ceiling all night, while Lazarus would fool around, tell jokes, and in between he'd reason with his brother in a quiet, friendly voice.

Weird, wonderful, wonderfully-horribly joined, like all of us, with those who bore us, who bear us, like Ivan and Honzo, the two of them filled up with their stories, filling us with their stories, there on the streets of old Prague. The memories out of their lives (past and present), the common history of two who have several things in common: memories, father and son, joined-at-the-hips.

Some may be false, some maybe not ... but as stories out of our lives, minted by Emil Hakl, they're pure gold; as rich and as good as it gets.

Go to the complete

How Having Breast Cancer
Can Be Really Distracting

Meredith Norton
There is no prize, not even a booby prize, for going through all this. "I was the same sort of cancer survivor as I had been a student, successful but poor, meaning I lived, but managed to learn nothing."

She tries to convince us that nothing was gained. But that is not true. Meredith Norton has given us a crackerjack manual on how to survive breast cancer.

Earlier, I compared Lopsided to John Callahan's autobiography. I could have gone back further than that, all the way back to Betty MacDonald's The Plague and I which is about the ups-and-downs of living through tuberculosis. Like Norton, she saw the ghastlies. Like Norton, she decided that it was better to laugh than to cry. Like Norton, she survived.

Norton offers a guide to those of us who are or will be unfortunate enough to develop breast cancer. If this sorry scenario came to pass for any of my friends, I would immediately send over Lopsided, to use as a guide to what has passed, what is to come.

Go to the complete


Robert Olen Butler
(Chronicle Books)
Least you think this is only a twisty take on what might merely be obscene couplings I have to tell you that our author is too good for that. Despite its coarse implications, Intercourse is a hard act to follow. What might turn out to be merely diddling in anyone else's hands becomes here elegant fun and fantasy.

Butler has researched his subjects to a fare-thee-well: Hitler's whip, Mozart's "demisemiquaver kisses," Louis XVI's locks, Napoléon's dog Fortuné ("big dog on my doggie I missed her signifying") and, ah, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, her first words as the rush is about to overtake her and his strabismus, "one eye drifts away, neither of them looking at me ... I have vanished."

And he: La Nausée ... "I think I'm going to be sick."

Then there is Gertrude Stein, on her lifetime love Alice B. Toklas, spoken (or thought) surely as only Gertrude Stein could: "I touch her black wisp of a mustache the bottom edge of her black mustache just above her lip, certainly it is her mustache certainly it is hers the mustache is hers certainly I touch her wisp of a mustache certainly with my fingertip along her lip certainly it is her lip..."

Thomas Jefferson's Sally is not thinking revolt, nor, as most would wish, sorely put upon, but willing, dangerously so: "I will never as long as I live know how I come to lift my hand and put it on my master's face but I do and I am happy."

Go to the complete


Pers Petterson
Anne Born, Translator
(Graywolf Press)
Time may be the hero here, but there is also a boy growing to be a man, inarticulate at that age of change, watching, as he does, from the edge of the woods, watching his father kissing a woman who is not his mother. "There was something in my throat that itched and hurt in a weird way, wanting to come up, but if I swallowed hard I could keep it down."

Time, and growing up, and chance, the odd odds that play such a role in our lives: Trond, hidden, watching his father disappear up the hill, hand-in-hand with a woman who is not his mother; disappearing, as fathers must disappear, into or out of space, or time, or disillusionment.

Out Stealing Horses is timeless, good, filled with wonder; too good, by far, to be put down easily --- or easily forgotten.

Go to the complete

50 Photographers
You Should Know

Peter Stephan
John Gabriel,
Text Translator

This is a work of love, and we love it, and would marry editor Peter Stephan if he would have us, if he's free and willing, has the time to take myriad photographs of us in the buff (or in the park). Those who teach photography, if they were wise, would force their students to study each and every one of the 200 or so shots shown here. Our only demurral would have to do with Nan Goldin, Martin Parr, Andreas Gursky and Wolfgang Tillmans, stuffed in there at the very end. In the photographic arts, we're hopelessly stuck in the quicksand of the past, never much cared for color work, never could figure out why others favor it, why whole books are dedicated to it since to our simple taste it gives too damn much and leaves nothing to the imagination

The editor is not only wise in his choices and layout, he's literate. The introduction, "Rendering the visible to make it visible" is spot on: "According to Lewis Mumford, the time clock, and not the steam engine, was 'the most important machine of the industrial age' ...

"To be in command of time is to have power. Photography is the pleasure of making time come to a stop. The perpetuum mobile of our existence pauses for a brief moment."

    No face, even in repose, is totally motionless. A face held motionless on silver gelatin paper radically confounds our perception and triumphs over time and ageing ... The portrait --- apparently a simple matter to manage --- is perhaps the most difficult of all photographic genres.

"The charisma of the model reacts to the charisma of the photographer, and in the most favorable cases the effect has been reciprocal."

Go to the complete

Sex Talks
To Girls

A Memoir
Maureen Seaton
(University of Wisconsin)
Seaton can make us laugh and cry at the same time, is a natural-born one-liner master. This, when she is but nineteen, on her would-be husband and her putative religion:

    Then he was gone, at least for the rest of my freshman year. I couldn't have sex with Harper because of Jesus, and Harper got tired of waiting outside the church for a virgin with light pouring out of her orifices and nothing going in.

This, on her experiment in glossolalia: "I could speak tongues in my mind if I wanted to. It sounded a little like the Jewish Sabbath prayer, lovely and liquidy and totally unrecognizable to me."

    I knew I wasn't making it up, and I knew it was just the beginning of all the "gifts." Still, it felt like a cross between a new bicycle and an imaginary friend, a secret stone in my pocket.

After the departure of Harper, Molly announces to all that she is going to marry Mars, the big black funny lesbian, and her boss says, "How would you like it, Molly, if I came to work one morning and told you I had slept with my horse?"

After she is forced to give up daughters Clio and Sophie, "I walked out of the office that day I could see the Hudson down the hill between the shops and banks of the village. Jamie and I would have more time to ride our bicycles, I thought. I thought: I'll have more time to write."

    I vomited in the parking lot. I sat for over an hour in my car, waiting for God to show up and do something.

Seaton knows well how to charm the pants off the reader. There is the story of the arrival of her second child: she knew he was going to be a he, so she's going to name him "Dennis Hopper." And then baby arrives, a girl, and "Hello, Sophie, I said, l to the wise child who, without a word, would inspire me through the first revolution of my life."

Go to the complete

Send us e-mail


Go Home

Go to the most recent RALPH