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Slatepicks the best books of 2008.
Adam Kirsch, contributor
The new book of poetry that gave me the most pleasure this year is Azores, by David Yezzi. Yezzi writes with insight and elegance about the lives we actually lead—about the ironic balance between violent feeling and regulated behavior that defines adulthood. The book's title sequence describes a sailing trip across the Atlantic that is simultaneously a sexual adventure; like Hart Crane's "Voyages," "Azores" is suffused with the eroticism of the sea. But unlike Crane, Yezzi concludes by recognizing that "we are not suited to live long at sea," that our "lust for water" is countered by a "fidelity to land." The sophistication of Yezzi's language perfectly suits the sophistication of his understanding, and he displays a civilized mastery reminiscent of Philip Larkin and Donald Justice, which no poet of his generation can match.
Juliet Lapidos, assistant editor
I'd never considered traveling to Nantan, Japan. It's far away. Also, I'd never heard of it. Same goes for Pretoria, South Africa, and Torres del Paine, Chile. But thanks to The Phaidon Atlas of 21st Century World Architecture, I now have excellent reasons to visit each of these little-known locales: unusual, sometimes eerie, but always stunning modern buildings. In Pretoria, for example, there's House Steenkamp by Elmo Swart. Built to resemble a snail, the private home spirals out of the earth. I imagine that a decagenarian gnome lives there and that he likes to invite passers-by in for tea. Caveat emptor: If you purchase this atlas, you may need to reinforce the legs of your coffee table—it's 800 pages and weighs 14.5 pounds. It's well worth the heavy lifting, however, and the hefty price tag. With pithy descriptions and lavish photographs of 1,037 homes, hotels, museums, and stadiums in 89 countries, the atlas offers a comprehensive account of what starchitects and little-known firms alike have been up to since the year 2000. See you in Nantan.
Josh Levin, associate editor
There are few clichés more clichéd than those associated with the inspirational sports story: the tough-as-nails coach, the down-on-its-luck town, the big showdown at the championship game. Jere Longman's The Hurricanes, an account of a southeast Louisiana high-school football team after Hurricane Katrina, both transcends this formula and capitalizes on its enduring appeal. The tale of a bunch of kids returning home to a sliver of land that's this close to falling into the Gulf of Mexico, shacking up in trailers, and christening their team the Hurricanes works well as a straight-ahead narrative of sports triumph. But it's the accretion of only-in-southeast-Louisiana detail—this is perhaps the year's only football book that includes a 10-page sketch of the life of Cambodian shrimp-boat captains—and Longman's devotion to his remarkable characters, particularly the manic, off-color, empathetic coach Cyril Crutchfield, that makes the story so memorable and haunting.
Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor
Amid a flock of excellent legal books this year, two are really outstanding in my view. The first is Jane Mayer's The Dark Side. The second is my former law professor Richard Ford's The Race Card. Ford asks a simple question: How can claims of racism—in the courtroom, the media, and casual conversation—be so pervasive in America if so few of us are racists? His answers are provocative: Much of what we call racism is the result of racist decisions made decades ago with respect to housing, education, or urban planning. Cab drivers who refuse to pick up black men may be motivated by factors beyond racial hate—like not wanting to drop someone off in a bad part of town. The Race Card advances a debate that has been mired in reductive thinking for decades. You won't agree with Ford on everything. But you may find yourself thinking differently about everything. And that's my definition of a great book.
Timothy Noah, "Chatterbox" columnist
Richard Price's Lush Life gave me more reading pleasure than any other book in 2008. The novel is a work both of fiction and of urban archaeology, exploring the three successive civilizations that inhabited Manhattan's Lower East Side during the past century and a half. These are, of course, the upwardly striving Jewish working class; the black and Hispanic underclass; and the youthful white urban pioneers who, in seeking Bohemia, created instead one more enclave of wealth and privilege. Price's conceit is that each successive civilization never fully supplants its predecessor and that the resulting stew of ghosts and living beings is beset by awful misunderstandings and outright violence. It's a wonderful book, teeming with authenticity, sadness, and dark wit.
Troy Patterson, television critic In the early chapters of Atmospheric Disturbances, her debut novel, Rivka Galchen makes like a hardened postmodernist. The narrator is unreliable, and a kind of skewed narratology, a sizing up of how stories shape perception, is the theme. Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a New York psychiatrist, believes that malign forces have replaced his wife with a "simulacrum." "She imitated Rema's Argentine accent perfectly, the halos around the vowels," Leo thinks. (Meanwhile, the novel, with its fantastical bent and philosophical air, evokes the Argentine accent of Borges.) Leo's pursuit of answers leads him to a meteorologist, an academic weatherman who in fact controls the weather and who shares the author's surname. Rather clever. Merely clever. But! But the author turns a structuralist exercise into an exciting workout. The book reads like a tense private-eye thriller set in a languorous, floating Wonderland. I read a couple of other first-rate first novels this year—Jonathan Miles'Dear American Airlines, Matthew Quick's The Silver Linings Playbook—but Galchen presented the most eye-catching calling card.
Robert Pinsky, poetry editor
John Keats had the most heartbreaking of careers. During his brief life, his unsurpassed poetry—as we now perceive it—earned him more scorn than recognition. He died in poverty, unappreciated by the scholars and critics of his time. All this the world well knows. But none has known well how to apprehend the significance of Keats, his discouragement in life, and his triumph in art, beyond the ordinary approaches of biography or literary criticism—until Stanley Plumly's Posthumous Keats. Plumly's passionate, informed understanding of Keats enlarges into a meditation on poetry and death, on a human lifespan and posterity, on the fiery energy of art and the swinish complacency of the world, on disaster and courage. In a world of ephemeral blah-blah, the poet Plumly has written a book to last: worthy of its subject and commensurate with both words of its title.
David Plotz, editor
When Will There Be Good News?, by Kate Atkinson. The title is a joke: There will never be good news. This book is a peculiar experiment: Can you write a warm and fuzzy novel in which there is nothing but misery? Yes, you can! The novel opens with the horrific triple murder of a mother and her children, then graduates to a train wreck, arson, suicide, drowning, kidnapping, con games, and much worse. But Atkinson gives us characters who are so emotionally rich and so decent—despite the awfulness around them—that a story that should have been either blackly comic or heartbreaking is instead entirely heartwarming. Like her last two mysteries, Case Histories and One Good Turn, this book features the exhausted detective Jackson Brodie, but her greatest creation is Reggie Chase, an autodidact orphan teen with a perfect moral sense and a desperate need for family.
Katie Roiphe, contributor
The book that had the most profound effect on me this year was Susan Sontag's Reborn: Journals & Notebooks 1947-1963, edited by her son, David Rieff. The journals are shocking and singular in both the intimacy of their brisk, notelike form and the astonishing personality they reveal. The imperial voice of Against Interpretation is here aimed at herself. The critic takes her own personality on as a subject and dissects, often unflatteringly, her own weaknesses. One has to admire the fierceness of will she shows in inventing, improving, and tinkering with herself. She has endless lists of books she should read, ways to improve her behavior. If there was any doubt, the notebooks confirm that the uncompromising intelligence, the unsparing honesty Sontag shows in her work is not a pose or affectation. Her entries give evidence that she is, to her core, as unrelenting and unironic a critic in life as she is in her work. One can't help coming out of these strange and brilliant notebooks with a sense of one's own laziness, one's slack acceptance of one's own comfortable existence.
Jody Rosen, music critic Some ethnomusicologists' scholarly quests lead them to remote Javanese villages. Roger Bennett and Josh Kun went to Boca Raton, Fla. Children of the 1980s who grew up steeped in pop, punk, and Jewish cultural ambiguity, Kun and Bennett spent eight years searching garage sales to recover a "lost kingdom of sound"—the Jewish pop that slipped between history's cracks: rock-opera Shabbat services, Israeli folkies, mambo pianists who brought Latin-Yiddish fusion to the Catskills and the cruise-ship circuit. The result, And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost, is the year's most enjoyable popular-music book and one of its most revelatory—part revisionist cultural history, part eye-popping coffee table anthology. Focusing on forgotten figures like Tom Jones-esque cantor Sol Zim, Bennet and Kun expand the narrative of Jewish-American music beyond the Tin Pan Alley-Brill Building axis. And the extraordinary LP cover reproductions remind you how much we're losing as record stores shutter and the music business dissolves into bytes. Has there ever been a more deranged, beautiful album cover than Topol's War Songs, in which the Israeli star is pictured crooning into a hand grenade perched atop a microphone stand?
Ron Rosenbaum, "Spectator" columnist
Could Ivan Goncharov's Oblomov have prevented the nation's economic collapse? The thought occurred to me when I learned of a new translation (by Marian Schwartz) of the classic 19th-century Russian novel—the beautiful, dreamy ode to indolence. The second one in two years. (The 2006 translation is by Stephen Pearl.) Whatever version you read, you can't help but be captivated by the "rapture" that Tolstoy spoke of when reading and re-reading it, the pure delight in ease and idleness the wastrel landowner Oblomov indulges in, the long-forgotten pleasures of a day spent not getting out of bed. It's the perfect corrective to the hyperactive, overdriven mentality that says one must not only have derivatives of collateralized mortgage obligations, but that one must drive oneself into a frenzy of making derivatives of derivatives of derivatives. All to inflate one's means beyond any capacity for human enjoyment and drive the economy to collapse in the process. If only these people had learned the pleasures of staying in bed that Oblomov offers. The point of pointlessness.