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2666

Roberto Bolaño

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

All too often, contemporary novelists create works of polite and studied formal perfection, smoothly polished and sturdily built, widely praised and unspeakably dull. Such novels are the luxury condo developments of literature, constructed with fine materials and functional layouts, but devoid of character, significance, or soul. And if some books are condos, Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously-published masterpiece 2666 is an expansive, teeming city, chaotic and vibrant, beautiful but rough around the edges, home to both gleaming towers and squalid holes. For all the intellectual depth, dazzling range, and grand, fully-realized ambition on display in the book, it is ultimately Bolaño’s adamant compassion for his characters that makes 2666 so deeply involving and compelling. Although Bolaño frequently expressed doubts in his work about whether writers and literature possess the power to affect change in the world, with 2666 he has at the very least offered a towering testament to the novel’s ability to express the meaning and significance of human lives.   Ryan Michael Williams




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Blindness

Jose Saramago

(Harcourt)

Review [2.Nov.2008]
José Saramago’s 13-year-old classic would not have made this list without the assistance of Fernando Meirelles’ cinematic adaptation, one that the author resisted for years. While Saramago had particular demands—the city in which the action takes place should be unrecognizable; the canine at the end had to be a large dog—it was mostly because he thought the work too violent to be portrayed on film. Meirelles’ version was disturbing, but Saramago’s vision of what happens when a world goes blind with whiteness, leaving its inhabitants to their own devices for survival, has many things to teach us about human nature and relationships: most notably, how and when we use one another, as well as the ways in which this id-ridden act takes its tolls on the people and world around us. It is not a morality lesson—the atheist author has no inclinations toward theological speculations—but it does hold up a mirror to the best and worst of us, naked, raw, and powerful. Derek Beres




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Death with Interruptions

Jose Saramago

(Harcourt)

Review [14.Dec.2008]
Review [14.Dec.2008]
José Saramago has written perhaps one of the more inventive works of the year in Death with Interruptions.  A novel of two parts, in the first, Death decides to go on strike in an unnamed country. Initially, the citizens are thrilled but as time goes on, seven months to be precise, the country’s denizens become less and less enamored of the idea. Saramago’s critique of capitalism is poignant, in the demise of institutions of power as we know it with the end of Death. Funeral homes and insurance agencies go bankrupt. Instead of dying, people languish in their current state of senility, disfigurement, or dilapidation. By the time we reach the second part of the novel, Saramago begins to offer clues to the puzzle of Lady Death’s refusal to kill anyone – she has fallen in love with a cellist. And he is no cellist of particular fame or significance but one member of a multi-person orchestra who refuses to accept her letter which announces his own death. This novel is striking because it asks and attempts to answer questions that pertain to life, death, and the human condition. A writer of many a great parable, Saramago created a tiny treasure this year with Death with Interruptions. Courtney Young




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The Delivery Man

Joe McGinniss, Jr.

(Grove Atlantic)

Chase, a 25-year-old art school graduate, returns from college to his hometown and through a series of elaborate self-defeating moves finds himself hopelessly embroiled in a job as a “delivery man” (driver and protector) for a ring of teenage outcall hookers working from the Versailles Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Chase’s childhood friend, Michele, a beautiful Salvadoran immigrant with whom he shares an extraordinarily tragic past, runs the business for mutual friend Bailey, another foolish underachiever whose business skills are too limited even for the sex trade. A harrowing journey set in the suburbs and exurbs of Las Vegas, this debut novel by Joe McGinniss, Jr. provides a snapshot from hell of a contemporary youth culture in full cardiac arrest, children forced to become adults all too soon, compelled to absorb childhood traumas and adolescent catastrophes in a quiet and understated way until the whole bloody mess comes boiling to the surface in anarchic, anti-social behavior. Stephen King has nothing on Joe McGinniss, Jr. with this single line of dialogue on page 265 guaranteed to send chills up the spine of any warm-blooded mammal: “Oh, dude, you’re so fucked.” Rodger Jacobs




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Devil’s Cape

Rob Rogers

(Wizards of the Coast Discoveries)

There is a sub-genre that is on the upswing in the world of book publishing. That would be the superhero novel. The themes and concepts typically found in the four-colored world of comic books have made their way in the decidedly un-graphic pages of books. Now, the superhero novel has received its standard bearer, the one novel all others in the sub-genre will be compared to. That novel is Devil’s Cape by Rob Rogers. The key to success in any novel, but especially genre fiction, is to create a believable world with realistic characters. The situations can be fantastic, but there has to be an element of truth there. Devil’s Cape is a town in Louisiana, just a few miles away from New Orleans. The town was founded by pirates and, today, the bad guys rule in Devil’s Cape. Pity any superhero who dares try to fight them. If they can’t kill you, they’ll kill your family. If you don’t have a family, they’ll find someone close to you to kill, whatever it takes for them to keep their power over you – and the city. Rogers creates a vivid and vibrant world from whole cloth which seems like it truly can exist right outside your window. And that is what makes this book so successful. Devil’s Cape is a quick read in the best sense of the word. It is truly difficult to put down. It proudly deserves a place next to Tom Clancy and Stephen King as a sterling example of the best of genre fiction. Even if you don’t like superheroes, you are bound to be captivated by Devil’s Cape William Gatevackes




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Downtown Owl

Chuck Klosterman

A Novel

(Scribner)

Review [14.Sep.2008]
Chuck Klosterman’s first piece of published fiction was the meandering, dull, semi-autobiographical coda to Chuck Klosterman IV, which seemed like it was tacked on simply to bump the book up to a respectable length. It comes as no small relief, then, that Downtown Owl shares few of the weaknesses of its predecessor.  This isn’t to say that Klosterman abandons his distinctive voice.  He simply puts that voice to use describing the lives of other people—specifically, the football-playing teenager Mitch, the 20-something Julia, and the elderly Horace.  The three have little in common—they all live in the small town of Owl, North Dakota, but otherwise have little interaction—but by weaving their three stories around each other, Klosterman constructs a touching, incisive, and (of course) funny snapshot of small-town America circa 1984.  And if the story occasionally falters or takes off on tangents, who cares?  It’s all tremendously fun to read. Kyle Deas




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Dreamers of the Day

Mary Doria Russell

(Random House)

Mary Doria Russell’s briskly-paced novel gets itself past a rather elaborate and hard-to-believe setup with aplomb, and everything that follows after that is worth that initial vault of suspending disbelief. Agnes Shanklin is an Ohio teacher of calm and modest bearing (bordering on spinsterhood) whose existence is upended when she loses her entire family to the 1919 flu epidemic. Shorn of much of her care about the old life, and newly possessed of monies and introductions to important people in the Middle East (via her sister’s missionary work), Agnes ends up traveling to Egypt. This just so happens to be the perfect setting for Russell to have her character get chummy with the likes of Winston Churchill (funny and rude, obsessed with painting) and T. E. Lawrence (mysterious and droll) just as the British are getting set to reshape the entire region for the coming century. Between the cocktail parties, spies, and the momentous backdrop of events, Russell’s novel almost tilts into a pastiche of historical fiction, but is saved by her crystal-clear writing and a shocking denouement that turns everything upside down. Prescient, sharp-tongued, and funny, with a tart warning for the future. Chris Barsanti




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The Enchantress of Florence

Salman Rushdie

(Random House)

Review [3.Aug.2008]
There’s an operatic over-stuffedness to this multigenerational fairytale. The story winds from Medici Florence to Mughal India to the darkest jungles of the new world, crossing barren wastes with a Djinni’s instantaneous insouciance. In this 1001 Nights-ish world, the main characters are baroquely fictional – a mood-ridden Sultan who invents a wife out of thin air; a yellow-haired wanderer who claims royal Mughal blood, a skeletal prostitute; a long-lost princess – though historical characters like Machiavelli, Andrea Doria and Amerigo Vespucci inhabit the margins. There is nothing minimal about the writing – why use one word when a florid list will do? – but Rushdie piles on the descriptive embellishments like dishes at a ravishing feast. Inside baroque flourishes and embellishments, however, you’ll find disarmingly simple themes: the world-bending powers of the storyteller, the dizzying transience of love. The story is fantastical, enchanting and tipped to its very top with cacophonous imagery. Jennifer Kelly


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20 Nov 2008
This posthumously-published masterpiece is an expansive, teeming city, chaotic and vibrant, beautiful but rough around the edges, home to both gleaming towers and squalid holes.
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