PopMatters Best of Books 2008


by PopMatters Staff

4 January 2009


From Mischa Berlinski to G.K. Chesterton

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Mischa Berlinski

A Novel


Review [26.Mar.2008]
That Berlinski is the main character in his own novel is the first thing one notices about Fieldwork, but hardly the only thing one takes away. Having followed his girlfriend to Thailand, the fictional Berlinski soon hears of an American anthropologist who turns up dead in the Thai prison where she’s serving a life sentence. To provide anything beyond this rudimentary summery would do both the novel and its potential readers a disservice. Simply listing the plot details can only begin to suggest the depths of creativity on display here. Likewise, to approach Fieldwork with foreknowledge of major plot points would diminish the experience.  Berlinski himself worked as a journalist in Thailand, and his experiences have surely helped shape his writing. That Fieldwork is impeccably researched is beyond question, but Berlinski doesn’t flaunt his erudition needlessly. Instead, the information he’s accumulated provides a steady foundation, allowing him to write with an earned authority that never fails to convince. One need not harbor any particular interest in the minutia of Christian missionary work or the eponymous anthropological fieldwork to appreciate his accomplishment. This is clearly the work of a superior intellect, but one that doesn’t shy away from juicy plot twists or exciting set pieces, fashioning a story that thrills without condescension.  Nav Purewal

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The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman


Neil Gaiman likes to write children’s books from time to time, but he’s not much good at it—or rather, he’s so good at it that it hardly seems like he’s written a children’s book at all. Coraline (2002) was, truth be told, one of the most chilling books I’ve ever read, and if The Graveyard Book isn’t quite as creepy, its certainly no less macabre. Loosely based on its namesake The Jungle Book, this is the story of Nobody “Bod” Owens, who is raised by a group of ghosts after his parents are brutally murdered. The story progresses much the same as The Jungle Book, but what makes this such a joy isn’t the plot but the prose. Gaiman never panders to his intended audience, in style or in content. Instead he plays around with the constraints of the young-adult genre, keeping his writing simple without ever sacrificing its beauty. “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife”, reads the first sentence, and The Tale of Two Cities aside, I’ll be damned if I can think of a better opening line off the top of my head.  I certainly wouldn’t hand this to just any child—or adult, for that matter—but for those young ones mature enough to handle it (and the rest of us, of course), this is a magical, touching book, and it ranks among Gaiman’s best. Kyle Deas

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Marilynne Robinson

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Review [9.Oct.2008]
Marilynne Robinson has established herself to be somewhat of a national treasure. Both of her prior novels Housekeeping and Gilead (winner of the Pulitzer Prize) received well-deserved scholarly and public attention. Her newest novel, Home, is a continuation of literary excellence and an extension of Gilead from the perspective of the 38-year-old Glory Boughton. Home is a tableau of relationships along the backdrop of 1950s puritanical Gilead, Iowa. Glory, the eldest of her father Robert Boughton’s eight children, returns home to care for him after her fiancé dumps her. The narration is further complicated by the return home of her mercurial brother Jack Boughton, who has had a child with a black woman and wants to ascertain if Gilead would be a proper place to bring his interracial family. But most importantly, he returns to Gilead to find peace, something which has managed to eclipse each character in the novel.  The book is full of sin and redemption with a beauty that melts onto the pages like butter. It’s a healing, evocative work that is truly one of the greatest books to make its entry this year. Courtney Young

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Just After Sunset

Stephen King

(Simon & Schuster)

Review [2.Dec.2008]
This is Stephen King’s first short story collection since the National Book Foundation honored him with the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Awards in 2003, which also makes it his first collection as a literary author as opposed to a popular author. (It’s the mask of respectability that makes all the difference.) Long-term King Reader’s needn’t worry, though. Sure, maybe the packaging has changed, but that doesn’t mean that the product is any different. In fact, the 13 stories that make up Just After Sunset are classic King: ghosts who learn belatedly that they’re dead; a young woman, abducted by a serial killer, must outwit – and outrun – her captor; a timid author summons his pseudonymous hard-boiled alter-ego to avoid a nasty scrape at an out-of-the-way rest stop; and an overweight artist takes a trip to the Twilight Zone on his stationary bike. These are dark, suspenseful, comic,  tragic, and even romantic stories. Just After Sunset holds some of the best King stories we’ve been offered in quite a while. Read this collection and you will be scared—but you will be scared in a more sophisticated manner than you were from King’s stories of earlier years. Steven T. Boltz

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Last Last Chance

Fiona Maazel

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

While Last Last Chance is recommended for the simple reason that it’s a fantastic book, it is also worth celebrating as an introductory statement from a young writer we should expect a great deal from going forward. Last Last Chance is part romance, part road story; it’s hilarious and it’s sad. Mostly, it’s a whip-smart treatise from the trenches, chronicling the increasingly desperate attempts of a young woman to connect with an increasingly insane world. While a considerable amount of her grief is self-induced, that is part of her charm. Besides, who can blame her for wanting to escape, by any means necessary, from a country that might be on the brink of apocalypse? One particularly tired cliché about a moving work of art is that it can cause you to laugh as well as cry; when you actually encounter the rare effort that accomplishes this, it’s something to shout about. Sean Murphy

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Man in the Dark:

Paul Auster

(Henry Holt and Co.)

Paul Auster’s metaphysical literary journey continues in the form of August Brill in his newest novel Man in the Dark. The book retains many of the classic Auster staples—literal or metaphorically geriatric men who are plagued by some sort of calamity in an urban setting.  Our protagonist, August Brill, is a 72-year-old retired book editor of some prestige who is besieged with a procession of miseries in a relatively short period of time. His leg is mangled as a result of a particularly horrible car accident that also claimed the life of his wife. His granddaughter is mourning the murder of her boyfriend and his daughter is deeply depressed over her failed marriage. His anguish prevents him from sleep and in one particularly sleepless night, he lays in bed and invents a series of tales. The main tale features a 29-year-old married man from Brooklyn named Owen Brick, who has chosen to put an end to an epic war in America between the blue states (succeeding from the union in outrage as a result of the leadership of George W. Bush) and the red states (backed by the federal government). More specifically, Brick is to assassinate August Brill, the creator of the war (as he is the inventor of the tale and the sole reason it continues), all with the assistance of his high school sweetheart. The shifting narratives and protagonists make for an interesting dance in what is one of the more enjoyable reads of the year. Courtney Young

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The Man Who Was Thursday

G.K. Chesterton

(Penguin Classics)

Review [29.Jun.2008]
Relegating The Man Who Was Thursday to the company of swashbuckling pap and Robinson Crusoe knockoffs is tragically sinful. Yes, there are law officers in the novel and some action, but these features certainly cannot be categorically damning of their works to the ranks of Young Adult Fiction. After all, we do not throw The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at our children’s feet and tell them to go. Pearls before swine.  So very much of the dynamic theological and ethical concerns which The Man Who Was Thursday entertains would be missed by a “young adult” that the novel would be an entirely different affair. And yes, I am keenly aware that similar entities such as the Narnia saga or Shrek operate on a sliding scale and encourage revisitation as one matures to find entirely new dimensions to their childhood favorites. However, The Man Who Was Thursday’s conflict of mytho-philosophy is not simply another strata of the book’s meaning, this wrestling with angels is the book—absolutely.  With the utmost care and exemplary craft, this story transitions seamlessly between rather quotidian adventure and intoxicating and unnerving conflations of myth and philosophy. Erik Hinton

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