PopMatters Best of Books 2008


by PopMatters Staff

4 January 2009


From Toni Morrison to Zachary Lazar

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A Mercy

Toni Morrison


Review [16.Nov.2008]
The weight of a Toni Morrison novel, in the figurative sense, is particularly spectacular. In 2006, a motley of writers and critics voted Beloved the best book of the last 25 years in the New York Times Book Review. Song of Solomon is often touted as a classic work but Morrison prefers Jazz to all her novels to date. This year, Morrison released her latest novel, A Mercy, a continuation of her unofficial role as gatekeeper of the riches and evils of American history. Considered by some to be a prequel to Beloved, A Mercy examines American slavery in the 1680s that was predicated not so much by race but economics. Central to the narrative are four women: Florens, the narrative center, who is sold by her mother in payment of her master’s debt; Lina, a Native American servant and survivor of a smallpox outbreak; Sorrow, a peculiar servant child with a wild streak; and Rebekkah, their European mistress. A Mercy may not be as poetic as Jazz, as monumental as Beloved, or as magical as Song of Solomon but it is the continuation of a tradition that brings to a head the sins and omissions in American history through the literary lens. A Mercy is a hymn of a novel, just a tad longer than a novella but nonetheless a beautiful accompaniment to Morrison’s prior works. Courtney Young

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Hillary Jordan


Review [9.Mar.2008]
Hillary Jordan’s book won the Bellwether Publication Prize, an award founded by Barbara Kingsolver for novels dealing with social issues.  If Kingsolver’s imprimateur isn’t enough to get you reading this book, well, what is? World War II has just ended, bringing war heroes Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson back to their farming families in the Mississippi Delta.  McAllan, white, joins his older brother Henry, himself a veteran of World War I, Henry’s bride Laura, and Pappy, their racist, son-of-a-bitch father, on Henry’s recently purchased farm. Henry loves the land and is overjoyed to be growing cotton in the rural Delta mud.  Laura, uprooted from genteel city life and her family, is unhappy and resentful, reduced to living in a shack lacking plumbing or electricity and tending to Pappy’s endless demands. Jordan makes her characters likable despite their failings, so we understand Laura’s narrowmindedness, Henry’s chauvinsism, Jamie’s ultimately killing weaknesses. Only Pappy and his buddies are thoroughly despicable.  If only they weren’t so reminiscent of more recent events: it is impossible to read Mudbound without images of the Ninth Ward flooding one’s inner eye, or recalling the remarks made about its residents by former First Lady Barbara Bush. Diane Leach

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Joseph O’Neill


Although sold as a post-9/11 novel, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is really more an examination of emotional stasis triggered by trauma. Hans, a mild-mannered Dutch investment analyst finds himself adrift in Manhattan after his wife returns to London with their child, leaving him with only a loose-formed Staten Island cricket team and a varied cast of similarly drifting immigrants for company. The sole thin thread keeping Hans from spinning out of control completely is his friendship with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian cricketer, operator, possible criminal, and full-blown force of verbal nature. Chuck’s rambling monologues, delivered to a protagonist nearly supine with grief and dislocation, give the novel much of its juice. But what really sets Netherland apart is how O’Neill manages to use Hans and Chuck’s peculiar friendship as a lens through which to see the marvels of New York in a whole new light. Chris Barsanti

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Willy Vlautin

A Novel

(Harper Perennial)

Willy Vlautin’s heroes are the downtrodden characters who inhabit the less than hospitable land of Nevada; his Beckett-esque creations pass their cursed time in life in dive bars, broken-down casinos, and bleak roadside motels where the neon signs never stop blinking. The world is an unstable place, the imaginary Paul Newman advises Allison, the emotionally wounded and self-destructive protagonist, and the sooner one seizes that reality, the clearer the road to recovery becomes: “Remember, kid, there ain’t no place you can escape to. There’s no place where there aren’t weirdos and death and change and new people.” Keep running, he tells her, and “you’ll run into yourself.” No author writes about the deep yearning inside the hearts of the marginalized and displaced in contemporary society with a more unerring and sympathetic eye than Vlautin. Northline is brutal and nakedly honest but in the end it is also a tender and touching love story, albeit one built on the concept that the human longing for stability is a deception based upon an illusion. Rodger Jacobs

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Sea of Poppies

Amitav Ghosh

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Review [11.Dec.2008]
This lavish and adventurous romance is set in and around Calcutta circa 1839, where a varied cast of characters await the arrival of a ship taking coolie labor to Mauritius. Among those populating Ghosh’s incident-choked narrative are Deeti, married to a hopeless addict who works in the British opium factory, and Raja Neel Rattan, a landowner on the verge of having his vast estates repossessed by the British. Like in any grand tale of this sort, there are loves that risk everything by breaking convention, particularly in the case of the love Kalua, a low-caste laborer, feels for the higher-born Deeti. Almost as thrilling, though, is Ghosh’s language, a stew of pidgin, Indian-inflected English that fairly drowns the reader in atmosphere. The action-packed plot vaults past melodrama (mistaken identities, thrilling chases) into something truly grand. Sea of Poppies is supposedly the first part of a trilogy, which helps remove the sting of a seemingly premature conclusion for readers who’ve been hooked by Ghosh’s thrilling writing and are desperate to know what happens next.  Chris Barsanti

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The Sorrows of an American

Siri Hustvedt

(Henry Holt)

Review [4.May.2008]
This is a novel of secrets and ghosts: Lars’ ghosts, which follow him back to Minnesota after his service in World War II; Erik, divorced, lonely, plagued by a patient’s suicide; the widowed Inga, who learns her husband, famous writer Max Blaustein, led a secret life during their tumultuous marriage.  Even Sonia, Inga’s 18-year-old daughter, carries painful burdens, including what she saw from her schoolroom window on September 11, 2001.  In a lesser writer’s hands, this glut of thematic material could wind a novel into a hopeless knot. Hustvedt’s facility is such that instead, we are lead through the inseparable interactions of mind and body as her characters move through the story.  The effect is exhilarating rather than jarring, as events urge us forward, each secret offering up a truth that in turn unlocks another door.  The Sorrows of an American concludes thoughtfully, all secrets confessed, the characters, to greater or lesser extents, healed enough to move beyond their individual traumas into, we hope, happier futures. Diane Leach

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The Spare Room

Helen Garner

(  Canongate)

Review [26.Aug.2008]
Helen Garner’s return to fiction after 15 years is barely fictitious. Instead, she’s drawn heavily on her own experience of caring for a friend with a terminal illness to produce The Spare Room. Despite the bleak subject material, Garner manages to deliver a funny and touching exploration of a friendship in crisis By channelling her barely-contained rage into self-deprecating humour, Garner makes her narrator all too believable and sympathetic.  Garner has a deft touch and real psychological insight—the product of deep self-awareness. Sitting down this holiday season to a book about cancer and death may not seem ideal, but The Spare Room is the rare book that balances heavy themes with a buoyant sense of joy and meaning.  It’s not even gallows humour most of the time.  The Spare Room is full of the laughter that friends share when they have nothing to prove.  Existential literature can be brutally honest, but it’s rarely this much fun. David Pullar

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Zachary Lazar

A Novel

(Little, Brown)

Review [18.Mar.2008]
Zachary Lazar’s Sway, the subject of glowing accolades in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, is one of those novels whose full power doesn’t quite reveal itself until you get to the end. Reading this book is like taking a ride on a dark, scary ghost train. Only in retrospect can you look back and see where you’ve been, what you’ve experienced, and how it all comes together. To make it even scarier, the ghosts, in this case, are real ones. It seems somehow beside the point to talk about the plot of Sway— it’s not that kind of novel. Better to think of it as the literary equivalent of a hand of tarot cards. Each card, as its face is revealed, represents another star in a constellation whose aura is definitely malign, and whose planet, Saturn, is in retrograde. Like Lucifer Rising, which was finally completed in 1972, Sway is less a narrative than a mood piece, a psychohistory of certain moments between the beginning of 1967 and the end of 1969—moments of malevolence, apathy, crisis, neurosis, and death. In charting this constellation of connected moments in space-time, Sway has something in common with From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic study of the 1888 murders in London, as well as David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, about the Yorkshire Ripper. Mikita Brottman

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