Kathleen Alcalá

The Clueless Eater

Best books I read in 2008

December 30, 2008

Most end-of-year best book lists refer to books that came out in print that year. Since I only occasionally read books that came out the same year, here is a list of good books I read in 2008, whether or not they came out this year.

Two books I read early on were The Savage Detectives (in English, 2007) and Distant Star (2004), both by Roberto Bolaño. Although Bolaño had been writing and publishing for a number of years, his books were only recently translated into English. This made his work appear to explode on the publishing scene, a year after his death from liver disease. Bolaño knew his time was limited, and gave up poetry to write novels in order to leave an income for his wife and two children in Spain. Born in Chile, Bolaño moved to Mexico City as a teen, visiting Chile just in time to be arrested after the military takeover. He returned to Mexico and began to obsess about the life of the writer, the loves of the writer, and the place of the writer in the moral universe. Writers in Latin America are much more politically engaged than we are allowed to be in the United States, and Bolaño’s potent mix of literature, sex, death and existentialism creates a world as addictive as a drug. I look forward to reading 2666 this season.

Another set of outstanding books I read are Gilead (2004) and Home (2008) by Marilynne Robinson. As gentle and reflective as Bolaño is explosive and confrontational, Robinson takes us into the lives of a minister’s family, where self-sacrifice and inner reflection, set on the wide open prairie, are the norm.

I was an avid follower of Cormac McCarthy’s work because we ride the same territory, so to speak. But after Blood Meridian, I said, no more. That was until The Road (2007) came along. My husband convinced me that there was a glimmer of hope at the end, and there is. The prose is so pared down as to be prose poetry. Beautifully written.

A book I have had recommended to me by a number of writers is Middlesex (2002), by Jeffrey Eugenides. The intriguing narrator of this novel takes us from a small village in Turkey to the striving immigrants of Detroit. The voice of this novel convinces us that it is worth sticking around through some fairly long history lessons in order to learn a particular truth. I enjoyed the truth of it and the history.

All these years later, I read Beloved (1987), by Toni Morrison. Morrison has taken a lifetime to concentrate on one specific question: What makes us human? By examining this from the perspective of people who have been treated as less than human, she re-minds us of the cultural touchstones as well as the everyday graces that people hang onto in order to endure all.

Finally, I would like to recommend Chris Abani’s Song for Night (2007). Both a poet and prose writer, Abani won a writing competition meant for adults when he was a ten-year-old in Nigeria. Song for Night is the story of a child soldier who has become separated from his unit. The journey he takes is much like that in the Mexican novel Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo. Made bearable by the strength of the story-telling, it tells an unbearable story that is being repeated again and again, but allows us to finally look and understand.

I read a lot of other books, too. But these stood out as honest, enduring, and sustaining of the human spirit. This is what literature is all about.
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Combining memoir, historical records, and a blueprint for sustainability, The Deepest Roots shows us how an island population can mature into responsible food stewards and reminds us that innovation, adaptation, diversity, and common sense will help us make wise decisions about our future. And along the way, we learn how food is intertwined with our present but offers a path to a better understanding of the future.
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