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Dec 19

Books I Loved in 2008

Category: Opinions

So, I read, loved and wrote about some spectacular books in 2008, though they weren’t necessarily published in 2008. They’re just books that I think are really worth reading. So, here… we… go.

The Labyrinth by Catherynne M. Valente

The Labyrinth is very difficult to describe in a little review. It’s a dark and twisted fairy-tale. It’s a bizarre love story of sorts. It’s strange and beautiful. Ultimately, it’s a surreal journey into madness and a fascinating look into the futility of human existence. Valente’s prose are absolutely gorgeous, she perfectly captures the essence of insanity as her heroine walks endlessly through The Labyrinth, not knowing if escape is possible and desperately afraid to hope for such.

It’s a brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read in awhile.

Quarantine by Jim Crace

The novel takes place during the time of Jesus, in the desolate wastes outside of Judea. A merchant, Musa, lies dying of fever in his tent. Despite being abandoned by their caravan, mostly made up of Musa’s uncles and cousins, Musa’s wife couldn’t be happier. Miri’s six months pregnant, left to do “women’s work,” left by the caravan to tend to her husband with the most meager supplies, but for the first time in years she’s filled with hope. She’ll be absolutely glad to be widowed. She’s glad to be rid of his family, she’s happy to dig his grave. This is because Musa is a drunken, disgusting, abusive, poor excuse for a man. He’s abusive in every way possible, verbally, physically, sexually. Miri would rather endure birth alone in the desert than suffer her husband any longer. She does her duty, says her prayers, anoints him with the proper salves, but she knows it’s pointless. She leaves Musa to die alone while she digs his grave. Meanwhile, five travelers walk toward nearby caves for their “quarantine,” forty-days of sun-up till’ sundown fasting. Each has personal reasons for their quarantine, but they’re all seeking spiritual rewards. However, one is far more ambitious than the rest. A young man from Galilee, Jesus. Jesus seeks an audience with God Himself. He’s bound for the most isolated cave, with faith as his only sustenance unless God personally sends angels to feed him. It’s Jesus who stumbles upon the tent while Miri’s away, hoping to find some hospitality and potentially, his last meal for forty-days. He finds stale dates, a water skin. Assuming no one is around, nor that they would mind, he helps himself. Of course, Musa is there, feverish and near-death. Near-death, until Jesus finds him…

City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer

The book is a collection stories and historical guides that center around the city of Ambergris, a city of religious fervor and political corruption. It’s home to eccentric artists and strange creatures. It’s a city that brims with life, and so much death. None of the stories are tied together in a linear fashion, the first story doesn’t flow into the second. I think each piece of writing easily stands alone, but as a whole they create a fully realized world.

Jeff’s use of his craft is absolutely amazing. His words form sentences that create life. I feel like I’ve spent a month in Ambergris, walking its cobblestones, barricading the door to my hostel, praying to avoid the chaos and death that shrouds the Festival of the Freshwater Squid. So few have the skill to write bizarre twisted worlds and make them so real, with such vivid characters. He sees the power of the written word and completely knows how to wield it.

The Tyrant by Michael Cisco

It’s the story of a brilliant fifteen-year-old girl, crippled by Polio, a graduate student revered for her work with ectoplasm. The stuff of the afterlife. Being so renowned, this girl, Ella, is invited to assist in an experiment that could change the way the world sees death. It’s an experiment with an epileptic man with unheard-of mental abilities. Through deep trances, he can project his consciousness not only from life into death, but even a state of possible life, the place before one lives or dies. For the experiment he descends into death, sending back both data and visual images displayed on lab monitors. Ella sees what he sees, and ultimately what he becomes. In life he’s a sad, cryptic man, but in death he’s brutal and vicious. He’s the Tyrant. He’s the man Ella loves. As for the experiment, it has unexpected and devastating consequences for the world of the living.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon is one of the better little novels I’ve ever read. It tells the story of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome, an Autism Spectrum disorder. Christopher likes to walk his neighborhood late at night when the world is quiet and seems empty. He likes the solitude, it’s comforting. One evening he finds something quite disturbing, his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, stabbed to death with a garden-fork. His neighbor finds him holding poor Wellington, so of course, she calls the police. Christopher cannot tell lies, Asperger’s doesn’t allow it, he gets to go home with a stern warning to stay out of trouble. Christopher likes dogs, and murder mysteries, he’s a genius with puzzles, so he decides to investigate Wellington’s murder and write his investigation as a novel for a school project. 

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

So, I recently finished reading Choke by Chuck Palahniuk and it totally reminded me again how brilliantly Palahniuk can write. Though, it being one of his earlier works, I also worry that his best stuff is behind him. Palahniuk has an amazing knack for creating complete lunatic, fuck up, low-life characters who are still likable and relatable. At least, I find them relatable. Choke’s protag is Victor Mancini, a sex-addicted liar who may or may not be the Second Coming of Christ. Victor’s a med-school dropout working as an indentured servant at an historical theme park. His mother’s a senile social anarchist who spent most of his childhood in and out of prison, kidnapping him from various foster homes. If Victor’s not busy having sex with women from sex addicts anonymous, he’s pretending to choke at local restaurants. His saviors befriend him, hear his troubles, they send him money. Victor needs the money, indentured servant, sex addict, med-school dropouts don’t pull down enough to keep their moms in high-end nursing facilities. Victor also likes the idea that he gives people a story to tell, that he creates heroes one meal at a time. At the nursing home, the demented old women mistake Victor for men who wronged them in the past and he cops to every sin from incest to dog murder. It’s much easier for Victor to be someone else, with each confession providing closure until senility reopens the wounds. Victor’s best friend, Denny, another sex addict, collects rocks for every-day he doesn’t masturbate. He says he wants his life to about something rather than be about not doing something one day at a time. Still, the rocks are just a fix for a fix.

Palahniuk likes to write certain themes into every novel, like, losing everything to truly appreciate anything, or how hitting absolute rock bottom simply means there’s nothing left to fear, both of which I love. He also writes a great deal about things being just a fix for a fix. One addiction to fix another. Denny and the rocks. Victor taking responsibility for so many sins just to feel needed. I really understand such themes and I feel better knowing that other people have that same understanding. I think about the idea of a fix for a fix quite a lot, ever since the hole in my throat and and the tube in my stomach. The trache fixes my breathing and takes away my voice leaving thoughts and worries to fill my head until I can’t sleep, until I miss every drug I ever had. Brandy to slow everything down. Reading, watching movies, writing as much as possible so the brandy doesn’t feel necessary. Amazingly hot soup, astonishingly hot coffee, fantastically cold cereal go into my feeding tube because eating has become more about sensation than taste. The oral pleasure of sweet cocoa replaced by the sensual pleasure of heat from steamed soy milk as it passes through a tube to my stomach, to my chest, to my face. Fixes for fixes. Palahniuk’s writing, especially in Choke, Survivor and Invisible Monsters is so spot on as to make things that I think about more clear and less frightening. I feel less alone. 

Definitely read Choke, it’s darkly hilarious and quite provocative.

These are excellent books, my absolute favorites of 2008. There are plenty of holiday shopping days left, good fiction makes for a good gift.

4 comments

4 Comments so far

  1. Will December 19th, 2008 1:19 pm

    Coolio; since I loved Fight Club I’m going to start with Choke. I haven’t read a book in ages, so, thank you.

  2. Will December 19th, 2008 1:47 pm

    You eva read William Gibson’s Neuromancer then Count Zero? Once you get into the prose; it flows, and I’d think you’d like it. The fact the man who coined the phrase “cyberspace” wrote a ground breaking sci fi novel with no aliens or far fetched plots (just extrapolated reality) on a manual typewriter always gets me….

  3. Will December 20th, 2008 10:20 am

    I bought Choke last night; then went out till 2am; woke up at 7am (excuse my other comments pls) and started in on Choke. ROCK ON! LOVE IT. Wow.

  4. Will December 20th, 2008 6:47 pm

    Quote from Choke

    Here, I’m supposed to tell her the truth. I admire addicts. In a world where everybody is waiting for some blind, random disaster or some sudden disease, the addict has the comfort of knowing what will most likely wait for him down the road. He’s taken some control over his ultimate fate, and his addiction keeps the cause of his death from being a total surprise.
    In a way, being an addict is very proactive.
    A good addiction takes the guesswork out of death. There is such a thing as planning your getaway.

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