My eight favorite books of 2008, in no particular order ...
The White Tiger. Aravind Adiga.
Adiga's book unfolds as a letter from Balram to the Premier of China. Balram recounts his life from the days in the hopelessly poor Darkness of India to his job as a driver/servant. And he explains how he became a murderer, or as he calls himself -- a social entreprenuer. Adiga's debut novel is a witty and odd take on class struggle. The first-time author won the Man Booker Prize and Distractions' accolades.
Silver Linings Playbook. Matthew Quick.
Pat Peoples thinks his life is being directed by God. And he's certain, there is going to be a happy ending, which for him would be reuniting with his wife. After getting out of a mental health facility, he works out ferociously, avoids Kenny G's music and cheers on the Eagles. He tries to remember the events that led to his stay in the mental hospital. Yes, it revolves around the Philadelphia Eagles' 2006 season. But the reason I loved this book is because it's funny, poignant and very well written. I'm looking forward to Quick's second novel book.
See Matthew Quick's Guest Playlist on Distractions.
City of Refuge. Tom Piazza.
The main character of City of Refuge is actually the gritty and diverse city of New Orleans. The book follows a black family in the Lower Ninth Ward and a middle-class white family living Uptown. We meet them as Hurricane Katrina approaches and follow them through the aftermath in places like Houston, Oxford, rural Missouri, New York and Chicago. The Donaldsons decide to evacuate, finding themselves stuck in traffic before finally making their way to relatives in Chicago. SJ Williams and his family try to stick it out in the Lower 9th. The families take some real punches from Katrina. They survive, yet the face the question -- What now?
Garden of Last Days. Andrew Dubus III.
Dubus' rich writing infuses real depth to his characters, allowing the reader to feel both repulsion and apathy for the string of unsavory people -- a stripper, a terrorist and a wife-beater. Based on the idea that one of the 9/11 hijackers stopped at a Florida strip club before the attacks, Dubus' novel is gripping. When her landlady/babysitter becomes ill, April is forced to bring her daughter to work at the Puma strip club. As the night unfolds, April's attention is turned away from keeping an eye on her daughter and then the drama begins.
Personal Days. Ed Park.
This witty workplace satire is set at a nondescript company. A group of young workers spend their workdays worrying about who will be next to get laid off after the company is taken over by the never-seen Californians. The employees create their own cubiclisms. Example: A deprotion is when someone takes over new responsibilities without getting a pay increase.
Park breaks Personal Days into three Microsoft Word-like sections -- Can't Undo, Replace All, Revert to Saved. The first chapter is written as a straight narrative. The second chapter is written as a contract, and the final chapter is written as one long run-on sentence e-mail.
Born Standing Up. Steve Martin.
A humble and self-deprecating Martin details how he went from a kid hanging out at magic shops to arena-filling shows. The memoir is filled with great stories, including his first appearances on The Tonight Show. He talks about meeting Dalton Trumbo and dating Linda Rondstadt, whose talent and beauty was a little too intimidating for Martin. She asked him after nine dates: "Steve, do you always date women and try not to sleep with them?"
Serena. Ron Rash.
Rash has created quite the evil and memorable title character in this gritty and violent novel. Set in Depression-era North Carolina, Serena is basically a tale of greed. The Pembertons battle the government-led conservationists trying to create the Great Smokies National Park and anyone else who gets in their way.
The Night of the Gun. David Carr
Carr, who covers media issues for the New York Times, didn't so much write a memoir as investigate his own life. Instead of relying on his own memories, he did extensive researching and interviewing over a two-year period. The result is a fascinating, brutally honest memoir, which chronicles Carr's long spiral into addiction. He beats women. He and his girlfriend continue to smoke crack -- even when she's pregnant. He sobers up and begins a new life as a single father, then he finds out he has cancer.
And, as a bonus, the best mid-grade novel of the year was As if Being 12 3/4 Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President!