Ex Libris 2008

Ok, I’m a little behind in wrapping up last year, including picking the best book I read in 2008.  Let’s just say there have been more important things going on.

Like last year with George Orwell, it was great reading for the first time a book that I could have (should have) read earlier in life.  Naipaul is destined to be a sort of grounding for me, and that lesson in itself was a good one to learn.  I have Patrick French’s biography in the stack of books to read, but more likely I’ll finally get to A House for Mr. Biswas or In a Free State. And I can certainly sense a growing need to learn about and live in Sri Lanka, thanks in large part to Michael Ondaatje’s body of work and the poetic family memories he shares in Running in the Family.

But no, for 2008 it really was a choice between two books: Netherland and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Two very different novels with very distinct writing styles.  As mentioned in the respective reviews, voice mattered a great deal in both these works, and if you want a taste of today’s Dominican mash-up flavor (hurry, it will need updating every year, I’m sure), you need to read Junot Diaz.

But if you want a book that is both chock full of gorgeous prose and which asks you to think about life, which forces you to feel the meaning of the words in the middle of the night, then you can’t go wrong with Joseph O’Neill’s masterpiece.  The folks at Salon.com come close to calling it a perfect book during a 45-minute discussion.  You decide.

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Book Review: Netherland

If there’s anything that 9/11 offered us, it was opportunity for self-examination. Not that all of us need such a thing, but I’m confident that from Sept 12, 2001 till date, American introspection has grown significantly.  And it’s no surprise that we find a novel written within that post 9/11 introspection.  What’s a little surprising is that it’s written by an Irishman who writes for the New Yorker occasionally.  It has been short-listed for the Booker Prize and Netherland, to be sure, is a viable candidate for the award, but what’s more interesting is figuring out exactly what kind of novel it is.  In fact, its most serious flaw is arguably that you’re not quite sure exactly which story forms the narrative’s heart.  Continue reading →

Sometimes You Just Know

Like on the wonderful 1989 Chicago summer day when I sat in dappled sunlight and read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day in one sitting, it’s occasionally possible to sense a book that you’ll love from a combination of the first few pages, some serendipity, and the physicality of the book itself.  I’ve been purchasing up a flock of books during my last weeks in Kolkata (hardbacks for the price of paper), but an article in the NYT caught my eye about Joesph O’Neill, whose new book Netherland was released May 20.  The article wasn’t about his book so much as it was about his subject.  Cricket in post 9/11 New York City.  I placed an order post-haste.  The fresh-cut pages are in my hands now, it’s in my bag on the way to the office, and I’ve been half-tempted to close my door and read at my desk.  One of the first character’s names mentioned in the novel is “Ramkissoon.”  Say it to yourself, over and over.  Ramkissoon.  Ramkissoon. Ramkissoon.

I’m going to go out on an aging, weathered limb and predict that I’ve found 2008’s Book of the Year.