The Losers Awards.
30 January 2009
The problem with taking a day off and promising something big the next day is that, well, you should provide something exciting the next day. I hope I didn't promise too much, but here goes...
So, hot on the heels of all the Best Books of 2008 lists, all the awards lists have now started coming out. Two in particular that I checked out were the National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists, and the American Library Association 2008 Notable Books. (Okay, three lists; I also perused the New York Times Notable Books list when it came out.)
In a word? Snore.
In a few more words: Really, New York Times? You're really calling Philip Roth's novel Indignation and Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat, and Crowded "notable"? How do I come to work for your books page and start phoning it in for the big bucks?
Okay, of course, there's good books on all of those lists. The people who chose them are people after my own heart--book critics and librarians. And yes, just because a book gets a lot of press and sales attention, doesn't make it bad. To steal yet another line from Broadcast News, "I grant you everything." But I have to say it: these lists, along with the National Book Awards lists, totally put me to sleep. Come on, Jane Mayer's The Dark Side and Dexter Filkins's The Forever War? Would they have to be on all the lists? Patrick French's long biography of V.S. Naipaul, The World Is What It Is? Did anyone actually make it all the way through that book? And how that Mark Harris book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood keeps making it on these lists, I don't know. I mean, it was okay, but it wasn't all that thrilling. I can't say the fiction choices on either list did a ton for me either. I'm so tired of seeing Marilynne Robinson's name, I can't tell you.*
I don't know why these lists have left me feeling so cantankerous. But they did leave me with the very strong impression that we need some new, or at least some different, types of book lists. So, without further ado, I would like to present the (patent pending) Citizen Reader List of the Year's Most Wrongfully Ignored Books of 2008.** For short, I'm thinking of calling them simply the "Losers," as I didn't find them on many other award lists. Here goes!
The 2008 Losers, Nonfiction
The Oxford Project, Peter Feldstein and Stephen J. Bloom. Feldstein photographed all 700 residents of Oxford, Iowa, in 1984, and re-photographed as many as he could 25 years later.
The Limits of Power, Andrew Bacevich. If Jane Mayer's political book The Dark Side is on every "best list," this succinct title should be there as well.
The Food Life: Inside the World of Food with the Grocer Extraordinaire at Fairway, Steven Jenkins. Longtime Fairway manager and cheese guru Jenkins ruminates on the New York chain and his love affair with food.
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff, Fred Pearce. British journalist Pearce investigates where all his stuff, including his gold wedding ring and his food, comes from.
The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases from a State Hospital Attic, Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. Historians re-create the lives of long-term mental health hospital residents by examining their suitcases, which were found in the hospital's attic.
The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories, Pagan Kennedy. A charming group of essays about the man who wrote "The Joy of Sex," as well as more personal subjects.
Trailer Trashed: My Dubious Efforts Toward Upward Mobility, Hollis Gillespie. Contains one of the most perfectly formed essays I've ever read.
Home Girl: Building a Dream House on a Lawless Block, Judith Matloff. Matloff and her husband buy a fixer-upper in Harlem and set about making it home.
Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, Kelly McMasters. McMasters grew up in a Long Island town perilously close to a government research lab with spurious environmental practices, and examines its affect on her hometown and its residents' health.
Vanishing America: The End of Main Street Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments, Michael Eastman. An unsettling but beautiful photography book.
The Great Derangement, Matt Taibbi. Again, listmakers, if you're desperate to list a political book, why not this one??
The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, Vincent Bugliosi. I'm not surprised no one had the balls to list this one. No one had the balls to review it in the first place. And yes, it's a totally partisan choice. But if you want to read one book that proves why W. is a very bad man, this is that book.
Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets, Sudhir Venkatesh. Venkatesh is a little in love with the sound of his own voice, but I ask you: who just walks into the projects in Chicago and asks to witness gang activities? Fascinating and unsettling.
Caught in the Middle: America's Heartland in the Age of Globalism, Richard Longworth. Everything you need to know about our country's lack of a manufacturing base, basic economics, and immigration, all in one book.
Hubert's Freaks: The Rare-Book Dealer, the Times Square Talker, and the Lost Photos of Diane Arbus, Gregory Gibson. Gibson spins tales of a seedy, lost, and wonderful New York City, with great empathy and gentleness.
The 2008 Losers, Fiction
A Country Called Home, Kim Barnes. Reviewed earlier this week.
Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, Martin Millar. A softly beautiful novel about love, friendship, Great Britain in the 1970s, and Led Zeppelin.
Frida's Bed, Slavenka Drakulic. A short but meaty novelization of the life of Frida Kahlo.
Crime, Irvine Welsh. A British cop coming off a tragic case takes a holiday in Florida to get away from his problems, and stumbles on a pedophilia ring.
She Was, Janis Hallowell. Doreen Woods's past and her inadvertent crime as a Vietnam War protestor catches up with her.
Honorable Mention for the Best Book That Looks Like a Kid's Book but Isn't, 2008:
Hatched: The Big Push from Pregnancy to Motherhood, Tanen Sloane. Okay, it's a 2007 book, but I just found it this year. Pregnancy, hilarity, and little yellow chickens. Need I say more?
So, there you have it. My list of Losers that deserved much, much more attention than they got. How's about it? What books do you feel were unjustly ignored this past year?
*And no, I didn't read her newest novel Home, but her novel Gilead was so boring it put me to sleep, after which I woke up and threw it across the room.
**In other news, all links at Citizen Reader now go to Powell's online book store. I don't get any kickback or anything, I just wanted to start linking to the (independent) Powell's rather than the (behemoth) Amazon. Also, Amazon's pages take forever to load lately and have been pissing me off for quite some time.