Wednesday, December 03, 2008

best of 2008: fiction, nonfiction, and movies

Okay, this isn’t the monkey entry I promised, but the pictures need to be resized and work has blocked Photobucket, so you get this instead. I know the year isn’t over yet, but if something comes along between now and December 31st that begs to be included, I’ll update this list accordingly.

A few notes before I begin:

  • Not all of these were first released in 2008, but since that’s when I first read/saw them, they go on this list.
  • Except for the first entry in each list, these aren’t in any particular order.
  • There's no worst book listed for nonfiction, because I'm much more likely to toss aside a nonfiction book if it doesn't instantly grab me.
  • As ever, your mileage may vary.


1. The Book of Dahlia by Elisa Albert: When I saw this at the library, the cover made me think it was a chick lit book. Nothing could be further than the truth...and thank god for that, because it's actually a blackly comic, heartbreaking novel about a 29-year-old slacker whose world of VH1 marathons, pot smoking, and toaster pastry binges is rocked when she's diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. And Dahlia is no saintly sufferer; she's PISSED. A blurb on the back from Publishers Weekly asks, "Should we mourn a wasted life?" I'm still not sure of the answer to this question, but I am sure of one thing: I absolutely fucking LOVED this book. It knocked my socks off, put them back on, and knocked them right back off again.

2. Sweetheart by Chelsea Cain: Gretchen Lowell is a beautiful and charismatic serial killer; Archie Sheridan is the cop she tortured to the brink of death before turning herself in. In this followup to Heartsick, Archie is trying to find a new killer, but when Gretchen escapes from prison, he is determined to stop her for good. A real nailbiter with some truly tense and unsettling scenes.

3. Money Shot by Christa Faust: In this prime example of pulp fiction, a former porn star is lured out of retirement when a friend calls and begs her to perform in his latest film. When she gets there, she discovers that her friend was forced to call her by a gang of mobsters who are looking for a briefcase of stolen money. She doesn't know anything about it, so they shoot her and abandon her in a seedy part of town. She vows to get revenge, and things quickly turn into a bloodbath that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. Juicy hardboiled fun with an awesome lead character and some snappy dialogue; I loved it.

4. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson: A woman wakes up one night and sees the ghost of her daughter's best friend standing by the window. When she finds the girl's body floating in her swimming pool, she asks her estranged sister to help her uncover the truth. Part ghost story, part family drama, completely riveting. I seriously did not want to put this book down.

5. Fault Lines by Nancy Huston: This compelling novel is told in reverse chronological order, and each chapter is narrated by a six-year-old child from a different generation of the family. It begins with Sol, a whipsmart California boy with a horrifying penchant for masturbating to bestiality porn and pictures of war atrocities, then switches to his father, his grandmother, and finally his great-grandmother, whose story reveals the truth behind the family's ancestry. Disturbing and beautifully written, although the narrators all sounded far too mature for their age. (Then again, considering some of the things they go through, maybe not.)

6. The Observations by Jane Harris: In 1863, a young Scottish girl begins working as a maid for a woman who insists that she keep a journal of her daily activities and private thoughts. Eventually tiring of this, the girl plays a prank on her mistress that has horrifying consequences. I'm a sucker for good historical fiction, and this one certainly fit the bill. As a bonus, there was a scene that freaked my shit out and made me sleep with the covers over my head.

7. Beautiful Children by Charles Bock: Holy freaking wow, is this good that I don't want to spoil it by giving away too much. I'll just say that this funny, sad, and scary book, in which a 12-year-old boy disappears in Las Vegas, is one of the best debut novels I've ever read.

8. Out Backward by Ross Raisin: I picked this up on impulse, and I'm so glad I did. It's a British novel about Sam, a teenage boy who starts working on his family's farm after he runs into trouble at school. A pretty teenage girl moves into the area, and they become friends, but things eventually take a disturbing turn. It's a short (just over 200 pages) and utterly compelling book, but it took me quite a while to read because of the dialect. No matter; I didn't want it to end for more reasons than one. Sam reminded me of Jacob Cullen, the protagonist of As Meat Loves Salt (not that I loved this book as much as that one; hell, I don't love my grandmother as much as I love AMLS), because he wants so desperately to love and be loved, but he doesn't know how to go about it. A small masterpiece.

9. City of the Sun by David Levien: A 12-year-old boy disappears during his paper route, and after the police give up on the case, his desperate parents hire a private investigator to help out. Eventually, he uncovers some truly horrific information that leads him and the boy's father to Mexico. A powerful and disturbing debut.

10. Fractured by Karin Slaughter: When a woman comes home, she finds a man with a knife standing over her teenage daughter's bloody body. Crazed with grief and adrenaline, she strangles him to death with her bare hands. There's more to the story, but I don't want to spoil it because it's a doozy and a half. Karin Slaughter is required reading for anyone who loves tightly crafted mysteries.

WORST: Candy Everybody Wants by Josh Kilmer-Purcell. I just ranted about this in my November media update, so I won't go into all that again; suffice it to say that the suck was epic. Runner up: Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult. A shameless ripoff of The Green Mile, with the notable exception that it blew.


1. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: The author was living in France when her son was stillborn; slightly over a year later, she had another son who lived. This is a heartbreaking memoir, although there are moments of grim humor, and the writing is beautiful. For example, here she describes the way her son's hands move as he sleeps: "They underscore closing arguments in dream-baby court; they hail dream-baby taxis." A powerful exploration of grief, love, and hope.

2. Helping Me Help Myself by Beth Lisick: The author spent a year taking advice from various self-help books and seminars. It's hysterically funny and occasionally quite moving (such as when she goes on a Richard Simmons "Cruise to Lose" cruise, expecting it to be stupid and campy, and finds herself surprisingly touched by the experience).

3. Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg: When the author received a phone call saying that her mother was on the brink of death after a car accident, she decided not to visit her; this memoir explains, in brutally honest detail, why. Exquisitely written, painful, and redemptive.

4. Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum: The author spent time in a homeless shelter when she was a teenager (as detailed in her previous memoir, Girlbomb) and, when she got older, decided to volunteer there. She met a brilliant teenage junkie named Sam, and eventually they became very close. But then, as Sam became sicker and sicker, she discovered something truly shocking that forced her to reevaluate everything she thought she knew about her friend. A heartbreaking and infuriating story.

5. A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs: In his third memoir, the author describes life growing up with an unpredictable, deeply disturbed father. I still have doubts as to the veracity of some of the anecdotes, but this book is so melancholy and beautifully written that I almost don't care if it's completely true.

6. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris: A collection of humorous and occasionally poignant essays. My favorites were "Solutions to Saturday's Puzzle", about an unpleasant encounter on a plane, and "The Smoking Section", in which the author goes to Japan in an effort to quit smoking.

7. Dandy in the Underworld by Sebastian Horsley: Inside the back cover, there's a picture of the author winking and the words "There comes a time in every person's life when they realise they adore me. Yours has come." Well, it certainly has, because this alternately glamorous, gross, and gritty memoir about the author's experiences with art, drugs, crucifixion (yes, really), and prostitution is alarmingly obscene and screamingly funny.

8. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach: A lively, uproariously funny, and wildly entertaining look at everything from vibrators to "panda porn". Roach's book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is one of my favorite nonfiction books of all time; this one's going on the list too.

9. The Night of the Gun by David Carr: A harrowing, occasionally funny memoir about the author's battle with drug addiction. There are some anecdotes in here (like the time he left his twin daughters in the car while he visited a crackhouse, and during a Minnesota winter, no less) which might cause the cynical reader's bullshit radar to ping. In a smart move, considering the recent revelations about James Frey, JT LeRoy, and that chick who claimed she grew up in foster homes with gangbangers when she actually lived in the suburbs with her family and went to private school, Carr interviewed dozens of people who knew him during this time period to get their side of the story. He also includes corroborating evidence in the form of police reports, photographs, and even a scan of his welfare ID card. Disturbing stuff to be sure, but ultimately redemptive.

10. Moose by Stephanie Klein: An alternately funny and heartbreaking memoir about the author's stay at a fat camp when she was a teenager. I knew I was going to love this book when she referred to this time in her life as the "Thunder Years".


1. The Dark Knight: I'd been waiting for this movie for what seemed like forever, and once the rave reviews started pouring in, I was even more excited. I didn't want to get my hopes up too much, though, for fear that I'd be disappointed. Well, you know what? I was not only NOT disappointed, but I was fucking ENRAPTURED. It's probably the darkest popcorn flick of all time, and Heath Ledger is absolutely chilling as the Joker. I loved this movie so much I wanted to take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant.

2. Eastern Promises: A midwife accidentally gets tangled up with the Russian mob when she tries to track down the family of a dead teenage girl. A smart, engrossing drama with typically excellent performances by Viggo Mortensen and my eternal girlcrush Naomi Watts.

3. In Bruges: After a job goes horribly wrong, two hitmen are sent to Bruges by their boss while things calm down. There are some great lines in this, and the acting is superb; I must grudgingly admit that even Colin Farrell (who I normally dislike, although my white-hot hatred for him has cooled down considerably over the years) was good.

4. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: In desperate need of money, two brothers scheme to commit the perfect crime. The taut script is amazing (although I'm still not sure how I feel about the last five minutes or so), and Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance really stands out in a uniformly stellar cast. It's a great movie, but be forewarned that it's almost unrelentingly grim.

5. No Country for Old Men: A man stumbles across a drug deal gone wrong, and when he finds a briefcase full of cash, he takes it. This gets a very, very bad man (the utterly terrifying Javier Bardem, who more than earned his Oscar) on his trail. A fantastic movie, although the ending gave me a serious case of the WTFs.

6. Choke: In this adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel, Sam Rockwell plays a sex addict who pretends to choke in restaurants and then hits up his rescuers for money. Meanwhile, his mother is dying of dementia in a nursing home, and he tries to find out about his father before it's too late. Raunchy, very blackly funny, and surprisingly touching. Sam Rockwell (who I've had a thing for ever since Box of Moonlight, one of my favorite movies) is terrific, too.

7. Shoot 'Em Up: Now THIS is a rollicking action film! Clive Owen (excellent as always) plays a mysterious man who helps deliver a baby and then tries to protect it while evading a group of hitmen (including Paul Giamatti, who looks like he's having a blast). Along the way, he recruits a lactating hooker to help out. It's improbable as hell, so if you insist on realism in your movies, don't bother. But if you're in the mood for a bloody, audacious, stylish bullet orgy, this is a must-rent. It's the best movie John Woo never made, and much better than Wanted, which has a similar feel. (Fun fact: Shoot 'Em Up can be anagrammized as Upset Homo.)

8. The Bank Job: When incriminating photos of Princess Margaret are hidden in a safe deposit box, a group of criminals is dispatched to steal them back. Based on the true story of London's most famous bank robbery, this is an exceptionally clever and well-written movie. Jason Statham turns in a good performance, too, although I was disappointed by his lack of nude scenes.

9. The Orphanage: A woman moves back to the orphanage where she grew up, and her son starts talking about his imaginary friends. Turns out they're not so imaginary after all. This movie is unbelievably freaky---at one point, I actually started chewing my knuckles and moaning "Oh my GOD"---and surprisingly poignant.

10. Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Devastated by a bad breakup, a man goes to Hawaii to try to get over his ex...only to run into her and her new boyfriend. This movie is not only hysterically funny, but it's also refreshing to see a romantic comedy in which the main male character isn't a total prick or a cardboard Prince Charming fantasy.

WORST: It's a tie! First up, we have P2. On Christmas Eve, a young woman is trapped in a parking garage with an obsessed security guard. This idiotic, poorly acted, bloody mess makes The Eye remake look like The Shining.

Next, we have Untraceable, about a serial killer who broadcasts his crimes on the Internet. It has its moments, but there are a couple of unintentionally hilarious scenes, and an instance of foreshadowing that's so obvious it might as well just spell it out on the bottom of the screen for you. Also, note to filmmakers: there's no better way to turn me against your movie than starting out with a kitten being graphically tortured to death. Judging from the comments I heard leaving the theater, I'm not the only one.