TERRY GROSS, host:
Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has made her list of the best books she's read in 2008.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: If I had to pick the Michael Phelps of fiction for this year, the gold would go to Joseph O'Neill's novel "Netherland," a story about post-9/11 New York City as viewed through the scrim of F. Scott Fitzgerald's masterpiece, "The Great Gatsby." Gatsby here is reincarnated in a Trinidadian cricket player, but O'Neill's novel is so much more than just an exercise in imitative gestures. Like Fitzgerald, O'Neill is a connoisseur of the lost, dusty places in New York and also a poet of retrospection, a mood that suits the city directly after 9/11.
Remember how Nick Carraway at the end of "The Great Gatsby," talks about when the "green breast" of the New World, Manhattan, first appeared before Dutch sailors' eyes, it was the last time in history when man beheld an object commensurate with his capacity to wonder. It's all over, Carraway is saying in that ending. The age of discovery, the roaring '20s promise of New York City, it's finished, kaput. We live in a permanent state of aftermath, which is where O'Neill's gorgeous, mournful novel begins.
Two short story collections also top my list. Jhumpa Lahiri's "Unaccustomed Earth" zeros in on characters whose natural tendency toward isolation is intensified by the immigrant experience, most are first or second-generation Indian Americans. As a writer, Lahiri is made of exquisitely stern stuff. And even though, as a reader, you quickly catch on to the fact that her characters won't be granted reprieve from their loneliness, you stick with them for the great pleasure of their solitary company.
The five electrifying stories in Uwem Akpan's debut collection, "Say You're One of Them," are narrated through the distinct voices of children in Africa who've seen too much. They've lost family members to prostitution, AIDS, slavery and genocide. Akpan's brilliance resides in the bewildered but resolutely chipper voices of these rough children, never overly endearing nor innocent.
Let's lighten the tone here a bit. Muriel Barbery's wry and erudite novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" won the 2007 French Booksellers Prize. It was translated into English and published in paperback in this country this year. Barbery's tale of a middle-aged French concierge named Rene, who hides her hard-won education in the humanities from her building's wealthy tenants, astutely comments on class, presumption and power. As Rene says, "As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble."
Philip Roth's "Indignation" may not be what one would call a comic novel, given that it's set in 1951 and that our narrator, a 19-year-old Jewish transplant from Newark, finds himself shipwrecked on the antiseptic, anti-Semitic campus of a Midwestern college. But Roth's vision is always alert to the absurd. "Indignation" is Roth's bow to Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," a play whose brutally humorous tone is explicitly carried forward throughout this tale.
Politics and history dominated nonfiction this election year, so I want to give a quick nod here to literary nonfiction. Elizabeth McCracken's memoir called "An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination" is an intense and tough-minded meditation on loss, in this case, the loss of her first child who was stillborn. McCracken captures the confusion of being thrust into a nightmare that hasn't been quite categorized.
Brenda Wineapple's superb biography of the friendship between Emily Dickinson and her editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, complicates our understanding of the Belle of Amherst and gives her more juice.
Finally, The Library of America did readers a great service this year by reprinting A.J. Liebling's "World War II Writings." As this collection, which runs over a thousand pages, demonstrates, when the journalism gods made Liebling, they pretty much broke the mold. His style was forged by a classical education, and the Great Depression, and a vigorous print culture and fairy dust. And to any skeptics out there who think I'm being unduly sentimental, allow me to quote Liebling from one of the essays here in which here in which he's defending his own sentimental impulses. "Cynicism," wrote Liebling, "is often the shamefaced product of inexperience." Not bad words to hold in our hearts as we look toward this coming year.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can read excerpts from the books on Maureen's year-end list on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you'll also find her list of the top five mystery novels of 2008. And, of course, you can also download podcast of our show on our website.