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The L.A. Times' favorite books of 2008: fiction and poetry

December 5, 2008 |  2:37 pm

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This Sunday the L.A. Times will run its favorite books of 2008, but we've got the list online now. Our fiction and poetry favorites, with links to reviews, are below. This list is organized alphabetically by author; it's alphabetical by title, too.

John Berger, "From A to X: A Story in Letters"
A novel of letters between a prisoner and his beloved asks us: What are messages between lovers but the invention of a shared, secret world?

Roberto Bolaño, "2666"
This masterpiece by the late Chilean-Mexican writer combines literary pyrotechnics with the stark and murderous reality that is daily life on the Mexican border.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, "Ms. Hempel Chronicles: Stories"
Ms. Hempel is a middle-school teacher overwhelmed by charges the author describes as "just old enough to have discovered their souls but not yet dulled by the ordinary act of survival." Both excellent at her job and unsure of her worth, she is vulnerable, necessary, human: like us all.

Dominique Fabre, "The Waitress Was New"
Not much happens in this unassuming tale of a Paris barman, yet Fabre creates a vivid portrait of human evanescence, all of us, he says, "rushing together toward a big, not completely black hole."

Linda Gregg, "All of It Singing: New and Selected Poems"
Though these poems -- influenced by the poet's years in Greece -- find Gregg alone in a landscape deserted by a man, she isn't despairing but contemplative, wry, amused.

Hari Kunzru, "My Revolutions"
Michael Frame looks like any suburban husband and father, but he is really a 1960s revolutionary gone underground -- until his secret is uncovered.

Jhumpa Lahiri, "Unaccustomed Earth"
With lives jolted by the distance of oceans or the gap of generations, Lahiri's characters in these stories are adrift not because they are at odds with the culture but because they must live with each other.

Zachary Lazar, "Sway"
This novel interweaves the tragic story of Brian Jones with those of filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Bobby Beausoleil, a would-be rock star turned Charles Manson acolyte, to shine a light on the darker side of the 1960s.

Nam Le, "The Boat"
A diverse debut story collection that traverses the globe and follows characters who are in transit, people who, for one reason or another, have come unmoored.

Julia Leigh, "Disquiet"
A castle in France becomes an uneasy haven for Olivia, our reviewer said, "beaten up for the last time by a brutal husband," and her brother, Marcus, whose wife, Sophie, "clutches her recently stillborn baby to her breast."

Peter Matthiessen, "Shadow Country: A New Rendering of the Watson Legend"
Matthiessen's latest book, a reworking of three earlier novels, takes place in the Florida Everglades at the turn of the last century, detailing the saga of E.J. Watson, his family and a country that is brutally raw, tragic and ravishing.

The rest of the list after the jump.

Jonathan Miles, "Dear American Airlines"
Miles' first novel takes the form of a letter from a disgruntled flier stranded at O'Hare, waiting, like Vladimir and Estragon, to be delivered from the existential nightmare of the terminal.

Lydia Millet, "How the Dead Dream"
T., the main character in Millet's sixth novel, is a cold-hearted capitalist who turns bullying into a business. But as he struggles for meaning (in a career, relationships, caring for animals), he becomes a man whose weaknesses actually empower the reader.

Toni Morrison, "A Mercy"
Morrison looks at America in the 1680s and 1690s, "a young, wild country where a fog, often slightly mephitic, envelops the world," our reviewer wrote, and orphans and other outcasts struggle to build lives for themselves.

Cynthia Ozick, "Dictation: A Quartet"
Four stories crackling with Ozick's wit and insight explore the meanings of art, faith and language in the lives of actors, charlatans and others, including Joseph Conrad and Henry James.

George Pelecanos, "The Turnaround"
Race, ethnicity and manhood are traced through the lives of youths -- black and white -- who as men will find salvation and reconciliation through work and must also atone for their sins.

Donald Ray Pollock, "Knockemstiff: Stories"
A portrait of 50 years in a small Ohio town, where the down-and-out live on the margins, written in language that is cutting, raunchy and always fully of empathy.

Marilynne Robinson, "Home"
Glory Boughton of "Gilead," Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, returns home to care for her dying father and finds that her brother Jack has returned as well, which unsettles both of them.

Alan Shapiro, "Old War: Poems"
Tragedy and triumph travel side by side in these poems. "I couldn't tell you where the Lord was traveling," Shapiro writes. "And as he passed I saw / he no more thought of me / than a train thinks / of the sparks scattering / under its iron weight. . . . "

Marisa Silver, "The God of War"
Ares, 12, seeks refuge from a heavy burden, believing his mute brother Malcolm's brain damage is his fault. Their mother's frequent disappearances leave Ares to face adulthood on his own.

Sasa Stanisic, "How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone"
Aleksandar embraces magic and the powers of the imagination until civil war erupts in the Balkans, destroying the fabric of normal life. His attempts to make sense of catastrophic change yield funny misapprehensions and devastating insights.

Neal Stephenson, "Anathem"
Scientific scholarship is restricted to a select few, cloistered from a society that gorges on consumer distractions. Yet when a crisis threatens, these ascetics must find a solution.

Benjamin Taylor, "The Book of Getting Even"
Taylor's novel traces the relationship between Gabriel Geismar and the Hunderts, whom the author describes as "Hungarian Jews who fled to apparent security and success in America and yet have found themselves in a kind of physical and emotional peril from which there is no real refuge."

Miriam Toews, "The Flying Troutmans"
An aunt convinces her niece and nephew to load the van and hit the road in search of their father. Neither kid asks "Are we there yet?" because the journey is the joy.

Tobias Wolff, "Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories"
In writing direct and unflourished, "Our Story Begins" includes many stories that "are as good as it gets." A master of the form, Wolff executes seamlessly: "My mother read everything," he writes, "except books."

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