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The Aeneid
The Aeneid
Vergil
Yale University Press, 2008
320 pp., $40.00

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Ajax
Ajax
Sophocles
Flood Editions, 2008
112 pp., $13.95

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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English
Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold Story of English
John McWhorter
Gotham, 2008
256 pp., $22.50

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The Butt: A Novel
The Butt: A Novel
Will Self
Bloomsbury USA, 2008
368 pp., $26.00

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The General of the Dead Army
The General of the Dead Army
Ismail Kadare
Arcade Pub, 2018
272 pp., $44.39

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The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism
The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, and Literature of Pedestrianism
Geoff Nicholson
Riverhead Hardcover, 2008
288 pp., $24.95

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Original Sin: A Cultural History
Original Sin: A Cultural History
Alan Jacobs
HarperOne, 2008
304 pp., $24.95

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The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries)
The Private Patient (Adam Dalgliesh Mysteries)
P.D. James
Knopf, 2008
352 pp., $25.95

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Zong! (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
Zong! (Wesleyan Poetry Series)
M. NourbeSe Philip
Wesleyan, 2008
224 pp., $24.95

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The Consolation of Philosophy
The Consolation of Philosophy
Boethius
Harvard University Press, 2008
208 pp., $21.00

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De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things): A Poetic Translation
De Rerum Natura (The Nature of Things): A Poetic Translation
Lucretius
University of California Press, 2008
320 pp., $29.95

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by John Wilson


Favorite Books of 2008

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The Butt. Will Self. Bloomsbury USA. It would be petty to ignore a really good book because the publisher failed to send a review copy. Obviously SOME publications got the book— they were able to dispatch it to reviewers who produced uncomprehending or patronizing notices. It would be silly to brood about the tepid reception of Will Self's novel. Still, I find it galling. Self is uneven—from book to book, within books, within paragraphs—and he can be simply nasty. But this phantasmagoric satire, set in a fictitious land that has aspects of Australia and Iraq and other disparate places, is so bracing, so loaded with verbal energy, so inventive in its engagement with all matter of human folly, so gloriously excessive, it stands head and above the usual run of novels. Like many good satiric books, it leaves you with a strange mixture of exhilaration and bleakness.

The General of the Dead Army. Ismail Kadare. Arcade. Kadare's first novel, published in Albania in 1963, first appeared in English translation in 1971 (U.S. publication, 1972). That was a translation of the French translation of Kadare's original. This new edition is a revised version of that 1971 translation-of-a-translation, based on the definitive version of the novel in the bilingual Albanian-French edition of Kadare's complete works. Got that? (For a helpful account of the byzantine history of Kadare in translation, see David Bellos' essay "The Englishing of Ismail Kadare: Notes of a Retranslator.") More than twenty years after Italy invaded Albania (in April 1939), an Italian general is sent to Albania to recover the bodies of Italian soldiers who died there during World War II. The project, which seems fairly straightforward if challenging, becomes nightmarish. While this early book is heavy-handed in comparison to Kadare's later work, it is still absorbing. In part the fascination lies in the Albanian setting, in part in Kadare's sensibility. A paperback edition is due in February from Vintage. Also due in February, from Canongate U.S.: The Siege, Kadare's novel about a Christian citadel in Albania besieged by Ottoman forces, newly "retranslated" by David Bellos.

The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism. Geoff Nicholson. Riverhead. Here again I will quote from "Wrapping Up 2008" in the December issue of First Things: "I have a weakness for writers with interesting, well-stocked minds who don't seem to be in a rush to get anywhere in particular. The late, late hours, when the house is quiet, seem best for such unhurried reading. Geoff Nicholson is a satiric novelist distinguished by sardonic wit, a scabrous imagination, and raffish charm. A Brit who 'divides his time between Los Angeles and London,' he has given us The Lost Art of Walking: The History, Science, Philosophy, and Literature of Pedestrianism. Don't be deceived by the winking subtitle. There is not much history, science, or philosophy in this book, but it is none the worse for that. The Lost Art of Walking is a ramble, and you never know where the next chapter will wander." This is the latest in a cluster of books about walking published in the last few years, and Nicholson's is the most entertaining of the lot. "Alas, on matters of faith Nicholson is tone-deaf. His skepticism is genial, but there are many missed opportunities." Yes, and there's still room for more good walking books.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East. Africa, and Asia—and How It Died. Philip Jenkins. HarperOne. Here I will quote from Mark Noll's review in the November/December Books & Culture: "Beyond its useful correctives to standard church histories, the book also probes the meaning of Middle Eastern Christianity's long history. Jenkins shows, for example, that much can be learned about inter-religious strife in the 21st century by heeding the history of Christian communities that lived intermingled among Muslims for centuries (and in the Far East, with Buddhists, and in India, with Hindus). He discusses at length the process of church extinction—for example, why once-flourishing Greek Orthodox and Catholic Christianity vanished almost entirely from North Africa once Islam spread through that region, while Monophysite Coptic Christians have survived in Egypt with considerable numbers and at least some spiritual vitality to this day. There is much as well on why outbursts of intense persecution took place in the late 13th century (the spread of the Mongols), at the turn of the 20th century (the collapse of the Ottoman Empire), and in the early 21st (the rise of Islamism); and on the great significance of state authority in determining the fate of Christian churches under non-Christian rulers. Brief, but compelling, thoughts on the judgments of God and the apparent annihilation of Christian communities make for theologically profitable reflection as well." Don't miss it.

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