Tuesday, February 16, 2010

19 Books of the Decade

When I write up my annual “Best of” lists I make sure to leave one spot of the typical Top Ten open, because I recognize there are so many good books out there and so little time in which to read them. I read heavily in the fantasy genre, a bit less so in science fiction. Yet less so again outside of SFF. Any list I make can only be considered inclusive of the books I have read, and suggesting anything grander would be hubris.

So, when Jeff VanderMeer wrote about compiling his Best of the Year lists for Omnivoracious and Locus, I nodded along when he said,
If a year’s best list is a kind of “possible impossibility,” then a decade’s best list is a fool’s errand, an absurdity, sometimes even an atrocity. I have seen decade lists with nothing on them from 2000 through 2005. I have seen decade lists weighted down with books from 2009. I have seen decade lists corpulent with the quivering fat of over-hyped books I am pretty sure will be footnotes sooner rather than later. I have seen decade lists supersaturated with one particular kind of fiction. In short, I haven’t seen much in terms of decade lists that I thought was comprehensive, level-headed, or fair.
When I read Matthew Cheney’s list of “Some Books” of the Decade and he quoted VanderMeer’s statement “Personally, I think everyone should post a list of the books that delighted or awed them over this past decade, without pretending it’s anything definitive.”, I knew that I wanted to put together my list.

The struggle here for me is that remembering the great books I read published in the first part of the decade was difficult. Did I miss something published in 2001 which I read in 2004 because I just can’t remember that far back, no matter how much I was delighted by the book at the time? I’m sure I have. I’ve done my best pulling from different lists I’ve made over the last decade and researching publication dates from some of my favorite authors.

I could write about which genres and subgenres I have not read deeply in, or which years I haven’t read enough of, but I’ll just disclaim that by stating: All of them. I read somewhere between 100 and 200 books a year, every year, and I don’t feel there is a single genre in a single year I have read deeply enough to say anything definitive about it.

What this is, then, is a list of nineteen works published between 2000 and 2009. I found delight in each one. The list is no more definitive than that.

A Storm of Swords, by George R. R. Martin (2000): Nearly any of Martin’s novels could make this list, but A Storm of Swords is generally considered the best of his Ice and Fire novels (and perhaps the best of his entire body of work – I don’t know about that, The Armageddon Rag is quite excellent). However Martin’s work is viewed, A Storm of Swords is a superior novel.

The Human Stain
, by Philip Roth (2000): I still can’t understand how American Pastoral won the Pulitzer for Roth when The Human Stain did not. This novel of a professor who questions whether two absent students are “spooks” and comes under fire when it is later revealed that the two students are black is quite possibly Roth’s best work. The personal contradictions of Coleman Silk’s past and of his personal actions at age 71 are well handled and quietly thrill.

Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser (2000): You think of Morgan Spurlock and Super Size Me taking on McDonald’s and what the fast food does to the body (not that the results are at all a surprise), but check out Schlosser’s investigations into how the whole industry is put together.

Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea, by Charles Seife (2000): This was recommended to me by a college professor who explained that the book contained a mathematical proof that Winston Churchill was, in fact, a carrot. How can I not read a book that proves Winston Churchill was a carrot? The rest of the book is a history of the concept of “Zero”. On the surface, this would appear to be the basis for a very short book (we all know what zero is, right?), but the contentious history behind the concept of zero is fascinating.

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich (2001): When asked my favorite author, the answer I inevitably give is “Louise Erdrich”. Ever since I read the opening passage of Love Medicine with June Morrissey walking out into the snow, I have been hooked. The inclusion of Little No Horse, however, is not to honor my favorite writer, but is instead to recognize one of Erdrich’s finest novels.

John Adams, by David McCullough (2001): Reading McCullough’s bio helped to develop my interest in early American history and presidential biography. Once McCullough gets out of the childhood of Adams and into the politics, this biography soars.

Blade of Tyshalle
, by Matthew Stover (2001): The rumor goes like this: Matthew Stover had a series of significant health concerns when he was writing Blade of Tyshalle, to the point that he didn’t know if he would live to write another book. So, to make sure he said everything he wanted to say, Stover loaded Blade of Tyshalle with as much story and ass-kicking action as he possibly could. Now, I don’t know if that story is true. It’s a good story even if it is completely wrong. Regardless of what the origins of Blade of Tyshalle are, this is one awesome book.

The Scar, by China Mieville (2002): Despite all the praise, Perdido Street Station never quite connected for me. I appreciated the breadth of Mieville’s imagination, and it was an impressive and nasty book, but it wasn’t for me. Despite this, I gave The Scar a shot and was immersed in the floating city of Armada. It was a long book, but I wanted more.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (2003): It’s been enough years that my memory is probably hazier for this book than any other on the list, but I do remember that the novel and Hosseini deserved every bit of attention and acclaim that it received.

Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane (2003): A US Marshal investigates the disappearance of a patient at an island prison for the criminally insane. Shutter Island is taut and filled to the brim with tension and offers surprises I couldn’t have imagined.

The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger (2003): It has been suggested that my bedtime more closely resembles that of an eighty year old man than one who is thirty, but I stayed up deep into the night, past midnight even, to read just a little bit more of The Time Traveler’s Wife. This strange, slightly uncomfortable, love story between Henry and Claire is absolutely fantastic and Niffenegger’s internal chronology for the novel is fascinating. This is good stuff.

Acts of Faith, by Philip Caputo (2005): Caputo may be best known for his memoir A Rumor of War, but he has spent the subsequent thirty plus years as a reporter and novelist. Every now and then I stumble across one of Caputo’s novels, love it, and wonder why I haven’t read more Caputo. Then comes Acts of Faith, a novel set in the midst of a civil war in Sudan, and I am floored. The breadth of this novel is stunning.

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (2005): You know Cormac McCarthy. Pulitzer for The Road, the film version of No Country was awarded the Academy Award for Best Picture. Maybe you know McCarthy back from All the Pretty Horses (the book, not the movie), or even earlier. No Country for Old Men is one long chase and is a brutal, fantastic novel. I much prefer this to The Road.

All Rivers Flow to the Sea, by Alison McGhee (2005): Where my first answer for a favorite author may still be Louise Erdrich, I quickly mention Alison McGhee’s name next. McGhee’s debut, Rainlight, is a gorgeous novel, but All Rivers Flow to the Sea is as good as the best McGhee has written. This is a short novel focused on the grief of a teenage girl and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Heartbreaking and healing.

Harry Potter Series: Books 4 – 7
, by J. K. Rowling (2000 – 2007): I could probably get away with leaving this entry with no comment. Instead, let me just say that the Harry Potter series thrills from start to finish and the four books published in the last decade are absolutely delightful.

The Stratford Man
, by Elizabeth Bear (2008): Comprised of Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth, Elizabeth Bear’s Elizabethan era duology featuring Will Shakespeare, Kit Marley (Christopher Marlowe), several angels and a devil, is breathtakingly good. The “small angel” scene near the end between Marley and an angel is simply heart-wrenching in the best possible way. Moreso than any other book (or series), I wish more people read / purchased these so Bear could keep writing more Promethean Age novels. I’m still hopeful.

Shadow Unit: Season One (2008), by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette, and Will Shetterly: If you read this blog, and I can only assume that you do if you’re reading this, you’ve seen me post about Shadow Unit over the last two years. I describe Shadow Unit as a blend of Criminal Minds and The X-Files, only the monsters are human. This is the best television show which never existed. You should really go read it.

The Gathering Storm, by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (2009): This is the point where I feel I should get defensive about the inclusion of the latest Wheel of Time novel, and even bringing that up is itself a defensive statement, but in terms of pure delight, little holds a candle to my experience of reading the latest Wheel of Time novel. While there is no way to know what The Gathering Storm would have been had Robert Jordan lived to finish it, Brandon Sanderson did one hell of a job and in the end it was everything I hoped it would be.

Finch, by Jeff VanderMeer (2009): I only read Finch in the last month and it is still very much fresh in my mind, but in terms of “delight” and “awe”, Jeff VanderMeer delivers both. This is an impressive novel. Check out my recent review if you don't believe me.


Martin said...

I do only know Caputo for A Rumour Of War but I will check out Acts Of Faith.

Carl V. Anderson said...

I love and agree with the quotes from both Vandermeer and Cheney. I think books that 'delight' and 'awe' us are the only books that should ever go on our 'best of' lists and should never be lists meant to impress anyone else. Your list is very interesting and varied. I haven't read many books on it, but was delighted, for lack of a better word, to see Time Traveler's Wife on it. I too would put that on any list I made for the best books of this last decade. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Amazing how many of those are movies now - or will soon be a film.

Joe said...

Carl: That's what I try to do with my "best of" lists. It's the best I read, the stuff I appreciated the most, the stuff I enjoyed, the stuff I liked the best.

I think I need to work to make sure that I'm still reading a wide variety of stuff. It's not a genre rut, because I love what I'm reading, but I like a wide variety of stuff. I don't want to miss the new Caputo, the military non-fiction, and all the other stuff out there.

I have biographies of Bill Bowerman and Charles Schulz that I haven't cracked the covers of. I have Ann Patchett's latest novel. Two volumes of Lyndon Johnson biography.

There's just so much I want to read.

Carl V. Anderson said...

"There's just so much I want to read"

Ain't that the truth! If I could somehow figure out how to read multiple things at the same time I might get that to be read pile to diminish somewhat.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Well, you inspired me. I put up my list of "Top 20 in the 2000s" today.