Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Best of the Decade

#1 Austerlitz by WG Sebald
A haunting, mysterious, and visceral novel about the psychological aftermath of the Holocaust. Sebald uses photography, maps, blueprints and other print media as counterpoint to the jumble of memory and observation of the novel's protagonist. This book will influence the way you see, the way you think about your own past, and the collective, which connects and holds us together even as external pressures try to pull us apart. Who are we, in the shadow of the unspeakable? Sebald's narrator searches, and we follow with trepidation and wonder.

#2 Any Human Heart by William Boyd
When you start out, you'll think you might not like this book. The main character is arrogant and, well, young. Brash. But keep going through this fictionalized journal that tracks seventy years of a man's life, including his heartbreaks and strongest loves, as he inches toward the end of his life, and ultimately, to its meaning. Other reviewers bash it for its "Forest Gumpness," yet to me it's not all that unbelievable that an upperclass intelligence officer might have contact with influential persons during one of the world's most tempestuous and active periods in history. I've read several William Boyd titles now and he has repeatedly shown his ability to invent worlds I like inhabiting. Any Human Heart a good winter read, fully sad, sweet, and satisfying.

#3 The Places In Between by Rory Stewart
I like everything about this nonfiction narrative. Rory Stewart chronicles his foot march through Afghanistan right after the first fall of the Taliban. I knew close to nothing about the history and culture of this region, but Stewart's clear and often wry prose both entertains and instructs. I like books where people are willing to be unconventional and stubborn. Excellent book group choice, if you're looking for social relevance.

#4 Saturday by Ian McEwan
One of my favorite books. The whole of a man's life and all his major relationships and all his hopes and fears, as well as the hopes and fears of the the post-9/11 Western world are captured in a twenty-four hour period. Neurology is the core of this novel, how the brain can call forth memory and sensation in times of crisis, and how it can fail as easily from disease, age, and injury. How precious the ability to think, how incredibly precious our ability to love.

#5 Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
A gorgeous novel that explores themes of innocence and abandonment as an older man in decline remembers his adolescence and the fate of his brothers and parents. This one will stick.

#6 The Lazarus Project by Alexandar Hemon
This novel beautifully entwines the barbarism of early 20th century Chicago with the barbarism of Bosnian ethnic cleansing. The narrative is gorgeous and harrowing, calling into question the notion of national identity, homeland, and the clash of cultures. Perception, in this work, is everything, yet makes clear that what we experience is only part of the whole story.

#7 Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon
To write too much about this unnerving novel would be to give away all its rhythm and pacing. But generally, this book is about the nature of self and what that might mean in a world where you can easily slip from one persona to another in both the physical and virtual worlds. It has an undercurrent of decay and loss. Beautiful prose, packed with ideas.

#8 The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters
Compelling novel filled with mystery, psychosis, hysteria, and delusion. Owes an enormous debt to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. And it's sufficiently scary, too.

#9 Wolf Point by Edward Falco
Beautifully written meditation on crimes of passion and the meaning and implications of erotic art. Published by one of my favorite presses, Unbridled Books.

#10 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Fresh and alive, this novel unfolds the stories of one troubled family besieged by the brutality of politics and the stain of a perceived curse. Diaz has an ear for the musical qualities of oral tales, and isn't afraid to embrace the influences of American culture into the Dominican transplants he introduces. How many times do you see a Harold Lauder reference in world lit? This harsh and unsparing generational story is funny and at the same time unbearably sad.

Honorable mention: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen; Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris; Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell; Black Swan Green by David Mitchell; The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem; Unless by Carol Shields; The Human Stain by Philip Roth; Last Night in Montreal by Emily St. John Mandel; Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout; The Road by Cormac McCarthy; Runaway: Stories by Alice Munro; Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides; That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx; The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness by Karen Armstrong; The Magician's Book: A Skeptics Adventures in Narnia by Lisa Miller; Trespass by Valerie Martin.

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