Monday, December 21, 2009

Top Ten Books of the Decade

For the greater part of the past decade, I was not so much able to read at my leisure as I was assigned books to read for class in a given time frame. I managed to squeeze in a few books here and there, over the summer, during break, instead of sleeping, that were not assigned reading. Most of the assigned reading, in fact, was at the newest fifteen years old. Basically, most of the reading I've done in the last ten years was of books published in the prior four thousand years or so (Beowulf, I'm looking at you). So this was probably the hardest list for me to put together. No Twilight, although we do get some Potter for all you nerds out there with me.

10. And Another Thing... - Eoin Colfer

Despite the fact that Colfer did not start the series and had no real right to continue or even try to end it, he did an okay job. It was a difficult task, there can be no doubt about that, and the average fan boy was probably more than willing to give it the old "Star Wars Prequel" treatment, but, you know, things worked out okay. Check here for my full review.

9. Furious Improvisation - Susan Quinn

The only non-fiction book to make my list is a fascinating read, and became much more topical than the author could have imagined when she began researching the project. This book tells the story of the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal Public Works effort to put actors, writers, directors and other theatre professionals back to work. Sadly, this current economic downturn lacks a modern counterpart to this program which produced some of the most influential, controversial and best Theatre the country has ever seen. If you are at all interested in the well-being of artists in your community, send a copy of this to your Congressman and/or to the president, with a note indicating your concern and that you think we should try this again and, this time, not let it fall prey to any witch hunt. Damn you, Senator McCarthy.

8. Up In the Air - Walter Kirn

It's topical right now, especially, because of the Jason Reitman directed, partially shot in St. Louis, George Clooney starring film based on the novel, but if you haven't seen the movie yet I urge you to read the book first. Actually, I urge you to do that for any film based on a novel. Read the novel first. But no, really, because what Kirn did was paint a portrait of a man who lives in what he calls "Airworld" in our pre-9/11 days (the book having been published the very first day of 2001). It's wry, it's funny and sad at the same time. I did not imagine protagonist Ryan Bingham looking anything like George Clooney...I imagined him somewhat faceless, banal, like the hotel rooms and rental cars. In Fight Club (written by Chuck Palahniuk), the lead character drones about how everything is a copy of a copy of a copy. Ryan Bingham loves this about Airworld. You will love this book.

7. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close - Jonathan Safran Foer

There is a hand full of post-9/11 literature which uses that day as a backdrop, none more emotionally in-the-moment charged as Don DeLillo's Falling Man and none more indicative of the man's exploitive nature than Neal LaBute's play The Mercy Seat. Both of these begin that morning, as the sirens ring and the dust flies. But Extremely Loud begins two years later, and does not tackle to politics or the emotional warpings of the direct victims, it follows a young boy as he comes to terms with losing his father. The narrator, nine year old Oskar Schell, carries through the novel a secret about his father. Foer's style combines prose with post-modern visual writing, which some have criticized but which I find helps capture the spirit of the characters.

6. The Salmon of Doubt - Douglas Adams (Posthumous)

The Salmon of Doubt was the working title for no fewer than three of Douglas Adams' novels, and that includes the novel in progress discovered in bits and pieces on his hard drive after his death. More than just the bare beginnings of a novel, this book gives us a collection of essays, letters and speeches Adams wrote throughout his life. It reads like a documentary culled together from home movies; it's almost an autobiography but he doesn't attempt to hide or call attention to his shortcomings which, sadly, included more procrastination than writing.

5. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - J. K. Rowling

You knew I had to throw one of these in, and the only reason I didn't just include the whole series is that since some of the books were published prior to the year 2000, that would have been breaking the rules (and if I were going to break the rules, I would have put Freaks and Geeks on my Top Ten TV list). I did not feel that I should post individually, and really, adding all of the Harry Potter books published this decade into one entry would have bumped it down the list, so I chose what I feel is the strongest book of the series with Half Blood Prince. Rowling gives us the heaviest blow in the series with the death of a major character (trying...to...stay...spoiler...free...for the love of...it's Dumbledore, okay? Dumbledore. If you haven't read it by now you're not likely to). Sure, others in the series gave us loss, but not in the magnitude of this one. Also, it set up the greatest twist in the whole series, culminating in the last book with the chapter titled "The Prince's Tale." This book is pivotal in Harry's story, and is layered enough that I had to read it twice before the full effect hit me.

4. All Things, All At Once: New and Collected Stories - Lee K. Abbott

I met Lee K. Abbott, last fall at Webster University. He came and read from this book and then read from a work in progress. It's always interesting to meet a writer you admire, and I admired him primarily because of the stories in this book. He writes about growing up, fathers and sons, brothers, the desert, Roswell, love, sex, rock and roll, and he writes about them so well. I will admit that my short story "Before Rock Attained Perfection" was very heavily influenced by Abbott. My copy may be a paperback edition, but when I get a nice bookcase with glass doors to put my treasured books behind, this goes in there, right next to my battered copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

3. The Ministry of Special Cases - Nathan Englander

This book haunts me. The imagery, the symbolism, the humor and the sadness. All of it. Haunts me. Ever heard of the Argentinian Dirty War? Perhaps you have heard of Los Desaparecidos? Political dissidents-and often times innocent people wrongfully accused-were rounded up and systematically removed from society; locked in prison, shuffled into an impenetrable bureaucracy ostensibly for release, and then quietly pushed out of an airplane flying over the ocean in the dead of night. The Ministry of Special Cases tells the story of Kaddish Poznan, a Jewish man living with his family in Argentina, the ultimate outsider who is paid by rich Jewish families to remove evidence that their family was ever associated with a now defunct temple, a temple associated with prostitution and organized crime. He makes their past vanish. And then, his son vanishes as well. It is...powerful stuff.

2. You Don't Love Me Yet - Jonathan Lethem

Oh, Jonathan Lethem; you had me at Motherless Brooklyn back in 1999 (a novel which is soon to be released as a Edward Norton directed film next year). You're quirky, you're witty, and you write so beautifully about awkward sex. And in You Don't Love Me Yet, you write so well about art, music, and awkward sexual tension. The novel centers around a nameless indie-rock quartet which has a total of 35 minutes worth of music. Lucinda, the bass player, sets up a gig at a dance party. But there is a twist. My favorite moment in the book (and yours, too, probably) comes at the "Dance Party" where the band is supposed to play so quietly, no one can hear them. The party's guests are then supposed to dance to the music they brought in with their own walkmen. The food is not to be eaten. The party itself is to be a work of art, but the confusion of what the guests expects vs what the organizer intended breaks down, and it becomes the one moment for the unnamed band to shine. Light but smart, I read this one in all of two sittings.

1. Everything is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer

Foer has a way of picking the defining crises in our collective history, and making beauty out of them. While the Liev Schreiber directed film starring Elijah Wood is a pretty faithful adaptation of two thirds of the book, it is that last third that brings the most beauty and sadness to the novel. Everything is Illuminated is funny and sombre, often times in the same sentence. As a writer, I would have been terrified to have turned out such a novel for my first offering. I'd be afraid I could never have followed it up. Fortunately for readers, Foer seems not to notice the quality of his words after he's polished them. Time to move on to the next project.

Honorable Mention:

A Moveable Feast: Restored Edition - Ernest Hemingway (posthumous), Sean Hemingway (introduction) and Patrick Hemingway (foreword)

What this little list of Hemingways after the title does not tell you is that Sean and Patrick, Ernest Hemingway's grandsons, heavily edited this book to make their grandmother, Ernest's first wife, look better. Some critics argued that Mary Hemingway, Ernest's fourth wife who edited the original manuscript before its first publication in 1964, removed large chunks at her discretion which have been reinstated for this edition. I include this as an honorable mention only to concede to the fact that long after the artist is gone, their name can be invoked and new insights attributed to them.

Keep checking back. To be honest, this list was hard in that I had to really think about ten new books I've read in the last ten years. I expected my Top Ten films and Albums lists to be easier, but in fact they were harder to narrow down to only ten of each. In fact, it got so hard that my top ten films and albums lists will now be top fifteen lists, each with honorable mentions as well. Look for those as the week progresses to Christmas. And as usual, let me know what you think. Ready any new, good books lately and want to share? Read something on my list and you completely disagree that it should be anywhere near the top ten? Let me know!

3 comments:

Bridget said...

Thanks for the list, I'll have to check some of these out!

Matt said...

Not as long as my last comment, but still wanted to give my two cents.

I haven't read any of these, except the two JSF. I didn't like Incredibly Loud as much as Everything Is Illuminated, but the latter was/is one of my all-time faves. Nice pick.

As far as Eoin Colfer, that scares me. I don't like the idea of anyone but Adams touching the Hitchhiker's Universe. But if you recommend it, maybe I'll check it out...eventually.

I look forward to your movie list. Music I know nothing about so I'll probably just nod and smile at those.

Molly said...

I've only read 3 of these books (with a 4th on my nightstand waiting for my current book to be finished). I, too, am haunted by the Ministry of Special Cases, and by Delillo's Falling Man. And, of course, I love Jonathan Lethum (when is Motherless
Brooklyn coming out? We MUST go see it together!) There's something about a kangaroo suffering from ennui that is just too appealing to turn your back on, wouldn't you agree? If you have a copy of Up in the Air, I'd love to borrow it... but give me time to get through the 14 books piled high in my "to read" stack. So many books, so little time....