The Decade in Books (La Décennie dans les Livres)
I've been fielding requests for how to fill this space lately. First came the request that I run down the decade in music, rather than just a year-end list. Then, upon completion of Part III of that personal history, my coworker requested that I do something similar for the decade's load of books. Here's the tough thing: most of the books I've read over the last ten years were published long before the 21st century. The assignment of finding those books that came out from 2000 - 2009, books that I read, that weren't reissues or reprints of books I purchased during the decade posed a complex little challenge. So, instead of attempting to rank these for quality, I'm going to throw the list out there first and then talk about the books, some at length, some not, in hopes that we can all share in the literary genius that continues even as we advance ceaselessly toward a digital, sound-bite, commercial break-filled age. Good writing never stopped with the "Classics" and has only grown stronger, more honest, more challenging, and impressive over time. Now, the list:
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (2000)
The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000)
Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition by James Howard Kunstler (2001)
Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)
after the quake by Haruki Murakami (2002)
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004)
JPod by Douglas Copeland (2006)
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell (2006)
Adverbs by Daniel Handler (2006)
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007)
The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy by Bill Simmons (2009)
Let's get this out of the way; I didn't read most of these during the year they were released, a couple I don't intend to (or haven't yet) finish(ed) and I am brimming with bias. I don't plan on being impartial where these books are concerned. I picked them because I've enjoyed each of them immensely, some have impacted my mind, philosophy and spirit, and some where just fun to read. None are snacks, though, they're all involved texts that demand affection as much as attention.
I read Dave Eggers' frenetic memoir during the summer, somewhere between 2006 and 2007, usually in the cafe at the Borders on Pearl Street (now long gone). I can remember the glare of sunlight blazing through the storefront window as I sipped coffee from one of those WAY oversize mugs that resembles the child of a gravy boat/mixing bowl marriage. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is just what the title promises (though I'd not necessarily call its genius "staggering"). It's a story about growing up too fast through circumstance, taking responsibility and sacrificing options. At its soul the book seeks to show how far we can travel even while carrying an incredible burden, but Eggers refuses to limit his work to a simple memoir. Through self-aware, meta narration, the reader sees Eggers confront himself, questioning the way he remembers certain facts and details and how he (necessarily to advance the story) blends people and memories. So, while it is a book about personal sacrifice, it's also deeply concerned with the function of the mind, memory and how we construct our histories to save people, fix mistakes, and re-envision ourselves.
What can I say about The Blind Assassin that I haven't already in this space? Beyond the deep, thick and puzzling frame-narrative design, is about just the kinds of sacrifice and questions that Eggers' book also explores. Centering on the eldest of two sisters, born to a wealthy manufacturing family in Canada, whose wants are incredibly disparate to what they are allowed (both by circumstance and by society) the story explores the great questions about what love is, should be, can be, and what our requirements are as people in a world that holds expectations of each of us. Margaret Atwood's writing is a showcase of incredible metaphor, imagery and character. She is as much a sociologist as she is an author, delving deep into the ways people behave and think and come to take on burdens. She address how we are sometimes trapped by love, both because we feel it intensely and because we do not, but novel is so much deeper than that simple assessment. It's the kind of book that promotes an author's entire catalog, and when I selected this for our Book Club in 2008 it was met with wholly positive reviews and discussion.
Life of Pi came to me via my girlfriend-at-the-time. Initially I didn't think much of it. The book opens very slowly, following the life of young Pi Patel as the son of a family of traveling circus owners in India. When they set out to sea with all their animals and a terrible storm hits, the exposition ends and the story takes full-direction. Author Yann Martel focuses the final two sections of the book on the disparity between fantasy and reality and how we deal with trauma. Characters and animals interweave to the extent that nothing remains clear, but everything remains visceral and emotionally powerful. The Eggers concept returns such that, as readers we are left with a question about what story of events we choose to believe, and the power of selective, manipulative memory. People are, to Life of Pi, capable of completely altering our universe just through the power of imagination, whether that is to benefit our sanity or to just keep us distracted from the devastation around us to survive.
I only read The City in Mind this last year, but it completely altered the way I look at cities, buildings, networks and communities. I wrote a substantial amount, though largely summary, in this space. The way we live, and the way our neighborhoods are constructed effect not only our productivity, but also our happiness. Imagine not driving anywhere. Having the opportunity, instead, to fulfill all of your needs within 10 blocks of you, and failing that, having the intricate public transportation available to make longer distances enjoyable. Kunstler spends a lot of time railing against the ills of highways and suburbs, both requiring cars as a ticket for entry, rather than enabling humans to use motor vehicles as a luxury. Now, we are stuck with cars and a world built for them, and not for people. This book, both historically compelling and philosophically challenging, asks us to consider what kind of world we prefer. And attempts to put society back in the hands of the individual human beings that populate it, instead of the hulking machines to which our lifestyles are essentially yoked.
Atonement is nothing short of devastating. If you don't, at very least, nearly cry when reading its final pages, I'm comfortable considering you an inhuman monster. Ian McEwan establishes an idyllic family and a pair of young lovers. And then, through a volley of misunderstandings and awful historical circumstances, tears them apart. The language is beautiful and deliberate, and McEwan excels with stream-of-consciousness writing that jumps from character to character in a way reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The 2007 film is a very good adaptation, but just doesn't do complete justice to the delicacy and subtle destruction built throughout the novel. Another book about responsibility, burden, and attempts to make things right in a complex and embattled world, but an impressively graceful take on those concepts that is a must-read for any one who fancies literature.
Haruki Murakami is one of the greatest writers of the 20th/21st century, hands down. I first read his heartbreaking Norwegian Wood during 2005, and then last year his inventive, psychological fairy-tale, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Murakami can engage a reader in just about any situation, no matter how outlandish, and his tendency toward the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (and others) imbues his writing with tenderness and honesty, even when attempting to explain memory as a mathematical/mental switch, or a locked-down town full of glowing skulls and mythic beasts. In after the quake, Murakami presents a set of short stories written just after the 1995 Kobe earthquake that respond to the disaster with loss, hopelessness, passion and redemption. These stories lack the supernatural quality found in some of his other works, but each is honest, solemn and bewildering. It's a quick, and fulfilling read, and each story leaves you with questions about the lessons you were meant to learn, and what may ultimately happen to the protagonists. In that way, it's like a disaster, when viewed from a medium-distance. We only know so much about people, we don't know how they'll end up, and we wonder what we're to learn from devastation.
As the first of two books by David Mitchell to make this list, Cloud Atlas is both the most complex and most impacting (at least upon me), but also the most unconventional. The story takes place over thousands of years, through several short stories, broken at each one's middle. So, the first half of the book episodically presents only the first halves of each story, then at the center, comes the only complete, single-piece narrative, and then the end halves of each tale. Beyond this structural excellence, Mitchell creates a story about the evil of man, the decay of civilization and the taxing fallout of colonialism and technological advance, and the slow devaluation of humanity that could take place over time. And Mitchell links each story together, plausibly and satisfyingly to show the continuation of time within the book's space. Cloud Atlas presents so many tales of confusion, fulfillment lost, heartbreak, pain, suffering and connivance, but remains fun, and at times hilarious, to read. A true page-turner of a story, it goes by much faster than its 544 pages and odds are high that you'll read it again, and again.
Douglas Copeland's satirical office-dramedy JPod is essentially a pleasure read. There's nothing too challenging or even deep about the story, but it is a string of laughs. Copeland also effectively inserts himself, as a dark, dangerous figure, into the story for a sort of self-deprecating effect. I wouldn't say that this book changed my life, but I remember it well, and would recommend it. It's like The Office on acid.
The second David Mitchell work on this list, Black Swan Green, is an unpretentious account of a boy growing up, gathering himself, accepting his weaknesses and grabbing hold of his strengths. Taking place over the course of one year, it ties in the surreal stories of imagination that children experience with the difficulties of divorce and finding one's place within the community. It is heartfelt and direct, and captures being a 12 - 13 year-old boy as well as any story I've ever read. Everything seems so important and infinite during childhood, and we don't have the foresight to understand how small those things we experience are until adulthood. And yet, those are the moments that form us and design our worldview. It's a simple story, but an enjoyable one, that presents youth realistically and without any empty metaphor or hollow cuteness.
Daniel Handler, known commonly to the younger set as "Lemony Snicket," gave us Adverbs in 2006. It is a book about love, and the way we love. As the title implies, "love" is the verb, and each story is a lucid dream of an adverb for that verb. Whether we love fiercely or obligatorily, or completely, Handler deals out a series of short stories, linked tenuously with same-named characters who are not always exactly the same from tale to tale. While this isn't the most cohesive or easy to read book; Handler's prose occasionally diverts to places so fantastic that it is difficult to keep track of real and unreal, it's incredibly rewarding and paints an honest, full image of what love is and can be. As both a philosophical exploration, and a joyful narrative, Adverbs will tug at your heart and put you in numerous situations that are universal. And, for some reason it's lack of popularity means you can still get it on the cheap. And you should because Handler needs to write another adult text.
Every one knows that Cormac McCarthy's tale of post-apocalyptic devastation, horror, cannibalism, sacrifice and love is excellent. The Road is oppressively dark and disordered, as McCarthy's tone never lightens up and even his format (lacking quotation marks and some regular paragraph breaks) leaves the reader disoriented. Each page fills you with an undeniable dread, but also just enough of a tinge of hope to keep plodding along (just like the protagonists). It is an allegory for suffering, and a demonstration of the destructive evil of the human species when pushed to its survivalist limits. I would never say this book was fun, but it's incredibly valuable and easily the most complete study/mood/genre fiction of 2006. Reading this in the dark, alone, during the winter intensifies the already dominating tone, and I'd recommend being prepared to cry and ask yourself questions about how you'd handle such times.
I explored God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything within this space in a Book: Counter-book feature in March of 2008. Christopher Hitchens, though quite pretentious in his arguments and writing style is also a purveyor of important points about the way religion impacts and destroys the equality and peace in our world. Just today, the New York Times reported an article about American evangelicals' influencing the Ugandan government to compose a bill requiring the execution of homosexuals. It's impossible to argue that America's freedoms of sexuality, religion, speech (the very things the country was established upon) would not promote the execution of anyone based solely on who they are. Religion, as Hitchens show through an example of the Pope telling African believers that condoms cause AIDS, strikes again by taking advantage of people in the worst of positions. The book is well-written and makes compelling points, and while parts are unsettling, it is something that anyone with an interest in religious-philosophy should check out. Knowledge is power, so why limit oneself?
On a light note, to finish [or for the win (FTW)] is Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy. There is no more complete compendium of basketball anecdotes, stories about the beginning of the league and where it has gone wrong (and right). Simmons' methodically constructs his reasons why we cannot judge players on their statistics alone in a sport where individual success is predicated on those stats. It's a book that argues for the power of teamwork and individual contribution to mutual success. I haven't finished it yet, but at only 150 pages into this 700+ page monster of sports knowledge, I have barely found time to put it down to eat. Given that basketball is one of my favorite sports, I can recommend The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy to any other steadfast fans, but it's also just an enjoyable comedic read loaded with apt/hilarious footnotes.
So, there's a decade of books (that I've read). I hope to have new concerts and music to discuss soon. Feel free to comment on any of these texts, or any of the other recent year-end/decade-end columns.
- ► 2012 (48)
- ► 2011 (121)
- ▼ 2010 (95)
- ► 2009 (71)