September 26, 2009

My Best of the Decade: An Idiosyncratic List

The Millions has just finished its countdown of the "Best of the Millenium." Through their polling processes, they've ended up with two lists, one representing the top picks of their panel of "pros," the other representing the results of a Facebook poll of their readers. There are lots of potentially interesting aspects of both lists, including which books were favored by readers but not by the 'pros' and vice versa. I was interested that of the thirty unique titles listed, I have read only nine: The Corrections, The Known World, Never Let Me Go, Atonement, Middlesex, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, White Teeth, and The Known World, plus half each of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and Austerlitz. A lot of the other books on the lists seem tilted towards a somewhat different readerly sensibility than my own (the kind that finishes Austerlitz, for instance). And that's fine, of course...but the sense that even those on the lists that I had read weren't all really among my 'best of the millenium' (Middlesex and White Teeth, for instance, neither of which I thought really deserved quite the hype it got) prompted me to browse my bookshelves to see what my own list would be. Here's what I came up with--but because one of my very favourite recent reads was published in 1999 and so just missed the millenial cut-off, here's My Best of the Decade, 1999-2009. The list is in alphabetical, not ranked, order, and I've linked to any corresponding reviews, though several of these I read before I started blogging. I've cheated a little and included one work of non-fiction, only because if I had to rank the new books I've read in the past decade, it would be at or very near the top.
  1. Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil
  2. Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White
  3. Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
  4. Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
  5. Yann Martel, The Life of Pi
  6. Ian McEwan, Atonement
  7. Ian McEwan, Saturday
  8. Daniel Mendelsohn, The Lost
  9. Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
  10. Vikram Seth, An Equal Music
  11. Carol Shields, Unless
  12. Sarah Waters, Fingersmith
It's an odd exercise, doing this. For one thing, it reminds me just how many of the books I've loved recently were not in fact recently published (The Enchanted April, for instance, or The Balkan Trilogy).

So? Which recent favourites of yours are missing, both from my list and from the lists at The Millions, or which listed titles would you heartily endorse--or dispute?


Rebecca H. said...

I've read six on your list and enjoyed them all, which tells me I would probably like the other ones (which are #1, 3, 7, 8, 10, and 11). I would add (perhaps) The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Gilead, and Never Let Me Go. A lot of my favorites of the last decade are nonfiction, though.

Bookphilia said...

I also loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Bel Canto but can't for the life of me understand why anyone likes The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime - to me, it really felt like a cynical attempt to win some literary awards.

I don't think I can compile a similar list but if I could, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas would likely be number 1.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Dorothy, I'm curious about Gilead, though I haven't been impressed by the author's pronouncements on religion--not that I should hold that against her books. I liked Hedgehog but decided in the end it fell down on the wrong side of the divide between precious and charming. I think I'll reread Never Let Me Go soon: I was definitely intrigued and moved by it, but perhaps I fell victim to Ishiguro's mastery of understatement and didn't quite appreciate its scope.

Colleen, I was really moved by Curious Incident, perhaps because of personal experiences I've had with people on the autistic spectrum. I made a note of Cloud Atlas when you recommended it in a comment once before. I didn't get it yet partly because I'm worried it will frustrate someone who likes plot. It's very high up on the Millions list.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Huh. It turns out I've read three from the Millions, and this is not exactly my area of interest. Succumbing to hype, I fear. I prefer your list, which has personality.

If I may grump for a moment, why didn't the Millions invite any translators, or actual foreigners, to participate? Surely more than three of the best twenty novels of the past decade are in a language other than English. That set of voters hasn't read them, fine. Find some who have.

The issue is heightened by a hilarious, saddening list I've been enjoying via Rose City Reader. It's the Daily Telegraph's 1899 best novels of all time, in which 90 are English-language, 8 are French, 1 is Russian, and 1 is Polish.

Andrew said...

I *adore* Unless; I am so glad to see it on your list!

As for Cloud Atlas, I really enjoyed it, but I also found Mitchell's Black Swan Green tremendous, and I imagine you'd like it too, probably more than Cloud Atlas at any rate. It is unfortunately overshadowed by Mitchell's earlier imaginative pyrotechnics, but it is a substantial work in its own right.

Bookphilia said...

Andrew: Black Swan Green is a tremendous novel, yes; very different from Cloud Atlas. Indeed, one of the things I love about Mitchell generally is how different each novel is.

Given Rohan's tastes as expressed on this blog, I think you may be right in thinking Black Swan Green would be more to her taste. So, Rohan, Andrew and I have decided that you should try Black Swan Green and not Cloud Atlas at this point. ;)

marco said...

Another vote for Black Swan Green. The voice is wonderful.

perhaps because of personal experiences I've had with people on the autistic spectrum.

I recommend The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon. She's the mother of an autistic child herself and the novel feels very convincing.

JRussell said...

Here’s a list of some books that have impressed me since 1999, all fiction. In various ways I have found them absorbing, challenging, interesting, and important. This too is a very personal list, based on my own rather random reading of recent fiction. To avoid ranking them, I have put them in alphabetical order, as Rohan did.
1. J. M. Coetzee, Disgrace; Elizabeth Costello
2. Barbara Gowdy, The Romantic
3. Gunther Grass, Crabwalk
4. Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles
5. David Lodge, Author, Author
6. Elliot Perlman, Seven Types of Ambiguity
7. Nino Ricci, Testament
8. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
9. Colm Toibin, The Master
10. Guy Vanderhaeghe, The Last Crossing
And I didn’t put Sebald down just to be contrary! In fact, when I discovered him I read all of his books one after another, and I was very shocked to read of his sudden death in a car accident while idly reading the paper one morning in 2001.

Rohan Maitzen said...

OK, I've put Black Swan Green on my watch list--for next time I'm at Doull's! And Gilead, I think. S-t-r-e-t-c-h...

One thing this kind of exercise reveals is how distinct individual tastes really are, don't you agree? I think that's why at the end of the day evaluation can't be the starting point of any really meaningful (or at least any really long) critical discussion. Ranking is fun, and so is choosing favourites (so much so that I think I'm going to do some more lists, including "Favourite 19thC Novels" and "Favourite Comfort Reading" and just plain "Favourites" eventually). But unless we have more to talk about than whether we loved or didn't love a particular book, our conversation will rather fizzle out, whether we agree or disagree. And there is more to literary response than personal taste. The Millions list, like my own, conflates "best" with "favourite," or "good" with "I really enjoyed that," which makes things easier because it fudges the question of what qualifies something as good, or better, or best, compared to something else.

Russell, your list is really interesting. I've read just 2.5 of these (still counting my half of Austerlitz). I wasn't that moved by The Romantic, though now I can't remember why. I'd like to read both Author, Author and The Master--and I'm going to give Austerlitz another try some day. But for a Victorianist, you have rather a modernist sensibility, eh?

I was thinking: if hype is key, I would have expected Suite Francaise somewhere on the list at The Millions. (That's one I bought because I got caught up in the discussions of it, but haven't actually read yet.)

JRussell said...

"But for a Victorianist, you have rather a modernist sensibility, eh?"

It must be from reading Henry James. :-)

Doctor Singularis et Invincibilis said...

Very exciting list, thank you.
I would endorse The Life of Pi, Atonement,Saturday, Fingersmith. The others I confess not having read. I would propose ENGLEBY by Faulks, My Name is Red or another Pamuk book, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
I admire very much your blog and writing, your list is great as far as I can tell.

Richard LeComte said...

I finished "Austerlitz." What kind of person does that make me? I feel so ... chapterless!

Rohan Maitzen said...

Thanks very much, Cristian, and thanks for the suggestion of Engleby. Birdsong is another book I admired hugely.

Richard: Well, it makes you someone better at reading Austerlitz than I am! But so many highly discerning people admire it that I am clearly going to have to buck up and try it again. When I'm reading for myself, as opposed to reading for work, I just get lazy sometimes about persevering when I find a book elusive.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Rohan, have you read The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn? I frankly don't think Austerlitz is such a great place to start with Sebald.

But I didn't start with it, so who knows.

JRussell said...

I agree with Amateur Reader: I think The Rings of Saturn is probably the best place to start.

Jeanne said...

I suspect this type of fiction may not be your cup of tea, but I think Atwood's new The Year of the Flood should have a place in future lists like this.

I don't understand why everyone else likes Bel Canto so much. I am a fan of Foer, Haddon, McEwan, and Shields--and have read so much about Fingersmith that it's going on my list to read soon.