Thursday 17 December 2009

Books of the decade

Everyone else seems to be doing it, from newspapers to bloggers, so why shouldn't I? Well, because I have a terrible memory for one thing! What was my favourite book of 2001? I don't know, that was years ago now, I've got married and had two kids since then, I'm lucky I can remember everyone's birthdays and our anniversary. This of course is what the Internet is made for, so with the help of that search box and various references I have assembled my picks of the last decade. I decided to restrict myself to picking a single book for each year, and had to have been published that year, which immediately became problematic as 2000 saw the publication of several standout novels for me and I found it very hard to pick one amongst them. This problem repeated itself a couple of times and I also experienced the opposite effect when I struggled to pick anything as truly brilliant in 2003 (please feel free to point out your own) A special mention therefore goes to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay(2000) by Michael Chabon which is one of the reasons why I began this blog in the first place. A favourite book, I gave it to my wife to read and asked her one evening how it was going, where she'd got to. 'He's just walking across the Arctic with his dog.' My inability to recall something even as obvious as that told me that I may have been reading plenty of books at the time, and enjoying them, but I certainly wasn't retaining enough of what I read. By committing myself to writing a review afterwards, and therefore having to make the odd note along the way, I felt I could train myself to be a better reader. I hope it's working. I don't claim to be in any kind of position to pronounce what books were the 'best', but what follows might be more accurately described as a list of the ones that stood out for me then and still do now: The books that say something about my journey through fiction and my maturation as a reader.

2000 - House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski

The only book I can think of that has actually terrified me whilst reading it, Danielewski's extraordinary début is notable for several reasons. First as an object: the beautiful patterned boards and excellent quality of the US edition make it a joy to hold and read and the various versions of the first edition as listed on the copyright page mean that colour makes its way into the text of a book which is as inventive typographically as it is stylistically. We begin by reading the account of Johnny Truant who moves into the apartment of the recently deceased Zampano and discovers a manuscript written by him about a film called The Navisdson Record. Will Navidson, a photojournalist, had discovered, whilst making a simple survey of his house, that the inside measurements seem to be just slightly larger than the outside. This leads to a journey as epic and terrifying as you can imagine happening within four walls and the book is made up of description of the film footage, interviews, interjections, footnotes, letters, the text changing font and construction so that the reader is left disorientated and hopefully scared shitless. I've read a couple of books since which have attempted to do something similar but neither of them came close to this, a true original.

2001 - Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth by Chris Ware

I recently re-read this graphic novel to see if it was still as good as I though it was in memory. It was, and then some. You can read that review here but the reason why this book is on the list is because it showed me what graphic fiction could be capable of. Taking his inspiration from his own life and his own non-existent relationship with his father Ware's book is a beautiful, decorative, inventive and moving account of the struggles of one family to relate to each other through the generations. The artwork is visually satisfying with many hidden wonders along the way and it is one of the few books that has a dust jacket which can hold your attention for a good period of time before you get on with the book itself. A gem.

2002 - If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor

I read this book in something close to a single sitting, becoming completely hypnotised by the rhythm of McGregor's writing and utterly mesmerized by its distinctive style style. Several hours later, as I tearily closed the final pages, I knew this was a book that I wanted other people to read so that we could enthuse about it together. I was a little disappointed when some that I had gifted a copy weren't quite as a sold on it as me, put off by the 'tricksiness' of the writing, but it hasn't dimmed my own enthusiasm. It is true that McGregor's debut has a distinctive style, characters are never referred to by name, only as 'the man with burned hands', or 'the boy with the pierced eyebrow' but after a while it seems no stranger than them being called Bob or Kevin and there often feels as though there is something totemic about their distinctions. The action of a single day assumes huge significance for these characters who all have a past, whose present moment is our focus for the duration of the book and whose future I still wonder about.

2003 - Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes

So the bogey year I mentioned and I know that there were plenty of fine books published this year (Richard Power's The Time Of Our Singing and John Gray's Straw Dogs for example) but with books like Curious Incident... and Vernon God Little making the headlines were there any that really compared to some of the others on this list. One book that really made an impact on me and sent me trawling after her entire back catalogue was this collection of stories from A M Homes. Up until reading this collection I had never really got on with shorter fiction, I didn't really get it, but something about Homes' humour, darkness and inventiveness chimed nicely and it has since opened up a little door in my mind that begins to appreciate the possibilities of the short story. From the twisted logic of the woman who waits among the sand dunes to collect the discarded condoms from the local lifeguards' sexual conquests in order to impregnate herself to the touching portrait of Nancy Reagan coping with her husband's deteriorating mental state this is a collection as odd as the composite creature on its front cover. That examination of her previous books showed more dark delights the most controversial of which was The End Of Alice, in which a young woman who plans to seduce a 12 year old boy conducts a correspondence with a jailed paedophile and murderer. If you want a challenging read then this might be the book for you.

2004 - I’ll Go To Bed At Noon by Gerard Woodward

This is easily the best of Woodward's trilogy of books featuring the Jones family in the part of north London I lived in for over a decade. There is something very personal and direct about reading a book which features locations that you know like the back of your own hand and to meet characters so skilfully created by their author that they seem as real as the people you see yourself in the street makes the achievement of this book even more astonishing. This book stands on its own but is obviously enhanced by the two that stand either side of it, the time spent with the Joneses through their tumultuous family history was both funny, sad, painful and heart-warming in a way that only a brilliantly observed and detailed novel could be. Never have I wanted to spend so much time with such a dysfunctional family.

2005 - A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

As I have mentioned here before I wept like a child when I reached the final pages of this stunning novel. My review of it is here but in short this is a book that could have (should have?) won the Booker that year, a book which follows a young Irishman as he makes his way to the battlefields of Europe, to make something of himself whilst back at home the nation he is supposedly fighting for is tearing itself apart. Barry's prose is never less than easy to enjoy, often achieving a lyricism and beauty that is in contrast to the devastation and horror of what is being described. Having now read some more of his novels, which use the same strands of characters, I feel that I know even more about the few families he has chosen to focus on and as a a result, a much clearer view of the wider picture. His mastery of plotting and structure mean that an emotional punch to the gut is always delivered with the force that is hard to counter. If you don't weep at the end of this too then, well, I'm sorry.

2006 - The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A friend of mine bought this recently as their third pick in a 3 for 2 on the advice of someone else. Knowing that I was a reader they asked me whether it was any good. Without thinking about what I was saying I assured him that it was quite simply one of the best books ever written, and once I had given voice to that sentence I realised that that was exactly what I thought (my original review is here). My original review is here and its title is one of the reasons why this book is so powerful. Living in a modern world we seldom have to deal with any of the machinations that make our lives so comfortable. Take away society, civilisation and progress, throw mankind back into a situation where it's survival of the fittest and you engage with what it really means to be human. Our current grapple with the topic of climate change only makes the book more relevant today but its universal themes mean that the nature of the apocalypse isn't important. I read this book in a single sitting, it's very hard not to, so compelling and primal is it, and I am convinced that it will still be being read by our descendants hundreds of years into the future. If we make it that far.

2007 - Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

The Great American Novel is a phrase, an idea, an emblem, that is so overused as to be virtually worthless. So many different types of book have been given the appellation, often all encompassing tomes that supposedly encapsulate the 'American' experience neatly and totally. It seems to me that the great American novel should really be a messy and catastrophic affair in order to truthfully reflect that experience and Denis Johnson's magnum opus deals with the Vietnam War in a way that seems entirely appropriate for a conflict so damaging to those American ideals, a conflict which they have arguably never recovered from. My father, a fellow Jonhnson fan, which in this country particularly, makes us part of a very small club, created an extraordinary 'map' to aid his reading of this vast novel, to help him keep track of characters and themes (as mentioned in the blogosphere). That's how bonkers this book is. It isn't easy, it isn't neat, but it is extraordinary. My original review is here.

2008 - Our Story Begins - Tobias Wolff

This was a bit of a toughy as I had picked Darkmans by Nicola Barker before I realised that it had actually been published the year before. Picking from the other books eligible was no mean feat. My reason for picking Wolff's collected stories is because having been tempted by the short form by AM Homes I then read stories by some of its masters: Chekhov, Cheever, Carver and more. Wolff is another of those and this book shows how it can really be done. Twenty one previously published stories are joined by ten new pieces, all of which show his amazing way with dialogue, the straight course he steers through his work by incorporating morality and his surprising inventiveness. What's particularly impressive is the variety. He doesn't have a fixed technique or style, he doesn't focus on a particular type of person or environment and he never, ever makes you feel like he's playing a trick or being quirky. Original review here.

2009 - Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips

Picking a book of the decade from this year is tough simply because of the inability to use hindsight, it seems too soon to take one of my recent reads and slap a rosette on its cover. Perhaps it is because of this that the book that still sticks in my mind is one that I read much earlier in the year, or perhaps it is in spite of the passage of that time that I can't get it out of my head. With a nod to Faulkner Phillips' multi-stranded novel follows a US soldier in Korea in 1950, holed up in a tunnel after coming under friendly fire (this real incident has been well researched and, even better, well presented - the research worn lightly). Then in 1959 back in the US we meet the eponymous half-siblings, Termite a mute, his sections allowing Phillips to flex her stylistic muscles. She goes beyond that though, audaciously connecting the various threads of her story so that they transcend time or location coming together in writing that reaches something close to rapture. Original review here.

I can't just leave it there because one of my favourite books ever isn't on the list. This is because Cormac McCarthy had the nerve to write a genuine masterpiece in the same year that his namesake Tom McCarthy wrote the quite brilliant Remainder. A book so concerned with the notion of authenticity is tailor made for a professional faker like me but it is a book which should appeal to a broad readership for all sorts of reasons. Clever without being a smart-arsey, arty without being wanky, it is the kind of book that makes your head feel like someone's got in there and done some spring-cleaning. The prose manages to be clinical and sensual at the same time, each of the five senses becomes hugely important as the hero attempts to piece together what he can remember of his life before 'the accident'. It has the pace of a thriller, the intelligence of something altogether more philosophical and an artistic sentiment that made me feel as if the book in my hand was the coolest thing in the world. When was the last time a book felt cool? Despite it not being on the list above, if I had to pick a book which not only made an impact on me but in some way defined the past decade, this would be the one. Let one McCarthy take that honour and the other something a little grander.

And now, over to you...


Rob 21 December 2009 at 08:20  

Blimey! I haven't read any of them- American fiction really is my blind spot. I shall have to seek some of these out, though I agree about Michael Chabon, whose The Yiddish Policeman's Union I have read.
Doesn't feel like the end of a decade, does it? I suppose it's the contrast to all that fuss at the end of the last one.

William Rycroft 21 December 2009 at 12:52  

I hadn't really realised it was the end of a decade until lists started popping up all over the place, and you're right it does seem like a bit of a non-event, especially as I always thought 2010 was going to mean space travel and pavements without chewing gum.

Don't be worried about not having read any of them Rob, this is just a personal selection. It is only in the last couple of years, since I started this blog really, that I've been able to discover writers and books that deviate from the standard UK or US fare that's reviewed in the press. I'm hoping to read and review far more literature in translation, both new and classic in order to provide something that makes this blog different to what you might read in the paper.

That said, I'm sure I'll still be devouring the 'big books' as well.

Rob 21 December 2009 at 15:16  

That's a very noble enterprise. Too many books, too little time- but we can but try.

Anonymous,  22 December 2009 at 18:05  

I hadn't made the "end of the decade" connection either until I started seeing the lists! And here I thought it was just me.

One author who seems to be glaringly absent (at least in my mind) from everyone's list has been Kazuo Ishiguro... and I can't figure out why. Never Let Me Go was a great novel, and When We Were Orphans came out in 2000.

Ronak M Soni 23 December 2009 at 04:28  

May I point out that if the end of 2009 is the end of the decade, the first decade was nine years long?

My point: it's not the end of the decade; that's not for another year.

William Rycroft 23 December 2009 at 09:29  

I'm afraid Kazuo Ishiguro was never going to make it on my list booksexy for the simple reason that I haven't read anything of his (something I shall try to remedy). If it makes amends I shall point you in the direction of this list of books that some other bloggers feel will stand the test of time, Ishiguro's The Unconsoled amongst them.


Ronak, It's easy to forget that we start at zero so because the decade begins with the year 2000 its tenth year is 2009. In a similar way whilst I am in my 35th year I remain a mere 34 years old!

John Self 23 December 2009 at 10:38  

I don't think I would put any Ishiguro in a Books of the '00s list either, and I've read them all (usually more than once). His best books are An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled, which came out in 1986, 1989 and 1995 respectively. Although I do like When We Were Orphans (which a lot of -people really hated) and Never Let Me Go, neither is up to the earlier standard in my view, and neither would be one of my top ten books of the decade.

Ronak M Soni 27 December 2009 at 19:35  

I hate to take this on, but there was no year 0. I just don't say it because it seems slightly obvious.
if there was, this year would be 2008, and it still wouldn't be the end of the decade.

I was wondering, did you find the road at all repetitive? I left it after 30 pages because of that.

William Rycroft 27 December 2009 at 23:13  

I didn't find The Road repetitive in a negative way Ronak but I know what you mean. I think there's something repetitive about the daily struggle for survival in the novel so that each day brings the same challenges, no matter how much is achieved in one day the next will be like starting with a blank page with the same battles to win once again. I tell you what: if you pick up that abandoned copy and finish it I will gladly read any recommendation of your choice. How's that for a deal?

As for the decade thing I think the easiest illustration is my list above. There are ten books. Each new decade begins with the year that ends in zero i.e. 1980, 1990, 2000 etc. 2000-2009 (inclusive) = ten years, or a decade. Someone back me up here.

Unknown 28 December 2009 at 00:08  

Actually, I think you're both right in a sense. Yes, there was never a year 0; so strictly numerically, the decade doesn't end until the end of 2010; and the first year of the new decade is 2011.

However, the contemporary convention is that the decade starts in the year ending in a 0 (witness the way in which the world celebrated the year 2000 as opposed to 2001).

I, for one, am happy to accept the current convention; although I recognise that those with a strictly numerical approach will differ.

Ronak M Soni 28 December 2009 at 09:40  

Convention! Forgot about that mammoth.

Will, I don't have that copy anymore; I'd borrowed it from a teacher and now I've left school. I tried to buy, but all the bookstores have horrible covers (the one I left was just black with the bare essentials written in a draining orange).

Anonymous,  4 January 2010 at 17:57  

was so glad that The Road made it to your list. It's a testament that a book could be simply written yet deep and profound at the same time.

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